Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
From Bogota I went down to the Amazon Basin, where three countries — Colombia, Brazil, and Peru — meet in what’s called the “Tres Fronteras,” the Three Borders.
The Colombian border town, Leticia, is directly connected by its main street to Tabatinga in Brazil. Indeed, it’s almost more accurate to describe Leticia and Tabatinga as a single town with a border dissecting it, one side speaking Spanish and the other Portuguese. From either town it is just a short ride by boat to the more significant Brazilian town of Benjamin Constant, to Peru on the far bank, or farther upriver in Colombia toward the settlement of Puerto Nariño. Boats travel freely among the countries, and no one ever asks to see your passport.
Benjamin Constant, named after one of Brazil’s heroes, is a dirty river town. In the fish market, river fish the size of tennis rackets lay with their flat faces and whiskers on tables, next to the cousins of piranhas with their sharp teeth. In the fruit market bunches of bananas longer than my forearm were for sale. And in the middle of it a woman took out her left breast and began feeding her baby without the least self-consciousness, her brown aureola in full view. The smell of barbecue pervaded the place, emanating from the eatery by the entrance, but the food looked like a case of gastroenteritis waiting to happen. The street dogs had skin diseases, their coats dropping to expose a raw pink underneath. The town cathedral was losing its coat as well, with the green cracked cement stairs leading up to it and its key lime pie colored walls. The blue church directly across the square had Hebrew on top, reading “Yahweh.”
Five minutes away by boat is Islandia on the Javari tributary of the Amazon, part of Peru. It’s a town built entirely on stilts wooden and steel and concrete with only water beneath it. And no vehicles, presumably given what weights the stilts could support. In drastic contrast to the cacophony of Benjamin Constant not only of sounds but sights and smell as well, Islandia was quiet and lethargic when we arrived. Directly in front of the marina was the police station. In the vestibule half a dozen men in shorts and flip-flops sat watching TV. The coat of arms on the wall read “Dios — Patria — Ley”: God, country, and law. But they just wanted to watch football.
But it was upriver in Lake Tarapoto near Puerto Nariño where we caught glimpses — only glimpses — of the pink river dolphins, and where we met the Ticuna people. At one stop was a life-sized wooden statue of a dolphin, or half a dolphin as he had legs and wore an anaconda as a belt, standing upright like a man with an enormous and erect phallus protruding from the figure. The mythology of the Ticuna, our guide Miguel told us, said that the pink dolphins were magical creatures who could turn into men and sometimes came into the villages to seduce Ticuna girls. When a young woman became pregnant with no known father, the villagers would say that the father must have been a dolphin. Well, it is no less believable than the Virgin Birth.
And Ticuna girls go through a peculiar and disconcerting rite of passage called the “Pelazon” that once lasted several months. When a girl experiences her first menstruation, she must live in isolation and out of sight of men, though still in her own house. During this time other women care for her and teach her about adulthood. When the isolation period is over, the community throws a party lasting several days, where the girl appears painted and with heron feathers stuck to her. Masked men appear, representing spirits and animals. At the end of the ritual, the girl dances with other women as they tear her hair out bit by bit until she is completely bald. I was told that the ritual is still observed today, though the period of isolation is shorter than it used to be.
Anthropologists have surely theorized as to why many cultures find menstruation so unnerving. But I am unfamiliar with the explanations.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."