1: Just getting there was a trip
Some years ago when I was an archaeology undergrad, a professor talked me into signing up for an Andean Program in Peru, sponsored by SUNY . She, Kathy, inflated my talents, knowledge and various other qualities I wasn’t aware of then, to the professor in charge. You see, her old graduate advisor ran the program and would be taking students to an ongoing dig in Ayacucho in the Andes. She really wanted me to go for some reason but I wasn’t too keen on the idea of archaeology in the New World, particularly in the Andes at high altitude. But, after taking so many classes with her, I knew my pottery and I knew the cultures– what the hell. Kathy, told me that we would be travelling in the Andes in a paneled truck in the rainy season. The goal was to do some travelling before going to work at the dig. Kathy thought it was the dumbest idea. However, she told me not to complain one bit. No whining. She was adamant about that.
I applied to the program and was immediately accepted. I announced to my parents that I was going to Peru and here’s my Christmas list of things I’ll need. My father immediately took me to the Army/Navy store and armed me with assorted, very sharp knives and a compass that was so profoundly elaborate, I believed it could adjust should the earth’s poles shift. All of that was his way of contributing to my security with unspoken words that he would be worrying about me. My mother was just happy to get rid of me.
Christmas came and went. I was all geared up with everything one would need for Peru– ever. Kathy stressed that I needed to bring as much toilet tissue as possible and assorted other little things that she had learned from her experiences in Peru, that were critical for survival. Of course I had to have vaccinations. The list was a long one and I was inoculated in a short period of time, so my vulnerability to the diseases for which I had been inoculated, was questionable.
The morning of my departure, my parents drove me to Trumbull Airport, in Connecticut, to catch a commuter plane to Kennedy. I was to meet the majority of the group there. We would then fly to Miami to meet up with the rest. My father noticed that I wasn’t wearing a watch and insisted that I take his as well as his leather belt. I tried to get through to him that I didn’t need either but he wouldn’t listen to me. My mother started crying. The commuter finally showed up after crop dusting or whatever it was that it did in between commutes. A quick goodbye and off I went with a bevy of cute sailors from the Naval Sub Base in Groton.
When I arrived at Kennedy it was rather simple to spot the over-packed group. We had several hours to wait, for some reason. Most of us fell asleep on the huge pile of bags, gear and supplies. We finally got on the flight to Miami. I sat next to a guy, Robert, who claimed he had to take his typhoid shot late and he wasn’t feeling well. I had side effects from that same vaccination, as well and only the week before (this piece of information will be important later in the story). We had a massively huge wait in Miami. We were booked on a Peruvian airline, Fawcett. Well, that explained that delay.
The girlfriend of our professor, Bill, flew in from Colorado to join the group. Since Bill was married there was a lot of whispering and finally someone explained to me that the girlfriend always joined him in the field. Bill’s wife also was an anthropologist at SUNY. We flew into Panama after an interesting flight involving live chickens on board and a small pig. From Panama we flew to Iquitos, the gateway to the Peruvian Amazon rain forest and the armpit of the universe. It was quite a surprise to find ourselves at a Best Western in the jungle, and, aside from no water in the pool, dive-bombing parrots, thieving monkeys, and moldy wall-to-wall carpeting throughout the hotel, it was nice. The heat and humidity made the air feel thick enough to cut with one of my new knives. I had never experienced such suffocating heat. If the hotel had not had air conditioning we might have mutinied. We had considered throwing Bill into the river at several points along our journey into the jungle. We figured the piranha would get rid of the evidence. Remember that warning I had received from Kathy about not complaining? Hell, I started whining in Miami! We had traveled, mostly waited, for nearly 30 hours only to be told by Bill that we saved a few bucks by using the Peruvian airline. He had no idea how close he came to sleeping with the fish.
One of the rivers that ran through Iquitos, the closest, was a filthy, muddy tributary of the nearby, filthy, Amazon River. Iquitos itself was dirty, poor and depressing. Nothing was appetizing in the “restaurants” in that stinking, rotting town. Dilapidated buildings on shore and even worse on the river: the shanties on either leaning, wooden stilts, or floating platforms which were no more than tied pieces of water-logged wood. The sound of pigs screaming from the castrations on a barge near shore; flies on everything; skinny dogs; half-naked, filthy children with swollen bellies; stands with rotting fruit, and more flies. I won’t even go into the mosquitoes. I was so overwhelmed that I urged Bill to quickly get us a boat and go up river.
We hired a boat that reminded me of the African Queen. I expected Bogie to reach for my hand to help me on board. It wasn’t much of a getaway. How exciting to look upon the polluted river from a different perspective– boating on it! I didn’t know how much longer I could handle Iquitos. Once we finally returned to the Best Western, all we wanted to do was shower and sleep. Bill had other plans. We were going to eat out. Soon after showering we were all sitting at an outdoor eating establishment (I hesitate to call it a restaurant) at a couple of large picnic tables. I had ordered the chicken. The guy next to me ordered turtle. I geared up to be grossed out and I didn’t disappoint myself. His meal was definitely disturbing . No doubt of that– skin and claws still on the remains of the poor, dead creature. I took a few deep breaths and looked around for another place to sit, but everyone seemed to be having turtle or fish with the head still on. When my chicken arrived with the feet on I quickly, and, I assure you, not quietly, left the table with the two vegetarian girls tagging along. The vegetarians and I spent a lot of time together not eating .