Iquitos, Peru. The major city in Peru's vast Amazon territory. It's 10 years since Rich Trapnell and I first visited this place. The trip from Lima was still as exquisite, passing over the snow-capped Andes and past small farms and pueblos scattered from the hills into the vast Amazon plain.
Iquitos is considerably larger - about 700,000 people now. Its days of glory finished when the rubber bubble burst. But still the city struggles to grow. It's falling apart as it expands. Water and electricity supplies are quite inadequate. The foot paths and streets are full of holes, some 3m deep with no warning signs. Bridges get built but never used because the ratio of cement to sand was too little. Corruption is creeping everywhere.
The taxis at the airport would never be allowed to run in Australia. Windows, doorknobs, anything not essential to propelling 4 wheels is either missing or in a rapid state of decomposition. There are of course one or two but not three exceptions. 3-wheeled motorcycle taxis are the norm.
Traffic lights seem to be the only authority motorists respect. It's not uncommon to see three lanes of oncoming motorists on a narrow two-way road. And yet there aren't too many serious accidents.
I came to Iquitos because it's a point where a number of great and a greater number of lesser rivers meet. The Amazon is the Greatest, no doubt about it - 2km wide at the city. From all these rivers the inhabitants bring their fruits of labour to Iquitos.
The market place at Belen is alive - early in the morning. Canoes are piled up 50 deep at times unloading produce varying from tortoise and monkey meat to ivory nut seeds and palmitos. Most of the produce leaves a lot to be desired in condition and presentation, yet has its sales.
Having grown most of the fruits in the markets, it's interesting to look at varietal differences and other uses. Take the Mocambo (Theobroma bicolor) for example. It was an interesting fruit - seeds used like Cacao, flesh edible? - so we sent it to Australia. Now it has fruited and the pulp although maybe not poisonous is not very edible. Now I know why they grow so much Mocambo. They skewer and roast the seeds as in satays - quite good too.
The Sashamango (Gustavia speciosa) is a fruit I still think deserves a place in the home garden. With a rich flesh, the consistency of a carrot or coconut it is a break from the juicy and acid or sweet fruits. I don't know if any have fruited back home yet, but my trees are getting large - one to 6m - and straight up like a palm. Now I've learned there are two types - those like the palm and those that branch. Although quite similar fruits, they are distinctly different trees in habit.
There are suitable differences in varieties too. The Umarri, (Porqueiba sericea) fruit which I have a difficult time liking is relished by young and old alike. It's oily and rich, and perhaps should first be tried with bread. Those people of the black rivers claim their variety is superior to those from the Amazon.
This trip I had time to spend a few days in a village 12 hours up the Rio Nanay. A beautiful black-watered river, the Nanay instilled a tranquility in me as I searched its banks for new and exciting plants.
It's the rainy season now and the water is up about 5m higher than normal. For perhaps 1 km out from each edge of the river, the forest stands in water. Little creeks or canals take us through short cuts between loops in the river - saving us many hours.
Here on the farm they raise cattle, pigs and chickens, yucca (Manihot esculenta) dryland rice, plantains and fruit trees. Abius, Uvillas, sashamango, humari, breadfruits, Malay apple, carambola, coconuts, pejibaye, assai, cashew, pineapples, citrus, avocado, mango, rollinias, S.A. sapotes, mocambo, cupuassu, araca, guava, and others.
It's interesting to note the Malay apple, Syzygium malaccense, which they call pomma rosa (red apple), are planted everywhere, especially as street trees. Of all the introductions of Malay apple into Australia, I believe these from the Amazon have impressed people most - Why? I can't really say.
Also quite interesting is the fact that they do have problems growing the S.A. sapote, Quararibea cordata. Insects damage the new growth and best results are if initially planted in shade. They were very interested to hear we were able to keep out the insects by having green ants in the tree.
Likewise Cupuassu (Theobroma grandiflorum) is difficult to grow. It also likes shade when young.
Nothing is irrigated, even though they can go short spells - 2 weeks or so without rain.
The farms are basically subsistence farms. Consistent yields are not critical for survival and fertilizer is rarely if ever used.
Basically the soils are poor. Within 4 years of clearing the original fertility is gone. With low pH and low fertility, generally the land is left to resprout secondary regrowth. Of course it takes many, many years for a forest to reach its primary states.
Most of the houses still use thatch for their roofs. Irapai (Ireatea spp.) is the most popular choice and even in this high rainfall, high humidity area it lasts 5 - 8 years. Irapai trunks are split and used for floor boards and sometimes walls, although thatch is more popular.
A second thatch, which probably lasts a little longer, 6 - 10 years, is from the ivory nut palm, Phytelephas macrocarpa. The immature seeds, when soft inside are eaten fresh, and from the hard mature seeds, carvings and buttons are made. A most unusual dioecious palm, the fruiting bodies are the size of a basketball and weigh up to 15 kg. They contain many seeds a little smaller than a goose egg.
Palms are ever persistent in the forests and often are the only plants left when forests are cleared. Of particular note are the Astrocaryum spp. These spiny palms produce a delicious and highly nutritious fruit, but due to the lack of it in the markets I assume the spiny nature means most fruit falls for the livestock or goes to the birds.
Euterpe precatoria and E. oleraceae are two palms called Assai. Mainly known for their excellent heart of palm, these palms also produce a fruit used in drinks. The ripe fruits are soaked in tepid water until the flesh comes off easily. The juice is then either mixed with sugar and used as a fresh drink or in ices or is used in a cassava meal. This trip I found out that it's excellent mixed in hot chocolate - to drink.
Aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa) is a common swamp palm, growing in more massive stands the more east one travels. It's an impressive palm often 600mm in diameter and 25m high. Considered dioecious, there are plants with male flowers and others with female and hermaphrodite flowers.
The fruits of the aguaje (or often called miriti or buriti in others parts) are fairly large, 4cm long and 2-5cm wide with a large seed. They have a scaly red/brown covering and are cooked before eaten. The copious amounts of this fruit reaching the market mean other uses and it is made into juices, ice creams, and mixed with cassava dishes.
The aquajillo, Mauritellia spp. is a smaller clumping relative of aquaje with smaller fruits used in the same way.
Iquitos is rich in fruits - but it was Leticia, Colombia and its bordering town of Tabatinga, Brasil where Rich and I first started our Amazon Adventure 10 years ago. Leticia was a small town, 5,000 people then - on a rather leggy appendage of land that Colombia maintains as its access to the Amazon. A quiet, pretty little town then, it has changed quite a bit. New shops and businesses have sprung up everywhere. The city has grown to 18,000 and the new-found wealth is evident almost everywhere. Where it comes from I don't want to guess. It's safe travel practice not to ask those type or military type of questions. Leticia, Tabatinga and Iquitos are all very significant military towns. Actually Peru maintains a larger naval presence in Iquitos than in the Pacific, or so I'm told. Still, the area is peaceful by its remoteness and hopefully will remain that way.
Leticia still maintains its lovely fruit trees as street trees, but in expansions some costs are incurred. The large aquaje in the waterfront park are gone - so are the Queen Victoria water lilies, the latter having been moved to a new zoo down the road. And now I know where all the BETA VCRs went - to South America! Times are changing. I can't remember colour TV here 10 years ago. The market place now boasts grapes, peaches and apples from Bogota alongside the 'local' fruits. A trip through the forest and small farms assured me that the native fruits are still No.1 with the local folk.
Tabatinga, Brazil has grown likewise - but the new wealth of Colombia is not ever-present here. It's more of a steady growth, initiated by the central government who aim to keep pace with Colombia. One cost is the shocking state of the roads which 10 years ago barely stretched a few kms. Brazil maintains a policy to open up the Amazon by roads. I see an economic trial here. The Amazon basin is probably the best-accessed forest area in the world with its rivers. They become more accessible with heavy rains. The roads so much less so. A pity the capital Brazilia wasn't easily reached by river from everywhere.
I went and visited some old friends in Leticia, Señor and Señora Moreno - they ran the residencia (hostel) that Rich and I stayed in. Without saying one word she immediately recognized me. She took out old photos that I sent to her a decade ago. I gave her some new photos, an Aussie flag and an RFCA brochure. They were so happy and pleased to see me. They even took out their finest crockery for dinner that evening. Sapotes for appetizers, carambola juice to finish the night off.
Leticia will always hold a special place in my heart. And the fruits I grow will always remind me of our Amazon friends.
DATE: July 1988
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *