Mendel Letters 67 — Amazonas

From Pucallpa, Peru to Leticia, Colombia

March 5, 2022

Dear Mendel,

We didn’t really plan out this trip very well, we just knew we would land in Colombia, head south through the Andes, and had to return to New York right after Labor Day to get back to City College. You couldn’t miss a semester. That came with a severe penalty. You got drafted and sent to Vietnam. In the end, we made it as far south as Lake Titicaca on the Peru-Bolivia border and had to turn around and head north.

After Machu Picchu, Jean-Claude, our French Canadian fellow traveller and Spanish translator decided to leave the group. The three Norte Americanos continued south to Lake Titicaca and then headed back to Lima where we decided we had to complete our trip by traveling on the Amazon. Another hair-raising bus trip across the Andes and on dirt roads brought us to the tiny river port of Pucallpa on the Ucayali tributary of the Amazon River. There we found a cargo boat that would float downriver to Iquitos, a five day trip. Iquitos, on the main branch of the Amazon River, then and now is largest city in the Amazon watershed that is not reachable by road.

River boats on the Ucayali

During the five day trip with stops at riverfront villages most local people slept in the open air on the first floor with the cargo. We had hammocks to sleep on in small second floor cabins. The “bathroom” was off the side of the boat.

The best part of the voyage was swimming off the side of the boat with periodic warnings to get back on board because of piranha sightings. We did get to see manatee.

Food was provided with our ticket but it was a problem. There was turtle and fish caught by the boat crew and I got very sick. It may have been dysentery or it may have been cholera. I dehydrated rapidly off the side of the boat until Kenny and Frank got me some pills at one of the village stops and I settled down. Because I was so sick, we decided to continue from Iquitos to Leticia, Colombia by sea plane rather than stay on the boat. I don’t remember much of this part of the trip except for drinking a lot of coca-cola.

I rested in Leticia and eventually felt better, but I missed a night-time cayman hunt. I did get to go on one jungle hike that was quite funny in its way. By this time we all had serviceable “bodega” Spanish, enough to get directions and order in restaurants and food shops. We stopped at a shop in a small village and when we tried to buy sodas with Spanish our limited Spanish and Colombian money the storekeeper laughed. When we got back to town we learned we had crossed the border and had wandered into Brazil.

Cayman Hunt

From Leticia we got a military flight back to Bogota in an old U.S. C 47 cargo plane. There were no seats, we sat in harnesses amidst cases of parrots, and the cargo door was open. When we left Leticia we were dressed for a tropical rainforest and unprepared for a steep climb into the Andes so we were very cold.

Winding path of the river

We didn’t have airline reservations for the trip from Bogota to Miami because we didn’t know when we would arrive back there. Frank and I were able to get an early flight but Kenny and Jean-Claude, who was also heading back to Bogota, had to wait a few extra days. Once in Miami, Frank and I got a half-fare flight back to JFK, New York City, and the fall semester at City College.

Your son

Sunset on the Amazon

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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