Saturday, July 29, 2017

9 Days in a Peruvian Fishing Village

Me: Running on the beach, around sunset.
I'm sporting the sweatshirt my friends got me
for my birthday.
At sunset, I was running on a beach in Northern Peru, where the sand had so much gold fleck in it, it shone and glistened and glinted and gleaned the colors of the sunset sky, and when the dying light sparkled against it, it was as if I was running on the surface of an amethyst gem. And although I told myself that I would only stay three nights in this fishing village, I ended up staying 9 nights there.

Every time I ran on that beach, I decided to stay an extra few nights. There was something supernatural about running on wet sand bear footed, while ocean waves crashed against your legs and feet. It was as if I became one with the force and nature of the sand, sea, sun, sky, and wind.

Just a few days ago, I was in the Amazon Jungle. This was such a different scene. From Iquitos, I took a flight back into Lima and then from Lima I changed planes to Piura, the Northern Capital of Peru. It's important to note that a direct flight would've gone straight eastward and would have only taken 2 hours at most. You can only get out of Iquitos by land or river boat; it's literally riverlocked. It would've taken me four days to reach the mainland by boat, and then another 20 or so hours to get to Northern Peru. So, I had to bear a seven hour journey, including waiting time, by taking two flights out of the Amazonian Capital and into the Northern Coastal Capital.

From there, I had to take varying modes of land transport to a remote seaside village - which I actually read about in the plane. In other words, I changed my entire plans, just to come here, by reading a blurb from a random book about a remote seaside village. And I made that decision on the spot.

Why plan? I have nowhere to go, no one to see. (Incidentally, it was in this area that Hemingway spent time and caught a huge marlin, which became his inspiration for Old Man and the Sea.)

Sunset at my remote village, clam diggers in the background
I didn't do much in this village - except read, surf the internet, eat fresh fish (raw and cooked), drink coconut water, dig for clams, and sleep. It's also important to note what I didn't have to do: check in with clients; check in with the courts; work at a job, in which I was getting blocked; and justify myself constantly against other people's expectations. I was living in a warm and soothing and a sailing dream - as rich, peaceful, deep, and blue as a sapphire sea.

Not everything was perfect, though. I got bit horribly by mosquitoes called zancudos, and these had to be the worst kind. Unlike other mosquito bites, I reacted horribly to it, and they liked to bite my face when I slept, even when I put mosquito repellant on.

Dropped 15 pounds of fat from December 2016.
Not a pleasant endeavor.
They left my skin blistering and looking unpleasant. These have to be the worst kind of mosquitoes in the world - and I've traveled the world. Even after the bites on my legs healed, it still looked like someone jabbed me with a syringe. Nonetheless, the bad didn't outweigh the good.

I've been rereading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. I don't love it (probably because I don't like the plot much), but I can't deny his genius as a writer - which no movie could capture, because his genius is in his words and narrative.

I've also concluded this is a horrible book for high schoolers, and a great book for adults around my age or older. This is because how can teenagers living in Baldwin Park (or any other ghetto or middle class city) relate to the bootlegging era and a culture of extravagant wealth and a group of people who have nothing else better to do than to wash their hair in champagne. It's not relatable to the average American teenager, and hence it can't be appreciated.

It has given me an idea of a story. Imagine a book, in which one of the main character (it's questionable where the main character is Nick or Gatsby in the novel - who are really alter-egos of each other), grew up in some poor village in Mexico - where his family made $3 a day by picking peppercorns in the hills - which was later shipped to America.

One day, a rich American gets lost in that village, and the boy sees how easy life is with tons of money. He decides then that he's no longer going to work as a peasant, and is desperately in search of becoming rick and rich quick. He falls into a group of drug lords, performs certain illegal tasks, makes his way up, and gets rick quick, like he wants. And then he moves to America.

There, however, he finds a white girl he falls in love with, and he does everything he can with his wealth to win her over. She uses him. And no matter how hard he tries, he can't win her over with his wealth or his fake story that he made his wealth as a doctor in Mexico. In the end, he gets tracked down by a rival gang member, who shoots him execution style. Nobody comes to his funeral. Nobody cares.

Now that's a story that our youth could relate to. And that's generally the Gatsby story retold for the modern audience. Nonetheless, I can't hep but be in awe of some of the quotes in the book.

At the party, it's said: "In [Gatsby's] blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars."

Another good quote is when Nick thinks to himself: "Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known."

And finally, the book is a classic, because it speaks to us still in prophecy. The singer at the party sings: "“The rich get richer and the poor get - children.” Keep in mind, the novel was published 92 years ago.

Anyways, I'm more than halfway through the book. I'm taking my time with it, because the language is so absorbing and it's not a fast read.

On one of the 9 days, there was a small carnival for over two days, which was held in front of the church. It looked like all the people from the village came.

It was enjoyable for me to see the children holding paper mache lanterns of dragons and stars. They looked like red and burning and hot glowing fireflies, floating aimlessly through the air, which appeared to be at the speed a slow creek would carry floating flowers.

On the second day of carnival, there was a reenactment of Saint Santiago's play on the streets. People dance and sang, and Santiago spanked local townspeople with his wooden sword. In the end, he danced with this grandmother, who seemed to have standing with everyone in the village. Then everyone clapped and cheered and the fireworks exploded in the distance.

Finally, the big news is that I cancelled my one way flight back to LA. It was a scary thing to do. It was like cutting off the life line to home. And I did it.

I'm officially a Korean-American gypsy, homeless and nomadic. I even cancelled my auto insurance and my data plan for my phone. I have nowhere to go and no one to see.

Like Martin Buber said: "All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

Monday, July 24, 2017

My Last Days Around the Amazon

A motot axi, it reminds me of the rickshaws of China.
After coming back from my tour, I spent a few days at my hotel in Nauta, not doing much. In the mornings, I'd make coffee with a coconut I chopped down and turned into coconut milk. The coffee was instant; so, it needed some better flavoring. I'd surf the internet, read my book, and eat dinner. And the day would start the same again the next day. But this is how I liked it.

I brought that duck carcass and flesh with me and had a local restaurant cook it. It tasted delicious.

I saved the bones too and let it sit in water with vinegar overnight, that way, without using fire, I extracted nutrients from the bones. The next day, I cooked the broth for 6 hours. When I had it, it was rich and tasty and hearty and delicious.

Fried duck the local restaurant made for me
with the duck I brought them.
On the weekend, a Brazilian guy in his 40's with his Peruvian wife and Colombian friend came rolling into town with their fancy rented motorbikes. The Brazilian's name was Manuel, and he was fluent in Spanish. It looked like he took steroids because he had a big chest, but it had a roundish women-look rather than how pecs are naturally toned and squarer.

He also wore a lot of bling - and I mean it was all bling, bling, bling. Bling on both hands. He had a bling Mason ring on. Bling on his neck. Bling in his ears.

They invited me to drink with them. I kind of didn't want to, only because it meant I had to be social and that cost me energy. Also, I had to do it all in Spanish.

But they poured me several shots of rum they bought locally. I found out they were architects, taking a break and enjoying the weekend. The Brazilian lived in Iquitos for 12 years, and he said he liked it but found that the people were dumb and simple - at least that's what he said.

I was happy that my Spanish was improving. I could follow almost everything, but once in awhile, I had to ask what a specific word meant. (You could always tell people who have a formal education versus those that don't in Latin America. Those with a formal education know how to explain what a word means.)

I told them I graduated in biology and was traveling to figure out what to do with my life. In telling them such, they thought I was younger and naive and inexperienced - and they all knew more than me.
The hotel cat. She's not Jeh Pan, though.
All they kept wanting to do was go clubbing - clubbing in this tiny village. But clubbing they went. Perhaps, they liked lording their wealth (perhaps paid for, perhaps on loan). And they came back hung over, still drunk, and looked worn and burnt. I said good morning to them all though, spritely and fresh.

After resting up in Nauta, (remember, I had that slight injury from my fall), I took a collectivo, a shared taxi, back to the Amazonian Capital of Iquitos. I checked in to the same hostel.

While sitting in the corner by myself, an Israeli guy talked to me. I cut the conversation short, though. I didn't feel like being that social.

I was re-reading the introduction to Hemingway's The Dangerous Summer, which turned out from a publisher's view to be an epic failure. The audience no longer wanted to read about bull fighting and Hemingway didn't have the life in him to write another great piece. (Even to me, he seemed bitter and angry in this novella.) A year later after publishing the manuscript, he shot himself in the head. (Sadly and coincidentally so did his second wife, Martha Gellhorn.)

Well, I finished the book, and then left it at the hostel's book shelf. Another book down. Five left to go.

Still sitting by myself, an Irish guy sat next to me. We chatted. I put the book down and listened to him.

"How are you, Bryan?" I ask.

We met once before. He was 35 too. He was tall and thin and looked like he was in shape, even though he claimed he never exercised. He said he was that way, because he smoked 10 cigarettes a day.

"Good and you."

"Good. I just came back from the rainforest. Have some injuries. What have you been up to?"

"I did Ayahuasca."

Ayahuasca is a mix of psychedelic plants that originate from the Amazon and is used in a traditional Shaman ceremony to open up your mind and spirit to connect to the universe. In America, it was made famous by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, founders of the Beat Generation. Burroughs writes about it in the Yage Letters, where he's looking for the ultimate trip, which is also supposed to cure his drug addictions.

"Oh you did. Tell me about it."

"I went with Gabby for ten days. You drink this filthy, nasty crap drink. Then you go into a trip. And the shamans start chanting an Icaro."

(I met Gabby in my room. She tried to sell me on it. I told her I was a Christian and wouldn't participate, and to me she was a horrible marketer as she was always complaining about everything, from the lack of security in the hostel to the noisy street to the cook putting too much salt in her fried eggs.)

"So, you feel anything? Did the world open up for you?"

"Well, why don't we get some food and drink and talk about it? I've been eating all this crap at the Shaman's hut."

"Really? I ate really well in my little village. It was fantastic. Let me show you this picture of the duck I ate. It was sooooo good."

"I don't want eat that crap anymore. I'm tired of this Amazon crap. Let's go to a real place."

"I know a Belgium place on the malecon. I could use a glass of wine. There was no wine where I was at."

We walk down the malecon to the bistro and sit outside. Bryan is one of those guys can't help but glance at all the people that pass him.

We order some salmon on crackers and cheese and bread and olives and two glasses of beautiful wine.

Bryan tells me, "Well, you're in this hut in the middle of the jungle. After drinking the nastiness, I went into this trance and saw all these images. I think it would've worked better if I had not resisted and just been more open to it."

"So, it's like a hall of pictures?"

"Exactly. But you get to pick which picture you want. And I picked a picture of my parents that were aging. Then the Shaman came up to me and prayed for me. And I started crying and breaking down. I just knew how much they loved me. Before that I was angry at my father."


He tells me about the other guests and how an Australian guy had a vision of himself working at a restaurant and that was now his new calling.

"Are you going to do it?" He asks me.

"No. Probably not. I don't need to spend that kind of money to know that my family and friends and pets miss me."

"I never miss anyone."

"No? I don't get that. I miss people all the time."

"I mean, I enjoy spending time with people. But I don't ever miss them, after they leave.

It was then, I felt sorry for him. I couldn't imagine a world where you don't miss people. Missing people is such a beautiful feeling. Perhaps, it's one reason why I travel so much. It reminds me of how much I have and all the people and pets to be grateful for. I'll never forget Jeh Pan putting his head down and laying on the floor before I left to the airport. I still am amazed how he knew I was leaving for awhile.

I wondered who was poorer, this guy sitting across from me with his tenured job at the local community college as a web design instructor, or the villagers of Nauta, some of whom made only $5 USD for the whole day. Even my hotel owner ate breakfast with her staff once a day.

I glanced into his heart and did not like what I saw. He knew I was doing this. And he called me out on it later.

I told him, "I've been kind of anti-social on this trip. Feels like I've been there, done that. I'm a bit jaded."

He said, "Well you can't judge people too quickly."

"Aye, you're right on that one."

We chit chatted about this and that, none of which was all that important. He found out I still lived with my mother.

I told him, "At first, I had to. It's how I got out of debt. I'm debt free now. And actually ended up loving living with her.

"She makes me my favorite coffee every morning, called Blue Mountain. I have some, but I'm saving it to share with someone on a special occasion. Nothing romantic. Just someone who would appreciate it." I could tell he wanted to try some, but he wasn't the right person and it wasn't the right occasion. I could also tell he could get free stuff from other travelers; but not me.

"Being debt free is good." I could tell him from his body language that he was mired in debt - probably credit card debt.

I needed out of the conversation, though. Otherwise, I was going to end up talking to this guy all night.

We struck up a conversation with the girl at the table next to us.

I told him, "I reckon you could sit at her table, if you really wanted to. She's not going to sit next to you, because she won't take the effort to move her purse on that seat. You see it?"

"I do."

"Here, I'll start it off." I turn to her and say, "Hey, excuse me, where you from?"

"I'm from Berkley." She had a new age look about her. Mid 30's, maybe earlier 40's. Probably still living off her wealthy parents' money and not having a real job. (Perhaps, like some people... =/)

"Oh, that's what I thought. You kind of give off that vibe."

"And what about you?"

"I'm from Los Angeles."

Bryan says, "I'm from Ireland."

We all chat for awhile, small talk, something I learned from New Zealand, because the Kiwis love it so much.

Then I take out my phone and say, "Oh, I'm sorry, I have to go. I have to take this call. Excuse me for the rude interruption. I don't mean to be so unmannered. Enjoy your evening."

There was no phone call.

I paid my bill. I got up. I walked back to the hostel. Eventually, Bryan did end up sitting at her table.

Back at the hostel, I start planning where to go next. I think I fancy the beach. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

How I Got Out of Student Debt and Celebrating with a Sabbatical

On Sabbatical, running on a Peruvian beach.
Last week, it's official: I'm out of student debt. I'm debt free, which means I'm free. And free is free is free is free.

I'm celebrating my new freedom by taking a Sabbatical - which means I stopped working and am taking a break. It's traditionally supposed to be for a year; I don't know if I have that much saved up to go that long. But, I'm going to be gone as long as possible.

Sometimes, I want to come home, because I miss everybody and my animalitos (small animals in Spanish). But then I remind myself, you can take a Sabbatical, so you should.

I wanted to write about how I got out of student debt; in the hope that it could help others. But before I do, I think taking a Sabbatical was the best thing I could do.

The practice has Jewish origins. I didn't know this, until this year, but one of the hallmark reasons that the Sabbath was created was because the Jews were freed under Pharaoh's bondage in Egypt.

The Sabbath was meant to be a celebration and a reminder of their freedom from enslavement. Taking a break from making money also tested one's faith. It was a statement by the people of faith that what they had was enough, and that life wasn't all about making money. It was about freedom and being grateful to the God that freed them. Also, having less forced God's people to put into practice their faith, one which said that God would provide for their future needs. One was actively forced to trust in his or her own hoarding of resources. For all of the above reasons, taking a Sabbatical was a good fit for me.

Alright, back to how I got out of student debt. This is mainly what I did and here's what I learned about it. It took me about five years after graduating law school to get out of it. Law school cost about $130,000 for all three years, and it was probably about another $60,000 to live in West Los Angeles for three years. Going to law school, all up cost me $190,000. (UCLA gave me a good amount of grants and my father helped too. Roughly, UCLA paid a third, Dad paid a third, and I took out a loan for a third.)

So after UCLA and Dad, I borrowed $53,700 for three years of law school. After I graduated, that amount turned into $58,242.99 in three years, a $4,500 increase. (That's a lot, think about what you can do with $4,500).

In the end, I ended up paying $58,841.44, of which $5,141.44 was in interest. I had a $650 debt from undergrad, $119 of which was from interest of a total principle of $2,000. In total, for my entire education, I borrowed $59,500, that included my undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Getting out of debt was a challenge and certainly a testing of my own self-discipline, especially because I was learning how to start my own business, while learning to litigate at the same time. (I wish I could advise not to do that too, but law firms aren't hiring. If you're interested in me writing articles on how to start a business, write me.)

Here's what I advise, learned, and suggest. Here's are my seven points towards becoming debt free.

(1) Don't get a formal education. If you're going to go to some expensive private liberal arts college, and you're going to have debt over $100,000 forget it. You'll almost never get out of it. Also be very aware of going to a low tier law school, which charges a prince's random but has low bar passage rates. You'll also be doomed in debt, if you have over $100,000 in law school debt and can't pass the bar.

In general, I'm not advocate of going to professional school either, anymore. (Though with that said, I found my time at UCLA Law to also be priceless; I felt like I really got a first class education there.) But, the market has realized that law school may not be a good investment.

At UCLA Law, for the class of 2012, there were over 8,000 applicants. It was a record high at the time, which was broken again in 2013. Now, there's only 5,000 people applying. The market has realized that having a professional degree doesn't always pay back a return on investment. (Some older lawyers may criticize me for saying this, but believe me, they didn't have the same hardships of student loans that my generation does.)

Nonetheless, I'm a big advocate of becoming educated; so, just because I said don't go to university doesn't mean not to learn. As Mark Twain said, "Don't let schooling interfere with your education."

I recommend doing what young people do in Germany. Get an apprenticeship.

Ray Bradbury didn't get a formal education, but he did go to UCLA - to rent a typewriter at Powell Library to write Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury practiced and practiced his craft.

I don't know about medicine, but at least in California, you can apprentice with a lawyer for four years and then sit the bar. In theory, you should get better training that way, than attending law school.

(It's sad I have to say not to go to university, but currently, America is heading toward's an educational financial bubble that's about to burst. It's my view that now is not the time to go, if you're going to be burdened with excessive loans.)

So, figure out what you want to do and get apprenticed or go to a public school. Or, if you go to an expensive private one, you better graduate in some technical field - like computer science or have a full scholarship. (Another option would be to work for the government, but one can never be guaranteed of having such a job. If you work for government for ten years, your loans are forgiven. But you still have to pay taxes on it.)

(2) Don't take out the maximum amount of the loan. You're a student. Take out what you need. I knew people in New Zealand who took out huge loans to go on ski trips. No. That's a horrible investment. Take out only what you need for your tuition, supplies, rent, and food. Nothing more.

In fact, in my last two years of law school, I took out even less loans. And in my last year, I ended up returning $5,000 of loan money, because I had a windfall.

(3) Minimize costs as a student. The biggest cost you have as a student will be your rent. Don't live in a posh place to impress your friends. I lived 7 miles away when I attended law school, and I had a good friend who let me live with him at a reduced rate. (Some days, I even ran to school and back.)

(4) After you graduate, live simply. And it will be offensive to some of your friends.

After a woman crashed my German car, I bought a beater. It was supposed to be only a temporary ride, but it kept driving and lasting. The insurance and maintenance was cheaper. And I got so much flak from friends and family (except for my mother) for not buying a better car. I probably could have bought a nicer sports car, but that would have delayed me paying off my student loans.

Why have a nicer car over being free? I was in debt. I told them, "I can think about buying a better car when my loans are paid off."

I lived at home with mother, which I ended up loving completely. But people would question me: "Why don't you have your own place?" And I said, "Because, I love living at home. But also, I need to pay off my student loans." Mom's been the best to let me live with her and make my favorite coffee, aiding me in the quest to slay my behemoth of student loans. (Perhaps, Baldwin Park would fall without her.)

Not only did I stop buying new things, I also got rid of 80% of everything I owned, either by trashing it or donating it.

And guess what? It made me happier and freer, as I learned to live with less. Consequently, because I had less stuff, I greatly appreciated the little I had left even more. (I wasn't expecting this.)

In short, I had to stop caring what other people thought about my life. It was my life, and they weren't shouldering my student loans. And if that meant I wasn't cool or invited to some parties, so be it. As an unintended consequence though, I think it made my litigation better, because I was more focused on my own training, learning, and profession.

(I probably still enjoyed eating out. I wondered often if I should cut that out too. But I enjoy the company of my friends - so, I didn't let this one go.)

(5) Be creative. In my last year of law school, I was a teaching assistant for the undergraduate department at UCLA. UCLA undergrad, thus, gave me a stipend towards my tuition and this helped a lot. If you can make some side money, without hampering your law school education, I would do so and pay off your student loans. (Upon reflection, TA'ing though did hurt my grades a bit, but the amount I got paid for was a good trade off.)

Also, right before I made my last payment, I found an unopened box from 2004 from a camping equipment called REI. Everything inside was brand new, even though it was 13 years old. REI had a policy, which I was grandfathered into, that stated that if I was unhappy with their product, it was a lifetime refund. Before going to Peru, I returned it to the employee's surprise that I had something that was 13 years old. She said, "Did you do a spring cleaning?"

I said, "Yup." I smiled. I got back $80. I put it towards my student loans.

(6) Strategize. Getting out of student debt is a battle and it presses you. You need a grand plan, filled with detailed tactics.

I had a game plan. The start of creating a game plan is to make paying off your student loans either your top priority or one of them. It really had to be up there, and you have to be focused on it.

After that, create a plan. What I did was that I had six different types of loans. What I'm going to say next is obvious, but still has to be said. Pay off the largest interest loan first.

So for me, I had two unsubsidized, three subsidized, and one subsidized loans undergrad. (It gets complicated, because there was only four accounts, but six loans.) I paid off the unsubsidized loans first, because they accrued the most interest and start the day you borrow.

Your goal is to get rid of the unsubsidized loans as fast as possible, or it'll accrue and compound interest and get you. After that, I worked on paying off the subsidized loans in order of the highest to lowest interest first; that's why, even though I only had $650 in undergrad loans, I didn't pay it off. It only accrued 2% interest generally; so, it was my lowest priority to pay off.

Just make sure you plan your work and work your plan. Upon reflecting more about it, I could have saved $1,000 to $2,000 in not paying interest had I created a better plan right from the time I started law school. But at the time, you get worked to death at law school; so, I didn't have time to sit down and create a good plan.

Don't make that mistake. Have a workable and clever plan, and it really will save you money and get you out of debt faster.

(7) Finally, give to charity. Whenever I made a profit, which was almost never, but some times happened, I tithed 10% back to charity or a religious institution.

Some people abhor this idea. I can say that it teaches you self-discipline and gives you a joy in giving. I also believe in one of the verses in Psalms, 27:35 to be specific: "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread."

That's it. That's how I did it. Hope it helps you. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Killer Bees, Cocaine Leaves, and an Accident in the Amazon Jungle

The morning sun in the Amazon Jungle.
The wakes are created by dolphin breaches.
At four in the morning, a slight breeze chilled me and woke me up, while we were sleeping on a beach of the Amazon Jungle. I couldn't get back to sleep, and was wide awake when dawn came. At dawn, I heard all the morning birds call and the splashes of the dolphins nearby. The transition between night and day and day and night becomes one enormous changing of the guard in the jungle, and this is the most dangerous period of time for prey, because the predators know that the prey are looking for a place to rest and roost. Hence, for this reason, my cat Jeh Pan is most active at dusk and dawn too.

At sunrise, my guide comes out of his boat. We both watch the river dolphins playing nearby and breaching the water. He makes me a coffee. There's no milk and it's instant. So, it's not that good, but it'll have to do.

Driving our boat through the Amazon.
Jose asks me what I want for lunch. I tell him, "Arroz con pato. (Rice with duck.)" I tell him I know have to pay extra for it, but it's a dish Peru is known for. And I've been craving duck for awhile now. I also missed my Blue Mountain coffee and my mom's cooking.

This morning, my guide wants to learn more Korean. He brings out a book and asks me phrases. He writes them down. I wonder to myself how much he fancied this Korean girl that was on his tour. I also don't think he'll learn these phrases well.

When I was in Belize, on a small key island in the sun, in the summer of 2011, I remember that the host of my hostel was in love with this Korean girl that had stayed there. He liked this girl so much, all he could do was talk about her. He asked me about Korean culture. And, to Skype with her, he'd shut down all of the internet, so the guests couldn't use it. He really fancied her.

My brother always said the world is falling in love with Koreans, because they're the best looking and smartest of the Asian race. He said that Yellow Fever was spreading across the world. I just laughed at hearing it all. But, certainly, my guide might have caught some of this epidemic.

After drinking my coffee, we were driving back to Nauta, the largest town in the area. I slept on the boat, mainly, even though there were birds and dolphins. I was tired, because I woke up early. I felt bad for doing so, because my guide was doing all the work. And even though I had paid him for his time and services, I still did not like lording the fact that I could sleep, while he worked. But I still slept, because I was tired.

We arrived in the local village where 60 people lived. A teenage boy who spotted me was shirtless and put his shirt on immediately. All the villagers stared at me, which I do not know if I liked or should not like. My guide appeared to know everyone in the village.
Looks like my Buenos Aires Tetra at home.

He asked the boy for a fishing pole. Then he dug up some worms and took them with him to go fishing.

My guide went fishing in a local stream and fished out a number of tropical fish. I wish I could bring them home, but this is not the end of my journey. So, I cannot.

After dropping them back into the stream, we hike into the jungle again, but not very far. In a secret location, he shows me a secret stash of cocaine trees growing.

I ask him, "Who owns them?"

"He's dead."

"Who was he?"

"An old man."

Picture of a cocaine tree, found in a hidden location.
We strip some leaves and chew on them. I told him, "We need lemon for the full effect."

He laughs. I know this, because I read it in an old issue of National Geographic once. To make cocaine, you need battery acid and lots of cocaine leaves. The battery acid extracts out the active ingredient, and then you have liquid cocaine. Then you have to dry it out and cut it with something more neutral. The process is the same to make aspirin, which I had to learn in organic chemistry lab, ages ago.

I chew more leaves than he does. I don't feel anything, except I'm not hungry anymore.

We leave. My guide hears some monkeys. He wants to find them. I follow him.

While walking towards the monkeys, I see some big bees that look like bumble bees. In the jungle, there are these small bee that like white flowers. But these were different. When my guide sees them, he says: "Run!!!"

So, I run and run and run. I slow down about 10 yard, about 30 meters away, when I feel a sting in my left hand, underneath the thumb. I saw a big bee on it. Then the bee tried to sting me in my stomach, but I bunched it up with my shirt and pinched it and killed it.

I kept running but felt bees buzzing in my hair. I shook my head and kept running towards the village where it was clear. My guide, at another location shouted: "Paul!"

I said, "Si."

And caught up with him. He was stung more.

He said in English: "Killer bees."

"I know."

I touched my hand to see whether there was a stinger and asked him, "Are you sure it wasn't a wasp?"

He said, "No."

"Where's the stinger then?"

He explained these kind of bees don't lose their stinger some times.

I felt my heart beating fast and the high from running. Maybe, it was the coca leaves.

We walked back to the village, which wasn't far. My guide asked around for anyone who would sell a duck.  We found a person.

The family originally asked for $7. I said, $5. They agreed.

The women fed all the animals to trick them into capture. She grabbed the duck. The duck knew it was going to be killed.

She gave the duck to the man. The man held it down with his knee and pinned it on the flooor. Then he took the knife and slit it's neck.

The duck screamed and gasped. Blood started flowing. He kept holding it down with his knees and the blood kept flowing, pouring over its feathers and onto the ground.

I wasn't going to watch. But I told myself I had to watch. I ordered the killing. Then the duck looked tired and faint and closed its eyes. I did not like watching this. But I ordered it.

I slaughtered a cock and a duck once. My mother called me cruel. I told her we shouldn't eat meat then, if we can't bear slaughtering our feed.

She didn't get it. She said it was just better to buy the meat already prepared in a market in a clean package. But that's not how it really goes down. Eating meat is violent and the loss of life is not pleasurable to watch.

I paid them. I took the duck with us to where we were going to cook it. It bled on my shorts.

Cashew fruit and nut
My guide gave me cashew fruit, which had a nut attached. He said I could eat the fruit. So, I did. It was good. Then I cracked the nut with my teeth. Immediately, my mouth and lips went numb and then fiery. I told my guide.

Jose said, "No!!! It's poison."

Oh no, I thought.

He asked the villager for some soap. He started scrubbing my licks. I had to lick the soap. I washed and rinsed and washed and rinsed over and over again. It was still numb, but it certainly helped.

After, we kept walking to where we were going to cook our duck. One of the villagers offered Jose and me a drink. I could smell it was alcoholic and asked if it was tequila. They laughed and said yes. I drank some.

Jose drank more. He threw a coin at them for the alcohol. I didn't like that.

At our cooking spot, Jose boiled some water. The duck was now dead. The life had gone out of his eyes. I hung the duck upside down to drain out more of the blood.

When the water boiled, we dunked the duck in it. I was helping Jose pluck out the feathers.

But when I walked across a plank, I slipped and fell and another plank gouged my calf. The gash was deep but not bleeding. I looked and thought, It's going to bleed soon, and a lot. It was also very painful.

I tried to walk but couldn't.

Jose said, "Slowly. Relax."

After, I walked to a bench and rested. I couldn't help Jose like this. And the pain started surging. The blood started gushing.

I asked for a bandaid. No one had one. But a girl brought me a rag. I tied it around my gash and started walking back into the village.

Jose asked, "Where you going?"

"For tequila. It hurts."


An old lady in the village gave me a shot of tequila. It helped. I walked back.

Some of Jose's friends came and asked what happened. I told them, "In one hour, I chewed on coca leaves, found killer bees, drank tequila, and ate some poison. I'm not sure what happened, but it led to my fall."

I laughed a little. Jose laughed too. What else could you do? It was kind of slapstick the whole thing.

I told Jose to also cook for me the duck liver and tongue. Lunch was plantains and duck. I had the leg, deep fried. It was a beautiful meal, but it was hard to taste on some parts, because of the poison that was still burning my tongue. The liver tasted absolutely delicious.

After lunch, Jose said he needed some time. I asked, "For what?"

He said, "Tequila." I wondered if he was an alcoholic. He showed up with bloodshot eyes when I first met him. And now, after having a sip of tequila and knowing I drank some, he couldn't help but get some more. That's how addictions work. The first taste leads to more and more.

After an hour, he came back. I was laying on the bench in pain. I was reading in Hemingway's The Dangerous Summer, coincidentally at the same time, that the main matador gets gored once and he won't take anything for the pain. He considered himself a real man for getting the gore and an even more manly man for not taking anything for the pain.

Well, I don't know if enduring pain for the sake of pain makes one a real man. I do know that my fall off the planks isn't the same as being wounded by goring. But perhaps being chased by a swarm of killer bees can be ranked up there. Who knows how dangerous it could've been if hundreds of them stung us all at once?

In fact, to impress the girls, I saw Jose take off his shorts and show the girls where he was stung in the buttocks. He made me show them where I was stung in the hand. I don't know how this makes us more of a man, but these girls actually seem to be impressed by it.

After lunch, we drove back to Nauta. I gave Jose a $10 tip. He wasn't expecting it. He gave me a big hug. I wasn't expecting that.

And he said, "God be with you."

I walked back to my hotel with my stuff. The owner asked me why my face was still kind of orange. I told her I painted it red with the resin from the tree.

She asked, "Why?"

And I said, "Because that's how the Indians from the Amazon look in the movies."

Then she started laughing.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Capturing Wild Angelfish in the Amazon Jungle

Red face paint and a leaf frog
The early Amazonian light woke me, and all last night's worries now seemed vanquished and vanished. I woke and asked Jose for coffee. Something I never have to ask for at home, because my lovely mother knows, and the Blue Mountain is brewing before I wake up.

He says, "Si."

I want to go for a morning swim. My guide says, "Don't go too far. There's anacondas in the water."

"Where are these anacondas? I want to see them."

"They're in there. And they'll bite you. So don't go too far."

Then I go for a morning swim in the black water. The temperature of the water varies. Some spots are warm. Some spots are lukewarm. There are multiple thermoclines in the rivers.

Do you see the leaf frog?
When I finish my morning swim, I crawl back up the slippery clay mud bank. My guide has my coffee ready with milk in it. He hands me my coffee and a banana. That's my breakfast. (Before the tour, I told my guide that I didn't eat breakfast.)

After my coffee, we take a three hour jungle walk. I put on my boots.

On our walk, my guide spots a tree that the Indians use for face paint. I told him to put it on me. It was red and sticky resin. I let him touch my face. It reminded me when the boxing coach, Luis used to put Vaseline on my face before a spar.

My guide finds a leaf frog on the Amazon floor. It's so well camouflaged; I didn't spot it. (I find out later that my guide is really good at spotting frogs, for some reason. I tend to be better at spotting birds.)

My guide introduces me to exotic plants, like a plant with leaves that has sharp razor textures on it. He calls it "knife plant."

We find one monkey. There's also a paw print of a jaguar, but no jaguar. (I make a note to myself, find a jaguar next.)

I find some of the flowers to be beautiful. But on this walk, all in all, we didn't find that much.

On our way back to camp, I spotted a beautiful white and exotic insect. It was only an inch or less. The patterns reminded me of the design of an Italian designer shirt. Jose explains to me it's a juvenile cicada, which are semi-difficult to spot. He says when they get older, they'll turn green. This was certainly a big find for me, and it was bigger, because the cicada didn't fly away when I shot a photo of it. (Of course, tourists want to see the big and large and ferocious animals. But some times, beauty and surprise can pass us by, unless one stops and pays attention.)

Juvenile Cicada 
After walking for three hours, we get back to camp and we're both hungry. Jose tells me to
wash my paint and get the paint off. So, I take some soap and wash my face in the black water. But it doesn't come off. The resin is oily and sticky.

I don't care much. Instead, I take another swim in the black water. After, I put more mud clay on my face and skin.

Jose is cooking a catfish stew. It takes awhile. So, I begin reading Hemingway's Dangerous Summer, one of his later works about bullfighters in Spain. Jose notes that I read when I'm bored.

We eat. It's a satisfying meal, especially because we're both hungry and had not had breakfast. After, I throw the remains into the water's shore. Exotic tropical fish, I have never seen, come and eat it. Jose identifies a few, but a number of them, we both don't know what they are.

I take some eucalyptus oil from my bag and use it to take the paint off my face. It works well, but not completely. It leaves my face partly stained orangish-yellow. But I don't care much about it.

After, we load our stuff onto the boat. Jose smokes a cigarette on the boat. He picks up my book. He looks through the pages and the pictures.

I ask him if he knows who Hemingway is.

He says he does not.
A buttery on our boat.
(I don't know the species.)

I tell him the book is about bullfighting in Spain. I ask him, "Have you ever seen a bullfight?"

"Once. Up North."

"What are we going to do next?"

"Go see your fish."

He drives the boat to the junction of the main river. While he drives the boat, I noticed reddish-orange butterfly land near our bag of food. The colors of its wings were so brilliant that the photo doesn't really do it so much justice. I had never seen a color like it in my life.

Had King Solomon with all his wealth saw this butterfly, he would have asked all of his servants and craftsmen to create a fabric of this color. And had Queen Sheba seen it, she would have tested Solomon's wisdom by asking him to make her a cloth of the same color and brilliance. What would they do both, though, when they realized that such a fabric couldn't be created by any man?
Me, holding the angelfish.
Note the red paint smeared into an orange.

Jose parks the boat to the edge of the river. I see fish skipping over the water, creating a fury and a flutter and a spray of water. It looked like oil splattering on a hot and greasy pan. And when I saw them, I knew what we were looking at.

"Angelfish!" I say. "Angel pes. Catch them."

Jose catches me one. I'm excited.

I've never seen angelfish in the wild. And these were extraordinary and playful and amusing. Angelfish are usually docile and tranquil. That's why people like keeping them in the aquarium. They're a calming fish, and studies have shown they can bring down blood pressure and relieve stress just by watching them.

(Some people understand why I like fish so much. I always have as a kid.

During my undergrad, my understanding of them helped me appreciate them even more. Under the mentorship of William Hamner at UCLA, I learned about the different types of swimming styles each fish have.

For instance, tuna swim like torpedoes in the water. Certain fish can swim backwards and others can't. Under Ian Tibbetts, in Queensland Australia, I learned more about how a gobies, small ocean floor fish, had an acrobatic swimming style, that allowed it to bite the flesh of animals and twist and turn and pull to rip a chunk of that flesh off.

So, I'm still learning quite about fish, especially every time I watch my aquarium. It seems in recent years, I've become more interested in biomechanics and the personality of fish.)

Going back to our angelfish capture, these angelfish were different. They came out of the water and made themselves known to you. It looked like they were actually dancing on the water. It was a pleasure to watch them and catch them and study them.

A boat full of Amazon fish - piranhas as well.
I've had angelfish as pets, since I was in elementary school. I thought about how strange it was that these angelfish made it to Los Angeles in my aquarium. And now they brought me out of Los Angeles in to the Amazon to meet their true and natural and original kind. They were certainly stronger and healthier and hardier than the inbred type found in pet stores. I knew then, that what might seem like the small find of a school of angelfish would be the highlight of this trip.

After, and for most of the afternoon, we drove onward to do bird watching. The highlights there was seeing a few eagles and a shriek of macaws. Apparently, the macaws are hard to spot.

Around dusk, we went to a lagoon to see caymans, a relative of the alligator or crocodile. During the ride, I asked Jose, "Have you ever been to Brazil?"


"Do you know if there's a checkpoint at the border between Peru and Brazil on the river?"

"I think so."

"Do you know about Pablo Escobar?"

"Of course. He's famous."

"Have you ever been to Colombia?'

"No. Never."

"I want to go to Brazil, but I don't want to pay for a visa. Do you know how to go illegally?"

During that transition between day and night, a swarm of mosquitos started waking. They looked like a black cloud. I never seen so may mosquitoes in my life. I wonder if this what it looked like when Moses sent down a plague of gnats in Egypt.

And, they were hungry for blood and they attacked and I had no repellant. And it hurt and was painful and it was frequent.

I told Jose we could leave. We saw the caymans in the distance, but it wasn't worth enduring the swarms of mosquitos.

* * *

The swamp (or lagoon) at dusk.
Jose drove to a sand beach in the Amazon. It was later in the evening, around 09:00PM. That was good, because I wouldn't have to be alone with my thoughts too long this evening.

For dinner, he made catfish stew again with boiled plantains. I wish I bought red wine at Iquitos for this trip. I also wish I brought my fresh coffee, which just sits in my luggage now.

He asked me to teach him some Korean. I told him it was hard. But he insisted.

I asked him if he had Korean tourists before. He said two girls. So, now he wanted to learn Korean.

That night, the sky war clear and the vast open space in the heavens were scattered with an infinite number of stars. It was nice to see so many twinkling lights of white and bluish white and blue.

I saw two shooting stars in a row. They looked like the blue amazon fireflies that light up and fly around and then die, only to pop up somewhere else later.

It reminded me of Blake's poem The Tyger. "When the stars threw down their spears, / And water'd heaven with their tears. / Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee."

I made two wishes. The first one was that the pain of the past wouldn't affect me anymore. The second one was for direction in my future when I come home, if I ever come home.

Some Christians might say that it was superstitious for me to do such a thing. Well, perhaps I'm not wishing on a star, but rather praying on one. I didn't stay up too long thinking. I fell asleep rather soon that night.

That night I thought about meeting new people on this trip and how I don't feel very excited to meet them. I thought to myself, I'd rather just get back everyone I lost.
These were the macaws we saw, but I didn't take this photo.

Paw print of a jaguar

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Finding Pink River Dolphins in the Amazon Jungle

Me, traveling on the rivers of the Amazon
to find tropical fish.
near Nauta, Iquitos, Peru.
(I lost 15 pounds from January, hopefully it
stays that way.)
Jose, my tour guide, drove the boat through the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon, where the pink and grey Amazon river dolphins live. We were in search of discus fish in the black water. For the trip, I brought my own vegetables and three coconuts, because I knew there wouldn't be enough. (It's something only an American would do, especially one from a big city.)

When the boat approached them, the dolphins breached the surface of the water. I finally saw them: pink Amazon River Dolphins. I've wanted to see them for years now. Finally, I could check it off my list of animals that I needed and wanted to see.

I first became familiar with the pink river dolphins when I saw the movie Motorcycle Diaries, about ten years ago. When I saw it, I didn't know the main character was about Che Guevara, the Cuban, marxist revolutionary. In Motorcycle Diaries, "Fuser," who becomes later known as Che, and his friend, Granado take a motorcycle trip all throughout South America. By meeting the poor, throughout South America, Fuser, the privileged medical student, becomes transformed and realizes that it's his calling to create an equitable and egalitarian South America.

In one scene of the movie, Granado (whose only goal is to sleep with as many women as possible in South America) meets a prostitute on a boat in Peru. (It's probably close to where I am.) She tells him many vulgar things about what a pink river dolphin can do for a man. And Granado becomes so impassioned with lust by hearing her stories about these river dolphins that he'll do anything for her. But she charges a lot of money, which he doesn't have enough of. So, he takes all their money and gambles it on the boat, hoping he can make enough to sleep with her. Fuser is furious and thinks he's crazy to spend all their travel money on gambling. But somehow he wins enough bets to buy her for a night. 

Do you see the dolphin fin from the view from the boat?
Besides being a good side plot, I never forgot the scene, because before seeing the movie, I didn't know pink river dolphins existed. Now, ten years later, I saw them. 

I noted to myself: You're running out of rare animals you want to see

My guide said that I could join them and swim with them. (Note the picture above, I'm in swim trunks and my hair is wet.) So, I dove off the small boat and swam in the black water. (It's called black water, because it's like tea - the leaves and branches of the plants have colored and acidified the water of the Amazon.) I couldn't see anything and the dolphins didn't really approach me closely. But it was a refreshing dip.

After my swim with the dolphins, Jose drove the boat to a local village. Only 50 people lived there. It was a poor village. When we first arrived, Jose pointed to a woman near a white building and said that she was a school teacher. 

Everyone there appeared to have chickens and ducks. It reminded me of home. I hoped that my chickens were doing well. Two cats slept near me for their nap. It reminded me of our cat, Jeh Pan, but they weren't Jeh Pan. I hoped Jeh Pan was doing well too. My last memory of him was how sad he looked before I left. He knew I was leaving for awhile.

Deep fried Amazonian catfish, rice, and
For lunch, we ate deep fried catfish called zungaro wth rice, fried plantains (a kind of banana), and coconut. They don't have stoves in the village. So, they have to burn wood underneath the grill. As a result, they have no control over the temperature and oil constantly splatters everywhere. 

The catfish was delicious and it was so fresh; so, it didn't taste fishy. There's nothing like fresh catfish; the kind at the supermarket has a fishier taste. This Amazonian catfish though was a true delicacy, and it couldn't have cost too much. 

Later, we walked inland and Jose pointed to a fruit that the indigenes people use for skin paint. I asked Jose to put some on it; so, he did. It was invisible most of the day, but the day after, it left behind a light blue stain. 

More inland, a man was collecting parakeet eggs. He hatched them and was selling them for about $2.00. I played with them. 

They were delightful and fun. I could have spent a few hours with them, because they have so much energy and nibble on you and call and grab for your attention constantly. I didn't know parakeets were so amusing. 

After lunch, Jose asked me to wait in the boat. He was going to give the school teacher some gasoline. She needed it for a generator that helps her charge her cell phone. I think Jose likes her.

A boat ride to the campsite on the Amazon on the black water.
After, Jose drives the boat into a river for a few hours. On land, I see all kinds of birds of paradise, including eagles, white herons, and king fishers (a favorite fishing bird amongst bird enthusiasts). Like I said on my last trip to the Amazon, this is a bird watcher's heaven.

On our way to the camp site, I see what looks like a floating log. Then it goes beneath the black water. It's a cayman, a relative of the crocodile or alligator. 

Jose doesn't believe I saw a cayman, because he says caymans don't live here. I tell him, I've seen caymans last year. I saw the head. Then it sank. And he said, "Must be a cayman, then."

When we arrive on the campsite, Jose sets up my refugio, my sleeping space or refuge. With a machete, he cuts down four tall branches, sticks them in a ground like a square. He then puts a blue tarp on top to act as a roof, and ties string to each of the branches, which holds the tarp to the sticks. He adds the mosquito net around.

Then he collects dry wood to build a fire and cook. I help him get wood. 

While he's cooking though, I take a swim in the black water river. I tell myself to swim for 20 minutes. I need the exercise. I swim upriver and see another tourist, a white guy with a huge camera and two guides. Jose can't see me. He tells me later, he doesn't like that. 
Amazon clay all over me.

I ask the tourist, in English, if he's seen anything interesting. He said, only a snake upriver. 

After talking to him, I swim back to camp. Dinner isn't ready. 

So, I go back to the bank of the river, where I noticed the mud was clay. I put the clay on my face and body and think to myself, Might as well. People spend lots of money in spas for this kind of stuff

I notice the added benefit of having a thin layer of clayish mud all over you. The mosquitos and sand flies avoid you, because they can't pierce you with their proboscis, the sword-like syringe these insects have to suck your blood.  And believe me, they love sucking your blood.

Sadly, the sand flies seem to manage to find any spot where I don't have enough clay or mud on it. I hate the sandflies. Their bite is like a pinch, and it hurts more. And there are so many of them.

Our boat, Lorenzo Express, parked at our campsite.
I can't help but think about the verse, Ashes to ashes and dust to dust. According to Jewish and Christian theology, we were all created from mud, and it's God's breath that gives us spirit and life. So, the mud can't be bad for me or my body, right? 

Jose calls me when dinner is ready. For dinner, we have deep fried chicken, rice, and vegetables. I still have a clay mask on and clay all over me. 

During dinner, I told him I met a rich white guy with a big camera.

Jose said, "I saw him. But how do you know he's rich?"
"Because, he had two guides and he was by himself."

"If he had two guides, he has a lot of money."

"He's spending about $100 dollars a day."

"Sounds about right."

After dinner, I take another swim, where there's barely enough light to see, rinsing away the clay and mud. My skin feels so fresh and alive. It's amazing. I wonder why the clay does that. 

After, we take a night walk in the jungle. We see a large, black scorpion. I try to grab it. He says, "No!!! It's dangerous." 

Yes, I know, I think, but you just grab it by the tail

I told him, "I can catch it. You catch the tail."

He said, "No!"

I said, "Ok."

That's all we see during our night walk. We also hear monkeys but don't see much else. 

It's only 07:00PM. Night comes early in the Amazon. 
My refugio that Jose built. 

Our campfire to cook food.
I go to my refugio. I try to sleep. But it's too early. 

I'm left alone with just my thoughts. I realize then, that during the day a man can pretend to be fine and that nothing bothers him. But when a man is alone with his thoughts at night, by himself, he realizes how vulnerable and alone and exposed he really is. 

I think about home and think about all the people I miss. I think about the pets I miss. I think about all the problems that have been plaguing me, and I realize there's no easy solution to any of them. The thoughts wind and rewind and play and replay in my mind over and over again, until I tire of thinking about them. 

I think about the Spanish girl. I tell myself to not think about her. You'll never see her again. You'll never hear about her. I tell myself I do not like her, but that I'm just worried about her, because she's never traveled before and that she's young and she doesn't know what she's doing. Even if I don't see her again, I just hope she's safe and ok. I wish I had better control over what I thought about sometimes.  

After a few hours, I fall asleep and sleep well and seamlessly.

A house in the village, near Nauta, Iquitos.

Baby parakeets for sale.

My guide, Jose, getting me a fruit for blue skin paint.

An Amazonian Pink River Dolphin,
Photo not taken by me. Camera zoom isn't good enough.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Finding a Guide for the Amazon in Nauta

The Town of Nauta
Walking into the Town of Nauta felt like passing through a small town in the American Wild, Wild West a hundred years ago. Nauta was a small, rural town, and it was invisible to the outside world. Thus, my guide book didn't mention it, and in general, I couldn't find any information on where to stay the night or where I should eat.

I paid a local, who drove a Moto Taxi (more on that later) $0.67 to drive me to a cheap hotel. He took me near the river, and I found a hotel for $4.61 a night. Imagine knowing you have to go somewhere you know nothing about and having to find a place. It's a different way of traveling.

My hotel was dirty but not filthy. In the room next to me looked like a worker with his girlfriend and new born baby. The baby screamed a lot, but I couldn't hear the baby from my room. All the lights were were the white fluorescent kind, like the one hospitals use.

It looked like my room wasn't cleaned in ages. Their were cobwebs sticking to the high ceiling and the walls were purple. On the walls, people left their phone numbers. I wondered if it was for prostitutes. The toilet didn't have a seat cover either. That made using it somewhat difficult. The bedsheets looked clean enough but not clean.

I only thought to myself, I'm glad I'm traveling by myself. If my brother or anyone else was with me for that matter, they would most likely complain about bringing them to a place like this. Then, I would feel burdened by it all.

One time, I met my German friend Volker in New York, after I was released from Russian house arrest; true story, no exaggeration. We had a clean place, but it was a hostel and not of luxury and it was in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. So, Volker's friend complained and pouted and was mopey about the whole thing. His complaining and prince-ness ruined our time in New York. Really, even a dingy hotel would suffice for the kind of trip we did in New York, because we hardly spent anytime in it. We were site seeing most of the time.

In any event, going back to traveling alone. I wasn't that bothered by the cheap hotel, but for peace of mind, I could have stayed somewhere just a bit nicer. If push came to shove, I could've stayed at the dirty hotel. But, what's a few dollars more (and I literally mean a few dollars). But at that point, I had no choice. I didn't want to walk around town, looking like a tourist. The people in town already know I'm a tourist by how I look physically.

I'm glad I don't have someone around me complaining about it, though. I remembered a conversation I had with that Spanish girl. She wanted me to take her for coffee. So, I did. And at the cafe in Iquitos, we had a whole conversation in Spanish, and it was good enough to talk about politics and immigrations. (It was then, I knew my Spanish was improving.) She asked me if I always traveled alone.

And I told her in Spanish, "Not always. Sometimes, my brother comes. Do you know who Hemingway is?"

She didn't.

I told her in English, "Hemingway once said, 'Only travel with people you love.' That's what I do."

After remembering that conversation, I walked to the center of town and found a nice hotel. It only cost $17 for my own room, and it was the best hotel in town. But he didn't have a spot for me for the few days I needed. He recommended a guide and another hotel.

I walked around town to find some food. When I came back, the guide was there. His name was Michael.

Michael was chatty and charismatic and chubby. Seems like most people in this area get fat and chubby after the age of 25. Must be the food. (I mentally noted it.)

He talked up a storm to me. I didn't want to hear it. I just asked him in Spanish, "How much?"

He explained to me all the reasons it was going to cost so much.

I looked bored. I was bored. And I asked again, "How much?"

He wanted $167 for two nights, three days.

I told him, "I couldn't afford that. I was really poor. I had no money. Look, I'm staying at the cheapest hotel in town. Do you think I have money? This is also the end of my trip."

(Now some of you might think I'm lying, but think about this: When does my trips ever end or begin? Self-lawyering habits don't ever die, I guess. Regarding being poor, since I made no money for awhile, my government has classified me as poor.)

I already knew that the price should be around $30 a day. That was the cheapest any of the other travelers paid, but they all hated their trip for that price. I was hoping it'd be better for me, because I was already near the heart of the jungle. The others, who paid $30 a day, stayed closer to the capital for their tour.

People who paid $50 a day seemed much happier. So the price range for a three day tour was about $90 to $150.

He said, "$133 then."

I said, "$100."

"Fine. But you need to pay half now."

"I can't now. I don't have enough." (Notice how he's pressuring the buyer to make a decision immediately.)

"Ok. Tomorrow, then?"

"Let me think it over. I'll give you my decision by noon tomorrow."

He drove me in his fancy Moto Taxi. He showed me where the town's only ATM is. (My receptionist was wrong. The ATM looked about 5 years old; so, he hasn't been here in awhile.) He also drove me to another hotel that was clean and had a peaceful air about it. It cost $12.34. It's three times the price I paid originally, but I could afford it - I thought.

After, I sat at the town square bench. I took a cigar from my pockets. I lit it up. I breathed it in. It felt so good.

The town square was full of young people. They were staring at me. They knew I was foreign.

Eventually, three young girls came and sat next to me. They giggled every time I looked at them. I thought - these young people have nothing to do here. After my cigar was exhausted, I put it out and walked back to my hotel.

It was only 10:00PM. I was tired though.

My other hostel was on one of the busiest street corners. The raucous morning traffic woke me up early, often, letting me only sleep six hours. It had a cumulative effect. I was tired.

When I switched the lights off, the room turned pitch black, like a photographer's dark room. I knocked out.

* * * *

The next morning, I woke up 08:00AM. Bravo. I slept 10 hours. That meant that the dirty hotel room didn't affect my beautiful and and sumptuous sleep. It was one of those sleeps that made me feel like a new person. And I really savored it.

I thought about how ironic it was that I paid $4.67 to stay in a dirty hotel to get a great sleep, and how much my friends have paid to stay at sleep clinics or have sleep surgeries or to have sleep studies done.

I grabbed my backpack and walked up to the hotel I visited yesterday around 09:00AM. The lovely owner checked me in. The hotel had wifi and a beautiful courtyard with an Amazonian garden and it was very clean. My room had a private shower too.

I asked her for a guide. She called up another guy.

Lorenzo was quite and humble and came in walking. He asked me what I wanted. I told him to see aquarium fish, especially the discus.

He said he could arrange for it. He said that he had to charge $155 for three days, because I was by myself and the cost of petrol was a lot to take the boat.

I believed him. There was something about him that was believable.

He told me he ran a a family run business. He had a website. He showed it to me. It was badly designed. It was called, Lorenzo's Tours.

I asked him, "Who is Lorenzo?"

He said, "It's my name. But I named it after my son."

That memory stayed with me.

I told him, "I don't have much. And I did the Amazon last year. And it was just ok. What about for $118?"

He said, "I won't make much, because you're by yourself. But I think I can do that."

"I just want to see my fish. I can care less about the monkeys and caymans. I saw them last year. I've been in the aquarium hobby now for 30 years. I want to see these fish."

He seemed surprised by this small detail. "Ok, I get it."

"Is there anything you don't eat?"

"No bread. No sugar. No pasta. Everything else is fine."

I could see he was confused by this diet. Only a westerner would have such demands, a westerner that knows about the hazards of processed foods.

I told him I was pleased to meet him and that I needed more time to think it over.

He said that was fine. I told him I'd have a decision later in the evening.

I asked the owner of my hotel about the two. She said Michael was more charismatic and talkative. She said Lorenzo was more quiet and shy.

I asked her only one question: "But who's more honest?"


"That's what I thought too," I told her.

I texted Michael and told him I couldn't go with him. He wrote back that I was a liar. I didn't like that.

He came to my hotel next. He said he wanted to talk. I told him I couldn't go with him. What he said next was rapid and angry; so, I couldn't understand it. I shrugged my shoulder and went on with my business.

It felt like I was dealing with Cain and Able. And Cain was angry, because his offering wasn't accepted. I wonder, when Cain presented his sacrifice, if he had a beautiful and glitzy presentation to go along with it too.

I stopped. I reflected. I thought about how all the other backpackers go around town to find a guide. How are they choosing a guide? Am I choosing a guide the same way? 

Lorenzo seemed happy I went with him. I think he could see that I had to give it some thought.

I told him I'd like to leave not tomorrow but the day after. I just wanted to unwind more at the hotel, which I've been doing. Generally, I just read, take care of errands, and eat once in awhile. Some times, I chop down my own coconut, shred the meat to make coconut milk, and add it in my instant coffee so it tastes better. And it does taste better.

It was hard to find food that day. I thought it was Sunday, because all the shops were closed. Nope. The town was holding a demonstration against the local mayor and city council. There were a lot of people in town square, holding signs accusing the mayor of corruption and injustice. I laughed to myself and hoped that I brought the spirit of protest to this town. One guy was holding a stick with a huge rat attached to it by a string. I thought, Now, that's an idea. I need to put a real pig head on a stick, next time I go protest.

I've finished another book. Now, I'm reading Hemingway's The Dangerous Summer. I found a quote in it that I loved. I loved it so much, I changed my signature block to include it.

A great fighter must have: "[C]ourage, skill in his profession, and grace in the presence of death."