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Santa Fe de Bogotá
Saturday, June 5
Suite de la lettre de Leticia — starting at little break in hotel room around 3 to 4 the day before yesterday.
Being tour operators, the pretty young women, three principal ones, very nice too, bundle us back out to go see the zoo, a 2‑minute ride down the street out towards the airport: as always here, in the hotel's jeep, B. & L. up front with the driver, me behind in the truck part open to the breeze with whatever luggage and children there were — in this case, a second employee, her little boy who reminded me in every way of the hotelkeeper's at St. Bertrand in a year older maybe, and an unidentified and self-sufficient little girl of 8 or so.
The zoo started before we go in, at the gate where there is a café, a man was there with his monkey, a handful of gentle yellow-greyish fur with a totally spherical head that liked earrings but not children, and climbed up successively onto all the adults (I have a picture of the two of us, guess which looking more alert and intelligent) but placed on little Sebastián, hopping up to his shoulder and throwing himself from there onto the nearest adult with a loud squeak. In Spanish, a leoncito (or pielroja) — lionlet (or redskin); in Latin, Cebuella pigmea: information culled from airport poster on departure, couched as request from animals to be left where they belong — and indeed someone in Brazil tried to sell me one — but I digress.
The zoo itself was a neatly laid out series of small cages, caged pools up to 50 m long, low walled enclosures with no roofs serving occasionally as pools for aquatic beasts, etc. set in the kind of garden one sees down South in the States in the best miniature golfs. Tall rangy slowpoke of a man sitting on a bench turned out to be the warden, and he knew a great deal about his animals, warming up to us as we asked questions.
The first thing that caught the eye was a small tapir (about 400 pounds) wandering around loose, munching weeds, which upon seeing us proceed along the required order of visit ambled off somewhere. Most caged, occasionally in those low enclosures — it occurred to me later that with the nearly adjacent military base and all those désoeuvré soldiers this may not be so secure (we saw a couple of soldiers overtease a monkey) — various mostly furry things, although also a large gyptic or vulturine bird, grey with a white head, given the courtesy name of eagle; a cage of perverse toucans and parrots that would obviously clamor for visitors, all on whatever side we were on, shrieking their hearts out, then as we approached turn mute and go hide under all the rafters; various submerged things distinguishable as small lumps on the surface of the water, in various shades of grey — manatees, caïmans, anaconda?, and 7‑foot-long eel-shaped fish with scales tough as fingernails, a pirarucú, sleeping.
A petting cage where I was given a baby armadillo to cuddle,a this occupied me for a few minutes, cute little pink thing; petted a boruga, a 14 inch-long furry pig with the markings of a fawn, its fur was like horsehair and more so, and it had a tendency to go away.
Another enclosure with a couple of boas and a surprisingly unnervous guinea pig, dinner to the others rather than an exhibit; possibly because the snakes were sleeping. Small spotted cat, "onza felis", a lynx I think, called "tigre" in Colombia, not looking too unhappy; and a second of an even smaller type, I vaguely remember an article in Smithsonian about keeping them — or not — as pets. A low roofed pen eight feet wide with three small crocs lying on their concrete looking unconcerned, two adults about 2 feet long, a baby about 6 inches long, almost black, rather more pointed snouts than alligators, but not gavials.
Various kinds of small monkeys, mostly leoncitos, would swoop down onto our path from hanging vines or cage roofs; there was also a cage with two larger monkeys, very alert and bent on communicating with everyone, chattering furiously at the abovementioned soldiers and baring their teeth although by the time we left the soldiers had been tamed and the monkeys — 2½ foot tall, black, long tails like Boo's squarish in section — were having their tummies tickled. One of them's reaction to me was to peer intensely at me darting its head slightly to peer intensely at its companion, an obvious parody worthy of the better class of bunnies. . .
A weasel, looking like any European weasel, pacing nervously poor thing; some cages of bulbous-eyed nocturnal creatures just beginning to wake up; a cage containing three cusumbos, two adults and a child, slinky dark brown foxoids, one of whom wanted to pet me, so of course I let it: it seemed mostly interested in my hair. Finally, found mama tapir, a good 800 pounds I'm sure, with her child, dozing under a tree; the latter showing curiosity, I petted it on the snout1 and scratched it behind the ears, the snout seems to be protoprehensile, it waved it about at me idly, its pale pink firm gums in better shape than mine, tiny little rectangular teeth, then it got bored and went back to its siesta.
[Forgot to mention a capybara — 5 of 'em actually — local name chihuiro, towards the beginning of the visit, which I having recognised without a sign and named by its sci. name was the turning point in the warden's attitude towards our little group, à quelque chose savoir est bon!]
Dinner and dip and bed after stopping to eat ice-cream in a little shop (Betty gets hungry every 3 hours), I had 2 copoazú juices, one with one w/o milk, one of the better fruits, and more particularly local to Leticia than the others I've been having everywhere. (In addition to the borojó the other day, maracuyá is also particularly good.)
The dip in the pool — after a phenomenal sunset over the river — had the stars out and I suddenly realized I was seeing the Southern Cross; Colombia says we were at 4°13′30″ S.
And so, to bed.
Yesterday Friday June 4th we were left to our own devices by the hotel, so having on the return trip the day before come within 100 yds. of Peruvian territory, we decided to hire the same boatman and go to Puerto Alegría (15000 pesos = $20 for most of the day, most of this being gasoline). The boatman, Brazilian in fact, although working out of Leticia and flying the Colombian flag, told us we could not actually step on terra firma at Puerto Alegria it was so flooded: this was quite true, as we found out after 35‑40 minutes upriver, when we moored at a pair of dark green wooden shacks, out of maybe forty fronting the river: the local bar and tourist shop, run by an old man whose 1955 commission in the Peruvian army, with engraving and a photo of self as nice-looking young man hung proudly on a nail over the counter; a teenage girl with the characteristic quiet manner of the Indians; a drunk of about 30 maybe; the shack being the size of our kitchen, with a back-counter and storeroom the size of our porch, and the two similarly arranged. The whole of planks. Two thinnish plywood trestle-type picnic tables of sorts, everything quite filthy, and of course the front completely open to the river. Like most of the Peruvian side constructions, stilts rather than pontoons as on the Colombian side; and painted dark green, the usual color. The adjacent shack, a bit larger than our living room, reached by a plank thrown over the water: basically bare, with upon entering a sort of altar with a front row of religious statues, most prominently a Virgin and St. Rose of Lima, and a second row of what appeared to be the owner's sports trophies from his Army days. An L-shaped counter, 2 very sparse cases behind it against the walls: one mostly bottles of pisco and local rum and cans of motor oil; the other, some little balsa boats made for the tourist trade for Iquitos upriver, three or four lacquered stuffed baby alligators rather nicely done poor things about 6 inches long, some blowguns, two llanchamas hanging desultorily from nails, and a totally authentic, i.e. rather undistinguished-looking, cord hammock or two, which I bought without haggling for 6500 Colombian pesos (about $8.50) — supports two, I imagine we'll find a useful pair of trees wherever we settle.
We drank 2 large bottles of beer because it was Peruvian, the owner had us taste some toasted yucca flour, like unsweetened grapenuts, waved a bag of tapioca at us — this is where it's from, of course — and I saw an odd-looking thing obviously in common use, turned out to be an ingenious device for making yucca flour; called a tipití, it's a large (2½ foot) cylinder of circularly plaited reeds with a ring-type reed handle at either end and a small hole at one end; you fill it with ground yucca and pull on the ends, it stretches into a taut cylinder, expressing juice between the plaits, leaving a much drier mass inside: the plaiting acts as a spring, the extension being about 30% when empty.
We were also shown, then exchanged, some old Peruvian money — they had a hyperinflation, I now own a 1,000,000‑inti bill worth 1 sol or around 60¢ U.S. (Inflation in Colombia is around 26%, and Brazil too.)
A dugout pulled up, its owner showed us his catch, about 15 fish of about 6 species, most notably an innocent-looking 8‑inch silvery chambira which upon its jaws being pressed open revealed nearly 3 inches of mouth with vicious interlocking teeth 1½ inch long and therefore curved inwards to fit; a very young specimen of something which grows to 60 kg, this one about a pound and incipient beard, already 6 inches long, yellow with black spots, fat little thing with eyes like a lobster's towards the top of its head: a pacamón; and a prehistoric-looking armored fish, almost pure black, called a cucha. The same fellow told us the piranha is quite edible (Juan had told us they're found in stagnant side waters, not in the main river, the reason people don't swim in the latter being rather anacondas at the edges).
A cat and three "ducks" — no duck you or I ever saw — rounded out this picture of what I'm somewhat unfairly calling in my mind Puerto Tristeza (Alegría being happiness, altho' my guess it too is some founder's girl's name), and we left, having spent maybe forty-five minutes on Peruvian doubtfully territory, certainly not soil.
Teri then proposed to take us to Tabatinga, the Brazilian border town back on the N. bank and adjoining Leticia. We went — you should imagine river travel as alternate spells of rain and sun, with Booby soaking up the rain (what's the use of coming to the Amazon without being rained on?) and the gals under the roof — altho' Tabatinga turned out to be quite as dismal in its own way as Pto. Alegría: a town of say 25000, what Leticia would be like if the government of Colombia didn't quite wilfully support it. In sum, Tabatinga is a tropical port slum, although on the outskirts a few newer buildings: some brick used here as well as concrete. Oddly too, in view of what is considered fairly major influx of tourists in Leticia, noone caters to the tourist trade; no post cards or stamps even, nothing to buy except chocolates and domestic appliances (limit of 6 of these per person when returning to Bogotá), which is what people come for. Spanish mostly not understood, spoken Brazilian Portuguese with local accent pretty much incomprehensible to me, and very difficult to Betty & Lupe. Horrible wooden shacks made of unpainted lathe over open sewers, vast numbers of ulcerous dogs, occasional sheep; went to the tiny shack in town where açai is served or possibly also prepared, but they had none. Municipal market, covered concrete, only half the stalls open at 1:00 p.m., four butcher shops, a few grocery stalls with an occasional bag of fruit.
We found a dance hall, open on two sides to the street, concrete floor, about the footprint of our house, ten small white metal folding bridgetables with blue cloths, white metal chairs, a bar in the corner playing old Brazilian records, serving beer or a Champagne made of "feito de guaraná con agua mineral", pleasant, vaguely rootbeerish fizz. Fuzzy black and orange caterpillar about 20mm long dropped onto table (in front of Betty, of course) from vine growing in ceiling: poisonous, stings — I picked it up and put it out in the street.
A bit more walk, electoral bills everywhere, about 80° but you sweat a lot, found a churrascaria — a place where broiled meats are served: they laid before us a smorgasbord of rice, cabbage salad with tomatoes and cucumbers, spaghetti with a topping of annatto-colored onions, mayonnaised potato salad, and yucca flour, slightly grainy, untoasted. Great skewers delivered to us in succession until surfeit, apparently in hierarchical order: sausage, fat pork, beef heart, chicken drumsticks, beef. Pretty good, if salty and it only cost the three of us 760,000 cruzados, said to be 3,788 Colombian pesos or roughly $18; got to read a Brazilian newspaper, too. Local bus (a 10‑passenger van) across the border to Leticia, which looked like a great capital after Tabatinga. . .
I forgot, in my place-oriented narrative here, to mention the trip downriver from Pto. Alegría to Tabatinga — several items of interest. Floating oil drums mean there is a boat 300 m away and the two are connected by a long net, whence scads of fish caught for market; a largish clapboard church on the Colombian bank, with a •20+ foot cross in front, the legacy of an Ecuadorian missionary who went down the river founding churches, died, and the villagers totally ignore the churches — a very Amazonian story, somehow; and the very best part of the trip: our boatman knowing the river stopped us in an area where he said there might be pink dolphins — a rare freshwater dolphin, I'm bringing back an article on them, that is a much-loved local mascot, noone, white or Indian, ever hunts them — and 3 minutes' wait rewarded us with for sure 2 maybe 4 or 5 dolphins leaping slightly above the surface (they have to breathe) about 50 m from the boat; in fact, grey with orangish-pink underbellies, about 5 feet long. Apparently symbiotic with the fishermen whom they steer to better catches and from whose nets they get better catches themselves —
We flew out of Leticia at 4:45 p.m. yesterday, from the plane the Amazon one rather alarming silver snake with huge islands in it winding upstream towards the Peruvian Andes in the distance under an aqua sky and clouds backlit like those in 18th-century religious painting —
The descent out of the cloud cover to Bogotá breathtaking, literally: they let in the air at about 3000 feet off the ground, which is fine in Chicago, but in Bogotá that means maybe 12000 feet up leaving boobies agasp; still, after the dark blue (my guess is due to huge quantities of water vapor) of the Amazon forest, Sta. Fé de Bogotá, which we circled since we landed from the north, is stunningly green, varying tints of chartreuse, looking like crumpled pool-table mountains, really quite extraordinary scenery —
Mixup at the airport (plane landed in wrong area unannounced), we returned by cab, then several hours of jabbering before we got to bed — more about the Latin household in some other letter — I'm afraid I contributed by feeding everyone some Letician booze labeled
"Esencias de chuchuhuasa
a supposed antiarthritic and aphrodisiac with a flavor between cough-syrup and Listerine, downed a whole bottle — you'll get yours with luck — and so again to bed.
1 leathery and unreactive, very fine slightly bristly hair about 2 mm. long.
a Do not try this at home: armadillos can carry leprosy. As you can see, however, I'm not personally very concerned about that: the facts of the matter are merely that the only two known animal species to be vulnerable to Hansen's disease are humans and armadillos. Might as well not cuddle with your spouse or child, I say; still, you now have the basic facts. There is an ample literature on the subject; a layman's summary can be found here.
b The Linnaean name, carefully copied from my bottle, is a manifest garble: very likely Schillera cauliflora is meant. Mind you, I find no such genus online, but have not researched this in a library; and I do find a Goethea cauliflora and this would fit the known vagaries of nomenclature when explorers are confronted with large groups of similar plants that they desperately have to name.
To quote the American Botanical Council (in a page formerly online but now apparently only accessible for a fee), there are many plants locally given the vernacular name chuchuhuasa:
According to Duke and Vasquez's Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, "Chuchuhuasa," "chuchuhuasi," "chu-chasha," etc., are commonly associated with Maytenus spp., especially Maytenus macrocarpa.
According to the same page, however, Cheiloclinum cognatum is claimed as a possibility; and elsewhere I find Erythroxylum catuaba.
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Page updated: 9 Mar 23