Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Belen, the underworld of Iquitos

In Belen, boys run around barefoot, clutching kites fashioned out of plastic bags. Girls skip down the road, holding hands. They fall on grass, still holding hands.

It smells heavy here, like warm worms.

Michael, Randy and I are drinking "negritas" (coke) with purple straws from glass bottles. Michael buys a round of negritas for our new friends: 26-year-old Lito, his father Pedro, and his uncle Arturo.

The three men live together in a house on stilts that cost them 300 soles ($100).

Belen is where you go in Iquitos when you have nowhere else to go. It is literally the underworld of the city; when the river rises, Belen and its homes on stilts go under.

Here you poop in your outhouse on the river, and you drink the river, too. Ten thousand people live here.

Pedro moved here from Padre Isla, a small village downriver from the city. At age 15, he started washing dishes in the market.

Lito was born and raised on this same piece of land. He now gives tours of his home and river to passersby. Lito is proud of his neighborhood on stilts. He points and smiles and shows Belen off as if it were Venice. (It is almost like Venice --- same smell, different architecture.)

Michael and Arturo poke fun at each other. Their voices thunder and their stomachs shake. Pedro and Lito join in, giggling.

Our straws gurgle, lapping up last drips of black, and we hug, and we say good-bye, as if we were more than mere acquaintances. We shared a laugh in Belen.

On our way out, Belen asks me for sex at least three times and woes me with a drunken love song. Belen steals Randy´s hat off his head, while he is sitting in a moving motorcar.

This place is poor, underdeveloped and dangerous, no doubt. And the kids are skipping, and grown men are giggling. Like all of the places I´ve visited in Peru, Belen doesn´t let me form an opinion about it.
It is bad, good, and it is.

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