30 November 2009


From Jamaica, in summer 1980, my then-wife (known since age two in church nursery) and I flew to Bolivia for a 40-day trek in that country, and Peru, and Ecuador. In Peru we visited Machu Pichu.

In Ecuador we took a bus to Cuenca, the third largest city, and then to Los Banos for the hot springs. From there we learned we could take a bus (really a converted truck) descending into the Amazon basin to the last town by road, on the Rio Napo, a huge tributary of the Amazon River, and then down river by dugout canoe to another forsaken, mud-hole town.

A bit of anecdote and history that I sometimes tell my students about the symbolic importance of maps: Before reaching the last town by road we had to cross the border back into Peru. There at the totally invisible border (this was deep rain forest) the two Peruvian border guards, with shouldered rifles, strode out of the tiny hut to announce in the door of the bus that all foreigners should disembark and retrieve their luggage. We were the only two foreigners probably within 100 miles. I imagined we were going to be held hostage for ransom--and I was wishing at that moment that I had been much nicer to my high-salaried older brother! To our astonishment the border guards asked whether we "tienen algunos mapas"--had any maps?! They searched our luggage looking for maps out in nowhere Amazonia?! Why?

As a typical American ignorant of world history/world geography, I found out much later that the Inca just before Pizarro's arrival had divided the Incan empire between his two sons. The frontier between the two kingdoms went through the area where we were standing. Later, Spain divided its empire into two colonial vice-royalties based on the Incan division--with an undelineated frontier (as frontiers are). Later, the two modern countries of Peru and Ecuador were formed with the same undecided border. That frontier area had been disputed since at least 1840, if not 1829. They had most recently fought a border war in 1941-42.

So, there we were standing--way out in the rain forest of Amazonia--before two Peruvian border guards who were searching for maps made in Ecuador which, of course, showed (I later learned) that that area was part of Ecuador. Peru wanted to confiscate all maps (before the ubiquity of online maps) published in Ecuador! The following year, 1981 (I just tonight learned), the two countries fought yet another border skirmish.

On the river, the dugout canoe, which was the regular river transportation--a river taxi!--carried only two items: people and sodas. Just after the canoe pushed off we all were given coffee cans, for what reason I had no clue (perhaps for toilet?). We soon learned that everyone was expected to bail water the whole time! Our feet were soaking in water because it rained nearly constantly--we were in rain forest, after all. But, I was thinking "sinking boat in big river with hungry, toothy piranhas!" I bailed water assiduously.

We made it back to civilization with no body parts chewed on. I wish I had one of those maps.

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