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Full Circle

Day 205: Iquitos

Belen, Iquitos, Peru 
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On the streets of Belen.
Michael Palin - Full CircleAt the southern end of Iquitos is the barrio of Belen. Seen from the Malecon, the outline of tight-clustered roofs and the houses on stilts make it look like a print of seventeenth century London. Closer to it's a seething wreck of a place, manically bustling, worn from overuse rather than neglect. On a low hill leading to the river little children are selling sacks of charcoal, a man is rolling a barrel of aguardiente - the local sugar cane spirit - while another spreads wild boar skins out to dry on the sidewalk. I expect Moll Flanders to come round the corner any minute.

The streets level off as they get closer to the river and wind along between forests of piling. This will become a canal in the wet season. For now it's full of people, stalls, and decomposing rubbish. On balconies above piles of uncovered garbage people grow the medicinal herbs they take for dysentery. Infant mortality in Belen is between 18 and 20 per cent, yet more and more people are coming to live here.

Alcohol and cigarettes are used to dull the pain of life in Belen. A big, attractive girl called Julia rolls cigarettes from rich dark tobacco called mapacho. She uses a pencil to keep the paper straight, pulls the tobacco out of a plastic bag, fills, rolls, then trims the ends with a pair of scissors, all so swiftly that she can produce 3000 cigarettes a day. She gives me one free. The taste is powerful and very satisfying, like double strength Gauloise. It's the best I've had since giving up smoking. And that was twenty-seven years ago.

Once it reaches the riverside the town continues into the water, which is one big floating market. This is where the canoeiras work. The canoeiras are floating naughty ladies, and you can't miss them. Their canoes are pink and a pimp in a water-taxi will take you out to them for half a sol, turn his back discreetly and bring you back for half a sol. The canoeira charges five sols, so the entire transaction, plus a trip on the Amazon, comes in at just over two dollars.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 205
  • Country/sea: Peru
  • Place: Iquitos
  • Book page no: 273

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