One of my favorite things to do when visiting any city is to walk through poor and lower middle class neighborhoods and talk to the people there. These people make up the vast majority of any city’s population. They are the true heart of the city and
In Iquitos it is even more special in the evenings near sunset when people are outside enjoying a little respite from the daily heat and humidity. Despite the tropical climate, few people have air conditioning so sunset provides a bit of relief along with a time to gather with family and friends and neighbors. Children play in the street while parents and grandparents gather together to discuss the day’s events.
More than any other city in Peru, the people in Iquitos are extremely friendly and open to conversing with outsiders who they rarely, if ever, see passing through their neighborhoods distant from the normal tourist areas. I try to make contact with almost everyone I pass and, when they see my, I always smile and say “Buenos Dias” or “Buenas Tardes.” Almost without exception, they respond with a surprised, but genuine, smile.
People are used to gringos who act aloof and frequent superior. It’s rarely intentional, but it’s subtle and there nonetheless. Sometimes they start a conversation and occasionally I’ve been invited to sit down with them, have a bit of whatever they’re drinking, and maybe even share a meal. They truly seem excited that someone is interested in talking to them and spending time with them. I am well aware that walking alone in poor neighborhoods has inherent dangers. Gringos represent a level of wealth that they do not have and, for a few, represent potential wealth that they can acquire. Still, in literally hundreds of walks through some of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, I’ve only felt threatened one time.
A few years ago, while walking in lower Belen with my expensive video camera, I noticed I was being followed by three young men. It was clear that they had spied a lone gringo carrying an expensive camera and were intent on relieving me of it. As I walked through the neighborhood I nervously looked around for an escape route when I came upon a family below their home. They, too, had spotted the three following me and they called me over to let me know. They invited me to stay with them while the “ratas” passed which they did with angry, glaring stares.
Exploring new neighborhoods and making new friends is an essential part of being a true traveler. Letting fear of something that might happen (and almost certainly won’t happen) inhibits one’s ability to experience a bit of the rest of the world.
I’ve always felt that viiting a place is so much more than just checking off a box that says I was there, taking a few selfies as documentation, then moving on. “Seeing” a place has little or nothing to do with “experiencing” a place.
Iquitos, and any place, offers so much more than is available if you just hang out in the tourist areas. I know one person in Iquitos who often holds court in the tourist center and expounds upon his great knowledge of the city and it’s people. He loves to tell tourists about how much he knows, but frankly he doesn’t know what he is talking about. He says the men of Iquitos are crooks and the women of Iquitos are whores. (Yes, I’ve heard him expound on these opinions explicitly multiple times over many years.) Interestingly, I’ve never once heard him talk about spending time with any of the people of Iquitos and have never seen him doing so.
When I explore a neighborhood, I’m often overwhelmed by an abundance of sensory overload. Smells and sounds abound. The sound of music emanating from homes. The smell of fish grilling. All of these contribute to the life that people experience every day. You can’t know a people without knowing at least a bit all that their life encompasses.