Iquitos and a Shower.

There was this guy in at work yesterday and he stunk. And I shouldn’t say he stunk, but there was definitely a body odour issue. I think it was to the point that he didn’t know how bad it was.

I noticed it first when he was sitting on the couch area near our bar, about 2m away. He moved to the bar when he order his next drink and that’s when I could really smell it. It was so bad, I couldn’t stand behind the bar counter. Even though I had regulars at the bar that I could have talked to, I had to stand at the end as the odour was rapidly spreading throughout the bar area. He smelt as though he hadn’t showered in days… and skied every single one of those days. It was a bad acid-like scent mixed with the diluted scent of laundry soap.

It got me thinking about the shower that I appreciated the most, and it takes me back to when we were in the Amazon. As one can imagine, it was hot. Not hot that you couldn’t be outside but so humid that you skin was always sticky, like those children’s stickers you pull off the carpet after a few days. 100% humidity. Which, I thought I had experienced until I actually had to be in it. It’s the same feeling that your skin makes when you face is over a pan of steam.. except your body is encased in it. It was so uncomfortable. You didn’t even sweat because your sweat evaporated before it could run down your face. It ended up leaving your skin with this nasty, sticky, salting feeling.

For our trip on the Amazon, we were fortunate enough to go from northern Peru to Colombia via the almighty Amazon River. Now this entailed going from a small dock town of Yurimaguas to Leticia on the border, stopping overnight in Iquitos. It was nice to see Northern Peru, as the Gringo Trail takes you from Lima straight to Mancora. We were never the only backpackers on our trip, but there wasn’t a tour group in sight. We took a cargo ship from Yurimaguas to Iquitos. From Yurimaguas, which we were stuck in for a day as the boat didn’t leave until the following evening, we took a 4 day journey up to Iquitos. Iquitos, as some will know, it is the largest city not reachable by road. They do have a section of sealed road to Nauta, but this doesn’t have much advantage other than allowing people not to travel the entire way to Iquitos by boat.

I think we paid 300 soles for both of us, for 4 days including food. It included a runny porridge for breakfast, and rice with jungle potato and curry of some kind for lunch. Dinner seemed to be the freshest meal, always rice with chicken (or in one case, fish). They were also kind enough to feed us the first night that we were on the boat but stuck in port. Our meals were all prepared on the bottom floor, which we later discovered was pretty much the cargo hold. Funny enough, we never saw anything that resembled a kitchen. To sum it up, we boarded with a few dozen chicken and I know 100% that none of them made it to Iquitos. However the meals were surprisingly delicious and filling. We never felt hungry. But the fish meal? Ironically the worst meal we had been the fish. Amazon fish so fresh that it still tasted like the silt it had swam in. It went overboard as quickly as it was served.

We chose to get a cabin, which was on the top section of the boat, allowing us to lock our belongs away. This was super handy so you can go on the deck for a while and not worry about our rucksack. The unfortunate design flaw was that it was a tin can with no air movement. As soon as you shut the door, you might as well put a bag over your head. We only learnt after the first night that people would actually sleep with the cabin doors open. When we had docked the night in Yurimaguas, you couldn’t do anything about the air as the door open meant the largest family of mosquitoes would also try to crash the cabin party. But shut, meant you would die due to the lack of air movement. The slightest breeze was felt as though it was a silk ribbon rubbing against your skin.

What surprised us though was that our cabin actually had a power outlet! Allowing ourselves to use electronics and such. My boyfriend and I didn’t think we would have more than a hanging bulb from the ceiling. Either way, we didn’t tend to use the light bulb that much after dark as it was the strongest magnet for any flying insect, including massive roaches. In terms of the facilities on the boat, there was a large shared bathroom for about 200 people. It was kept surprisingly clean the entire time. The toilet water most likely came straight from the river (given its vibriant orange tone) but the showers were good! It was like standing under a water hose in full blast. This water wasn’t yellow, and we had noticed after that they did have a filteration system on the room. My hair was always clean 🙂

It was the most incredible trip, floating down the heart of the Amazon, as we got to see Nature at its best, and at its worst. Villages living on supplies delivered only from boats or dugout canoes, and families surviving on what bananas or sweets they could sell to the arriving boats while they docked for the 10 minutes. And by docked, the barge style boat rammed the shore, and planks or stairs would bridge the gap between. Primitive, but quick and effective. The sad reality of the Amazon was hard to ignore however; massive deforestation for farming and huge oil refineries changed the landscape of the once, pristine Amazonian rainforest.

People eagerly waiting for deliveries, and customers.
People eagerly waiting for deliveries, and customers.

After having four days with meals consisting of rice, chicken and jungle potato, we were extremely happy to get to Iquitos and eat something different. After settling in the hostel, we headed out to a pizza shop across the street. We were told later that it is one of the better ones in town. We got a version of a pepperoni pizza, my boyfriend had a bottled cola and I had Sangria. The meal went down a treat. We had a nice dinner and promptly went back to the hostel as we were looking forward to sleeping in a room with a window.

So my story about showers starts that night, around 2am. I woke up feeling really sick. For dignity reasons I will edit the next few sentences: Whatever was in me, wanted to get out. When I went to the toilet and what came out was the consistency of the Amazonian river. At the time I didn’t overly think about it. It could have been bad food, water… you never really know. However, when I woke up in the morning, probably around 7 and the temperature outside quickly rising from the mid 20c over night to low 40c’s, I woke up feeling like I had been through a physical tsunami. I couldn’t stand up, and my stomach felt that it needed to remove itself from my body. I felt so weak, I couldn’t stand up straight.

At that point, I had asked my boyfriend if he could run to the chemist to get some medicine. Antibiotics are sold over the counter, so it was a matter of getting something to aid my stomach: speed it up, or slow it down I couldn’t care less. I was just so uncomfortable.

I had been sick already on the trip, about 3 weeks before. For 24 hours I was bed-ridden but I had woken up the next day feeling as fresh as a snow-fall. I was hoping for the same turn-around time.

He went to the chemist and picked up some antibiotics, and electrolytes. He was back by 8, and we decided to try to sleep a bit more, hoping that rest would subside the war going inside my stomach. We don’t normally have air-conditioned rooms, and Iquitos was no exception. The fan was a decent one though and certainly kept the air moving. Even if it was 42c air. I did try to sleep though and eventually, with CNN playing on a TV hanging on the wall at the end of the bed, we both feel back asleep. Sometimes its nice to have a day of sleep when your travelling for 5 months straight.

And, I don’t know why I remember this, but it was about 10:30 when my boyfriend woke up and flew into the bathroom.

Now of all hostel/hotel rooms to play the scene for this story, this bathroom had a door that didn’t close. And on top of that the area in the door where the handle would have been installed was pre-drilled and completely open. You could see straight through to the bathroom, and by seeing straight through, you could also hear everything. There was no privacy.

So, at 10:30, my boyfriend went to the bathroom, and projectile-vomited so quick… that I think the toilet bowl has in indent from the first hit. It was so quick, just like for me 10 hours earlier.

Over the months we have talked about what could have triggered the sickness. The obvious option was ice, or just the Sangria in general. But he didn’t drink any of that, and I hadn’t had any of his Coke. We have put it down to cheese or something funky with the pizza. We didn’t eat anything else. We didn’t think pizza would become deadly. It was interesting for us though, because after having 4 meals prepared and cooked on a boat in the middle of the Amazon we had no problems- the food was actually pretty good! Get ourselves a pizza, and it tries to kill us.

Even though we were in the middle of South America, that cold-water shower was one of the best ones I used on the trip. I just remember thinking it was gorgeous, but it probably had a lot to do with the circumstances in which we were using it. The shower was a large, black tiled shower which you could comfortably fit two adults standing next to each other. Regardless of the water temperature it had tons of pressure which, for me, is the key.

I just remember that day, that between me and my boyfriend, we bounced between a very damp, sweaty bed and the chemist, every few hours. We would purchase 2 litre bottles of cold water, and try to drink as much of it before it got warm, almost hot, in our room. We actually found a bottle that we hadn’t finished the day after and it was hotter than any water coming out of the taps.

Unfortunately, for most of the day, water was even passing through us like the Amazonian flood season. I would safety assume we probably had about 15 litres each of water that day. That doesn’t include the half-dozen bottles of electrolyte juice we went through. Dehydration was not the name of the game.

This is where my silly story comes together (I hope!). I was thinking last night, when this stinky guy was sitting in my bar, I was trying to think of what shower I appreciated the most in travelling, and why did I appreciate that shower the most. Living in Europe, hot showers are on demand and you almost forget what a luxury a good shower is. It took me not even 10 seconds to think of what shower I appreciated the most!

Being sick in a place that is 100% humidity was by far, the most difficult thing that I have ever had on a trip. After hugging the toilet, or the river coming out the other way, we would jump in the shower. And while under the shower, even if just for a few minutes, you would almost start to feel normal again. It would feel like a deep cleanse, the stickiness of 43c washing away, even though it’s just a simple cold water shower. When it comes to invigorating showers, most would think of a hot shower after a day at work, or to wait yourself up in the morning, but for me it was that day in Iquitos. I think I had to have been in that shower at least a dozen times that day trying to wash the sickness off and out of me. I don’t think the floor of the shower ever had time to dry. After I would use it, I would slander back to bed, trying to fall asleep and in the meantime my boyfriend would have his ten minutes of fame.

It was just ironic, that out of any bathroom we had to both be sick in, this one had a door that didn’t close. While we have travelled a bit together, travelling for long stints is never 100% smooth sailing. For the 24 hours we were sick in Iquitos, we had to accept each other as humans. There wasn’t any judgement. There couldn’t be, as within 5 minutes it would be my turn to release the Amazonian river.

I fast-forward to last night with the smelly BO guy, and I think, “Mate, you really don’t have an excuse not to of had a shower!”