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In South America, circumstances can swing from poverty to luxury in a single day.

My mom is really worried about me. She asked me to change my last post. The parts about roaches.

I understand where she’s coming from. She’s my mom and she wants the best for me, and she’s concerned that someone might read that and write me off.

Here’s the thing. This is life. It’s dirty and messy, especially in this part of the world. The whole point of that post was to emphasize the contrasts I encountered in a single day.

Aaron and I are not wealthy by most American standards. We are by most of the world’s standards. But we had one night to spend in Guayaquil before an early flight, and we decided not to spend more than $10 for a room.

I’m sure some of my heroes – Matthew Power, John Hersey, Gene Weingarten – have seen roach-infested rooms.

I think there will be plenty of places ahead where we will enjoy more comforts, luxury, and beauty. But much of the world is poor. Iquitos, where we are now, is poor.

A road in Iquitos, with ubiquitous motortaxis.
A road in Iquitos, with ubiquitous motortaxis.

We’re staying at an Airbnb hosted by British fruit exporters. The gigantic old house is on the malecon, the road that runs along the river. It’s not the Amazon river, it’s a lagoon that’s fed by the Amazon, and the view from our window to the east is green jungle made hazy and dreamy by distance, separated from us by wide and placid waters.

Turning right, walking down a few blocks, is Belen market, one of the filthiest and most interesting markets I’ve ever seen.

The Belen market is a fascinating and chaotic crush of commercial activity.
The Belen market is a fascinating and chaotic crush of commercial activity.

Hundreds of chicken carcasses are sold along with huge river catfish, voodoo supplies, jungle venison, mind-boggling amounts of meat, grubs, and cheap clothing.

A mind-boggling array of meat is butchered and sold in the sweltering tropical heat.
A mind-boggling array of meat is butchered and sold in the sweltering tropical heat.
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Turtle meat for sale at Belen market.

It’s chaos, the produce and with meat jumbled next to the people rolling and selling cigarettes, beside benches where people slurp down soup or fried fish and rice.

Oh good, there's that alligator meat we were looking for.
Oh good, there’s that alligator meat we were looking for.
Whoops, almost forgot those voodoo supplies.
Whoops, almost forgot the voodoo supplies.

On the other side of the concrete wall lining the edge of the market, down below on the floodplain, are rickety wooden houses on stilts, flimsy neighborhoods that are navigable by boats for half the year.

Some compare Belen to Venice. I think that’s a stretch, but for half the year, its pathways are navigable by boat.

Turning left from our front door, the malecon is lined on one side by colonial buildings, many of which retain facades covered in 19th century Portuguese tile.

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One example of Iquitos’ colonial architecture.

People sell tourist trinkets in front of the bars, restaurants, and shops.

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Some of the craftspeople selling trinkets on the malecon appear to be burnt-out hippie tourists who have gotten stuck here.

Beyond the tourist quarter, the city is crowded, dusty, and miraculously, somehow equipped with all the trappings of modern life. Shops sell plumbing equipment, textiles, birthday cakes, fried chicken, party supplies; motorcycles and cars roar on the streets; people peddle snacks on the sidewalks.

Everything here has to be produced here, flown in, or shipped by boat. This city is surrounded by jungle.

Everything in Iquitos is produced here or imported by boat or air - yet the city is miraculously well-equipped for modern life.
Everything in Iquitos is produced here or imported by boat or air – yet the city is miraculously well-equipped for modern life.

Wednesday was my birthday, and Aaron and I walked past the tourist quarter along the malecon to where it meets the main boulevard. It was crowded; warehouses along the waterfront were stacked with melons, or tires, or whatever else was coming in or leaving the city. We entered a doorway and suddenly found ourselves in a tranquil, bamboo-lined tunnel leading down to the water, where a boat took us across the lagoon to a floating restaurant.

From the dirty, noisy street we entered a portal of tranquility that led us to a boat to whisk us across the lagoon to a floating restaurant, El Frio y El Fuego.
From the dirty, noisy street we entered a portal of tranquility that led us to a boat to whisk us across the lagoon to a floating restaurant, El Frio y El Fuego.

We spent the afternoon swimming, drinking starfruit juice and watching the sun set over Iquitos in the distance.

Your boat awaits, madame.
Your boat awaits, Madame.

Iquitos is a strange place, full of shysters and wanna-be mystics, a place built on the ashes of colonial subjugation and fed by a tourist culture of people desperate for healing. It’s a desert in the middle of paradise. It’s full of fascinating stories that we are recording faithfully and diligently. I don’t want to disclose too much because these are stories we want to publish, but suffice to say, it’s fascinating, and hopefully, we’ll be able to share them soon.

In the meantime, here's a picture of a monkey.
In the meantime, here’s a picture of a monkey.
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Written by Ada Kase (Kulesza)

Ada Kase is a freelance journalist and photographer from Philadelphia. AJKTravels is her personal travel blog documenting her adventures with her husband, journalist Aaron Kase.

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