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The Amazon

May 22, 1988|MILTON NIEUWSMA | Nieuwsma is a free-lance writer living in Riverside, Ill. and

BORA, Peru — In this thatched-roof village deep in the jungle of the Peruvian Amazon, a wooden drum signals the arrival of the Rio Amazonas. Two naked boys scurry down the bank and grab a line tossed out to them.

As we go ashore, dozens of other youngsters charge down the river bank like a regiment of ants, shouting "Gringos! Gringos!" All the while their eyes are fixed on our plastic bags filled with chewing gum, suckers, balloons, mirrors, combs, ballpoint pens and other trinkets.

Our guide, Beder Chavez, leads us into a large thatched hut that serves as a community center. He motions our little group, 15 Americans and one New Zealander, to relax on a log.

The village, Beder explains, is populated by two Indian tribes, the Bora and the Huitoto. For thousands of years they enthusiastically feasted on one another (cannibalism in the area was reported as recently as 30 years ago). Since then, Beder assures us that the encroachment of civilization has forced them to make "other arrangements."

More than anyone, Beder can appreciate the change. Born in the jungle 35 years ago, he left his native village at age 14, went to school in Iquitos, about 150 miles upriver, taught himself English and is writing a book about growing up in the Amazon rain forest.

After he spoke, the villagers broke into a lively dance to the rhythmic beating of a pair of hardwood logs and the chanting of Bora men and women dressed in painted bark skin. At their urging, several of us joined in.

When the dancing was over the trading began for baskets, beads and blowguns. Negotiating was a family affair, involving consultation mostly between mothers and children in a language we didn't know. Their disarming smiles reduced our bargaining skills to zero.

A few yards from where my wife was trading a mirror for a necklace of paiche scales, one of the dancers, an extraordinarily beautiful young woman with black paint streaked across her cheeks, dropped her bark-skin dress unabashedly to her waist and pulled on an Adidas T-shirt.

With every plastic comb and stick of chewing gum we left behind, weren't we unwitting accomplices to the corruption of their ancient way of life?

"We're witnessing the last few years of the Amazon in its present state," Beder said later. "Farther south, in Brazil, it's much worse." He told about how the rain forests there are disappearing at the rate of 5,000 acres a day because of the exploitation of oil and minerals, and how much of it is the fault of Brazil's government, which has failed to hold unscrupulous landowners in check.

"Four million Indians once lived in the Amazon basin," Beder said. "Now only about 120,000 remain. Even the birds and animals have to go deeper inside to get away."

Beder then explained why he was leading us through this 350-mile stretch of the upper Amazon that runs from Iquitos, Peru, to Leticia, Colombia, acting as intermediary between our little group from the 20th Century and the primordial world of the jungle:

"I'm trying to alert the rest of the world to the need to preserve this river," he said. "Perhaps it will be worth more as a tourist site than as an industrial wasteland."

For five of us who flew from Miami, this was our first jaunt into the South American jungle. After a night's layover at the Crillon Hotel in Lima, we flew over the Andes to Iquitos, a bustling river-front city (population 200,000) where the north-flowing Ucayali River turns into the Amazon.

The streets were lined with motorcycle-powered rickshaws. We hired one to take us to neighboring Belen, a floating village where the houses are built on stilts and pontoons. There the river rises as much as 35 feet during the rainy season, but now it was low.

There we caught our first sight of the mighty Amazon. Originating high in the Andes 1,700 miles to the south, its name changes four times before it turns east at Iquitos and flows another 2,300 miles into the Atlantic.

The river is second only to the Nile in length but is the largest in volume, draining 200 major tributaries in an area three-quarters the size of the United States. Its flow is 11 times greater than the Mississippi's, its vegetation representing almost half of the remaining forest on earth.

During the flood season it discharges 3 trillion gallons of water a day into the Atlantic, enough to supply New York City with water for nine years.

That night we set out from Iquitos on board the Rio Amazonas, one of a fleet of Amazon river boats owned by Paul Wright, 54, a U.S. expatriateand business entrepreneur.

He greeted us amiably in the ship's dining room wearing a blue Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a green "Amazon Camp" T-shirt. He described how he had been a tour operator in Los Angeles, tired of the pressure and fled to Iquitos 20 years ago to start his jungle camp. His wife didn't share his enthusiasm. "She went back to California with her blow-dryer," he said.

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