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True Stories by Steve Keely


You may be in search of some region with a manner of living with a 1930's USA flavor and those harsh lessons as a new way of life. This is how I started afresh in Iquitos, Peru at the headwaters of the Amazon in 24 hours for $75.

You don't have to become a resident, marry, buy a house, or even a retirement crate to live in Latin America. With a new immigration law you need nothing more than a free tourist visa and broken Spanish to start a new life in Peru.

The first step is to find an apartment. Four months ago in Iquitos, I hired a motorcycle taxi at $3.00/hour to tour a two-mile river stretch with the fresh breeze I wished blowing in my window. We paused at a dozen houses with 'Room for Rent' signs where the driver talked to owners to avoid a 50% inflated gringo price. I kept a running list of bargains avoiding a 'Meat for Sale' sign advertising prostitutes. Curiously, the top picks had no signs at all and the driver just knocked cold on the doors of homes I liked. Putamayo Street had strong potential but each afternoon a witch appeared on the balcony across the street from an ex-pat's new rental and gesticulated wildly placing hexes on the room until he put a full-length mirror draped with garlic in the window. I didn't want to get caught in the cross-fire and selected a room around the corner on Ruiz Street overlooking the river with a window that nearly allows the afternoon sunshine on the equator.

There was no first and last month's rent, damage deposit or references. I walked in with $50, and three minutes later walked out with a receipt and the key to apartment #1 in a four-plex bunker of young families. I bought a clean used sheet for $2, a 10-gallon tub for $1.25 to trap water, and put my own dollar hasp and lock on the door.

The 12'x12'concrete room is featureless except for striped spiders and the ubiquitous Latin shit-shave-shower bathroom the size of a phone booth where all functions are performed from a white stool. The water comes on like clockwork at 8am, 12 and 7pm for just one hour because the town limits these relocated jungle people where any running water is considered a river and they don't turn it off, just let it overrun the basin and out the floor drain.

Next I needed something to do with my new life. I had always wanted to know what it's like to be a professional photographer without becoming one. My first digital camera purchase four months ago was an eye opener where I cruised the barrios and rivers shooting on automatic. I learned that with a professional attitude one may take over a river pueblo in a bloodless coup with the proper sequence of subjects: children, elderly, businessmen, senoritas, and by high noon the mayor following the Pied Piper with trapped images inside a small box. That's the secret of any brilliance in my Amazon portraits. I selected the thirty best photos and signed each back with my Email address, and toted them up and down streets giving them to my favorite cafe, seamstress, barber, grocery, cantina, Internet, bakery to be viewed.

The thrill of being a photographer wore thin, so when an ex-pat theorized the Amazon rain forest can be saved while solving the wood fuel deficit and raking a million dollars overnight by a sole entrepreneur who figured out how to make fuel briquettes from sawdust, I quietly stepped up. I hired a boat to sail along dozens of 20' sawdust mountains at riverside mills awaiting high water to wash them away, and sampled blonde, red and chestnut into plastic bags. I visited a construction site to tip a worker a buck for three scrap planks sawed and hammed into 2''x4''x6'' molds, sent out an urgent Internet request, and two days later had twenty ideas from savvy USA minds on what to use as a binder and so forth. One corner of the cramped room became an R&D lab with wood presses in the window sunshine, a rank of trial binders like Elmer's glue, banana peels and thinner, and bed legs as weights to press the molds. The experiment continues to this day and clearly sophistication is a goal before the winning formula is rewarded with a share of the Amazon Sawdust Brick Company.

Room #1 was a place to crash, work, bathe, impress dates, and store items as cheaply as the monthly fee for a USA storage unit. I propped a 5'plank at 30-degrees to a wall and monkeyed up to hide my passport and bank in the false ceiling.

There is so much to do with so few dollars that this canned sub-teacher lives like a New York big cheese from the first morning step out the door. I pick along a gauntlet of fresh food vendors, billiards and nickel card rooms, gym for $14/mo., massage parlor at $6/hr., and beyond to the ex-pat hangout Yellow Rose of Texas to drink banana milkshakes and swap war stories about Peru's built-in Murphy's Law. This nation gives you enough rope to hang yourself hoping to collect the change as it jiggles out your pockets.

The zoo is $1and close to the real thing. I sat near the cage of a 400 lb. Bengal tiger that thrust and hooked a 6'' razor claw into my tank top and dragged me to the bars. The shirt ripped and I left the tiger chewing the strip.

I breakfasted daily on a $1.25 tomato omelet until one morning on ordering a fruit drink apart for $.25, the bill totaled $2 for the 'complete breakfast'. When the owner refused a lower ala carte price, I fetched a policeman for yuks who sided with the owner, and sat for coffee. The winner in any nearly any confrontation involving police is he who bribes the highest. It just seemed stupid to use the potential four-bit return on the bill to buy the cop coffee. When something like this happens I go down the block to my favorite vendor of 'ice cream of exotic fruits' and hand over a $3 bill to eat one cone each from a ten flavor palette.

Dentistry is good, cheap and usually performed by females who begin their careers with one year of public service in a far-flung pueblo. Non-amalgam fillings cost $17 and a porcelain crown $120. My lovely dentist stuck deep the playdough mold to gag and pull me to her breast, and then burped me like a baby.

Medical insurance is $20/month but why bother where consultations are $5 and treatments as economical. On arrival and departure to a foreign country I get a full blood, fecal and urine analysis done in four hours for $20 in Iquitos. I'm 'remarkably healthy', says the Doc, and on-line norms concur. A few years ago, a tourist piano player desired to become a surgeon and walked into the Iquitos hospital to introduce himself as a visiting physician and asked to observe surgeries. Over a six month period he closely watched the first time, assisted the second time, and then for eighteen months performed routine surgeries (abdominal, prostate, bone fractures, etc.) especially for in-the-know ex-pats who requested the waiter until he was caught and deported.

Here I sit on the equator in the most distant metropolis from civilization with Internet on earth. I selected Iquitos in the Amazon because it's the safest, cleanest, with the strangest ex-pat population in Latin America, and the port opens a thousand river doors. The simple people are historically and geographically removed from civilization with no earth roads to escape. Sex is the second greatest pastime after fishing with an asserted birth ratio of 7:1 females to male. It's laissez-faire heaven. The 300,000 citizens smile more and work harder and less effectually than anywhere in the world. Everything is for sell and there is no set price on anything. Nothing is illegal in that everything can be bought. Drugs including marijuana and coke are legal except to sell. There is little crime and next to no violence. When the town revolted a few years ago against the military recruiting their jungle boys to a bloody jungle border skirmish against Ecuador, the militia sat on their hands refusing to shoot anyone until the Peruvian government passed the unique Law of Amazonia that gives only Loreto state (with Iquitos) income tax exemption for twenty years. The minimum wage is $5/day and jobs are plentiful with the streets handswept each night by Playboy bunnies.

Your U.S. Dollar has five-times the buying power in the Amazon. You can get a post office box for $10 a year, but why as I did since Iquitos has no zip code for USA deliveries, and ex-pats instead use a biweekly Miami courier service. Why would you want a bank account? There's a no-fee ATM at BCP bank with a superior exchange rate. Forget the laptop for a plethora of Internets with private booths for $.60/hr., but don't be surprised if a senorita enters, sits on your thigh, sticks her tongue in your mouth, and pulls the curtain in the middle of this story.

It's a tar baby existence.

A sheepish update begins here. Two months ago in July, I decided Iquitos deserved my fuller attention and went house hunting. The technique followed the room search in hiring a motorcycle taxi at $3/hour for a day to scout the desirable areas. We stopped whether or not there was a 'For Sale' sign if a house looked good, and I had the driver park out of view, knock and ask the owner two key questions: price, and title. If my driver gave thumbs up, I introduced myself and toured the homes. Most had concrete walls, cement floor, and tin roof with three rooms, running water ($5/mo.) and electricity ($5/ mo.). In nearly every instance, I exited the front door into a bidding war among the neighbors offering their homes for sale. The driver kept tally and phone numbers, so that after one diligent day the list narrowed from 90 doors knocked on, to 10 entered, to the top three. I bought home jungle sweet home for $1500 with an attached 1.5-meter wide 'house' owned by the deceased widow to satisfy code and for slim visitors. The purchase cleared the notary/attorney, but the day before title delivery the owner declared he had led a masquerade to fraud. I lost $200 in fees, but refused to sue the 72-year old man who worked two jobs.

In some frustration, I built a 4'x8'x8'retirement crate under a palm in a shaman (witch doctor) theme park called Ayahuasca Central. The wood swelled in thunderstorms to make it too heavy to transport should another land deal arise, so I traded the crate for a lighter metal foot locker, and pitched a tent on the platform. I spent fifty days in the crate, locker and tent previewing a revolving door of shamans and Ayahuasca tourists to what I believe will be the greatest shift in world consciousness since Eve bit the apple. I also rerented the downtown apartment near a 24-hour Internet, wrote, and awaited the next tickle by tar baby Peru.

Yesterday a long awaited resident visa based on a work contract as a naturalist guide was 'in the mail' from immigration. When it didn't arrive, I visited their office and was informed after a four months wild goose chase of $300 in paperwork, forfeited flight home, eight trips to immigration, and four bribes totaling $60 that the visa was denied due to an immigration error. The jefe explained that because his two predecessors in as many months had neglected to tell me to buy a special $50 'business visa' prior to signing their paperwork, I had broken a law and could be blocked from exiting the country for being denied as a resident.

I thrashed with the Catch-22, and on the way out the office a lowly clerk whispered that during the four month procedure a favorable immigration law was enacted to render a resident visa useless. Now you don't need a special visa to live permanently in Peru! The standard tourist visa is free for 183 days, after which you may visit an immigration office to extend it for $20 for another 183 days. After that, you exit to a neighbor country for one day to reenter for another 183 free days, followed by a fresh 183 extension for $20, and the cycle continues as long as you wish to live in the Amazon.

My choices in the past four delightful months have beared in mind both Peru's queer bureaucracy and built-in Murphy's Law. The Peru national newspaper this year reports that 80% of government people at all levels are corrupt. It's higher in Iquitos according to the ex-pats. However, the good news is that corruption as in Peru may be viewed positively as a direct salary, the main one, for millions of honest workers. Like waitresses performing services for tips, the government, police, judicial, and bureaucratic workers are paid in advance or immediately after per job by the person they serve according to a formula based on the task import, official's power, beggar's wallet, and multiply by three for the gringo factor. My technique was to have a trusted Peruvian fork over four $15 propinas, or tips, during lunch hours when they couldn't be construed as a bribes, and ask to take the official's lovely family out for drinks and supper. Oddly, i was never invited, and no doubt my pal took a 20% fee.

Shakespeare said, 'There is gold for you. Sell me your good report.' Where bribery is a way of life in Peru from the simplest street chore to the highest government decision, it's also a form of democracy. And now you know how Peru functions. The object of the smallest process is to procrastinate indefinitely to collect more tips. The stall is regulated by the stack shufflers, coveted positions in the government, judicial, police, and corporate bureaucracies, who access the queue of papers. This is how he works. Shuffler X is assigned to watch like a hawk a pile of applications for court dates for murder trials. A guilty defendant pays him to continually place his application on the bottom of the stack so he isn't brought to trial and executed. Meanwhile, an innocent defendant with no money rots in jail for years. Sometimes one application gets moved up and down a pile in one day by paying competitors. At this instant, millions of procedures are in shuffle, everyone cooperates, and if not the grit in the machinery is removed. The only solution I can think of is a presidential decree, or education from day one at nursery school.

The second freak of Peru across the red mud and green jungle is a built-in Murphy's law. I'm not emphasizing the negative, sidestepping the beautiful, nor saying that a misstep each second doesn't keep one on his toes. Murphy may have been miscarried here which begs the question, Why? The theories are an enlarged lower jungle brain stem, aluminum toxicity in the food staple yucca, or as likely because the result of everything First World correct would drive these time-ridden natives in the steamy climate stark mad. The only other place I've found the equal calculated error is as a voyeur of the American jail and prison system.

Five working American ex-pats (excluding retirees) earn $20-40k yearly from Ayahuasca tourism, stump export, butterfly farm, hotel and restaurant businesses. They fought bribery tooth and nail early on but I don't know one who hasn't succumbed to the paper shufflers to pay through the nose. They battle Murphy's Law by anticipating blunders while reveling in achievement, or as I do by weaving tight probabilities so that when the percentages collapsed and I lost a house and resident visa the knee-jerk was a cool advance. The Iquitos ex-pat profile is a male with a stellar sports and entrepreneurial past who takes a Peruvian wife- contrary to the U.S. embassy reports that most overseas ex-patriots are IRS fugitives, drug smugglers, and girl chasers. The Iquitos bunch calls themselves 'real Americans' who like the original pioneers settled on the fringe.

Each morning I stroll the boardwalk to the Yellow Rose of Texas to gawk at the freshly arriving tourists and speculate with the veterans on the 1-in-50 who'll settle here, and the 1-in-10 who'll stick. I practice informal tropical medicine around the table as a recovered host (potential vector) of 35% of the diseases in the Merck Manual, excluding the psychiatric section. I also carry an inch of business cards from eight local shamans to pass without commission to tourists as icebreakers to hear their wonderful stories. Finally, an ex-pat starting a weekly paper has given me a column 'The Amazon Hobo', and I'm submitting this report for the inaugural issue, with the streamer...

Become a colonial king in a peaceful, lawless land in one day for $75!