Jun

27

 I went to Puerto Maldonado, Peru in the Amazon to evaluate Haitians traffic into Brazil and was stymied by a planned gas crisis.

I'm sitting in a 30' riverboat at the town's ghost port fishing information about the Haitians from the captain, a tour guide, lovely senorita in a halter top, and an observant five-month Tamarin Pocket Monkey (Saguinus fuscicollis) that resembles a squirrel with a human head and a golden mane of a lion. The keen boy is one pound of Olympic gymnast with a prehensile tail, and quickly opens my hardcover of L. Ron Hubbard's worthy The Problems of Work to chapter one and hides between the pages. I tweak its tail, and he makes a face before diving into a subsequent chapter, and so on through the book. The little wiggle is ADD from sipping the guide's soda and captain's beer, as well as eating anything sweet you hand it. Finally, he exits the book and scampers to perch on the captain's shoulder as he describes the human smuggling.

"Ha!" exclaims the skipper, as the others nod in agreement. "Don't believe what you read about the Haitians. There is zero in Puerto Maldonado, however for the past three years about fifty of the nice people go in transit daily through town and for 200km as the parrot flies to the frontier. It started when the earth shook…" In 2010, the catastrophic earthquake that crippled Haiti's economy sent a tsunami of refugees flying into Quito, Ecuador, a country known for its lax immigration policies, where daily they board buses and pass along National Geographic's Highway of Dreams up over the 15,000´ Andes, through rainforest Puerto Maldonado, and three hours more by coyote vans (to the tune of $1000 per refugee) to the border. Once in Brazil, the immigrants are welcomed to plenty of farm and town menial labor. The situation is a model of the daily flux of Latin illegals into USA. Last month the BBC said an estimated 5,600 immigrants have arrived in Brazil since 2011, however the articles I had read claimed tens of thousands have arrived with Brazil as the popular choice as Latin America's largest economy.

Human smuggling has captivated me ever since I gave water five years ago to six comatose illegal Mexicans who had collapsed in the shade of my California trailer sucking barrel cactus for moisture after being abandoned on the adjacent Chocolate Mountain Bombing Range and wandering for two days in an 110F inferno and explosions. In years to come, I would bust the wind atop Mexican freight trains with hundreds of illegal Central Americans traveling through Mexico to the Promised Land USA. Americans know what changes the illegals have wrought in the Land of Liberty, and I expect to find in Puerto Maldonado even greater ones. US media coverage has portrayed the border town as overrun with thousands of refugees and, if true, the divergent gene pool of tall, dark, gregarious Haitians would in quick generations forever alter the Peruvian body frame, mindset, and jungle instinct.

A yellow canary walks out the senorita's cleavage, and flutters to post on my foot. She grabs the bird onto her lap and raises eyebrows at me, as if it has been trained to fetch.

 Just then, a five-gallon container of gas arrives, and as the captain reaches for his wallet, he explodes, "The town has gas fever!" The guide explains, as the skipper decants the jug, "Puerto Maldonado is the only town in Peru that is on gas ration. The national government has declared our pueblo of 138,000 the largest consumer of petro in Peru, and a week ago issued ration cards. Each citizen is allowed five gallons per day, and the town economics has become complex." Five gallons is enough for a dweller who owns no vehicle, generator or trade, and yet other businesses would have come to a standstill had it not been for sharping gas. When one neighbor has no use for fuel, he fills his daily quota and sells it at a profit to another. For example, Puerto Maldonado is the starting point for visiting Peru's southeastern jungles of the Tambopata Reserve, or for departing to Brazil or Bolivia. However, the agencies are short to fuel their buses and boats, and so we have conversed for two steamy hours waiting for the jug. "Next week each ration card goes down to one gallon per day," moans the guide. "So today may be my last tour until the crisis is ironed out."

"The fuel is being siphoned into Brazil," explains the senorita, petting her bird. The monkey races along the roof. The price of gas is $5 per gallon in Peru; however, across the border in Brazil's remote rainforest it demands nearly double that. "Forget the Haitians; we're in a state controlled gas war for our life and liberty," they insist. Fists slam the rail. "The common denominator of the Haitians and gas smuggling," yells the captain over the motor, "Is the corrupt National Police." They take bribes at the border to 'look the other way' as thousands of Haitians and tens of thousands of gallons of petro pour into Brazil. I tell them I want to jump ship, which is now putting along the Madre de Dios, to go to the border to see firsthand. "Don´t worry," assures the tour guide."There will be time for that after you see the 20' black caimans and 6' giant otters at the Tambopata Reserve."

 Tambopata National Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary in the Peruvian Amazon that brims with 165 species of trees, 103 species of mammals, 1300 of butterflies, 90 of amphibians, and 6500 of fish. From the first step into the reserve, my San Francisco Giant baseball cap is covered with butterflies that the guide theorizes is due to my flower shirt, as they alight on no one else. However, I smell like the only member who doesn't use cologne, perfume or aftershave. A 8" black tarantula, that the guide identifies as a Chicken Tarantula with a reputation for eating birds up to the size of domestic fowl, walks the opposite direction. When I put my hand down to let it cross, as with smaller species at my desert home, instead of crossing it goes around. Further on, we hop over a drive of black army ants a footprint wide and audible in their rustle. The yellow headed soldiers laboring under huge swinging mandibles are described in a short story that in my youth was first a terror and then a curious fascination. Leiningen vs. the Ants is set in the Brazil rainforest not far from here. The story centers on a scrappy plantation owner called Leningen who stubbornly refuses to abandon his plantation in the face of a seemingly unstoppable mass of army antes. My guide drops and picks up one by the abdomen, and asks, ´Would you like a demonstration of how the natives suture wounds?' Though there is no cut, I thrust a pinky with a joint crease that he lets the angry ant bite, and, urging through my spiked pain, 'Wait - the ant would rather lose its head than let go,' he deftly twists off the body as the remaining head neatly staples the crease, and it has been worth the price of admission.

 At the end of the 90 minute hike through this mysterious land lays the principal attraction named Sandoval Lake which is an oxbow lake off the Madre de Dios. It was formed by a wide meander in the stream over the course of about 500 years that cut through the curve to abandon this mile-long crescent body of water. We paddle with two other tourists the circumference within a few feet of turtles, macaws, and two tribes of Squirrel and Howler monkeys, as fish jump aside the canoe. Philodendron epiphytes crown 30' palms dropping inch-thick roots to the water. When the guide identifies a dozen Cormorant cranes that sit as tamely on giant lilies as if this is Eden, I know I could revolution the fishing industry in the Amazon basin by introducing a technique I saw on Nature TV using trained Cormorants as 'lines'.

The aquatic bird of the family Phalacrocoracidae in the Amazon has purple plumage, about two feet tall, and the usual long neck and body, with a hookbeak and throat pouch for holding fish. In China and Japan, Cormorant are famous for fishing on shallow rivers. Cormorant fishing is also an old tradition in Greece, England and France. To control the birds, the fishermen tie a cord neckerchief near the base of the bird's throat that prevents them from swallowing larger fish, which are held in their throats, while smaller fish go down the hatch. The fisherman paddles a canoe, much as we do now, except with a dozen Cormorants standing like tenpins, and when the fishing territory is reached the fisherman commands his fleet with a wave of the hand into the water where they dive and bring up fish. They are free to swim away but do not, instead returning to the canoe, the fisherman reaches down their throats and pulls out the larger fish, and rewards them with smaller ones. He may gauge the size of the day's catch by the tightness of the neckties.

 The strategy is not unlike the border I plan to visit tomorrow where the Peru Immigration and National Police make the human and gas smugglers cough up big bribes. Early the next morning, I board a hired car in Puerto Maldonado for the three hour ride with six others at the exurbanite price of $15 since the chauffeur has paid through the nose for scavenged gas. The national newspaper La Republica on the car dash confirms what I saw earlier that for the last three days drivers in the capital city have lined the streets with their vehicles waving ration cards, yelling for trades as if were a commodes pit, and wait and muscle in to buy miniscule amounts of fuel. The newspaper reports that of the 32 gas stations normally operating in town, only four are open and selling fuel. Vehicle movement along the jungle fringed highway is sparse and has slowed to a crawl due to the gas shortage. The driver doesn't question that I want to see the frontier town of Inapari, flanking both countries, and return the same day. However, when we arrive at the crossing that normally allows people to mingle within the town limit for 24 hours without officially exiting one or entering the other country, a lanky Peruvian National Policeman in the regular gold on black uniform yokes me into the small wooden immigration office.

I'm ordered to a hard bench with a clear view out the door of the primitive crossing where a six-man force of National Policemen fleeces one after another Brazil bound 30' wood trucks with blue drums of gas piled in back. Brazil doesn't need the wood, of course, but requires the lower price fuel at the expense of Puerto Maldonado where garbage is piling in the streets because there is no fuel to send out the trucks for collection. The scene is as was described to me in the tour boat and by townspeople. Because the truck drivers are foreigners they are spared the ration cards and are free to buy as much fuel as desired. Each of trucks carries nearly a full tank of gas plus three 55-gallon drums for a total of about 200 gallons at a profit on the other side of $3 a gallon for a total per trip of $600. This is a fortune in the Amazon basin, enough for a man to start a family and new life. The locals say the planned gas crisis is not resolved because the National Police who are tied to the national government are taking a profit.

A quirk is that Brazil is the world's second largest producer of ethanol fuel. Together, Brazil and the United States lead in the industrial production of ethanol fuel, for nearly 90% of the world´s production. Brazil has the world´s first sustainable biofuel economy and is the leader. The reason is millions of sprawling fields of sugarcane ethanol which is the most successful alternative fuel anywhere to date. In 2010, the U.S. EPA designated Brazilian sugarcane ethanol as the most advanced biofuel due to its 61% reduction of total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions, including direct and indirect emissions. However, Brazil needs the base petro to add their ethanol to, and it´s being siphoned from Puerto Maldonado.

The leapfrog story of my pursuit of human and gas smuggling at the Peru–Brazil frontier ends surprisingly in a little bedroom off the hard bench. The National Policeman sees me staring through the window at the palmed bribes taken by his men, and utters, 'This border is like the Mexico–US border. Do you know what I mean?'

'Now I understand. I live thirty miles north of that border and have crossed hundreds of times. It is corrupt, with bribes taken for human and goods trafficking. Is that what you're saying?' It's the first time I've seen a Peruvian National Policeman shake in his boots.

'Go to the bedroom!´ he demands, and scuffs after. He motions me to sit on a bunk, one of two double-deckers jammed into the space where another corpulent National Policeman snores exhaling beer fumes. He starts awake, arises, approaches with a leer, and they strip search me, investigating every detail except for where the sun doesn´t shine. I must account for everything including where I got each coin in my pocket – in change at a café, grocery store… ´Aha!' shouts one, pulling my room key. ´Where did you get this?´ Meanwhile, through the bunkhouse window, a van of Haitians pauses at the crossing, the driver shakes hands with the National Policeman who smiles and looks away, and the load passes into Brazil where they´ll likely work the sugarcane fields.

The National Policeman flicks through my passport searching for the week old visa entry stamp at the Lima airport. He riffles more slowly a second time, and then a third in exasperation bending each of the 52 pages of my new mint US passport. I would blame him for adding one year's wear in two minutes, except the document is a travesty of the US government. Since 2007, the State department has issued only biometric passports, which include RFID chips, and each page having a historic background print in blue of Americana scenes including the Mayflower, covered wagon, steam train, the Liberty Bell, Statue of Liberty, Mt. Rushmore, and so on through the now rumpled deck that is my passport. They are beautiful engravings but to accept a normal blue ink visa stamp on a blue background is like trying to read this black ink on a gray background. Finally, the official finds the nearly invisible visa stamp, grunts, and orders me out the building and back on the road again.


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