Building a Cornucopia Amazonica

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit

cornucopia-amazon-fruit-don-dean

The rapido leaves early from a small pier called Heuquito.   By 5:30 a.m., the Peruvian DEA dogs have already sniffed your luggage and you have settled into a personal claustrophobia for the next nine hours.   Vendors, many of them young children, board the boat with last- minute provisions: water, fruit, bread, sweets – everything at twice or more the street price.  You might think you’d experience National Geographic scenery, splitting schools of pink dolphins and flocks of scarlet macaws.  Not.  It’s more like driving through Pennsylvania; it gets old fast.  Hours of trying to find new ways to stretch.   After a while, the guilt dogs you until it’s no longer socially acceptable to ignore your neighbor despite the desire to withdraw and sleep; you have to make the reluctant embrace, however clumsy the language.   Now you’re stuck with it – chit chat or whatever in a language and culture that’s not in your comfort zone, becoming ever so more richly rewarding.  ‘Nuf said.

Immediately upon arrival at Santa Rosa, you’re checked out of the country and officially become a citizen of nowhere.  Fare payable in three currencies, colectivos ferry you across the river to Tabitinga, Brazil, or to Leticia, Colombia, where you need to check in and become legal again.

So why make the trip?  For anyone, it’s worth the while just to admire the differences among the three cultures.  Leticia is a tidy little city with a good infrastructure (mostly reliable water and electricity), while the smaller Portuguese-speaking Brazilian town of Tabatinga hasn’t gotten there yet.   Santa Rosa, on the Peruvian side, is simply a way station – the end of the line, bleak.   Many rugged travelers use the tri-border to exchange travel comfort and time for the expense of air flights.  In my case, it’s all about fruit.

My “plaything” is a nursery of tropical fruits, aspiring for the most diverse representation of native and other tropical fruits in a single place, anywhere.  The site is “Parcela 52”, in the village of Santa Cruz, upriver from the port of Mazan on the Napo River.  The 20-hectare parcel is co-managed with Project Amazonas, a Peruvian-American non-profit organization that focuses on humanitarian, educational, research and conservation work in the Peruvian Amazon.  The nursery is on the riverine half of the lot, land that had formerly been cleared and used as a homestead, while the upper portion is primary rainforest, and which adjoins a large reserve owned and maintained by Project Amazonas.  Having exhausted the fruits available in the titillating Belen market (GO THERE!), it was time to expand the search.

For the most part, the fruits in Iquitos are similar to those available on the tri-border, however, as with many fruits, they are extremely varied, even within the same species – not surprising to see the same mature fruit from marble- to softball-sized, for example.   Of course, the markets in both Leticia and Tabatinga abound with fresh victuals, not surprisingly, local fish and fruits on all sides of the border.  Practicality and civility impose a basic order in developing-world markets, yet the atmosphere remains electric.

Leticia fruit market

The border area features star fruit (carambola) and maracuyá (a sweet, yellow passion fruit) in higher proportions than found in Iquitos; also, copoasú, similar to cocoa but with a coconut shell and a rummy taste, was more available.   Perhaps it has to do with local preferences, or possibly different harvest times.  One of the prevalent myths held by Northerners is that “if it’s summer here, then it’s winter down there”, not taking into account that this only pertains to a small percentage of the world’s population, and that the Amazon is not actually “down there.”  The tropics do indeed have seasons, more importantly marked by rainfall than by temperature, and this has a significant effect on the fruiting cycle.

Two fruits new to me were naranjilla (Solanum quitoense), a tomato-like thing that tastes like an orange, and borojó (Borojoa sorbilis / Rubiaceae), a cousin of huito, with a chocolate-brown pulp and not quite as sickeningly sweetly pungent.  I carefully dried all the seeds, and, expecting the usual customs form on the return trip “are you carrying any fruits, seeds, or animal products?”, tucked them away in discreet crevices in my suitcase.  After finding a hatchet to open the copoasú (later learned to simply drop it from a height), I passed on bringing back the seeds – I had never tried to clean them before, gummy stuff with a pleasant taste redolent of rum but the seeds just won’t give up their stringy pulp – probably they are adapted to germinate better after having passed through the intestinal tract of a large mammal?  I chose not to prove it.

Return trip started at 2:30 a.m., walking the planks to the dock at Tabatinga in a downpour, best to hire surer-footed portero who carries stuff for a living, and then waiting forty minutes for enough passengers to justify a ride across the black Amazon.  Generators on the Peruvian side are off for the night.  With the fifth passenger, a well-seasoned fellow captains a small covered boat across in the dark, using a searchlight to look for debris, destination, or others in the blind.  Good to be out of the rain.

Gringos have to walk to the national police office and bang on the door to wake up the officer.  If you’ve properly stamped yourself in and out of Colombia or Brazil, you fill out the immigration form in the light of a single candle and get back on the boat.  If your passport is not properly stamped, that’s another story – been there.  No customs inspection at Santa Rosa; that happens two hours later in Chimbote.   There, still dark and raining, the corpulent customs officer has absolutely no interest in the inconvenience, nor the facility to climb the roof and slither under the plastic cover to look at luggage.   The sneakiness was in vain.

Back to the nursery.  Before this project, there was already a good variety of mature and producing indigenous fruit trees, although it will be several years before the new trees come to fruition, so to speak.   The families of the caretakers, on a monthly rotating schedule, send their young boys to scale the trees for caimito, uvilla, arazá, cacao, macambo, shimbira, charichuelo, and others.

The idea is to make the place available for serious research, serious pleasure, or anything in-between.   Project Amazonas (http://www.projectamazonas.org) collaborates with universities to provide opportunities for research and travel with college credit (http://ptonline.org/hol/amazon), as well as adventure and pleasure trips, anything from searching for undocumented species, reforestation, catching tropical fish, or just bringing the Amazon experience home.

Iquitos is a treasure, the most accessible gateway to the Amazon. Coming soon Part 2 – a guide to some common fruits of the Upper Amazon.

Building A Cornucopia Amazonica: A Trip To The Frontera In Search Of Fruit
August 2012
Don Dean

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