THE BIG CONDOR SOUTH

It was with befitting pleasure that we started our southward bound flight with "mañana" time. Our flight would leave at ten p.m. and so we sat around watching the movement within Miami International Terminal. One of the busiest terminals in the world. The sheik with full regalia stands out, as he marches swiftly by with his sleek black attache case, a stark contrast to his traditional clothing.

Even with the unusual cast of colourful characters parading past us, our interest lay about five thousand kilometres south, and the unknown quantities that filled our minds. Slight apprehension ...... were there headhunters, the drug mafia, anacondas??

"Cuanto tiempo esta aqui en Peru?" the black moustached man in military green kept asking us. The two of us stood there tired, hot and unable to make out what it was he was trying to get from us. Mute! So this is what it's like to get spoken to and not understand. After the fourth time he slowed right down which allowed me to put together the two really meaningful words, meaning "time" and "Peru". So he wanted to know how long we would be there, and that's okay except that I didn't know the word for month yet. Could this be the start of culture shock?

So here we are, Brad and Peter, right smack in the middle of the Amazon jungle in the river port of Iquitos, barely a sentence of Spanish between us and eager to get out there and tackle the heights of South America. We had read lots of books, we'd talked to other ex-travellers and we had our Spanish dictionary, pocket size of course. We were armed and ready!

We found ourselves a hotel and were happy that they spoke some English. Gaining the safety of a room was easy. We rested a while, but just knowing that the Amazon River was just a spear's throw away was enough for us to forget any paranoia (and there was plenty of that), and so, armed with only the expectation of what might happen, we took a walk through Iquitos.

We spotted a few motor bikes with two seats at the back, like the ones you would expect in Asia, and decided that the one dollar spent would be worthwhile. To get us around quickly we might get an overview of the area and decide on what we would really like to look at.

But without any doubt our first day in South America could not have gotten off to a worse beginning. We had been told that Iquitos was a relatively safe place, even though it was the centre of the Mafia drug trade for Peru. We had been warned not to go walking around a suburb called Belen, which was a mass of shanty buildings built both by and on the river's edge. The centre for many illegal activities, home to workers from the cocaine laboratories, the clandestine gold mines in the jungle.

The ride was enjoyable. We asked could he show us along the river's edge, and before we knew it we were heading down a hill towards Belen. Then we notice that the driver is clutching excitedly at the brake handle; there's no brakes! Time seemed to slow down so that every milli-second was visible and every action discernable. I looked at Brad and he looked like I felt. We looked in front of us to see the Amazon River, the houses floating on steel drums, built on rafts to allow for the ten metre difference in height during floods. The faces of those houses around us, racing straight at us.

Another part of a second flashes past and we career into the side of a taxi, which is great because it breaks our speed sufficiently to say that we wont be on the dinner table for the piranhas today. We deflect from its side and come to the bottom of the hill, now the centre of attraction of the whole of Belen's population, after we meet with a crashing halt into the side of another vehicle such as ours. Now a three-way yelling match between our driver, the driver of the other taxi and the other carcycle driver ensues.

Brad and I just sitting there in shock and feeling like two white beacons set against the dark skies. It definitely wasn't a time for Monty Python humour. This was a time for pumping up the shoulders and looking really mean. You know, that old 'nobody fools with me' sort of aura that you put on when you're scared stiff.

Having walked away with our only scars being the icy stares of the locals, we exited from this scene backstage, walking back up along the shores of the Amazon. Some distance away we found a large shady tree and sat beneath it and pondered the river, its meaning, strength and enormity. We were nearly three thousand two hundred kilometres from its mouth and already the river was over a kilometre wide. We thought of the part it played in the life of the people who lived on it and then reflected at the amazing little scurry of events we had just walked from. Great stuff as it meant I already had substance for an Iquitos postcard to the family.

Its size says that it should be jumping like a grasshopper, but its all too familiar buzz says that this insect is a mammoth mosquito. Before it has time to drill a little blood from my juicy forearm, I give it the customary swat, with the leaf that I'm using to keep his very kind away from my face. Must be some sort of mosquito convention centre here, where I'm sitting, I think to myself, and this reminds me of my malaria tablets which are sitting there with the mass of pills, ointments and bandages that we have brought with us. I think that we could probably do a quick open heart surgery and be more than adequately equipped. Brad's mother is a sister and has supplied us with lots of medical supplies and, although we know how excessive our kit is, it still gives us the reassurance we will need until we find our way.

The plane is a lot smaller than the Jumbo jets we had grown accustomed to, but the take-off is as smooth. The skies are clear and we have a window seat which will allow us to watch the three distinct changes of landscape that will pass during our eight hour flight to Lima, the capital city of Peru.

Everything seems very flat and one dimensional from our window. The reach of the green seems endless and the muddy brown of the Amazon winds through it like a big tentacled earthworm. We lose sight of the river and now the blanket seems to cover the whole of our view. Green, green and more green. It's funny, I think that I can actually become bored with looking at Amazonia.

It is at this point that I realise that to get the best of my travel I will have to put myself into a scene and not always look on in observation, as the tourist that I am. To really understand a vastness such as the Amazon I would have to feel it, be a part of it. I sensed from this vantage point that to learn from this travelling "thing" I would have to think differently, seek a new way.

The differing shades of green forming new patterns below us tell me that the flatness is subsiding, the land, undulating. The gentle maze below us soon grew to what we knew to be the start of the Andes. The edge.

A cloud cover opened to firstly reveal oranges and deep iron reds, followed gradually by cold and rugged greys. When that grey became puritanical white I knew that the Andes were with us. Stunning snow covered peaks that were threatening even at this perspective. Again the cloud covered our view and it wasn't until just out of Lima that the third landscape revealed itself.

This was part of the driest desert in the world. It surrounded Lima with a harsh and cutting demeanor. Once we had been in Lima for some time it seemed that the divide between desert and city had become obscured. An uncompromising dourness had not only filtered into the lanes and backstreets of the outskirts, but seemed to wash the very fabric of Lima, of Peru.