Amazon Fish Collecting Diary

Text copyright © 1990,1995,1999 Christopher Scharpf (Chris Scharpf)

Author's Note

I visited Peru in 1990, when the country was in the depths of a bleak economic depression. Many of the conditions in Iquitos described below reflect what I saw and wrote about, candidly, in my diary. In no way are my comments and observations meant to disparage the good people of Peru, who at that time were struggling for financial security. Since 1990, Peru has experienced an economic turnaround. When I returned there in 1995, and again in 1996, I saw a dramatically different Iquitos--fun, lively, full of the hustle-and-bustle of a city enjoying economic growth and prosperity. I have nothing but good things to say about the people of Iquitos; they are out-going, friendly, warm, hospitable, and all too eager to help a slightly lost foreigner like me. There are no longer any military police patrolling the streets. As a matter of fact, during my 1996 trip, I remember walking the streets late at night, safely, confidently, not at all worried that I was in an unfamiliar city very far from home. The people of Iquitos made me feel very welcome.

I also want to point out that Peru now has a formal procedure for getting fishes out of the country. The scene I witnessed with the Minister of Fishes reflects the desperate state of the country's economy in 1990, and in no way reflects what is now a highly efficient and affordable way of legally exporting wild-caught aquarium fishes. To expedite matters, I recommend a professional jungle outfitter with experience in organizing fish collecting groups. My 1995 and 1996 trips were organized by Maragarita Tours (

I have nothing but fondness in my heart for Peru--its people, its forests, and its fishes. I feel at home there, and plan to return there in the year 2000.

Chris Scharpf ( 5 Jan., 1999

First day on the Amazon

Sunday, September 16, 1990

We've been heading up the Amazon since noon. Around 4 p.m. we pull up to the town of Tamshiyaco, named after a plant the Peruvians use to build houses. It seems like a friendly, fun town. The people aren't greedy like they are in Iquitos. There are large concrete sidewalks, street lights, and about 4,000 people, our guide says. As we climb up the long wooden steps that lead down to the river, we get the feeling that we're entering a ghost town. All is still and quiet, and when we get into the town a little farther we discover why. There's an intra-village soccer game going on, complete with play-by-play over a PA system, and everyone's there to cheer their teams. It's interesting to see these kids playing soccer, all wearing very nice uniforms with numbers, contrasted against little stucco buildings and grass huts. I buy a large pineapple from an old man for 200,000 intes (about 50 cents). He proudly shows us a roof he's making from dried palm leaves. All the kids are cute and all the dogs are skinny. Lots of chickens.

It's truly remarkable to see people living along the banks of the Amazon. For them the river is everything--food, water, transportation. They take their seine catch or their crops into Iquitos and sell it at the market. I guess that's how they pay for their Batman t-shirts and tennis shoes.

The air is comfortable but the sun is HOT. It's somewhat disarming; you feel comfortable in the shade, but when you're out in the sun it feels like you've just stuck your hand into an oven. (We are just below the equator.) I wonder if I'm going to get any color what with all the tons of sunscreen I'm wearing.

It's after six and it's getting dark. (Days are more or less an even 12 hours down here.) The Amazon strikes me as a very sad river. The water is dark and it flows with a quiet inevitability. Yet it is a most fecund place, home to more species of life than any other place on the planet. We see river dolphins splashing in the wake.

These tropical fish guys are a study unto themselves. Their outside demeanor is one of good ol' boyness, like they should be working under a hood instead of in a fish tank. They swear, they smoke (most of them), and they spit out scientific names like chewing tobacco. They also have a very deep knowledge and appreciation of other subjects, especially botany. To see this big, burly Texan named Jim Bob puffing on a Camel and leaning over to admire and photograph a small blossom is a unique sight.

The highlight of the trip so far is the amazing southern night sky. Never have I seen so many stars. It's as if someone took a handful of glitter and dusted the entire sky with it. And this is the first time I've seen the so-called backbone of the Milky Way--the cloud-like horizon-to-horizon streak that gives the Milky Way its name. We sit on the top deck for several hours identifying constellations with the use of Peter's pocket star guide. To see this sky is to marvel at one of the miracles of the universe. I truly feel as if I am in a different world now, far from the world and job I left behind. Will it be possible to return?

Sometime after 10 p.m. we dock at the mouth of the Yanayacu River. Me and several others started fishing off the back of the boat, hoping to hook one of the famous red-tailed Amazon catfish. We were using chunks of raw meat we got from Maria, our cook. The first time I threw my hook in the water I come up with a 7-inch pimelodid catfish with whiskers as long as its body. It made a croaking sound as I held it out of the water. Since it was too big to be an aquarium specimen, I threw it back. It was the only fish I would catch, however. I fish for several hours but spend most of the time untangling my line, or replacing lost leaders.

I go to sleep very, very late, barely exhausted from my first day on the Amazon.

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Wed, 07 Jun 1995 07:09:16 -0400
Subject: Aquarium Store In A Seine Net

Aquarium Store In A Seine Net

Monday, September 17, 1990

After breakfast we pile into two rowboats rigged with outboard motors and moved up the Yanayacu in search of fish. We passed a canoe that was filled with foot-long plecostomus, which are a staple food around here. We stopped at a tiny stream--more of a trickle, actually--and collected a dozen or so very attractive Rivulus killifish. It's hard to believe such a lovely fish could live in a body of water that seems scarcely big enough to sustain life. (Remember, this is the dry season; normally the river is much higher, reaching as high as the banks and beyond, even covering most of the trees. In fact, you can see the water line, like a faint line of chalk, on their trunks.)

Upstream we stop at another trickle, more of a muddy ditch, and netted a few unidentified Apistogrammas. Then we follow the ditch to a large swamp lake to collect fish. But you really can't get into the lake because you sink into mud up to your knees, which tends to suck off your shoes and socks every time you lift your feet.

Fortunately Alfredo, our guide, recruits a couple of locals to help out, and they quite cheerfully jump into the black muddy mess with a large seine net, and proceed to pull to shore a large mass of vegetation, which we sort through in search of fish. Never before have I seen such an abundance of fishes in one net--festivums, severums, chocolate cichlids, an oscar, many wild angelfish. farlowella cats, assorted plecos, wood cats, doradid cats, a couple of piranha, even a 2-foot long electric eel which I didn't recognize until someone prevented me from picking it up. It's as if someone dumped an entire aquarium store into one net, and here I am, greedily rummaging through the tangled weeds in the seine, not knowing which fish to grab first, realizing that this is what I came here for. Until...

...I poke the index finger of my right hand into the dorsal fin of some catfish. Instantly I feel a surge of pain, as if someone drove a red hot nail down through my fingertip all the way to the first knuckle. It bled like hell and the pain was quite intense for 10 or 15 minutes, after which it disappears almost as instantly as it began. (The pain, by the way, is caused by bacteria in the catfish's fins--a very handy defense mechanism.) Between the eel and the sting I learn to stick my hand in the net more cautiously. Call this my indoctrination.

We carry our catch back to the rowboats and sort through them, replacing the muddy water from the lake with cleaner water from the stream. Here's where the real work begins: trying to keep our specimens alive. We take turns replacing the warming water in the buckets with cooler, fresher water from the stream, careful not to let any fish get away.

Downstream we stop at another mass of floating vegetation and pull it up into our seine. More angelfish, assorted cichlids, silver dollars, many non-descript silvery tetras (which we disdainfully refer to as NSTs), two corydoras, and several wolf fish--a large characoid with teeth that could take off your finger. The larger fishes are thrown into the "dinner bucket."

A few thoughts about the water of the Amazon. It is so rich with life and nutrients that it is permanently stained, sometimes a tea or coffee color, often completely black. It's ironic that we go through considerable trouble and expense keeping our home aquaria crystal clear when many of the fishes come from waters with little or no visibility.

Back at the boat we send out for fresher blackwater in which to keep our fish; it's collected in plastic containers that are lowered into a deeper portion of the channel, where the water contains more nutrients. Jim, the most experienced aquarist in our group, has brought an ice chest full of air pumps and tubing. He riggs up an elaborate system that keeps all the buckets and ice chests aerated. Many fish, of course, do not survive, and they are either tossed overboard or into the bait bucket.

The excursions by launch are relegated to the early morning and late afternoon when the sun is less direct. No wonder these people have siestas!

Our late afternoon jaunt for the day is a jungle hike a little ways up the Yanayacu. To get to the jungle proper we have to cross this large expanse of swampy, quicksand-like land, so swampy that the villagers constructed a walkway of logs, some 50 yards long, across it. It was a little tricky walking on these logs without falling into the deep muck below. I think of Friar Tuck and Robin Hood crossing the stream in Sherwood Forest.

We hike through a slash-and-burn area. Alfredo tells us how the villagers work the land for food. Quite frankly, this agricultural stuff bores me.

The jungle itself is a mass of vegetation--huge cotton trees with immense trunks that resemble the agitators inside washing machines, strangler vines, philodendrons, and literally hundreds of other plants, many of which I see regularly at the florist's. It's humid like the florist's, too. There's no animal life to be seen--maybe because we're still too close to man and civilization--but I can hear the laughter of parrots or macaws in the canopy above. (We did see a squirrel monkey in a tree along the Yanayacu earlier today.)

We come across a small creek with slow-moving water. In it we found Copeina, the splashing tetra, which actually jumps out of the water into overhanging leaves to lay and fertilize its eggs, hence its name. But since we didn't bring any fish collecting gear, we don't collect any.

On our way back to the rowboats I traded a villager a Nature Valley granola bar for a roasted manioc, a potato-like vegetable that tastes like roasted chestnuts. I ate most of it and fed the rest to the villager's chickens and pigs.

Supper tonight is catfish and some of the fish we had collected earlier--chocolate cichlids, which I thought were too small and bony, and piranhas cooked in butter, which are quite tasty indeed. The whole fish (except for the eyes) is cooked; you just pick it up and eat it like you're eating ribs.

Evening comes early--sixish--and with it the mosquitoes. I cover myself with DEET, and after dinner we pull out and sail down the Yanayacu into the Amazon proper. We sail most of the night, docking at the village of Grau, near the confluence of the Ucalayi and Maranon rivers--the source of the Amazon.

I go to bed early and sleep soundly till sunrise...

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Mon, 12 Jun 1995 20:12:47 -0400
Subject: Caught in Quicksand

Caught in Quicksand

Tuesday, September 15, 1990

We sail up the Maranon to the town of Nauta. Nauta is quite a civilized town, what with electricity, satellite TV, and the like. It even resembles what we may call a tourist area, complete with shops, street vendors, bars and other places of entertainment. Brothels, too, I presume.

Alfred Garcia (our guide) and David Herlong (our group leader) go to see the mayor to ask him if we could hire a driver and his truck to take us farther inland to collect fish. Alfredo explains to the mayor that we aren't tourists, but "scientists and teachers." Apparently, teachers are held in very high esteem in Peru, and since the mayor wants to build tourism in Nauta, he agrees. In fact, he donates the town's municipal truck. But the truck and/or the driver will not be available for several hours, which I think may have been the mayor's way to get us to contribute more money to the Nauta economy. Which we do.

I walk around the town with my camera, browsing through shops, doing the typical touristy kind of thing. I buy a hand-woven towel for eight or nine bucks. (Something tells me the woman I buy it from is making a 10,000 percent profit from the deal.) I see a man drying his harvest of rice in the middle of the street. And in a pond I see some of the famed Victoria lilies, which are big enough to hold a small child. The townspeople are very nice--and very curious. A large group of them gather around our boat, observing us as much as we are observing them.

Finally, it it's time to catch the truck, which turns out to be a dump truck. Let me tell you, dump trucks are designed for dirt, not humans. There is nothing for us to hold on to except the sides, and all eleven of us, plus a couple of guys from the boat, bounce around as the truck makes its way over bumpy dirt roads that are part of a 15-year but as yet unfinished trans-Peruvian government project. We don't mind, though. We laugh and hum the Indiana Jones theme.

This is all very exciting for Alfredo, who has never before ventured so far inland to collect fish. We stop at several small streams or creeks that had been routed by tunnels under the road. At one of them I get stuck in a quicksand-like mud. First, I throw my backpack to Andy, a tropical fish farmer from Florida. No point in having my camera sink with me. Then I try to get my bearings. But each time I raise one foot out of the muck, the other foot sinks deeper. Eventually I'm up to my waist in muck, which is very dense, like wet cement, and still no one, except for Andy, who thinks I'm goofing around, is taking notice. I have this horrible image of me sinking up to my neck before anybody drop their seine or dip net to help.

"Lie flat on your back and wiggle like a snake."

"What?" I ask, turning around to see Jim Carmark standing a few feet away.

"Lie flat on your back and wiggle like a snake."

I did and it worked. By evenly distributing my weight I'm able to float on the muck instead of sink into it. I slither to terra firma in seconds, getting this black, oily goop down the back of my shirt into my shorts, and all over my arms and legs. I look like a mud wrestler and everybody has a nice laugh. As with yesterday's lesson when I got stung by the catfish, I become a little more cautious, and avoid mud pools that are deeper than my ankles.

Alfredo and his helpers, however, show no such fear. They collect fish with a fierce determination, as if their livelihoods depended on it. And for many of them it does.

Among the fishes we collect are splash tetras, rivulines, Apistogrammas, lemon tetras, and the two most beautiful red-eye tetras I have ever seen. My major catch is the first of two dwarf pike cichlids, which excites David. I catch them near the entrance to one of the tunnels, which looks like a big metal sewer pipe. There aren't any fish inside the tunnel, but there were bats, several of which I frightened and came flying past my head.

Richard, the captain of our boat, cuts the bottom of his foot. It's a pretty nasty cut, but it doesn't seem to faze him. He keeps trudging along barefoot in the mud with this gaping wound. Later, back at the boat, Anna and Peter dress his wound and I offer him a shot of bourbon. I also donate a pair of white socks to help keep the dressing clean. Even though I speak no Spanish and Richard speaks no English, I am able to make a joke about having to amputate his foot. Richard laughs out load and points a finger at me, as if he is saying "You're a pretty funny guy." Despite the language barrier we communicate perfectly. Two guys from completely different cultures cracking each other up. It's a wonderful moment.

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Wed, 21 Jun 1995 07:43:25 -0400
Subject: The Jungle at Night

The Jungle at Night

Wednesday, September 19, 1990

After dinner we embark on some nighttime collecting. My brand new $10 flashlight doesn't work, but my cheap little head lamp does; it shoots quite a beam, and keeps my hands free to net a sleeping fish. Actually, there are fewer fish than anticipated. A lot of loricariid catfishes are seen on sunken twigs and logs; they're easy to spot because their eyes reflect red under the beam of our lights. I also net several bloodfin tetras and one red-eye tetra. Alfredo scoops up a nice-looking angelfish, several needlenose gars, and catches two arowanas with his spear, one about two feet long, the other about four. Alfredo's vision at night is as sharp as it is in the day. Standing at the head of the rowboat, his eyes spot any little shape in the dark waters. Then, without warning, he hurls his spear. Big fish for the dinner bucket just like that.

We also see caimans. Their eyes shine red under our lights as well. In fact, the light seems to hypnotize them. They remain motionless in the water, letting us pull our boats close enough for Alfredo to reach in and grab them about the neck. I'm the only person to volunteer to hold the foot long reptile. With one hand I hold its neck, and with the other I hold its jaws shut. The creature keeps absolutely still, as if asleep--or scared shitless. But when I drop it back into the water, it wastes no time getting away. Besides the fish and the caimans, I don't see any no other creatures, although a few people said they saw a snake.

This is been my favorite part of the trip, because it makes me feel very close to the jungle--drifting in the black of night with only our flashlights and head lamps casting lonely beams of light, surrounded by the incredible sounds of frogs and insects. It is also during this hour-and-a-half in the black of the jungle that I feel the farthest from home. I wonder what my co-workers are doing at this hour--fixing supper, watching TV, thinking about the next day's work at the office. And here I am, in the pitch black of the rain forest somewhere below the equator, holding caimans and speared arowanas in my hands, being watched by hundreds of eyes that I can't see, but can sure as hell see me.

Later, after we get back to the boat, another stingray is snagged on Jim Bob's drop line, and Jim, who fears nothing, pulled it in, careful not to get in the way of its flapping tail. One of the crew members chops it off, but he still brushes against part of the stinger with his hand, which is red and swollen the next morning. The crew members will eat the stingray. The stinger, I believe, is available for purchase.

I go to bed very, very happy knowing that today's adventures have been everything I wanted this trip to be.

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Sun, 02 Jul 1995 22:55:54 -0400
Subject: Birds, Blockades & Bloodsuckers

Birds, Blockades & Bloodsuckers

Thursday, September 20, 1990

The day begins with another birdspotting excursion. This one I don't feel particularly anxious to attend. Peter wakes me from a sound sleep and I have barely enough time to squirt some sunscreen on my body and down a quick cup of instant joe. I see the first few birds while wiping sleepers from my eyes; in so doing I rub sunscreen into my eyes, which stings all morning long.

Just as well. We don't spot as many birds today as we did yesterday. Six or so blue and gold macaws are the highlight. We do enter this lovely lake, and watched a fisherman and his family use a huge cast net extended between several boats. As they move their boats closer together they pull up the net, which contains hundreds of fish, mostly leporinus. The net had a wide mesh, so only the larger fish were snagged. We buy some of his catch for a few million intes and a few cigarettes. (David remarks that you can go a long way with the locals if all you had to offer were cigarettes.)

As we leave the Yarapa I wonder if today's adventures will be as satisfying as yesterday's. What could I do today that would top catching a piranha (which, to the locals, is as commonplace as Americans catching a bluegill), or exploring the sights and sounds of the jungle at night? Well, as it turns out, I do have an adventure, one which results in my losing a small quantity of blood.

We returned to Grau, but I don't remember why, perhaps to replenish our supply of soft drinks. Upon returning to the Maranon River, the Delfin lost control of its steering--something about a broken steering cable. So the crew had to improvise. They placed the two rowboats with outboards on each side of the bow and effectively steered the boat from there.

Approaching the Tauhyo River we come across a blockade. Several villages have joined together to construct a barrier and enforce it along the mouth of the Tauhyo. Details are sketchy, but it seems to be some sort of a strike. The villagers are unhappy with the price the government is giving them for bananas, and so they aren't allowing any trade in or out of the river. This is the first instance I've seen of the precarious political and economic situation in Peru, and for a few minutes there is some uncertainty as to what might happen to us. Are we going to be held hostage? Will we be forced to leave the area? Will we have to pay to continue upriver? This is a job for Ricardo, our captain, who hops into a rowboat and approachs the nucleus of people that represent the blockade's center of command. Upon returning Ricardo tells us the villagers have no gripe with tourists, and so allow us to go upriver, but only in our rowboats; apparently they don't want a big boat that could easily smuggle bananas getting through.

The blockade is a mass of floating trees and sticks and poles. A group of men pull two sections apart for us, as if they are opening a gate. As we pass through I see mob mentality in action. There are a couple hundred people in boats and along the shore, yelling, shouting, raising their arms not in anger, but in power and a sense of fun. They seem proud of the fact they are involved in some kind of political demonstration, and that they were showing community solidarity. (Later, when we returned, the mob is gone; there is just a fisherman and his two daughters, and we go through the blockade without incident.)

A short ways upriver we begin an extensive walk through the jungle. We come across a small, slow-moving stream with a log bridge that was built at a very steep angle. A couple of sticks that had been driven into the stream served as handrails, but it's still tricky to climb, especially with slippery tennis shoes. At this point, Alfredo realizes that the destination of our walk--a rare clearwater stream with a rocky bottom, a waterfall and a swimming hole--is farther into the jungle than he had anticipated, at least another hour's hike. So he encourages those who don't feel up to such a long walk to stay behind and collect fish at this stream, which most of the group does. (It is here where Jim Bob catches a rare freshwater pipefish, or, as we later determined when we got back to the Delfin and checked the boat's copy of the Axelrod Atlas, a trumpet knifefish. This is quite a peculiar-looking knifefish, very much like a pipefish, and almost completely transparent.)

Peter, David, Anna and myself, along with Alfredo and new crew members, elect to take the hike. David wants to go deeper into the jungle in search of butterflies; Peter and Anna to avoid Jim as much as possible; and me to swim in the waterfall. The prospect of a long, sweaty hike followed by a dip in a cool--and clear--stream sounds heavenly.

On our way to the stream we walk through a couple of farms. One is a pineapple grove, where we buy a pineapple from a wrinkled old man wearing an oily Petroperu baseball cap. We also see cashew trees, and we sample the fruit they produce--a very odd fruit that looks like a cross between a peach and a pomegranate. It has a unique, bittersweet taste and an unexpected melt-in-your-mouth texture. But after you chew it and sucked out all the juice, it makes your mouth dry. Still, I found it to be rather refreshing.

We also encounter a man who used to work with Alfredo at Amazon Camp, a banana farmer walking through the jungle with a donkey loaded up with bunches and bunches of green bananas.

The sun is blazing hot, like a blast furnace. But when we return to the primary growth of the jungle, under the canopy's shade, it is much cooler, though still humid. We're soaking wet with perspiration, looking forward to dipping in that clearwater stream.

We came to a ditch of water only an inch or two deep, and there we collect several Rivulus, the same kind of killifish we had collected in a similar environment a few days before. At this point we could hear the rushing water of the stream a few dozen yards away, and quickly make our way to it.

It is indeed a clearwater stream, with a flat rock bottom like a continuous piece of slate, or bedrock. The water is cool, and it seemed like I was home in Maryland, collecting fish in the Gunpowder. I take off my shoes and socks and jump into the calf-deep water. Man, did it feel great! Peter fills a bucket and pours it over himself, then fills another and pours it over me. For several minutes we romped like kids playing in an opened fire hydrant.

I poke my dip net along the banks and catch a striking looking catfish that Alfredo has never seen before. All of us make over the fish, joking that it might be a new species, in which case in would have to be named after its collector--scharpfi. I knew that it was the one fish I was going to take back home, and, perhaps, identify it with the help of my Burgess catfish book. (We do agree that it's some kind of woodcat [we were wrong, as it turned out].) Even Jim Carmack calls it a "beautiful animal." And if I hadn't had netter's rights to it, it would have been snatched up very quickly, I'm sure.

I hope to find another specimen, but fishes in this stream are few and far between. We do, however, manage to collect in addition to my catfish a pike cichlid, a splash tetra, and several marble hatchetfish, the last of which I found quite special, for once again I had the unique experience of collecting a fish in its natural habitat that I normally see at the local Dockter Pet!

Swimming in the stream is quite refreshing. A small waterfall about three feet high is great to stand under--the ultimate Shower Massage. There are also numerous pools and depressions where the water is neck deep. Collecting along the banks of these pools I disturbed a nest of sleeping bats, who were tucked among the roots of partially submerged trees. (Peter hoped to find discus among these roots, but discus are not native to Peru.)

What happened next would later be voted by he group as the highlight of the trip. Putting my shoes and socks back on, I notice a wet leaf or clump of mud stuck to my left leg just above the ankle. I try flicking it off but it stubbornly remains. Upon closer inspection I discovered it is... ...a leech.

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Mon, 10 Jul 1995 09:39:49 -0400
Subject: Me and the leech

Me and the leech

Once the word leech trembles off my lips it becomes like that scene in *Stand By Me*, Peter and David looking down inside their shorts to see if a leech had gotten there. But no, I am the only one fortunate enough to "collect" one of these undesirable specimens.

Alfredo, who never shows emotion, reacts to my leech as if it were an everyday occurrence (which maybe it is, who knows?). He tells me not to pull it off because the leech will fight like hell to stay on; if it were pulled off its mouth would detach and remain in my leg, in which case I could get a nasty infection. He said the best thing is to leave it alone until we got back to the boat, where he will then apply an acidic substance--like lemon juice--to get the leech off. So there I am, faced with the prospect of another hour's hike through the jungle with a blood-sucking parasite attached to my leg. What fun! I remain in good humor, though, joking that I should be carried, that I am getting weak, etc. Truth is, there's no pain whatsoever. Leeches have a special enzyme in their saliva that acts as an anesthetic, rendering their bite and sucking action completely sensation-free. It feels like a wet band-aid is hanging from my skin.

Well, for a while this is a very happy leech. He has hit paydirt and within minutes he has swollen to the size of a wet tea bag. A pretty good stream of blood is streaming down my calf into my shoe, as if he has swallowed all he could but is continuing to suck blood just for the sheer fun of it.

"You're a braver man than I," says Peter.

"Better you than me," says Anna.

In all my life I don't think I ever wanted anything more than to get that bloody leech off my leg. I know it's harmless, that I'd look back on this experience and laugh, that I'd have one hell of a good story to tell. But I want it off. Now.

About halfway back, Alfredo turns to see how I'm doing and is surprised, I think, too see that the leech has made considerable progress. "Oh, that's bad," he says, pulling his machete out from its holder. The first thought that went through my mind--that went through everybody's mind--is that he is going to cut off my leg! Then I realize he's going to risk infection and excise the gelatinous critter from my bloodstream (which at this point is O.K. with me. Infections I can handle; leeches I cannot). But Alfredo gives the machete to one of the porters and instructs him in Spanish to climb a tree. Alfredo, with his eagle eyes, has spotted a lime tree a few paces back. Holding the blade of the machete in his mouth, the porter scales the tree and slices off a lime. It's the biggest lime I've ever seen, about the size of a grapefruit. Alfredo cuts it in half and peels it with his machete, then instructs the porter to squeeze the juice onto the leech. The leech recoils instantly, loosening its grip, but not wanting to give up. It starts moving across my leg like an inch worm, and I can feel its little mouth trying to bury deeper into my leg in order to get away from the offending lime juice. For a second I think I am going to faint, but after a few more squirts the leech drops from my leg onto the dirty jungle floor to die what is, I hope, a slow and agonizing death. But I doubt it. Engorged with about a teaspoon of my blood, I'm sure it will croak with a satisfied smile on its bloodsucking little face.

I smear lime juice on my leg to cleanse the wound (which is now indistinguishable from the numerous mosquito bites I've suffered), and I am hardly the worse for wear. Too bad I can't take any photos; it's too shady under the canopy to use my camera. Anna takes a few shots off with her camera, which I hope to get copies to carry in my wallet wherever I go. [I never do.]

Suffice it to say, the leech is the talk of the boat that evening. Even Jim Carmack is impressed. "I've been here twice before, and I spend more time in the water than anybody, and I've never gotten a leech," he says, a touch of envy in his voice.

Since this is our last night on the Delfin, Alfredo, the captain, and his crew have prepared a little surprise--a concert of authentic Peruvian music, with hand-carved flute, log drums, animal skin drums, maracas, and a flashlight (played by rubbing a stick along its serrated grip).

Dinner that night is the worst --a gamey piece of beef that's barely edible and which none of us, I believe, are able to finish. During dinner I began to feel funny and I head straight to bed. While others are drinking up on the sundeck, fishing, or carousing in Tamshiyacu (where we are docked), I lay in my cabin waiting for the inevitable onslaught of diarrhea. It never comes, but I do feel pretty icky all night long--throbbing headache, jumpy stomach, slight fever, and other flu-like symptoms. I also feel dehydrated, and unfortunately our bottled water is gone and the bar is closed. Perhaps it's just exhaustion coupled with the psychosomatic effects of having been host to a parasite earlier in the day.

Peter, as it turns out, does come down with something. He spends most of the evening in the "loo" (he's British). And Andy gets the runs, too. So if something is making the rounds it appears that my anti-diarrhea pills did the job. (Actually, I am pretty regular the entire trip. Our boat is equipped with two modern flush toilets with water pumped straight from the Amazon. But when the boat's generator was off, which is often, there is no water with which to flush. This made for a couple of stinky commodes. Eventually, all the handles broke off the johns and we have to stick our hands into the tank, which contains a not inconsiderable amount of Amazon River mud, and root around for the stopper. Frankly, I would have preferred a hole in the hull that dropped straight to the river. Modern conveniences without modern plumbing seem worse than having no modern conveniences at all.)

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Wed, 19 Jul 1995 07:36:08 -0400
Subject: In the *real* jungle

In the real jungle

Friday, September 21, 1990

We return to Iquitos early in the morning, making good time down the Amazon despite the fact that we had lost our steering. Alfredo opens his personal souvenir shop. In addition to nature guide, he's also an artist and carves some very attractive turtles and piranhas and dolphins out of mahogany. I buy a turtle and a piranha for $25 each to give as gifts back home. I'm sure I could have haggled, but I'm bad at haggling.

As we're moving into Iquitos I get to see what a large and dirty city it is. It's a port town, and there are boats of every description docked everywhere it's possible to dock a boat. Most of them look barely seaworthy, but then the whole country operates at a standard that is much lower than ours. I also notice that the Amazon has risen considerably since we had left.

We spend an hour or two bagging our fish. Jim, Jim Bob and the others do this with great proficiency, separating species, deciding who gets to take what, making sure each bag is properly tied, with enough oxygen, and liberal doses of Amquel, which removes toxic ammonia. I use this occasion to photograph some of the fishes, holding the bag up to the light in front of the camera. I plan on bringing back just three fish, the rare catfish I had caught and two very robust red-eye tetras, one of which I netted during the night collecting trip. I would bring back more, but I live in an apartment and only have room for one aquarium.

When we get off the boat we have to walk along these steep, muddy banks before we get to the stairway that takes us up to the streets. (During the rainy season this is all underwater.) This is perhaps the most treacherous climb of the journey. At every step I fear I am going to slip and fall into the river.

We're just a few blocks from Amazon Camp, the headquarters of the company that organized our tour. We are supposed to make arrangements to visit a fish wholesaler in the area, and also to clear our fishes with the Minister of Fisheries. (Last year they had a problem getting the fish out of Iquitos because the authorities thought they were for resale, instead of private collections, and had wanted to charge the group an extra $1000. Eventually a price was negotiated--$200, or $20 a box.) David Herlong hopes to prevent this from happening again by getting all the necessary paperwork cleared ahead of time. He also wants to negotiate a reasonable export tax.

We have a few hours to kill before the taxis arrive to take us to the wholesalers, so we browse the souvenir shops in Iquitos. Most of the shops were pretty much the same--dried piranha, carved animals identical to the ones Alfredo sold us (which raised questions as to his having actually carved them), and wooden toucans. I still feel tired from being sick last night, so I'm not too energetic or adventurous. I sit on a bench to watch people, but I'm the one being watched. I fend off a lot of panhandlers too, most of them kids. One guy, a teenager on a bike, is brazen enough to touch my pocket where he could see the outline of my billfold. He says something, probably, "Give me some of that money, it looks like you have plenty," to which I reply, "No hablo espanol." He makes a face, as if to say "Jerk!" and pedals away.

An hour or two later I meet up with the others and we go have sodas at a fast-food style restaurant. Even though it's lunch time the place is deserted except for us. People gather outside the windows and watch us with curiosity. Somebody mentions that a soda is worth about a week's pay to the average Peruvian. The fact that we're having sodas must therefore mean we're millionaires.

A Peruvian named Juan joins us. Juan is a supplier. Anything we want he can get. Beers, liquor, cigarettes, parrots, turtles, monkeys, piranha, discus, women, drivers, drugs. He'll even carry our bags, or get us, he says with great pride, blue morph butterflies (which are illegal to export). None of us have any interest in doing business with him, except for George and Joyce, a retired couple who are on the trip even though they aren't into fish. They want to stay in Peru an extra week or two, so they hire Juan to get them a place to stay, a car, etc. (For some reason, Juan makes me think of the leech.)

A few hours later we check back into Hotel Turistas, then we catch a couple of taxis to take us to a wholesaler. This is the highlight for some people because here they can buy expensive fishes at dirt cheap prices. For example, discus for only 25 cents a piece! It's interesting to see how the fishes I see in the pet shop get there.

It's a pretty low-tech operation. A one-story concrete building surrounded by a low wall made of corrugated tin. Inside are four or five rows of aquariums, three tanks high, about 20 tanks per row. They're bare, unfiltered, and packed with fishes. There are also concrete vats, about the size of kiddie pools, filled with plecos and freshwater stingrays and hundreds upon hundreds of corydoras catfish. One or two workers are busy filling bags with fishes and packing them in styrofoam boxes.

Eventually we decide it would be better for us to come back tomorrow to make our purchases. That way the fishes would be bagged on the day we depart Iquitos, and we would have fewer fishes to clear with the Minister of Fishes, which is what we do next.

Back at Amazon Camp. The Minister, a self-important, sleazy kind of guy, is examining the bags of fishes we had caught and is writing down the species and quantity of each. He is not doing a very good job, though. He's missing some fishes entirely and mis-identifying others. After a while it becomes clear that this guy is trying to railroad us. He's only going through the motions of counting the fishes and estimating their worth. He's going to arbitrarily come up with a figure, a large portion of which will undoubtedly will go into his pocket, not Peru's.

It is a tense hour or so as he goes from bag to bag, adding up numbers on a pocket calculator. Finally he comes up with a price. I don't know what it is, but it must be astronomical the way everybody reacts. Peter is especially upset. He threatens to dump all his fishes back into the Amazon. Cooler heads prevail and the Minister agrees to a lower fee. Once again, I don't know how much it is. Since I'm only bringing back three fishes--two red-eye tetras and my still as yet undetermined species of catfish--I didn't have to pitch in. Ultimately, we have the last laugh: his price does not include all the fishes we'll be buying at the wholesaler's tomorrow.

After what seems like forever, we get back to the hotel. I'm exhausted and still a little sick, so I hit the bed and the A.C. for a couple of hours until it's time for dinner. (I'm dying for a shower with fresh, clear chlorinated water, but that will have to wait for another day.)

We go to dinner at a restaurant across the street. It's a planned meal, part of the trip, and it's pretty good. Fish (what else?) and heart-of-palm. We also have several pitchers of iced tea, which maybe isn't such a great idea. We're pretty certain the ice cubes are made from Amazon water. Still, the tea is so refreshing after a week of beer and warm bottled water we take the chance. (No one gets sick as far as I know, although Andy, who didn't feel so good at dinner, spends the night on the john.)

When we got to the restaurant we noticed an aquarium in the corner. Naturally, we all ran over to take a look. It's a rather poorly filtered tank, with lots of algae and several large gouramis. These fish are native to Asia, so I guess that makes them exotic in Peru.

There's talk of a big party somewhere in Iquitos, emphasis on the word big. I'm not in the mood for a huge party in an economically depressed country. I go straight to bed.

From: (Chris Scharpf)
Date: Tue, 25 Jul 1995 18:35:40 -0400
Subject: Escape from Iquitos

Escape from Iquitos

Saturday, September 22, 1990 We have several hours to kill before catching our plane back to Miami. So Peter, Anna and myself hop in a cab and go back to the wholesaler we had visited yesterday. It's difficult giving instructions to the driver, but Peter knows enough Spanish to get by. He must also has a good sense of direction, because he remembers exactly how to get there.

When we arrive at the airport the Minister of Fishes is there along with two customs guard. They want to check our fishes to see if it matches what's on their list. I am reminded of the movie Midnight Express. The authorities find our contraband fish, throw us in jail, and the State Department works years on negotiating our release. But once they start opening our coolers and checking the bags, it becomes obvious they don't know what they're doing. Perhaps they're just looking for dope. In fact, two guards busted out laughing when they examined bags containing rivulus killifish. "Why are they taking these fish out of the country?" is the translation I receive. "They're junk fish, worthless. The fools! Hell, they can have all they want."

The guards are content with passing us through, but the Minister knows we were sneaking out more fish than he had authorized. He wants all the containers opened and all the fishes inspected. Perhaps he's putting on this show just to get a bigger bribe. I try to blend into the background, hoping he will not inspect my bag with my three insignificant--though precious--fishes.

An unforeseen development comes to our rescue. While the Minister and the guards are sorting through our fishes, a long line forms at the customs counter. Other people, including Peruvians and a group of Americans who were there to study mammals, start to get irate. They're tired of standing, waiting, worrying they will miss the plane. The authorities, too, realize they have more people to process than they have time for. So they start moving us along. The Minister slinks away, realizing his gambit is now over. I approach the counter with my large duffle bag, keeping my knapsack on my shoulder. They check the duffle bag and passport and wave me through. I could have five kilos of heroin in my knapsack for all they know.

All this rushing is for naught; the plane is late. So we sit. Late planes must be common in Iquitos, for there are plenty of locals on hand exploiting our boredom with tempting things to buy--jewelry, hand-made rugs, dried piranha. A mariachi band, looking for hand-outs, entertains us with indigenous music. One of the musicians looks amazingly like the Minister of Fishes. Is he accepting bribes on one side of the terminal and hand-outs on the other? I am not the only person to note the resemblance.

Eventually word comes down that our plane is late because it needs to be stocked with food. We grumble about Faucett airlines until David Herlong, who has traveled to Africa to collect Malawi cichlids, put things in perspective by saying, "When you're flying on Third World airlines, the objective is to get there, not how fast you get there." Faucett officials set up a table and serve us soft-drinks. I can't resist one more Inka Kola, for the road. As the hours tick away we begin worrying about missing our connecting flights in Miami. We're not worried about ourselves, we're worried about our fishes.

Three hours later we're finally in the air. The plane is crowded, but not hot and stuffy like the flight in. The flight attendants officiate a few games of bingo, which apparently is a common pastime on Peruvian airlines. The numbers are announced first in Spanish, then in English. Spanish-speaking people have the edge and they win every time.

We touch down in Miami around 6pm. I still have enough time to make my connecting flight to Baltimore, except for one small delay--


We stand in line, along with people arriving from other points in South America, as our luggage is inspected by customs agents in a separate room. I'm worried that the agents inspecting our carry-on stuff will confiscate the three fishes I'm bringing back. Anna, who's bringing back a staff our guide cut for her from a branch, has it confiscated because it's an "agricultural product." Apparently, bringing back live exotic fishes that can be introduced into Florida waters is far less threatening than bringing back a dead piece of wood.

One by one we miss our connecting flights. At least I'm not alone. Once we clear customs we go to our respective airlines hoping there will be a later flight. No dice. The best we can do is the morning.

Faucett puts up at a hotel not far from the airport. I forget the name but it's a Spanish-speaking hotel. As soon as we check in we race to the restaurant. We're starving, and we're starving for American food. We all order cheeseburgers, and boy they are tasty. Instead of beer we all order tall glasses of iced tea. Suddenly we don't feel so bad about missing our flights.

Traveling that extra day, however, means we have to take extra precautions with our fishes. Working in Anna's hotel room bathroom, I help Anna and Peter change the water in all of their fish bags. We fill the bathroom sink with tap water, treat it with a dechlorinator [BRING A DECHLORINATOR], then open each and every fish bag, dump a quantity of the tea-colored Amazon water down the toilet, and replace it with the treated tap water from the sink. It's hard, messy work, made even harder by the exhaustion we're feeling from a long day of waiting, flying, and waiting some more. It's after 1am before any of us got to bed, but at least our fishes are prepared to survive another day.

The next day, Sunday, I finally arrive home. I can't wait to get my pictures developed. I can't wait to tell everybody about the leech. And I couldn't wait to introduce my new fishes into their new home.


I quickly identified the mysterious catfish I caught that no one had seen before, and which was voted unanimously by the group as the trips's MVF (Most Valuable Fish). It was a marbled catfish, Helogenes marmoratus. It survived the first two months in captivity without, as far as I know, ever eating a morsel of food. Then, around the beginning of December, it started feeding heartily, cruising around the bottom of the tank like a miniature shark. And then, just as unexpectedly, it died shortly before Christmas.

The other two fish I brought back--the biggest, most beautiful red-eyed tetras (Moenkhausia oligolepis) you've ever seen, are still alive and doing well. They reside in my living-room aquarium, priceless souvenirs from the most memorable week of my far.



My 1995 and 1996 trips were organized by Maragarita Tours (

Text copyright © 1990,1995,1999 Christopher Scharpf


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