When I had the chance to do this, I had a lot of misgivings, and then I felt, well, if you can go there—we don’t have any concept of the real frontier today.
We landed in Lima on the coast, and in the airport we waited to take a jungle airline DC3, that goes over the Andes. They have not built DC3s since about 1947. We piled into this little airplane, and you should have seen the people in this plane. A motley collection out of all the Somerset Maugham novels you’ve ever read.
We got up over the Andes. Now, I have flown many times over the Alps, I’ve flown over the Sahara, I’ve flown over the outback country, which is considered a great sight from the air, but believe me, if you ever get a chance to fly over the Andes, do it. And the thing that really scares you about it is—these are angry mountains—you know, some mountains are just beautiful. You look at the Alps and they look remote and cold, they’re all covered with snow, they look sort of inaccessible but beautiful. These mountains look dangerous. The Andes Mountains just lay there, brown, and there’s not a stick of vegetation. They’re just brown, black, great sweeps of gray and they’re high, huge mountains.
There are Incan ruins in certain areas of the Andes. You look out there and there is a sense that you’re looking at the thing that’s in all of us, a kind of savage, primal past. If a plane goes down in the Andes, forget it. There’s no going back….
You go higher and higher until all of a sudden you’re at the peak of the Andes. It’s a mountain range that starts right outside of Lima. Right on the coast and builds up and up just like that. In an instant you’re at the peak and everybody’s sucking oxygen. The planes are not pressurized. And here’s these little old grandmothers sucking their oxygen. They give you a pipe and the oxygen is pumped in and you sit and suck it.
And the mountains here are higher up than we are. That is a sobering thought when you look up out of the airplane and see two big walls, and the pilots are flying along and, of course there are all kinds of air currents in this place. The plane goes ARRRRRRGAGAGAGAGAGA. The steward goes up and down the aisle wearing a big air mask with tanks on his back. He’s giving you a Life magazine and on the cover is Ann Margaret. This is life, and out there you see these mountains black and gray, and the plane is sweating AEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.
And suddenly you’re going down the other side and it’s another world. It’s another world. It’s the jungle. You see a green carpet and it stretches from one horizon to the other. And it’s flat and it’s just solid green with no variation in color. No fields, no hills, it’s just like a great green, soft, woolen carpet and you realize that these trees down there are maybe a hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred feet high. Just a great canopy. And if you go in, they just don’t find you.
On the other side of the mountains is a city—a strange frontier town in the heart of the jungle, right on the river. The Ucayali River. Everybody goes down to this little jungle town which is on the other side. It’s a town called Pucallpa.
After we got down I was talking with one of the jungle pilots who fly single-engine float planes over the jungle and we got talking about the flight over the Andes. He says, “You came in on the DC3, didn’t you?”
I say “Yeah.”
He says, “Boy, I don’t know how they make it.”
I say, “Well, I bought a ticket!”
The jungle pilot says again, “Gee, I don’t know how they make it. He says, “You know, that little single engine gets up there to twenty-three or twenty-four thousand feet, she’s really sweating.”
I say, “You mean that?” You don’t think of the engines—they just go. You can’t imagine that little engine saying, “I think I can, I think I can.”
Part of Pucallpa and the river.
You get out of the airplane and they just throw all your junk out. You’re used to going around back and waiting with your ticket stubs and your baggage comes out of a slot, but they just throw your stuff out on the ground and the plane goes BAAAAAAAAAAA—it blows it all around.
So it’s a town called Pucallpa. This is all of the Wild West towns you could imagine in your life. It’s like a combination of Singapore, Dodge City, El Paso, Teaneck, and over it all is the most fantastic miasma of malaria—you know that malaria is here. You see the mosquitoes flying around waiting for you at the airport. Our plane taxies off with a flat tire and the only other plane they’ve got is over there with a bent wing. No hangers—nothing. Just this little building with a guy sitting there. He just sort of looks at you.
We were met by a big, heavy, rough metal station wagon-type vehicle with big round tires that was going to take us in to a jungle settlement about three miles away on a river, and as we rode, the houses of Pucallpa thinned out and we were in the jungle and then, here we were, in a tiny missionary settlement. These people have about five airplanes—a little airline that flies into the real jungle, which is further on in.
The settlement is on what seems to be a little, bucolic, beautiful lake. An hour later we’re having dinner in this tiny house, all screened in, looking over the lake. One of the missionary’s wives is serving us a meal. They’re putting on their finest for us. And she’s wearing a flowered dress that seems to be the only thing she has. They have nothing. Making conversation, I say to her, “Gee, the jungle! Do you ever see any snakes of anything?”
She says, “Oh yeah, in fact two days ago it was right down there,” and she points to the little beach where two missionary kids are swimming. She says, “Right down at the beach. I got up in the morning and looked out and there was an anaconda swallowing a crocodile. It was sticking out of him, eight feet long.”
An anaconda swallowing a crocodile.
More Peru to come.