A different kind of road hazard

Martin Lobigs
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Our cycling correspondent heeds warnings to avoid a particularly nasty fish

A runaway cow watches the author as he bikes past. Submitted photo

The turbid, brown Rio Tahuamanu did not subside in the three days I spent at the Bolivian naval base at Extrema, foiled by a flooded gully in my attempts to cycle across the border and into Peru.
It was par for the course on the adventure I began in October 2007. I am cycling the 4,000 kilometres from Argentina to Manaus, Brazil in the Amazon. This trip follows on the heels of one I started in 1999 when I left St. John's and biked to Argentina, as chronicled in my 2007 book "A Life on Wheels - Biking Alone from Newfoundland to Latin America" (Creative Book Publishing).
Then one day at Extrema, a "lancha," a canoe like motorboat, came by. Its propeller was light and on a long pole. When it was tilted almost horizontally with the water surface, the propeller would only be slightly submerged, therefore reducing the risk of the propeller snagging sunken logs or poles stuck in the river mud. It was because of such risks that the navy base "comandante," Rony, had forbidden the use of the base's motorboat. Its engine was heavy and the propeller could not be tilted to the water surface.
Villagers from Nareuda, a hamlet I had passed through about 40 kilometres back, had stored bags of Brazil nuts at the base, and after loading those aboard, the captain of the lancha agreed to take me 200 metres upriver to a landing beyond the gully.
At the landing was the Peruvian police post, "Alto Peru." The hut stood in a philosopher's silence by itself. Aside from the naval base, the nearest homes were a couple of farms I would pass five kilometres further on.
A lone policeman, Lestmar Ale Yabar, was at the hut. He told me that I would normally not be permitted to enter Peru here and that he could not stamp my passport. But perhaps because Rony had told him about me on his two-way radio, he was co-operative. Of the Peruvian police he said, "Somos seres humanos" - literally, we are human beings. Coming from Yabar's lips, it expressed the policeman's readiness to help.
He explained that I could get the stamp required for travelling in Peru at the "migraciÓn" office 150 kilometres away in Puerto Maldonado, but I would have to register at every police post along the way. Then he wished me well.
What followed was an eight-kilometre trail to the village San Lorenzo. The trail was so muddy that I doubt an ATV could have gotten through. The only track, a few days old, was from a motorcycle. I passed cattle pastures and dense forest where I saw the red and yellow garland-like "Flor de PatujÚ" (Heliconia rostrata) grow wild. It is the pride of garden owners, a lure for hummingbirds and Bolivia's national flower. I saw nobody, though at one farm I heard a person cutting wood.
In San Lorenzo, I checked with the police. The two constables looked at my passport and registered me in a ledger. I asked them also to stamp my agenda with the seal of the police post so I would have something to show to the MigraciÓn in Puerto Maldonado.
I biked from San Lorenzo to Puerto Maldonado in two days. The terrain was slightly hilly with cattle farms and everything was lush. The first half until Mavila was freshly paved and crews in flashy orange work suits and white helmets were installing guardrails and traffic signs. Many workers were young women, but regardless of their gender, each time I passed a crew I was hailed with a boisterous "Patricioooo!" It means "friend" in Brazil and Peruvians near the border have adapted the term to greet strangers. It sounded a lot better than the "hola (hello) gringo" greetings which are the norm in Latin America.
A number of bridges were being reinstalled after rains had washed them out. To the dismay of environmentalists who like to protect the majestic Brazil nut tree (Bertholletia excelsa), which grows up to 50 metres tall, its trunk is still used in bridge construction. Some streams were clear, and I wanted to take a bath in one until I was warned about "rayas."
Rayas (ray) is the popular term for the CandirÚ or Vandellia cirrhosa, an eel-like catfish that can grow 15 centimetres long and 2 cm wide. It is often found in the gills of fish. But it can attack other animals and humans. It is feared more than piranhas, and locals sometimes cover their private parts with coconut shells while swimming to keep the fish at bay. CandirÚs the size of a matchstick or smaller have entered male penises and lodged themselves with their barbs in urethras and scrotums. Since the fish is translucent, it is hard to see in the water and surgeons may not see it in the body. The victim suffers acute pain, fever and some have died from trauma.
Locals have used the Jagua plant (Genipa Americana) and the Buitach apple (nowhere could I find its scientific name) to kill and dislodge the blood sucker. Buitach, also used to remove kidney stones, is rich in citric acid which dissolves calcium, and therefore the fish skeleton.
Though CandirÚ has been know to enter other body openings, the nickname penis-fish is reasonable, but claims that it can swim through the urethra are probably false, given its narrowness and the force of gravity the fish would have to defy.

On Saturday, Martin Lobigs reaches Puerto Maldonado, Peru, renowned for its wildlife reserve.

Organizations: Creative Book Publishing

Geographic location: Peru, Brazil, Argentina Latin America Puerto Maldonado Manaus San Lorenzo St. John's Newfoundland Bolivia

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