Wednesday, June 06, 2007
An english expat in Lima can satisfy most cravings for home comforts; the supermarkets sell Earl Grey Tea and Kelloggs' Cornflakes (although made in Venezuela); Cablé Magico beams BBC World into our homes; The Weekly Telegraph can be delivered via air mail; there's a cricket club; and even a bodega that's started stocking real ale, brewed and bottled in Bury St Edmunds (shipped first to Perth, Australia, and then onto Peru).
But there is one national treasure an Englishman in Lima cannot get, and that's rain.
Lima lies in a desert and receives less than 25mm of rain a year. "That's not rain", I scoff, when the neighbours complain about the dismal amount of drizzle that occasionally dampens things here. After almost two years of living in Peru I really do miss the rain.
When I used to live in Manchester it always seemed to be raining and of course I moaned about it then.
Summers in the UK are spoilt by rain. Barbecue guests hurry indoors, whilst one poor soul tries to stop the burgers from burning and getting wet simultaneously. At Wimbledon rain stops play, and tennis fans watch the covers going on whilst listening to the annual debate about whether it's time for a roof. Glastonbury becomes a mud festival and when camping, meals are invariably eaten in the car.
As a consequence, hoards of Brits head for the Mediterranean each summer to escape the misery, but for me last summer (winter in Peru) I wanted it to rain on my holiday.
And where in Peru was I guaranteed to find rain? The rainforest, of course. Its annual rainfall is about 100 times that of Lima, in fact. So I booked my ticket to Iquitos.
Iquitos, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest, is the only city in the world you can't get to by road.
In the 19th century rubber barons got rich here and, like the Englishman in Lima today, imported what they couldn't do without from home: the latest Parisian fashions, the finest liquor, and, from Portugal, decorative tiles which still adorn the old colonial mansions, their faded beauty a reminder of Iquitos' prosperous past.
Today the population has swelled to 400,000, although few benefit from the prosperity that the discovery of oil and the arrival of tourists has brought.
Iquitos stands on the bank of the Amazon. So, on my first evening in town I strolled out hoping to find a drink with a river view. I found a drink but (unless that jungle beer was very strong!) the Amazon wasn't looking too mighty.
In fact there really wasn't too much water in it at all. Yet I was sure (from my memories of Geography class) that it rains every day in the rainforest. What was the problem?
The problem, I discovered, was that there is a low water and a high water season in the Amazon, rather than a wet and dry season. Unfortunately, my visit coincided with low water season.
I was staying for part of my holiday in a jungle lodge and during our slow journey downstream to the lodge (low water means there is more debris in the river to avoid) my guide inquired what wildlife I hoped to see whilst in the jungle. "I hope to see rain", I replied. "I really want to see rain".
Over the next few days, however, the sky teased me with some electrical storms but delivered nothing.
The water level continued to fall and the river dolphins headed for deeper playgrounds. Time was running out to see the lesser spotted raindrop.
On my last day I headed out for a full day's trek. The birdsong soundtrack, tangled root systems, sky-touching trees and towering termite mounds were fascinating.
Here I was in the Amazon rainforest - the world's largest, most biodiverse ecosystem, the lungs of our planet.
But let's be honest - after seven hours there's not much to tell between one green tree and the next.
My brisk pace had become a trudge and my curiosity for forest facts and figures - the medicinal qualities of plants and the identity of "the animal behind the dropping" - had long gone.
Then I heard a sound. My heart beat quickened. I stopped in my tracks, turned my face to the sky (well, forest canopy) and smiled as I waited blissfully. Not an animal, but certainly something which illustrated the beauty of nature. It was raining! And I was getting wet!
Puddles turned into bogs. I got my wellies stuck and lost my balance trying to tug them out. My socks were soaked, my hair was dripping, my clothes were drenched and I couldn't see a thing through my glasses. It felt fantastic.
Back at the lodge my guide was most apologetic that we hadn't seen more wildlife. "Don't worry about it", I said.
"But why aren't you more disappointed?"
"Because today I've seen something rarer and more precious for an English expat in Lima. I've seen rain. Beautiful rain."