The delicate balance between
life and death
Belén, a shantytown suburb of the city of Iquitos, lies on the banks of the Amazon River in eastern Peru, not far from the Brazilian border. Population pressure has forced it to expand in all directions, so that some of its palmetto-thatched huts have even been built out on pontoons that extend into a quiet eddy of the river itself.
The river flowing past Belén has gathered its water from a great network of rivers and streams that all snake their way eastward through the lowland rainforest. Already, during the season when it is at flood, the young Amazon is three kilometres wide, even though it still has a full three thousand kilometres to flow before it reaches the Atlantic. Indeed, it is quite possible for oceangoing ships to travel from the mouth of the Amazon to Iquitos and Belén and even beyond, having passed through almost the entire length of the Amazon basin.
In the nineteenth century, Iquitos was an important port for the vicious and exploitative rubber trade, but the city has since fallen into a kind of dreamlike tropical existence, with a little tourism, a good deal of logging and subsistence agriculture, some mining, and the inevitable drug trade.
The centre of Iquitos, which is all the tourists see, has a cheerfully raffish air. Crowds of girls swarm the streets, giggling whenever exotic visitors come into view. There is a pervasive throbbing mixture of tropical and Andean music. Children swarm everywhere, begging and offering small services. A permanent cloud of vultures adds a Graham Greene touch as they circle above the rusty tin roofs. But it is in