Ah, motorbikes: I love ‘em. The fresh air, the tips of hair tickling my chin, body melting into the curves of the road, wind whipping against my face as if to say, “KEEP RIDING! YOU ARE ALIVE! YOU ARE TRULY ALIVE!”
And I did feel truly alive… at least until a week ago, precisely 3 hours after I arrived in Iquitos, the city that shuns cars and fully embraces the motorbike.
Initially, my foreign eyes and ears were wowed, entranced by the hypnotic hum, the non-stop rumbling, and the chaotic weaving of the machines. The idea that I was somewhere completely different, a place without cars, was a novelty in this modern world, and something worthy of sharing on my Facebook wall (guilty as charged). However, in a few hours, I came to the realization that the noise was not going to stop, and my awe quickly transformed into a cloudy, buzz-filled brain fog, which mutated into a full-blown migraine that could only be bested by consuming a tablespoon full of raw MSG.
Smack dab in the Amazon jungle, with only one path out of town to the port of Nauta, Iquitos is the largest city not accessible by road. This alone is a very romantic concept and could very well make it a jungle paradise, which it was, apparently, back in the day — something I can’t even imagine. All the locals I spoke to, in fact, praised the beauty of the days pre-motorbike plague, when everyone had a bicycle and the town had the characteristics of a sleepy beach outpost, with only the sounds of squeaking brake pads punctuating the air.
But in a matter of 10 years, things can change rapidly, and the population that was happy enough to putter around using the energy of their legs quickly realized that for a small investment, they could expend less energy and get to work faster, playdates faster, home faster, and by attaching a seat at the back, could even gain some solid income by offering people rides across town for a few Peruvian nuevo soles.
So yes, for all practical purposes, it’s an amazing way to get around on a low budget. But if you’ve ever been interrupted by even a single motorbike rumbling past your porch and silently cursed the rider for rattling your train of thought — and you know you have — think about being in a city where that rattling is amplified by tens of thousands, running morning, noon, and night. And if you want to get into concrete numbers, this rattling, in fact, has catapulted Iquitos to the #1 noisiest city in South America, boasting a level reaching 115 decibels, 45 decibels higher than the maximum recommendation of the World Health Organization. With that number, it’s no wonder my windowless hotel room tucked in the centre of the hotel wasn’t immune.
Unless there’s government intervention or financial subsidies for the mototaxi drivers, money will continue to be equated to speed, which is very often boosted by tampering with exhaust pipes — a superhero trick that not only increases force but unfortunately, noise levels, too. Even attempts to introduce silencers have generally been given the two-finger salute, which drivers, whether it makes sense or not, are concerned about reducing their fuel efficiency — and when it costs a paltry 10 soles/$4 for a 25-minute ride to the airport, any way to save money counts.
It seems everyone is hesitant to outright lambast the current state of the city’s noise pollution, but people do seem concerned. It’s clear no one likes the noise. But it also seems their hate isn’t enough to trump the fact that motorbikes and mototaxis are a great way to save time and make money, and when it all comes down to it, sadly, that’s what the modern world and progress is all about.
I have no solution for the bigger problem here, but on a micro-level, I’m just gonna take out my earplugs, hop on my final mototaxi to the airport, raise my arms to the heavens above, and finally twist the lid back onto my Ibuprofen container.
Iquitos: Mototaxi and migraine HQ
American dolla-dolla bills: only the best accepted here
Reports from the hotel hideout
Rose-coloured glasses, be damned!
The Peruvian adventure begins