“Can you carry the backpack on your chest instead?” Gino asked me as we were about to enter Belén Market in Iquitos, Peru.
I nodded, turning it around. He winked. “That's a gringa inteligente,” he said. “Oh, and one last thing: if you plan to take pictures, make sure to wrap the cord around your wrist.”
As we ventured inside, I quickly realized it wasn't just the camera or backpack that made me look out of place: Iquitos' unrelenting heat had caught me unprepared, and to cope I had traded my stylish jeans and flats for gym shorts and sandals. No one else in the market – Gino included – seemed affected by the humidity: they were still in tennis shoes and denim, a few women even clad in long-sleeved shirts.
Gino tried to show me all of the local products – black fish bearing electric orange eggs, aquaje fruits that locals swear increase the number of female births. He willed me to goggle at herbal aphrodisiacs and the baby monkeys, sloths and other jungle “pets” sold illegally in the market.
Meanwhile, the locals goggled at me with my purple backpack hanging awkwardly over my breasts, the frontal load making it impossible to follow Gino closely or squeeze through narrow openings without knocking against passersby.
I passed a stand of slaughtered chickens, their heads dangling over the edge of the counter. I gulped, more flushed than ever.
“This way, this way,” Gino waited impatiently for me to catch up. “The boat's waiting.”
We darted through the last alleyway, where men were selling the heavily laden limbs of banana trees. Finally, the dock was in clear view. After Gino helped me onto the boat, I flung down my backpack beside me, the front of my powder blue t-shirt now covered in perspiration.
Waiting for the motor to start, Gino began his tour again. “Everything floats around here,” he explained, motioning in the direction from which we'd just come. “We got floating houses, floating markets… ”
He nodded in my direction. “…We even got a floating gringa.”
As we pulled away from Belén, I reached for my camera to take one last photo of the market's chaotic scene. How exotic, my friends back home would say. But the only exotic thing that had been in that market today was me.