I’m in the Amazon jungle, hooray! I fall on the bed, stirring up a cloud of mold.
We’ve been here less than an hour, and I’ve already seen a bunch of hummingbirds, two toucans and a sloth!
And stubbed my toes against giant, tree trunk slices hammered into the ground as walkways.
Hard to believe we only left Cusco this morning – what a total change of environment less than 300 miles away!
Through the bungalow’s see-through walls made of mosquito screens, I can see fig trees and their large leaves, swaying in the breeze outside. Fruit falls off a tree now and then and taps on the roof made from palm leaves. It feels like being outside and inside at the same time.
Landing in Puerto Maldonado, a small border town and a gateway to the southern Amazon Basin, that was named after a Spanish adventurer who died in the rapids of the river he was exploring, feels like a leap of time.
Like watching one of those old French movies, set in a dusty, mosquito-ridden, jungle backland.
Two things deserve special mention as we drive through the town’s muddy, potholed streets, lined with bare, concrete houses, to the river dock: the open-air wooden bus we’re sitting on, painted with all kinds of fantastic jungle animals, and the huge, oblong-shaped nuts, coated in sugar and dark chocolate, that will sweeten our 2-hour boat ride up the Madre de Dios River. Groups of girls sell them to passengers who are about to take wooden-planked, tin-roofed ferries or small, motorized peki-peki boats.
For the first time in my life, I’m tasting Brazil nuts. Converted!
The Madre de Dios River looks like a massive, brown reptile winding its way of almost one thousand miles through the impenetrable jungle of the Peruvian Amazonia. Lined on both sides by walls of incredibly tall trees, preventing any lateral views, all that is left to see is the vast surface of the majestic river.
Stretching my back, stiff from all the sitting, I look out from under the yellow canopy roof over our heads. The motorboat’s slender bow is pushing its way up the stream, heading for the eco-lodge, where we’re spending the next 3 days exploring the Amazon rainforest.
Excited, I look over at Pablo. He’s snoozing, leaning against one of the lodge‘s sacks of supplies; the brim of the canopy roof is flapping over his head.
A small ant falls from it on me. Frantically, I shake it off.
“The rainy season just started,” says Yoel.
I look at the high brown water, overflowing on both sides of the river’s tall, reddish banks. They’re attacking the dense-canopy trees with such a force, that – in some places – the tropical giants fall like matchsticks. Sticking out of the water are broken trunks, jammed at the bottom or bobbing up on the surface, ready to rip the bottom of our boat with the same ease as a walrus’s tusks a polar bear’s belly.
If it wasn’t for Yoel and his expert eye.
“What are those?” I point to small houseboats, moored along the river.
“They are gold-dredging boats.”
Attached to them are long tubes, immersed in water and powered by noisy generators.
“They suck sediments from the bottom of the river, and load them onto conveyor belts where they’re sifted. Illegal gold-mining is a common way of making a living in Tambopata. It used to be rubber production, logging and farming but gold is gold,” our jungle guide and a biologist in one smiles with a full, white smile so rare in these parts.
I run my eyes over his torn greasy shirt and bare feet.
Well, it’s the jungle, not Paris.
The lodge is almost invisible from the water, hidden in a quiet corner of a river bend. Only the bungalow roofs, peeking out through the dense barrier of trees, announce an inhabited place.
With a maracuja welcome drink in hand, we’re led through a small area of cleared jungle, crisscrossed by roofed bridges, rows of wooden bungalows and utility buildings. The leaves of tropical shrubs, palm trees and exotic flowers are glowing in the sunlight like liquid silver.
The restaurant is an airy building, perched on short stilts and protected on the river side by a long thatched roof reaching to the ground.
We sit down to juanes, typical dishes of the Peruvian jungle, that look like little green packages. We unwrap the palm leaves the food is cooked in, and clouds of steam, smelling of stewed meat, tropical vegetables and rice, pour out right into our noses.
It’s been a constant attack on our senses since we got here!
Oh, and it’s 89° F!
I could just sit here forever …
I’m chilling in a hammock hung on the porch, determined to let the fragrant smells, exotic sounds and exuberant views of the jungle around keep spoiling me.
Even silence, the absence of sound, takes on a different meaning here – it’s a continuous hum, a drowsy roll of chirping and buzzing, wallpapered to the back of my skull.
Lulling me to sleep, like a gently rocking train.
“Absolutely not, we DON’T keep any food in the bung’low!” I recognize the voices of Diane, a middle-aged cheerleader from the Republic of Texas and her husband, coming from the reception area.
“We laid down to take a siesta, and the next thang we knew was sumpin’ crawlin’ ol’ over us. We opened the door to git some light in, and what we saw were thousands of bugs ol’ over the bed. A real invasion of them!”
“It was so terr’ble, I’m still shakin’ now.”
“Y’all can’t have us stay in such unsanitary conditions. We’d like to talk to the manager.”
“How come we can’t? Because we’re in the jungle?! Gimme a break.”
“If y’all don’t move us right away, we’re outta here!”
An image of a swollen river rushing by pops into my head.
“Y’all can catch us a few geckos if we wanted to?! That they’re the best critter catchers?!” Diane repeats in disbelief.
I laugh, impressed by Yoel’s resourcefulness.
“You’re right – it’s a real jungle down here.”
As well as his wit.
It works – Diane and her husband break out into hearty laughs and leave him alone.
This Yoel … I look in the direction of our guide, a calm, shy, composed guy, who’s so inconspicuous you’re not even aware of his presence.
Since he seems really smooth with people, it might be a good idea to keep him around when I come back with my own groups.
Let’s see how much he knows about the jungle.
Someone is calling my name.
Sounds pretty urgent.
What a bother! Can’t they get Pablo?!
They can’t, and soon, I find out why. Right after I walk through the western-style swinging door of his bungalow and freeze in shock.
An alien. Lying on the bed by the wall is an alien.
Boldly, I approach.
Looking at me is Pablo’s face, that has been blown out of any human proportions, and that’s an understatement. The skin is stretched so tight it would explode if touched, the eyelids are swollen closed, the lips twice their size. The elephant man.
I almost laugh out loud.
“What the hell happened, Pablo?!”
“Looks like he got bitten by something,” Yoel says in Spanish. “Doesn’t look like a banana spider, though, or he’d have cramps.”
A moment of panic follows – what about the group?! (and me?!) – but then, it hit me.
“Pablo, did you get bitten by something on the boat?”
After a thorough inspection, Yoel finds a red blister filled with clear liquid behind his ear.
“Hormiga de fuego,” he says. A fire ant.
Though not much different in appearance from the common ant, the fire ant has a painful bite, that can cause a strong allergic reaction.
Thank God I brushed mine off in time!
“Yeah, I know, it’s a good thing the venom only kills small animals,” agrees Yoel, totally misreading the expression of relief on my face, “and rarely humans.”
A mixture of baking soda and water is applied, as well as cold compresses.
“Now we just wait,” says Yoel.
Pablo’s disfigured head lies quietly on the pillow.
It looks a bit better.
Or maybe we just got used to it.
Bobbing up and down on the river is a small motorboat, waiting to take us to Monkey Island.
Since I liked the little spying monkeys in Indiana Jones movies, I can’t wait to get there!
(Little do I know that after backpacking around India years later, I’ll come to absolutely hate them.)
We head out.
Because of high water and strong currents, the sandy beach on which we usually get off is gone, and we have to make do with a tall, slippery bank, overgrown with slimy vegetation.
It doesn’t go without screams, falls and wellies sucked into the mud.
After wading through a field of reeds, grown double the height of a man, we plunge into the gloom of an afternoon jungle.
After minutes of walking, Yoel stops and starts yelling “bananas, bananas!” waving around bunches of small bananas.
It doesn’t take him long to spot the first monkeys. A whole lot of them, actually!
We don’t understand how he does it – all we see is a compact mass of huge, impenetrable leaves, branches and lianas.
Finally, swinging acrobatically from branch to branch, a monkey climbs down a giant matriarch tree the dimensions of a house. Hanging off one of the boughs, its long, black tail wrapped around the trunk, it stretches its abnormally long, spider-like arm toward the bananas. Yoel plays a little tug-of-war with it for a while, until the monkey runs out of patience and hisses at him.
More monkeys start climbing down, settling on branches like a flock of black birds.
“All males,” notices the Australian guy, pointing to a pendant hanging from the base of their tails.
¡Ja! Yoel exclaims, “they’re not males but females.”
Katie steps out and hands a banana to a small, brown monkey with a dark head and a creamy face. It takes it shyly from her and starts peeling it gracefully, like a sophisticated young lady.
“She has such a soft hand, like a child,” Katie says admiringly.
“That’s a Capuchin monkey,” Yoel explains. “When the Spaniards first arrived in America, they named these monkeys Capuchins after the Franciscan friars. They, too, wear brown robes with dark hoods.”
Surrounding Katie is a whole screeching flock, grabbing her and stretching their greedy hands up to her.
Hands as soft as a child‘s.
Jumping back, Katie drops her sunglasses.
“My pilots!” she cries out when one of the monkeys grabs them and – at the speed of light – climbs up a tree.
The Australian guy, without missing a beat, pulls out a bottle of water. As a trade-off.
The Capuchin couldn’t care less, though. The Australian guy starts searching his pockets. All he can come up with, though, are a few crumpled bills.
“I’m sure that will work,” someone laughs.
“It would with me,” Abby cackles.
To everybody’s surprise, the monkey comes down. The Australian guy fans the bills out in is hand like cards and hides them behind his back – the barter can start.
If it wasn’t for another organ grinder bastard who sneaks up from behind and snatches them!
Acting just like their human cousins, aren’t they!
The third type of monkey we get to see is Lion monkey.
“You’re lucky, look,” Yoel points to a tall palm tree. A tiny creature is sitting on one of its elephant-size leaves, its cute face and huge round eyes framed by a mane of long golden hair.
“She’s so beautiful,” sighs Diana.
With a bird-like claw, the monkey scratches its back covered with abundant, orange-colored hair. We can see that a baby monkey is attached to it.
“They really do look like little lions,” Diana moves closer to take pictures of the mother and her young, while Yoel speaks to the female in a soothing voice. The creature climbs over onto his shoulder and begins to peel a banana. Yoel skillfully moves the monkey from his body to Diana’s whose face instantly lights up.
This is surely one of the highlights of the tour for her.
“I know why the monkey likes her so much,” whispers the Australian guy behind our backs, “they have the same hairstyle.”
He’s right – Diana’s sporting a high, bouncy blow-out that looks like a ball of tumbleweed!
On the way back, I casually ask Yoel if monkeys can swim.
“They can,” he says, “but they have to learn it first, just like people.”
Impressed about his knowledge, I decide to stick with him in the future.
It’s probably the introverted kind of personality that makes a good biologist. The Australian guy, for example, would be terrible at it with his impulsive nature. Just imagine him spending all that time alone in the field researching animals!
His loud voice is, once again, resonating over the small river forest we’re walking through, scaring out local nesting birds. This time, he’s hollering something about checking out the lodge bar tonight.
Suddenly, there’s something moving under my eye. I reach up, but my fingers hit the brim of the baseball cap I’m wearing.
The wild wriggling under my eyelashes won’t stop. In panic, I lower my head and try to grasp the heavy, twisting thing with my fingers, but it keeps slipping through. Hysterically, I grope around my squinted eye, trying to seize it.
There comes a sharp pain. And again. I flinch and look in front of me. The air is swarming with dark, buzzing bodies.
“Wasps … run!” I scream at the top of my lungs and break into a run. The backs of Una and the Australian guy before me are just like mine covered thick with insects.
We run like crazy in the direction of the river, pushing our way through long tree branches whipping our backs.
If the boat wasn’t ready to go, we would have simply jumped into the river and swam across.
The bloody Australian guy and his yelling!
I’m standing in front of my bathroom mirror, checking out the damage, while a beautiful, orange glow is spreading over the river and the vast forest behind it.
Staring back at me are huge red bumps on my face, under my eye and in the middle of my forehead (how the hell did the wasps get under the visor of my cap?!). I can’t decide what’s worse – a single fire ant bite, or multiple stings by jungle wasps? My back and arms look like pincushions.
At dinner, the female members of our group won’t stop fussing over the Australian guy, who – stripped to the waist – is reaching for food with hissing sounds and jerking movements.
Una and I don’t get to be waited on like that.
The river and jungle are covered with an impenetrable thick blackness when we’re heading out for one last activity – a night Caiman-spotting.
After navigating upstream for a while, Yoel shuts off the engine and steers the boat toward the river bank.
“You see them?” he points to a dark mass of vegetation pierced by glowing red dots.
Given away by their eyes reflecting Yoel’s flashlight, hiding in tangles of roots, branches and lianas are Caimans. “Their retinas contain crystals, that send back light in such a way they can see in the dark and underwater.”
My ability to watch Caimans is pretty limited – a painful chill runs over my spine every time I move. Instead, I watch the amazing dark vault of the Southern Hemisphere sky and the myriads of bright stars and patches of luminous nebulae.
Suddenly, a loud scream pierces the night.
I turn, and as I do so, my back wails in pain.
Standing right in the middle of the rocking boat with his feet wide apart is Yoel, with his arms wrapped around a medium-size Caiman. He’s drenched to the skin.
Aaahh! We move away from him as quickly as possible.
“It’s okay, come closer, really, don’t worry,” he says with a big smile and shiny eyes, the unmistakable symptoms of an adrenaline rush. He’s trying to wrestle the animal and its powerful paws waving wildly around, while the bone protuberances on the Caiman’s back are ripping his shirt .
That explains the holes.
More red eyes shine out from underneath the riverbank where the boat gets caught in a cluster of roots.
“Let’s git outta here!” someone screams again.
But Crocodile Dundee won’t have any of that.
He keeps flopping the thrashing animal over to show us how “hunters kill Caimans.” He sinks to his knees, demonstrating, that they do so by “thrusting a spear between their eyes or in their bellies, where the skin is thinner, because it wouldn’t penetrate the back!”
The situation is quickly getting out of control.
If only we could turn into human Frisbees and eject ourselves out of here!
When the armor-plated reptile tires, Yoel releases it back into the water.
The Caiman lashes its reinforced tail with a loud splash, disappearing under the surface.
Yoel serenely untangles the boat and resumes his hunt.
Now, we’re approaching the red dots in the bushes to such proximity that reaching out is all it takes to touch the animals. No limbs dangling over the sides of the boat now, I can assure you.
When Yoel decides he’s done enough, that he has delivered, he gives his dirty shirt a quick rinse in the river (we stop him from jumping in) and washes the mud off his face and body.
He turns the engine off and, with a “close your eyes and enjoy the silence,” lets the current take the boat.
The jungle is humming noiselessly above our heads, the rustling of leaves and creaking of branches blending with the dark rumble of the river.
I look at the sky, sparkling like the collection of diamonds I’ll never have.
He really went overboard with this!
Like I meant it literally when I said he should bring nature as close to us as possible.
What’s next – staring a jaguar down or killing an anaconda with bare hands?!
And what a nice guy he seemed in the beginning!
Deep, guttural growls fill the jungle, reverberating with such an intensity that I bet they can be heard as far as Cusco.
Not even 5 am! I stick my head under the pillow.
A musty smell enters my nose.
If it’s true that there’s a direct correlation between the size of vocal cords and testicles in the howler monkey, the loudest animal on the planet, then this specimen’s knackers must be real tiny.
Which reminds me – Sadie told a joke the other day. Do you know why women rub their eyes when they wake up? Because they have no balls to scratch!
Ha-ha. I jump out of bed with renewed energy.
The first person I run into in the restaurant is Emily, helping herself to generous portions of biscuits with gravy and pancakes with jungle berries, and slipping in her backpack manioc sandwiches and fried banana chips, even though we have lunch boxes waiting for us.
Someone is really stocking up for the 8 mile jungle hike ahead!
When the boat drops us off about a mile up the river, it’s beginning to get light.
We scramble up the slippery bank and the dark selva closes behind us like a silent curtain. Cut off from all the light and surrounded by a hostile semi-darkness, we fall silent.
Before us, there’s a barely visible path covered with mud puddles, decaying leaves and hidden roots, that disappears into the menacing shapes and warning sounds of the jungle.
“Walk slow, don’t touch anything, don’t leave the trail and don’t make any noise!” Yoel hardly finishes when Katie shouts out.
Apparently, her parents are growing exactly the same plants as the dozen feet tall fig trees, ferns, philodendrons, dieffenbachias, mother-in-law’s tongues and elephant ears growing around – only smaller!
John leaves the trail as soon as he spots some bright green frogs, squatting on the wet ground.
Seeing him bent down, the Australian guy just can’t help giving way to one of his urges. He shakes the tree John is standing under, setting off a rain of water all over John’s head and down his neck.
Turns out, John’s actually lucky – sliding down his body could be gigantic stag beetles able to snap a pencil in two, toxic spiders, true weevils, jumbo jumping sticks, giant centipedes, flying cockroaches, lethal tree ants, lizards and snakes.
Totally oblivious of that, John squats down, this time to check out clusters of shiny yellow, orange and mauve mushrooms.
What a feast for the eyes! Hiding in the decaying wood are phallus-shaped stinkhorns, laternea pussilas, ball-shaped puffballs and even the blue-veined chantarelles!
He’s inspecting them with the precision of an MRI scanner.
Never mind me, utters Yoel, left alone on the path.
“Any volunteers?” Yoel stops by a small hole in the ground, smiling his naughty smile.
Here we go; what is it this time?!
He pokes at the hole with a stick, and it comes alive. A hairy, black body runs out, chasing in sudden whirls after the twig. Yoel offers his hand to it.
A fist-sized tarantula climbs up his arm. “Oh, it tickles,” he says, cringing.
Eeeh! We can’t get away from him fast enough.
Yoel grabs the hand of Gerry, the involuntary volunteer, and runs his fingers over the spider.
“Oh, it’s like touching a chick,” Gerry laughs, seeing nothing through the bandanna Yoel fastened around his eyes. His fingers keep running up and down the tarantula’s thick, furry hair.
We turn away – we can’t watch it.
Now, Gerry’s hand is placed on the surface of a tree bark, covered with hard, blister-like bumps.
“Ugh,” he pulls his hand away.
It’s only when his fingers stroke Yoel’s face, covered with a two-day stubble, that he tears the bandanna off.
He needs to sit down – this is the second time over a short period of time that he has come face-to-face with a shocking sight.
We learn a few new, fascinating things about tarantulas.
If their cephalothorax is regularly gently squeezed, tarantulas can be trained as dogs to follow you around. (Just like some men.)
Tarantulas have poor eyesight and “see” their surroundings via hairs, that pick up vibrations given off by movements of their prey.
Hold on! So, they don’t follow you around as pets because you give off vibrations but because you’re a prey they’re stalking!
When angered, they flick stinging bristles (don’t you ever drop them on the ground); and surprisingly, their bite doesn’t kill people but only frogs, mice and lizards.
The most revealing fact is that they live in ground holes, like mice, and not on trees like other spiders.
Also, after mating, the female eats the male.
“That is if the male doesn’t leave the crime scene quickly enough,” grins Yoel and winks, “that’s why they have longer legs.”
The men in our group give an approving growl.
Littering the ground around the hole are little balls of dirt.
“Tarantulas have no teeth but a suction tube they use to inject their pray with digestive juices, that liquidize it. Then they slurp the juice down, sucking the body dry.” A demonstration follows, with appropriate sound effects.
A shiver runs through the more sensitive souls in our group.
A second one follows when shards and little feelers are recognized in the balls on the ground into which the food leftovers were rolled.
Trees, trees and more trees.
From the tiny observation deck on top of the most massive tree I’ve ever seen, we get amazing bird-eye views of an ocean of tree crowns, stretching out to the horizon. That’s the Amazon Rainforest.
The tree is so tall we can’t see its crown from the ground. Only the silhouette of it, strangely flat and wide, soaring above the jungle like an open parasol.
And the roots – we could easily play hide-and-seek among them, so gigantic they are! They connect to the tree at a great height, like flying buttresses connecting to a French cathedral.
“A Shihuahuaco tree,” Yoel explains, “it takes 1,000 years to grow this tall.”
We keep gazing at the 180 feet tall goliath, the king of the rainforest.
Known as the Ironwood tree, the tree is so hard it sinks in water. Since it can’t be cut down but only burnt, that’s what locals do – they burn it to make charcoal for restaurants in Puerto Maldonado.
I looking up at the crown, and notice a cloud of mosquitos hanging above me like a halo. If I dodge, it dodges, too.
Yoel places his hands on the bark of yet another tree that teems with trillions of yet another species of ants, and rubs them quickly together as soon as they get covered thick with the ants.
Turns out, the juice of the crushed bodies works as a natural repellent! Even though the cloud doesn’t stop following me, it doesn’t bite anymore.
You’d just better rub your hands together real fast, or you have another problem coming.
“Taste this,” Yoel cuts a piece of bark off a weird-looking tree and passes it around. It tastes like garlic. “Local people use it to treat swelling, arthritis and rheumatism. The smoke from it repels mosquitoes.”
The prehistoric-looking tree with blisters, we saw earlier at the tarantulas’ nest, contains toxic fluid that Amazon Indians use to dip their arrows and spears in.
Another tree, they use as an instrument of punishment. They tie the baddie to it, and overnight, let streams of small, red ants protecting the tree do the rest.
Pablo’s face slowly floats into my head.
The Apu Viktor Lake is a shallow, marshy basin full of dark water rather than a real lake.
Blinded by the light of the selva suddenly opened up, we plop down on the wooden benches of the observation tower’s deck annihilated by the scorching heat and thick humidity.
We’re five hours into the hike.
The views of the thick palisade of reeds, bushes and trees surrounding the lake are amazing.
Sitting in the S-shaped loops of ‘monkey ladders,’ thick woody vines the width a man’s thigh, are monkeys, feasting on palm fruits.
A flock of squawking macaws flies over the lake, heading for the clay lick nearby. It’s a dazzling sight for those who can still keep their eyes open, the vivid colors of the birds’ plumage, the scarlet, green and red backs, dark-blue wings and yellow bellies.
Fifteen turtles or so are lined up on a half-sunken log, their long, barrel-like necks stretched forward as if inquiring who the hell is holding the line up?! They resemble a column of tanks poking one another with their barrels.
“Plop,” unable to hold on any more, one slides down. “Plop, plop, plop,” go all the others, one after another in what seems a sequence of perfectly synchronized droppings. A cloud of beautiful morphos raises from their heads.
To all the hooting, clattering, croaking, squawking and babbling going on around, snoring can be added now, too.
Sailing in a small, rickety boat through narrow, black canals, kept passable only by the machetes of the lodge employees, we look like drooping flower heads. The heat gets so bad, even the insects are all worn out and stop buzzing.
The only thing interrupting the heavy motionlessness of the jungle are the sleek, round heads of giant otters, peeking out of the water.
They seem pretty curious. Sometimes they get so close we can almost touch their pelts!
The same velvety pelt, among the finest in the world, that’s gotten them on the infamous “endangered species” list.
Their meat tastes horrible, says Yoel, lucky for them.
The sight of giant Amazonian water lilies, huge green plates six feet in diameter and sitting on top of the water, gives me the idea of what fun it’d be to hop across the canal on them. It would be like Jesus walking on the water!
Right into the jaws of an anaconda, stretched over the massive roots of a huge tree on the nearby bank. The jaws that open up to three times the size of its head!
“Anaconda! Anaconda!” I start yelling after a minute or so of processing of what the splendid, greenish body with regular black patches under the tree might be. A body so long it’s hard to tell where it starts and where it ends.
We start climbing over the side of the boat.
“It’s ok to take a closer look but be careful,” says Yoel, the tone of his voice cooling off our enthusiasm, “anacondas are great swimmers.”
“They don’t really eat people, do they?”
“It depends on the size. This one does look like a possible man-eater,” Yoel nods his head. “Cows, tapirs and Caimans, that’s the size they favor because after having a hearty meal like that, there’s no need for food for weeks. Just chillin.’”
And just chillin’ is what the thing under the tree seems to be doing right now.
“Anacondas kill their pray by wrapping themselves around it, constricting it to death. Then they swallow it, headfirst, with the arms and legs neatly folded up so that it goes down smoother.”
“Just last week, one of our workers disappeared in the jungle.”
We rush back into the boat – the snake in front of us can be some 15 feet long, and we’ve seen too many Hollywood movies!
Walking through the Pantano swamps, a bird watchers’ paradise, is like walking through the land of Mordor; all you see is a landscape of dead marshes full of small black lakes, murky waters and gloomy Stygian atmosphere heightened by the motionless silhouettes of aguaje palm trees.
Outwardly only, as the Pantano is, in fact, brimming with life.
Squawking their discontentment down on us from treetops are toucans and parrots; a tern darts out of reeds now and then, evacuating the premises. A horned screamer gets so derailed by the noise we’re making that the long, thin antenna on its head starts swaying back and forth like a crazy pendulum. Everywhere you look, it’s ducks, storks and herons.
Ramya, an Indian-American IT something, trips in her wellies over a protruding board in the walkway and falls shoulder-deep into a cocoon web so huge she could easily fill it with her boots on.
Her fall sets into motion a whole system of interconnected web carousels, funnels and trampolines stretching all around between trees. Ramya is yelling, pulling clumps of fiber off her hair, arms and chest.
Jumping to her help, we brush against a giant cobweb covered with drops of water and clusters of orange flowers. A horde of little, gingery spiders starts running down the web towards us.
Despite all the loud panicking and stamping, happening all over the wooden walkway, not a single ripple disrupts the black waters of the swamp, still and indifferent to anything that’s going on in their territory.
Everything always grows silent in the end.
Past caring about the time.
“What did it catch, a hobbit?” The Australian guy hoots at his joke.
The second largest eagle in the world, the Harpy eagle – that has a wingspan of over 7 feet – looks really magnificent in the pictures someone took just as he “stepped out to take a leak! Would you believe that?!”
The images capturing the swooping dive of the predator, its long, powerful talons stretched forward before seizing the victim and tearing it off the tree, and the massive pull of the wings in the final, powerful lift to the sky, are really amazing.
Just like the bizarre-looking tree over there.
Towering above the rainforest is a powerful lupuna tree.
“People believe a mighty spirit, the protector of the selva, dwells in it,” Yoel points to its central part, bulging out like a pregnancy belly.
“Still young, this one,” he adds, “only 300 years old.”
So, not a Michelin man but a lupuna tree, Emily looks down her body.
“Shamans use the tree for black magic. While in trance, they open the belly with a machete and hide in it an object belonging to the person they’re casting a spell on. And just like the belly of the lupuna, the abdomen area of the victim swells up, growing larger and larger “til the person’s past saving.”
We start laughing.
“No, no, really,” Yoel insists, “one of my friends knocked up his girlfriend and left her. His body swelled so bad he almost died. When he returned and proposed to her, he at once recovered. Thing is, his girlfriend’s uncle was a shaman!”
Indeed, we keep laughing. The measures some people take to secure a husband!
That’s not the only unorthodox tree, though. There’s also the walking trees, that slink around the forest when no one is looking!
“No kidding, they can really walk,” keeps Yoel insisting when we come across a bunch of them. “They don’t like shade, they need sun, so they move after the canopy light. In one year, they can cover over three feet!”
We’re whining now.
Standing up on stilt-like roots, the tall, slender trees seem to deny all natural laws: not only do their roots sprout from the trunk and grow downwards, forming a cage at the ground, but their budding roots – long, sturdy and glossy – resemble erect dongs!
Hilarious! Whistles of appraisal fill the jungle.
The only person oblivious to it all is John, deeply absorbed in the pictures of the hunting Harpy eagle. He can’t take his eyes off the way the broad, fan-shaped wings and the tail form above the white body a stunning fan of black and white rings.
It’s so hypnotizing, he wants to etch it into his memory forever.
8 hours into the hike …
The local family we’re visiting has moved down here from Northern Peru.
Gathered outside their home, a stilted wooden shack, waiting for us, we see a horde of chickens, roosters and turkeys running around, an open firepit where food is cooked, and piles of rubbish, rusty tools and rotting vegetables lying all over the ground. The air is soaked with smoke.
To get to them, we have to climb over smoldering tree giants, lying on barren, reddish soil washed out by rains. The wood of the trees is shiny white against the charred bark – tropical trees have no annual rings, as they grow at the same rate all year round.
The family consists of a father, a mother, their grown-up son and a very young girl with a 12-month-old son. Part of the group are two little girls, apparently the son’s daughters.
All looking positively inbred, though we’re optimistic about the other parents just being absent.
When we check out their run-down banana plantation, overgrown mango and papaya orchards, half-dead cocoa trees and yuca shrubs, we’re guilted into buying beaded bracelets and banana leaf skirts they make for tourists.
The best is saved for last – a blowpipe for poisoned arrows!
The hollow tube is 6 feet long, and surprisingly heavy. The guys can barely hold it, much less aim with it or even hit the target – the tiny arrows miss by miles! Still, it’s a lot of fun.
Until Abby opens up her foul mouth.
“I wonder how many people have had this tube in their mouths. It must be full of spit, gross!”
Seeing the guys’ faces, I feel almost sorry for them. John takes it especially hard.
After a little swim in a secluded place, immersed in dusky silence, green translucency, mirror-like reflections and drapes of light, we resume our ride through the Madre de Dios’ lateral channels, that form a labyrinth of worlds within worlds.
In one of them, Yoel shuts down the engine, reaches into a cracked plastic bucket and takes out a few shreds of raw meat. He dips his hand in the water and shakes it.
Almost instantly, the water starts churning with fish. Yoel’s hand is violently shaking as the piranhas rip off pieces of meat. He pulls the hand out and knocks them all off into the bucket.
“This is a good place to fish for large piranha,” he smiles, and starts preparations for fishing.
Someone wants to know if, the lodge doesn’t really dispose of more suitable fishing gear, like real fishing rods with reels, glitter lures and artificial baits.
“All that matters,” Yoel takes the hooks, he is attaching to the nylon lines tied to the wooden poles, out of his mouth, “is that the bait is alive, so watch out!”
And just like that, he casts his line in a wide, elegant arc. We try to imitate him and spend the next couple of minutes untangling hooks from neighboring trees.
Nothing happens for a while – the piranhas are taking their time. There’s an occasional quick nibble that gets us all excited, but in the end, all the bait is always gone and the fish with it.
Slacking off, we let the stream drag our fishing lines under the boat. They get all tangled up.
“Yes!” a loud scream penetrates the tranquil ambience of the river.
Abby lifts her pole out of the water, and really – there’s a flopping fish at the end!
Yoel quickly removes it from the hook.
“This is how it’s done!” singing, Abby shakes her hips. “I caught a piranha, yay!”
She grabs the fish and, making sure the rows of razor-sharp, triangular teeth are properly exposed, poses in the Deadliest Catch, big-time style.
“I have one, too!” exclaims John and whips the fishing pole out of the water.
A surprised “aah!” comes from the other side of the boat.
Their fishing lines being all tangled up, John’s vigorous pull tears Emily’s pole out of her hands and knocks her off balance. If it wasn’t for Yoel, who catches her at the last moment, she’d fall right out of the wildly rocking boat.
John isn’t so lucky. A desperate cry and a loud splash resonate through the air.
“Man overboard!” yells someone and we all collapse into laughter.
“What a shame there’s no Caimans here,” Sadie howls, tears running down her face. “He’d come flying out of the water like a dolphin!”
This is so much better than the chameleon she saw earlier, the poor bugger that looked like a bloated fish with a fire helmet on, and the unbelievable change of colors it went through from a pea green with white stripes to a crocodile green with orange streaks!
John saw it, too, observing the animal with such concentration as if trying to get down every detail of its pattern, coloration, and pigment aberration.
The same concentration has landed him now in the piranha-infested waters, Sadie keeps laughing.
What a way to end the day!
Back, at last.
A cook emerges from the kitchen and places before giggling Abby a skillet, filled with a fried fish covered with green lemon wedges. She grabs a fork and pokes at the bared-teeth piranha, jumping off in pretend fear. Her imposing breasts in the enormous cleavage bounce up and down.
“Luckily for us,” John turns to me in the buffet line, “most people are too ignorant to appreciate a delicacy like this.” He nods to a soup pot, full of small, reddish fish with intact heads. Yoel’s little piranhas.
To show I’m not one of those people, I obediently pour some of the soup into my own bowl. Little heads resurface.
Suddenly, the restaurant door swings open, hitting with a bang the wood paneling behind it.
We turn in the direction of the loud sound.
A small rhino is making its way to the kitchen, its quick, clicking sounds gradually turning to heavy trotting.
Stopped by a barrier of buffet tables, the animal turns around in confusion and starts running across the room.
Abby and Emily, who are standing in line to get a second helping (a third in Emily’s case), press themselves against the wall, shrieking.
Chaos breaks out, with plates falling to the floor and people jumping onto the chairs.
John doesn’t move, his eyes fixed on Abby’s mouth, a large, moist ring exposing glistening teeth and a red tongue.
“Are you ok?” I notice and add, that the animal is not dangerous.
“Tapirs are herbivorous,” I glance to Arturo, who’s poking people for goodies with its short, deformed trunk right now. “They get spooked more easily than people.”
John gives me a confused look.
“Oh, no, it’s not that,” he laughs, “it’s … I’ve got a curse.”
Yes, a curse of having a photographic memory, the ability to remember every visual image in great detail for five years. FIVE YEARS!
“And trust me,” he says, “some of the images I’ve picked up here won’t stop chasing me for a long time. If ever!”
Hopefully, the ones he’ll come across at Lake Titicaca, our next stop, will be more enjoyable.
I nod, my feelings about him going from the initial ‘one lucky bastard’ to ‘a poor little bugger.’
When we walk back to our bungalows that night, there’s a movement at the restaurant’s door, followed by a quick clatter and human yells.
Arturo returned. And this time he brought his young with him.
Mama Aya party
“Petra, estás bien?” Don Panduro’s voice envelops my brain like a silky veil.
I am. Sitting on the floor of the ceremonial maloca hut and staring at the wooden wall in front of me, where a huge cockroach is waggling around long, brown feelers.
The sight of the arthropod and it’s flattened body, thorny legs and shiny wings folded up against its back fills me with feelings of intense disgust.
Roaches are repulsive. They’re fast, can fly, swim and run up walls. They’re practically beyond capture. Indestructible.
You have to beat them to a pulp when you catch them, or else you’re in for a surprising resurrection. Not to mention the pungent smell and puddles of eggs, spilling out of them at the moment of death. Killing them is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever done.
Years ago, I was woken one night by a tickling feeling at the back of my neck and on my chest under my nightshirt. I jumped in the air, my face that of the Scream painting, and flew across the room in one long leap of a professional pole jumper.
(Talking about super-human feats in moments of extreme fear!)
Sitting on my pillow were two black roaches the size of my little finger.
Just like this thing, that is watching me now. Even with my eyes closed I know it’s watching me.
I move, and it turns its head. The waving of its feelers slows down and then it ceases. The world inside my head stops spinning.
Someone behind me laughs.
I look over my shoulder. Bzzzzz, goes my head.
A body is stretching on the floor by the door, an athlete warming up before a race; high knees, leg swings, toe touches. Reflected on the wall is a shadow of an elephant baby tripping over its trunk.
There’s a groan in the corner. Holding her belly with her hands is Abby, panting.
“Worms,” she moans, “long, round worms, chewing on my insides like tropical fish chewing on coral reefs. Dark shadows in muddy waters.”
Abby writhes in discomfort.
“It’s crabs and lobsters now, sinking their mandibles into my spine like birds sinking their beaks into a tree.”
Sounds like something’s eating her from inside.
It is, and it’ll go on like that for hours, until the claws of puppy-sized spiders finish the job.
I look up, and my eyes meet with Ramya’s. She has a strange smile on her face, the kind that makes you nervous.
“Take the gift I’m giving you and run away with it!” she whispers wildly. “Take the wave and enjoy the ride!” she laughs and storms out of the hut into the night jungle.
Into the jungle that’s breathing, her breath a greenish glow shimmering in the dark.
I can feel the whiffs of breeze brushing against my face, as I keep my eyes on the roach. Everything is quiet, except for shadows of giant trees silhouetted against the sky, and flows of the trails meandering around in fantastic curves.
I can hear the rain that isn’t falling, can see the humming it isn’t making.
I’m a sugar cane swaying in the wind.
In awe, someone is observing the tip of his finger, touching trees with it. Touching me.
I lift up my head, and through layers of loose soil glimpse the sun flickering above. I’m aiming towards it, pushing my way through the earth, along with other seeds cracking open. I take roots, branch, sprout leaves, open crowns, flow sap.
With my consciousness centered in my fingertips, I’m experiencing indescribable bliss, materializing into flowers, ants, acoustic vibrations.
A gigantic rope of a vine shows up in my vision field. I touch it cautiously, and two bright chains of a double helix start spinning in the space. They rotate around an axis, shooting off flashes of fluorescent colors.
It’s the DNA.
I accept as a fact that Amazonian shamans have known the human genome structure for thousands of years.
For the same number of years, they’ve been studying the power and healing potentials of ayahuasca and other jungle plants. Don Panduro himself spent three years in the selva, alone, fasting, learning, having visions.
“For protection,” he says at the start of the night and sprays our heads and arms with some colorless liquid.
Mama Aya has the reddish-brown color of the Amazonian soil and a harshly bitter taste.
And the cleansing power of a turbo vacuum cleaner.
The initial wave of wild vomit took me by surprise, but it soon passed, replaced by fireworks of colors, shapes, forms and textures, by kaleidoscopes of whirling plants, birds, snakes and jaguars, all covered in bright patterns of Inca, Maya and Aztec geometry. Spinning on and on were visions of totems, fluorescent creatures, anthropomorphic beings. Light was turning to colors were turning into sounds.
“Ta-ra-ra-la-ray-ra …,” enters my ears the deep, throaty ikaro, the personal song of the shaman sung for protection and communication with sacred plants. It wants me back.
Barely visible in the flickering light of the lamps are dark shadows, half-lying by the wall of the maloca hut. One of them moves.
She’s holding a knife in her hand … the ceremonial tumi knife that has a semi-circular blade and a handle in the shape of the God of Death inlaid with gold, silver and lapis lazuli … gold is the sweat of the sun, that contains its regenerative power … and its destructive power as well, she looks around the parched fields stretching out to the coast … the rains coming from the ocean are becoming increasingly rare … merciless droughts plague the lands… it’s vital that she renews the soil fertility … she has to if she doesn’t want to end up like her predecessor, buried alive as a protective amulet at the base of the new pyramid … resolutely, she raises her arm and plunges the knife into a still body … blood starts dripping down to the ground …
The knife in Emily’s hand keeps coming down, penetrating the body of a young girl fed for the last couple of months only the finest meals. While the parched soil hungrily receives the life-giving seed, Emily’s eyes are fixed on the alter before her, covered with sacrifices to the Goddess of Fertility. It’s mostly coca leaves, pottery and flower wreaths … and a three-breasted, spondylus shell statue.
Emily is in a such a mental torment that Diego has to grab her around the body and hold her down.
Don Panduro takes a big puff at his pipe filled with the sacred mapacho tobacco, and blows the smoke around her to dissipate the agonizing visions. Finally, she calms down.
Goddamned session! swears Diego. Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut!
When I saw him at the lodge the first day, I thought I was hallucinating.
Immediately, I was filled with a fear that we’d see no jungle life because his cough would scare all the animals away.
Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Diego didn’t get a single fit of coughing. Didn’t have a single cigarette or a single drink, either.
“When in selva, I fast and take ayahuasca to get my lungs cleansed of the black in the cigarettes,“ he said when asked if he was all right.
No, ayahuasca is not a hallucinogenic drug, but a powerful plant that talks to people.
She purges his body, boosts his energy and most importantly, relieves his stress from this “jodido” job.
Yoel expressed a more cautious approach, even though the old woman that appeared before him the one time he took ayahuasca, answered all his questions (he did meet a girl called Carmela, she really was from Cusco and they do have a son together).
But the experience was so frightening he decided he should stay away from her. Ayahuasca is never wrong, but he wasn’t taking any chances. You don’t wanna mess with her.
Especially with so many brujos around, bad shamans, involved in black magic.
Like doing what?!
Like stealing people’s souls.
By preparing love potions.
Really?! How does it work?
“You just dip your hands in the potion and touch with them the shoulders of the woman you want. After that, she follows you anywhere, like a shadow.”
That did it. Of course, we had to try!
So now, sitting on mats in the hut built for these purposes, and looking more like shadows than real people in the dim light of kerosene lamps, we are being broken down into basic elements the way chemical compounds are, and reassembled again.
There’s something of everything. Colorful vibrations sweeping over you, giant funnels with black rotating walls sucking you in, hair-raising visions.
Also the usual, spaced-out, dull drunk feeling.
And a roach, staring back with its 2,000 reflective hexagonal lenses.
It’s all there, the serpent heat climbing up your spine, the crash of your sensory perception, the merging of your awareness with the awareness of everything; the system within a system within a system. The one-on-one fathoming out the ways of the Creator.
“Kukulkan,” John is visibly struggling with the pronunciation of the unpronounceable names, the formidable old man with a flowing beard demands from him.
“Toth, Enki, Quetzalcoatl,” he repeats, terrified.
But the white man keeps shaking the staffs in his hands menacingly, the sunrays on his head gleaming with discontent.
“I am the Creator of Everything, the Sun, the Moon, the Universe, the Civilization. I taught the man all he knows.” The stone face of the old man creases wrathfully.
“Oannes,” whispers John, ready to drop.
Exhausted both physically and emotionally, Katie refuses to leave the protective root cage she’s hiding in. She can still feel the electric impulses, tugging at her body.
That’s not fair! She shouldn’t be made to carry the entire universe on her back! She’s just a dancer, not the American president!
Floating among octopuses touching each other with their tentacles, she fears the electric current running between them will hurt her. She tries to get away.
The dark songs keep bringing her back, though. So close to the octopuses’ arms, actually, that before she knows it she’s attached with her head and limbs to them. Emitting luminescent light, like a decaying organic matter.
With megawatts of electric current flowing through her, she’s becoming part of an extremely sophisticated energy system, coming on and off as electric impulses stream ceaselessly through her projections.
She’s being transformed into one of many billions of neural synapses of the brain!
The ganglion cluster she’s part of seems disrupted. The charge on the surface of the local network, that keeps the whole nervous system in a state of excitability, has died out. As a result, the entire section has to be reactivated.
And that’s the issue. There is so much energy washing over her, from head to toe, that her ability to absorb it all quickly reaches its maximum capacity.
And when her single energy unit plugs into the integral network of the infinite universe, as a more massive electrical discharge is required to restore the full functionality, she breaks down. She can’t do it, it’s too much, the force is tearing her apart!
She gets up and runs out into the comforting arms of the cool darkness outside.
“I’m really sorry,“ she sobs. “I’m just not prepared to carry the weight of the whole colossal system. The malfunction is just too complex!”
If a female shadow in a shapeless robe didn’t peel off a nearby tree and wash over her like a wave of soothing water, Katie would have probably stayed in her hiding place forever.
There’s no breaking the heart without breaking the brain first.
John sighs with a relief when the God of the Stone Face is gone. Faded away like a shadow, when John finally memorized the names, and could reel them off without hesitating.
Heading back to the maloca, he catches out of a corner of his eye a movement in the jungle foliage.
Frozen with terror, he watches as a walking tree rises with one side into the air, rotates and steps down on the ground, repeating everything with the other side. Repulsive, demonic heads grow out of the ends of branches, flicking hard, narrow tongues at him. Inhuman roars come out of their flayed lips, framed by yellowish canines.
What freaks John most are the lower parts of the stilts, covered with new, downward-growing shoots, that make the walking tree look like a hippie striding in a pair of bell bottoms.
A hippie heading straight for me! John shrieks and jumps into the bush.
The jungle closes.
Not for long – almost instantly, the bushes rustle again.
It’s the Australian guy.
He comes out, takes a couple of deep breaths and victoriously, raises his arms above his head.
Fragrant flowers are falling all over him, as he keeps turning around in front of the applauding crowds gathered at the hippodrome.
Orsippus of Megara, a living legend, became the victor of the foot race of the 15th Olympic games of ancient Greece!
The greatest Greek athlete of all time is running on the spot, while the sacred Olympia stadium is roaring with exultation. There‘s no end to cries of glory and adoration – the crowd is simply not letting their hero go.
Orsippus congratulates himself on his brilliant idea of letting his back wrap slip down during the race – surely, that’s one of the reasons behind his triumph today!
He’s feeling like an Olympian God, no, like all twelve of them!, and rightly so – forever, he’ll be celebrated as the first athlete in the history of the Games to run naked!
The Australian guy, deaf and blind to his surroundings, keeps trotting on the spot, turning victoriously around.
When he tries to kiss me, pressing his lips against the lips of the girl chosen from among the finest for the honor of placing an olive wreath upon the victor’s head, I leap back and hit the buttress root of a shihuanaco tree.
Looming over it is a gigantic, blue-black spirit, absolutely dazzling in his splendor of highly-polished metal. He’s shining so greatly it’s impossible to tell his features.
An etheric silhouette detaches herself from it and blends into the wall of the jungle vegetation.
Some just choose to never return to their physical bodies.
The dark, eerie throat-singing in my ears increases – the ikaros are calling again.
Blowing curing energy into all four corners of the world, and whistling softly, Don Panduro turns down all the final visions.
For one last time, my nostrils fill with the fragrant aroma of the wild mapacho tobacco.
The tobacco that contains nine times more nicotine than the industrially processed one, the tobacco Diego swears by – the juice of it mixed with oil and rubbed into hair, he claims, prevents balding. And his thick, black mane of hair proves it. Actually, I can‘t recall a single male employee of the lodge with a hair loss problem.
It’s 2 am, and the session has come to an end. The magic of the night come alive is gone.
“You look like a bunch of zombies with a bad hangover,“ Sadie declares a couple hours later, when we’re boarding the boat back to Puerto Maldonado. She is one of the few who didn’t participate in the “new-age shenanigans,” as she puts it so gracefully.
“Quite the contrary,” opposes Abby, a dreamy smile on her face, “indeed, quite the contrary.”
She woke in the morning happy, rid of all the unhealthy “contents” she’s been collecting throughout her life, the “dark clusters of energy” that have been polluting her!
“One hell of a therapy, if you ask me,“ she giggles, and exposes her face to the cool river breeze. She’s feeling clean, light and positive, ready for new adventures!
With a corner my eye, I catch a hand movement on the side of the boat, followed by the sound of a splash.
She didn’t have to do that, crosses my mind when I realize what it was. I wouldn’t mind buying the statue off Emily to expand my own collection of treasures.
The Australian guy’s voice, once again, interrupts the silence, reigning around.
“There’s drugs and drugs,” he exclaims with such an authoritative tone that it’s impossible to ignore it.
“The tolerated ones allow the system to keep its minions in a fit enough condition to work indefinitely, since alcohol numbs perception and blurs the pains of existence.”
“Psychedelics, on the other hand, expand consciousness, and allow one to experience true fulfillment. That’s why they have to be globally discredited – the surfs can’t just wake up like that and challenge the establishment, or even break free from it!“
Is he really quicker on the uptake now or am I just imagining it?!
“There are no real boundaries,” Ramya cuts in.
“There is no need to worry about this planet,” she smiles with the ominous smile of Lord Shiva. “Ayahuasca will become the new world credo, indiscriminate and non-directive. The days when she was almost eradicated by the missionaries who wanted their America Christian are over. Nothing can stop her now.”
Wow. I take out a little plastic box since I need something to help me assimilate all the revolutionary ideas thrown around; looks like everybody has an opinion now.
Everybody but me (roaches are not exactly a popular conversation topic), Pablo, who’s still a bit sore around the edges, so to speak, the American lady, who disappeared without a trace, and Una, who doesn’t look quite like herself – she resembles the zombie Sadie was referring to earlier, a lifeless dummy moving like a remotely controlled robot.
I take out one large Brazil nut coated in chocolate and sugar, put in my mouth and let the delicious flavor melt slowly on my tongue.
A geyser of colors and concave images explodes inside my head, two thousand simultaneous pictures in a 360-degree mosaic.