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A Week in the Amazon Jungle
The following is an excerpt from my stay in the Amazon Jungle (Peruvian region).
Please see the Amazon River Photo Gallery page for more of this trip.
As I stand atop the thirty-foot muddy bank of the Amazon River, I look across the tall grass towards a Bora tribal village. I am about to spend a life-changing week free from the complexity of city life. Down the narrow dirt path wanders a young girl, no more than ten years old, stopping long enough to give me a look that beamed with innocent curiosity. Following her lead, an elderly lady leisurely walks by and greets me with a smile – her face caked in bright white powder from a recent healing ceremony.
Heaving the two large drums of water onto my shoulders, I hike towards the small wooden shelter that would be my home for the coming week. The rusty brown path radiated with intense heat, and the sweltering humidity made every shift of my clothing against the skin a reminder of how grubby I felt. The eleven-hour overnight riverboat ordeal, which had only ended hours earlier, had left a mark on me, both physically and emotionally. Seeing the lush, peaceful surroundings before me, the fears of not reaching our destination gradually fades from my immediate thoughts.
I am three hundred kilometers from civilization. “No money in the world will ever get you out quickly,” the tourism officer in Iquitos had cautioned me earlier that week. From here to the sandbar near Pevas is 140 kilometers of winding tributaries. Hiring a motor-canoe to travel this distance is not easy. From the sandbar, a grueling twenty-hour upstream journey by overcrowded barge awaits you, eventually ending at Iquitos.
The modest hut where I slept
The wooden-slat hut rested upon stilts nearly four feet high,
allowing the roosters, pigs and a lonely toucan to freely scour
the earth beneath for scraps dropped from above. It also provided
a much-needed, although ineffective, barrier against the countless
bugs and insects who would also call these tropical grounds their
The young family welcomed me in to their home, standing together quietly, watching. Sharing no common language, I smiled and waited as Orlando stepped forward speaking their native tongue.
Orlando, my guide, was an ex-commando who seemed to be comfortable in any unpleasant situation. A rugged but slim forty-something with dark tanned skin and a deep monotone voice, his serious tone would be shattered by a flash of his gold-toothed smile. With a machete always at his side, he was ready for anything, and was instrumental in escorting me well past my usual comfort zone.
Two days earlier, as I sat uncomfortably in Orlando’s pale green office, I was suddenly struck by his tough demeanor when he asked,
“For the next week, would you like me to bring my shotgun and we only eat what we hunt — maybe caimans and monkeys?”
The hut consisted of three open areas – a main room that was large enough for several hammocks and an eating table, a smaller room for a teenage girl with her daughters, and a rickety walkway that connected to a cooking area that teemed with activity. The roof was layered with tightly woven palm leaves, allowing small hints of skylight (or rain) to stream down upon me. Large square window openings accented the sparsely planked walls, giving my room a very airy feel, complete with every imaginable irritating flying insect.
The air was fresh with the scent of wet grass, still lingering after the daily thunder and torrential downpour. A pair of blue iridescent Morpho butterflies chased each other erratically past my window into the field. With more than ten feet of rainfall a year, the lush surroundings come as no surprise.
My hammock attached to a sturdy beam, I fell into the handmade webbing and searched for some essence of relaxation. Unfortunately, the salty sweat beading down my face and the constant swarm of tiny flesh-seeking flies negated any of the relaxation that a hammock in the shade might have offered.
Life within the Bora Indian settlement was refreshingly simple. Two large hollow logs, tethered from hanging ropes, resonated with deep booming tones, when struck with a stick. The echoing melody carried messages over great distances without the need for a messenger.
“When somebody dies or gets snakebite, we can call people from other villages,” Orlando explained.
I walked over to a group of men dressed in ragged T-shirts and sat as they took turns stabbing at a bowl with a pestle, crushing coca leaves into a fine green powder. A choking dark green cloud rose above the mortar. Occasionally, another sack of coca leaves would arrive atop a hunched worker, fresh from the jungle. Following the daily custom of preparing the powder with the ashes of a fire, the ritual could begin. One by one, a man would reach forward, take a heaping scoop of the potent mix, drop it into one side of his mouth and allow his saliva to absorb the powder. Ten minutes later, the drug-induced high would take over.
“Maybe you could try a little bit?” Orlando asks. Amidst the sounds of heavy coughing and the feeling of being already overwhelmed by the jungle, I politely declined.
“After ten minutes, you feel nothing, you don’t feel scared, you don’t feel thirty.”
The cocaine-like drug brought visions, and often made them sick. Coca is pervasive throughout Peru, and it is no surprise that the region provides the raw material for two-thirds of the world’s supply of cocaine.
As daylight fell, I climbed back down to our dugout canoe to join Orlando, and searched for dinner. Paddling along the Yaguasyacu River, we paused occasionally to watch the silent arching of pink dolphins above the mocha-brown water and listened for the raspy screech of the beautiful parrots racing each other overhead. Finding a tiny inlet that cut into the thick jungle, we paddled under the thick canopy of vines and palms. As I sat still for a minute, an increasing noise not unlike rain began to surround me, accompanied by little splashes from all directions. With no rain overhead, I realized that this creek was swarming with small piranhas. Dangling nothing more than a bent stick, line and a bait-less hook over the side, it was only a matter of seconds before I had yanked my first white-bellied piranha into our canoe. After we had caught our share of the small beasts, we returned to the settlement for a bony, unsatisfying meal.
Days passed, each bringing a new experience and insight into the mechanism of a slowly fading indigenous culture. Their clothing was simple but civilized, and the shift of labor from farming to handicrafts meant more interaction with the populated markets of Pevas upstream. Walter, my translator, was frank in describing how life had changed in the region. There were no old-growth jungles near the river anymore. Vast expanses of the jungle had been slashed and burned for farming. Spotting monkeys swinging high across the jungle canopy was no longer the easy mission it once used to be.
The heat and humidity was no less unpleasant than on the first days, but I found icy comfort in a creek a couple minutes walk behind our hut. Climbing down to the rather stagnant water, I would quickly strip down and jump in – just long enough to rinse off the sweat and mud. At the same time, I washed my clothes and hastily wrung them before hopping out. Within seconds, the mosquitoes and other unnamed bugs started nipping at my exposed flesh, and I had to pull the soaked clothing back on to protect myself.
Crushed termites is
Accustomed to the continuous sensation of sticky clothing and unending sunshine, I began an overnight hike deep into the jungle. My bug repellent was next to ineffective in those regions, so I was shown Nature’s unique solution. With machete in hand, Walter slices through a huge termite nest on the side of a tree. Before the thousands of termites have had the chance to relocate, Walter simply placed his hand inside the nest and pulled it out seconds later as the pulsing mass of termites began to ascend his arm. Rubbing both hands together, the crawling army was reduced to a pungent brown liquid, which he then smeared all over his arms and face.
Taking a moment’s rest on a fallen tree, I sat, drinking my water sparingly. Orlando walked over to a nearby bush and stabbed his hand at the ground. Upon returning, he showed me the fangs of a large furry tarantula, while squeezing the abdomen to keep the spider at bay. With a poorly hidden smile, he placed the tarantula beside me on the log as it scurried in my direction. Taking the cue to go, I pressed on, deeper into the jungle as the daylight waned above.
Eventually I arrive at a clearing, tied my hammock to a pair of trees and lit a small fire. Orlando, sitting close to the flames, opened a small vial he had in his hand and began to murmur a chant to the busy woods. Asking for protection from the animals of the night, his chant was drowned out by the deafening hiss and hum of the insects from all directions. I watched him as he poured the yellow fluid into his mouth, sprayed it out into the air around him, and resumed his chant. Darkness everywhere. The flickering walls of the forest around me became alive with sound. Watching the last embers of light dissolve into nothing, the eerie night had only just begun.
Hear the sounds of the Amazon jungle at night
Check out the Video page for a short clip from a midnight walk through the jungle.