That first night in the rainforest was hot and cacophonous. I woke up in a sweat, scratching my bites and listening to a family of bats chattering over my head. Thankfully, I had spent about a quarter of an hour tucking in my mosquito net, so nothing was getting into that safehold. It’s a good thing too, considering how many cockroaches I saw scatter when I opened the armoire before I hit the sack. I discovered that one of my earplugs had fallen out, and once I had remedied that problem, I drifted back into an easy sleep that comes with exhaustion.
Before I knew it, it was time to get up. At breakfast, I had my first of many, many cups of the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. An interesting thing about breakfast in Peru is that it’s common to eat a huge meal to begin with in order to sustain you the rest of the day. We mostly had omelets, fruit, and cereal, but when we visited other places, we generally had things like chicken and rice or spaghetti to start off the day.
After stuffing our faces, we took off for the small mammal traps with Tilman, Juvenal, and Nelson. Juvenal was the head of the small mammal project and had garnered the nickname “Rambo” because of his tough guy attitude. Nelson was his sidekick in the project- a gentle soul with a whisper of a voice and the agility of a jungle cat. Armed with machetes, the men took the lead.
Our mission? To set the traps with peanut butter and tuna so we could catch and study tiny, furry animals. The annoyance? My ridiculous asthma that was fighting me every step of the way. At first I was fine, but Rambo kept going faster and faster, the terrain became more and more rugged, and then finally, we encountered this steep incline lined with roots and rocks. I don’t know why, but I had never really thought of the rainforest as being mountainous before. Incorrect. By the time I got to the top, my vision had started to blur and my head was spinning. Erica asked me if I was alright and stayed with me while I recuperated. Anyway, after a couple of incidents like this, I finally learned to use my inhaler before I got started on this whole trekking through the rainforest business.
We finally arrived at the site. We took out the aromatic tuna and peanut butter, set the traps, and went on our way. Juvenal and I struck up a conversation about our families, and ever so often he would freeze mid-sentence to point out some creature in the distance. He’d stare at it with the intensity of a hunter, pretend he was shooting an imaginary gun, and growl “Ese animal es muy rico. Muuuy rico.” Translation: That animal is very delicious. Veeeery delicious. Sometimes I question Juvenal’s conservation efforts. Just a little.
After lunch at the MLC, at the urging of Tilman, we became “one with nature” and went swimming in the river. A more “kid friendly” kind of river rather than the mother (literally) of all rivers- the Madre de Dios. It was very nice and uneventful until we were leaving. It began to pour down torrentially, and we were a long way from home. The sheer force of the current and the pounding rain combined with the glass-smooth stones made it a challenge just to stay standing. I can’t tell you the last time I had properly fallen down before going to the Amazon, but within the span of forty-five minutes I had fallen on my butt four or five times. In the river, in the streams, on the bank, and on the trail. You name it, I fell there.
By the time we got home, the rain had finally abated a little, but it was still too wet to do any work. Instead, we learned about Manu and how to behave in the forest. Most important piece of information? If you come across a jaguar, DO NOT RUN. They go in attack mode if you do. You have to make a lot of noise and raise your arms so it appears you are bigger.
By this point, I already felt a burgeoning love for Manu. Free and wild, dangerous and vibrant, it has more species of wildlife than you can imagine. It is beautiful, and above all, a glorious challenge of artful simplicity. By the end of the day, I had a taste of what this trip was going to be all about. It wasn’t about fixing or finding something. It was about loving and learning to be alive.