Party bus. Jungle style.
Lilia and Reynaldo approached me sitting at the candle-lit dining room table after another dinner of rice and potatoes. “So. Tina.” I knew it was going to be all business when Lilia started talking in staccato. “You will go on the expedition with Reynaldo to Shipitiari?” she asked. Reynaldo had mentioned something about continuing on with the reforestation program. “Sure. We’re going to be planting more trees?” I asked. “Not exactly,” Lilia began, “You will be in the primary forest. You have to find chiwawako trees to replant. And also, you will be going to Salvación to help with the bio gardens there,” Lilia explained. “Sure, I’d like to go. No problem,” I replied. “Good,” she smiled.
“So you will be leaving tomorrow morning and coming back on Wednesday and-” “Wait. What? I’ll be gone for three days?” I gaped. I didn’t realize this project entailed a three-day voyage out in the middle of nowhere. “Si. Three days,” she confirmed. “Reynaldo says he communicates best with you and that you will understand what’s going on,” Lilia continued. I highly doubted that. I might speak Spanish, but “understanding what’s going on” isn’t exactly my forte. I did my best to look excited, but to be honest, I was afraid of missing out on moments at the MLC with the chicas locas and staff, especially since our stay was coming to a end. Still, this was an opportunity to do something I would probably never have a chance to do again, and it was going to be an adventure. “What time are we leaving?” I asked.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
Goodbye for now
The next morning we woke up bright and early. I ran into Juvenal in the kitchen. “Juvenal! We won’t see each other for three days!” I told him in Spanish. “Better that way,” he growled. “You know you’ll miss me,” I laughed. He couldn’t fool me anymore. The previous day when I mentioned how sore my butt was from constantly sitting on fallen tree trunks, he guffawed and said that I was “una mujer liberal con una mente abierta”- a liberal woman with an open mind. The best compliment I’ve ever received. And all because of a sore butt.
Reynaldo and Tito came to collect me with machetes in hand. We made our way to the peke peke which refused to start. Suddenly, I saw a man swimming downstream toward us. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe how he was swimming with such a strong current. As he got nearer I laughed when I realized it was Tomas coming to see us off. He emerged from the river drenched, and shook out the water from his hair like a wet dog. “Tina! You are leaving? Why?” he pouted. “Just for a little while, Tomas,” I explained. “That is if the peke peke ever starts.” He tilted his head and looked at the peke peke like a curious puppy before he bolted to the men’s side and began to offer his expertise. Finally, the thing started up and we loaded into its hold. I waved to Tomas and we began making our way upstream toward Salvación.
Usually, I was my happiest riding down the river, but that time, a strange sadness came over me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling I was leaving that place forever. It seemed to me there were more birds and butterflies around than usual, that they were flying in time with the boat, seeing me off to my next adventure. The others mistook the tears on my cheeks for river spray, and we spoke not a word.
Blanca on the bus
After the boat ride, there was another 45 minute walk into town. I know I’ve mentioned before that it gets really hot in the jungle, but this particular day was hellish. Reynaldo was sweating, and he never sweats. We came to a paved road and Reynaldo stopped to wipe his brow. “A car is going to pick us up here,” he said quietly in Spanish.
I figured another pickup truck would come to get us, but after a few minutes, a small bus turned the corner and Reynaldo told me to brace myself. The bus lurched to a stop and the driver hurriedly jumped out of the driver’s seat, ran to the back of the bus, pulled a ladder off the rear, hooked it to the side of the bus, scaled the steps, and reached out to me. “Oh,” I said as I realized I was supposed to hand over my backpack and daypack. “Rapido, Tina,” Reynaldo said, and I picked up my pace.
The bus door flew open and the attendant stepped out. We walked up the steps and found we could go no further. The bus was packed. I leaned against a ledge by the stairs between a sack of dried potatoes and a bushel of bananas, and Juvenal shoved his way into the aisle. The attendant miraculously managed to get the door closed and took a wide stance on the bottom step.
I looked up and saw that dozens of dark brown eyes were watching me. “Who is this gringa?” their stares seemed to say. I smiled and slid my machete under the passenger seat. Bumpy rides and sharp objects don’t mix. I turned back around and saw that even more eyes were on me. “Yes, everyone, I am the only blanca (white girl) here, I know,” I wanted to say, but opted to focus on the green and blue parrot that was sitting on a woman’s lap directly in front of me. Yes, there was a parrot on a woman’s lap, and it was awesome. The driver got into position, the bus rumbled, and we took off with some concealed chicks peeping their objection in the background.
By the end of the trip, the attendant and I had established the kind of connection that happens through unwanted physical contact. I fell onto her and she smiled to show there were no hard feelings. She stepped on me and I put my hand up and nodded to convey that my toe was a-okay. We even shared a silent joke when we simultaneously noticed the driver had forgotten the ladder on the side of the bus and it was dangerously teetering by an open window. She rolled her eyes, I shook my head, and we laughed as if it say “I mean, really, what’s with that guy?” As our trip came to an end and Reynaldo motioned for me to get ready, I retrieved my machete and gave the attendant a wave which she retuned. New friend in the Amazon. Check.
What we’re really here for
We worked in two gardens that day. The first belonged to a young couple with two young kids and a bevy of chickens. They were pretty jovial and eager to learn about the different seeds Reynaldo had brought for them to plant, and we all worked well together. As we were aerating the soil, the woman looked at me out of the corner of her eye and gave me a knowing smile. “So. You are Reynaldo’s new woman.” she said in Spanish. Oh. My. Age may just be a number, but Reynaldo is in his sixties. We had been talking in Spanish, but I chose to pretend I didn’t understand that comment. “No entiendo,” I said, and thankfully, she didn’t bother explaining.
When we left the first house and made our way to the second, we inadvertently left Reynaldo’s hat behind. Rather than return and have the woman propagate any more innuendo, I gave him my UNC hat since I had once more come overly prepared and had packed two. I can proudly say that Reynaldo is now an honorary Tar Heel.
As we began to melt on the side of the road, a motorcycle slowed down next to us. “Jump on,” Reynaldo told me. “Eh?” I stared at him bewildered. Reynaldo told the driver a name and motioned for me to climb on. Lured by the promise of wind in my hair and not dying of heat exhaustion, I decided not to mention that I had never been on a motorcycle before and that I DON’T RIDE WITH STRANGERS IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE. Instead, I clambered behind the driver and held onto the man’s waist as we zipped down the road to some unknown destination.
“So, this is taxi service in the rainforest,” I figured as we drove along, glad to finally have a break. We came to a neighborhood I recognized from our last trip to Salvación, but we drove past the garden with the bamboo fence we had made, so I knew that wasn’t where we were stopping. “Where are you going?” the driver asked me. What was he asking me for? I was just along for the ride. Literally. “No se…” I replied, confused. He sighed as if to say, “God, these gringos,” and pulled to the side of the road where he asked a group of bystanders where he could find Señora Nori. The children laughed at the sight of a lost blanca, but the man with them obliged and told us where we could find her.
We made a u-turn, passed our bamboo fence, and stopped at a house next to Esmeralda’s place where the chicas locas had once had breakfast. “Ok, we’re here,” the driver said unamused, probably irritated that his navigating ego had taken a blow. I climbed off the motorcycle and he took off back in the direction we had come from. Before I had time to digest the reality of being alone without a clue as to where I should be going, I saw Esmeralda come into view. “Señora Nori is at the market,” she told me in Spanish. “But she will be here soon.” I breathed a sigh of relief and sat with her as she tutored her son on writing in cursive. “Mama, I want to play!” he whined. “You need to be patient, hijo. You need to learn!” she scolded him.
Within a few minutes, Reynaldo came around the corner on the back of the same motorcycle that had brought me. He climbed off, paid the driver, and motioned for me to follow him. I said my goodbyes to Esmeralda and son, and went with Reynaldo to the garden behind Señora Nori’s house. I thought we would wait for her to come back from the market, but Reynaldo began to weed the garden, and I followed suit. Soon, a couple of teenage girls came to the garden and pitched in. By the time Señora Nori arrived, we were almost ready to plant the seeds. “What would you like, Nori?” Reynaldo asked the woman. “Radishes? Lettuce? Cucumbers? Tomatoes?” “Anything my daughter wants,” she responded. “This will be her garden.” One of the girls turned to us and smiled shyly. “What would you like?” Reynaldo asked her. “Everything,” she giggled.
Reynaldo pulled out his bag of magical seeds and we planted everything. We tucked the sleeping seeds in the soil and covered them with a layer of volcanic ash for good measure. Reynaldo detailed how much water each plant needed and when they could expect their harvest. As I was putting the last of the ash over the seeds, Nori laughed. “I think I know why you are so white, blanca. You have all this energy in you!”
When our job was done, we parted ways happily, glad to have met someone new and to share the work load, but not having spent enough time with each other to miss anybody. As we walked to the other side of the house, I heard a baby laugh. Another baby laughed in response. Back and forth they went, laughing faster and louder until even stray dogs on the street were perking up their ears at the strange ritual taking place. Once we rounded the corner, we realized that the echoing laugh was not coming from a baby at all, but from a large, green parrot. I laughed out loud, and sure enough, the parrot laughed right along with me.
One eye open
Reynaldo had a house in Salvación, but since it would be improper for me to stay there, I would be spending the night in my beloved hostel.
When it came time for us to turn in, Reynaldo stopped me outside the entrance. “Are you okay alone?” he asked. “I can pay for another room if you are worried.” “Thank you, but I’m fine,” I replied. I really was. I had absolutely no problem having a morsel of privacy after being deprived for so long. “Are you sure?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered. “Positive?” “Yes.” “Don’t go out alone,” he cautioned. “I won’t,” I affirmed. “Don’t open the door if someone knocks.” “Okay.” “Lock your door.” “I will.” “Promise me,” “I promise…” “Please, just lock your door,” “I will!!” Jesus Christ. I wasn’t worried before, but now? Was there some gang coming through that I was unaware of? Some gringa-hating gang that had gringa-dar and were going to chop down my gringa door to get to me, the only gringa around? Aaah! Thanks, Reynaldo. Thanks a lot.