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Tag Archives: Amazon Rainforest
(Photo Cred: Erica Moutrie)
“Tina. You are very sick,” Lilia said gravely as I ran into her the morning after my episode. “I’m fine now,” I croaked. “No, no, no. You are not fine. This is not fine. Aaaa, Tina, Tina, Tina. You have parasites I think. You said it was something from Queros? We will to talk to them. When you go to Cusco you must go to the doctor and he will give you something, no?” I quietly nodded. “Do not be stubborn, Tina.” “I’ll go,” I replied. “But I think I’ll wait a little to see if I feel better.” “Tinaaaaa,” Lilia reprimanded me. “You need to go. I will talk to the office about this,” she asserted, and walked back to the kitchen.
I really was feeling better besides a dull headache that had settled in behind my eyes. Still, dehydrated and unable to eat any sustenance, I was excused from checking the small mammal traps and all the other projects for the day.
I sighed and pulled out the painting I had been working on for the last couple of weeks. The spirit of the river stared at me from the thin paper, silent and incomplete. Her hair streamed down on either side of her face and became the waves of the river. Animals of all kinds gathered around her waters. She rested her head on her hands, patiently waiting for me to bring her and her charges fully into existence.
I hadn’t thought of the title until Carla looked over my shoulder at my progress one day. She scanned her eyes over the woman in the waves. “Aaaa. La madre de dios,” she whispered reverently. Of course! Why hadn’t I thought of that? The Madre de Dios River. I would have to tell this to Juvenal who wanted a straight answer as to why the river was a woman.
I still had a long way to go. The water was finished, as was the beach, but the forest, some animals, and the woman were devoid of color. A strange fervor came over me. This was all the time I had. Sarah and I were leaving the MLC the next day bright and early- possibly forever. If I was going to give this to the staff, I had to get going.
It was our whole story. No, there were no events portrayed, but each element represented something. The jaguar, the all-powerful river, the monkey who nonchalantly watched the scene.
It’s funny, but the painting somehow foreshadowed parts of our journey and garnered more meaning as time went on: the red howler and otter were on the paper before we saw them in real life, and I drew the spirit of the river before we ever heard about Chulian Chaki, the spirit of the jungle. More than just commemorating our trip, I wanted to make something for those who had made my trip so worthwhile- for the forest and its protectors: my dear friends who I loved and respected.
I pulled out my paints and brushes and began. Many hours passed. We ate lunch. Well, sort of. I picked at some soup that Carla demanded I eat and then got back to work. Tito interrupted me a few times to check on the state of my health. “Agua puro, Tina. Agua. Puro,” he said a slow steady voice. According to Tito, clean water was the remedy for everything. “No agua sucio,” he said, pointing to the cup with my brushes. “Agua puro, Tina.” “Si. I got it, Tito. Agua puro. You have my word I won’t drink the paint water.”
The hot afternoon sun came and went. I had no time to waste and my stomach wasn’t complying, so I had to opt out of the last game of soccer. I longingly watched the action from afar. I was going to miss being goalie, Nelly’s fancy footwork, Sarah’s random goals, and of course, people face planting in the mud.
Dinner time and still not finished. I managed to get some bread down and went back to painting. I hated that the day had passed and I hadn’t spent enough time with everyone, but I had to finish what I had started and I couldn’t do much else with my stomach the way it was anyway. What a sad goodbye, though, I thought.
The sun went down. Hours passed. Some of the staff and the chicas locas had gathered around me, offering words of encouragement and advice. Juvenal admonished me for a few animal choices. “The pink dolphin does not live in the Madre de Dios. Only the Amazon River,” he said matter-of-factly. “And we don’t have this kind of anteater either,” he growled, pointing out my mistake. “Oh well,” I replied and carried on. “But the jaguar. Like a photo. Nice,” he nodded his approval. I stifled a smile, basking in the rare Rambo compliment. Oh, I was going to miss our Fearless Leader.
Our Fearless Leader approves.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
It was 10:00 pm when I put the finishing touches on The Madre de Dios. Lilia, Nelson, and the chicas locas had stayed with me until the end. Lilia excitedly took a closer look at the finished product and began contemplating the best way and the best place to mount the painting. “Aaa, Florencio will make a frame. And we must put plastic on it. Oh, it is so humid, you know! But don’t worry, we will protect it!” she buzzed. I had no doubts. Conservation was their specialty after all.
The next day Sarah and I spent some time with the staff and chicas locas before it was time to go. After we exchanged information and packed up our things, we headed down to the boat on the Madre de Dios.
I couldn’t help it. I cried as we hugged everyone goodbye. I’ve never met anyone like the MLC staff: they were so fully alive and rich in spirit. Their goodness overwhelmed me. They’d given me the best gifts of my life: being a part of something bigger than myself, and an example of how to give and love and be alive.
The chicas locas’ last picture together.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
Nelson was leaving with us for Cusco along with Dionicio and Reynaldo. Juvenal scooped water out of the river and doused Nelson who ran away laughing. A CREES farewell tradition. Erica began to snap pictures as Nelson retaliated and Alcides got in on the action. Initially, it seemed that the water fight was reserved for the staff, but we soon realized we weren’t safe either. As we settled onto the boat, Juvenal ran right up to the side, and with an expression of equal parts sadness and glee, baptized us with the waters of the Madre de Dios. He guffawed at our sputtering and at Dionicio who was unsuccessfully trying to guard the backpacks from the water. “Adios, Juvenal!” I cried out as the peke peke started down the river. “I’ll miss you!”
The epic water battle:
Photo cred: Erica Moutrie (All four pics)
Sarah and I waved until the chicas locas and staff were out of sight. As we drifted down the river, I thought about the friends we had made and every part of me smiled. I felt so lucky to have met them.
The warm fuzzies dissipated during the drive from Atalaya to Cusco. My stomach was empty, so I was fine, but I can’t say the same for Nelson. Poor guy, we had to stop at least ten different times for him. And we were six people in one pickup on one very long, very bumpy ride. At first the setup was fine, but by the end, I was getting incredibly claustrophobic and I felt as if my neck was ready to snap since Reynaldo was using the headrest and my head bobbled with every bump in the road like a doggie on a dashboard.
Took a break from the trip from hell to eat some boxed lunches.
(Photo Cred: Nelson Coila via Sarah’s camera)
As we got closer to Cusco, my head began to buzz from the altitude. People were more plentiful and their colorful clothing brightened the dark landscape. There were baby animals everywhere: baby cows, baby ducks, baby sheep, baby goats, and puppies. It was like an Easter coloring book had exploded. The cuteness was almost too much to handle. I got through it by thinking of possible corresponding lolcats captions.
By the time we got to our beloved Hotel el Rosal, I was so incredibly happy to be off a moving vehicle and on solid ground that I almost cried for the second time that day. We said our goodbyes to the deathly ill Nelson and Dionicio, and made arrangements to see Reynaldo the next day at the office.
It felt so strange to be back in Cusco. Had we really been gone an entire month? The rainforest is like a casino: you step in, take a gamble, and before you know it, you’ve spent way more time there than you had originally thought possible. But while a casino might burn a hole in your wallet, the jungle burns a hole in your heart.
The day we left Pilcopata was a day for many firsts. That morning, Dioni informed us that we would be white water rafting to Atalaya. Now, I knew we would be rafting at some point, but I figured it would simply be for recreation, not one of our main modes of transportation. But there we were, strapped up in our life jackets and ready to brave the waters to get back to the MLC. Since I hadn’t eaten much of anything since the day before, I was feeling much better, and was excited about trying something new. We left our belongings in a large SUV that would meet us down the river, and followed Chito, our instructor/guide down to the river.
Chito was a gregarious, smiling man who spoke good English and had an almost religious reverence for the river. “Do you see the water there?,” he would ask, eyes wide like a kid in a candy store. “Imagine all those trees covered up. All of them gone! That’s how high the river was before. Entire plantations ruined!”
For some reason Chito was convinced we were all afraid. “Your first time, yes? Don’t be scared, don’t be scared. Only if you fall out should you be scared. Feet first, on your back! Don’t try to swim down the river with your head in front. No, no, no, no. Because what will happen?” He picked up his hand and jokingly slapped himself in the face. “You will be knocked out. And then you will drown.”
After a few more words of watery wisdom and a lot of pumping air into plastic tubes, Chito loaded us into the raft. Erica and I sat in the front. “Okay, now we will learn how to row together,” Chito said, and began to yell out orders as we practiced rowing on dry land. Once we got the hang of it, we pushed the raft into the water and began to drift down the river.
At first, rowing felt easy, but soon we came to a rapid with a whirlpool swirling by a rocky cliff and things got difficult very quickly. “Left reverse! Left reverse!” Chito yelled out over the roaring water. We put our backs into it. “Faster! Faster!” We avoided the cliff and struggled against the choppy waters toward the middle of the river. “Tina! You’re not doing it right!” Chito called out. “Use your back, not just your arms.” I tried to do what he asked, but after a few attempts where we narrowly missed some massive rocks, Chito thought it best for all involved if I moved to the back of the craft.
After the stinking smell of failure dissipated, I was pretty happy to be at the back of the boat where rowing was more of a formality than an actual need. I could have kicked up my heels, drank a pisco sour, and we would have gotten to Atalaya in one piece and no thanks to me.
By the time we got to Atalaya, we were drenched and content. The chicas locas climbed out of the raft, thanked Chito for his troubles, and dragged the raft up to the road. We walked into a restaurant that had given us the go ahead to use their bathrooms to change, and left an embarrassing trail of water in our wake.
After a long ride no the peke peke, I struggled more than usual up the stairs to the MLC. After getting reacquainted with the staff, I headed to my usual spot- the laundry area- to take my mind off my stomach pangs by scrubbing some clothes. As I neared the end of my laundry load, Reynaldo emerged from around the corner.
“Tina! We missed you!” he exclaimed in Spanish. I noticed a white bag in his hands. He presented it to me. “Un regalo de la selva,” he declared. A gift from the forest. I opened the bag and pulled out the tupperware within. I took off the lid. The musty smell of wood chips hit my nostrils and momentarily distracted me, increasing my nausea and foreshadowing what was to come.
I peered inside and couldn’t believe what I saw. I forced a smile for Reynaldo’s sake, but my insides were wriggling like the contents of the tupperware: slimy, fat larvae convulsed and jabbed each other with pinchers like Edward Scissorhands. “Suris!” I squealed in a high-pitched voice of terror that could be misconstrued as excitement. Reynaldo smiled proudly. He had caught wind of my discussion with Juvenal about my asthma and had found the remedy after a week of searching. Lucky, lucky me.
I counted the larvae in the box. Eight. Eight live larvae I was going to have to eat. I silently cursed Juvenal who had told me that suris were “little worms.” These were no worms, and they sure weren’t little. “Reynaldo, thank you so much. But I have a problem. I’m sick. My stomach has been hurting, and I just don’t know if… I don’t know if I can eat these… suris.” Reynaldo’s face dropped. “I understand,” he said quietly and smiled in sympathy. Aw man. I hated letting the guy down, but it’s not like I could eat these little monsters even if I wanted to in the state I was in.
Later that night, I visited with the staff in the kitchen. “Tina,” Lilia said in a serious tone. “You must eat the suris. Reynaldo looked a very long time for them.” “I know, but I’m feeling sick and-” “No, no, you must. He walked in the forest for three hours and cut down a palm tree to find them.” My head jerked up. Three hours? “Yes, Tina,” Carla whined, “you have to eat them.” Something shifted inside of me and I don’t mean my stomach. I was going to have to eat these little boogers. I sighed possibly the biggest sigh of my life. “Can we cook them at least?”
Tito fried the suris in a pan on the stove. “Don’t watch,” Reynaldo told me. I wasn’t going to argue with him there. “I can’t cook them too much because then they will lose all of their health benefits,” Tito said matter-of-factly. God forbid the larvae lost their health benefits. The only way my health was going to be benefitted right then was if I decided to throw those larvae back into the forest where they came from.
Tito placed the bowl of suris in front of me. I couldn’t fake it anymore. Disgust was written all over my face. I looked up at the staff. And down at the larvae again. Up at the staff. Down at the larvae. “Here,” Juvenal said, taking a suri in his hand and eating it in one gulp. As usual, he made everything look easy, but I appreciated the gesture since I knew he abhorred suris. One by one, the rest of the staff ate a suri in a ritual-like procession that felt like some strange communion that bound us all together. The Brotherhood of the Suris. The Fellowship of the Ringworms.
Lilia and Carla who had pressured me the most of all the other staff members were the only ones who abstained from the communal eating of the larvae. Finally, it was my turn to go. I delicately picked up a larvae between two fingers. I sent one more pleading look to the staff. Anyone, anyone going to save me?? There were no takers.
I took a breath and bit the suri in half. Big mistake. Suri guts sprayed out the bottom, covering my hands in their juices. “Eeeewww,” I groaned with a mouth full of larvae. The staff laughed at my expense. I chewed as quickly as I could manage. It was tough, chewy, slimy, and tasted like… butter. I resisted the urge to throw up and downed the other half of the suri.
“That wasn’t as bad as you thought, no?” Lilia asked. “No. It was worse,” I said trying to figure a way out of eating the rest.
Erica and Hanako came into the kitchen and after a few pointers from the staff, downed the larvae like champs. Sarah, smart girl, refused to eat any of the suris. “More for me,” I thought. Lucky, lucky me.
After the chicas locas had their fill, there were still two more suris. I ate the first in one gulp, drawing upon Juvenal as inspiration. The second was almost too much for me to bear. My nemesis. The bane of my existence. I didn’t care if I never had asthma again, THIS WAS NOT WORTH IT.
I pulled out a couple of slices of bread. I slapped the larvae on one slice and covered it up with the other. Suri sandwich, anyone? As I bit into this bizarre concoction, I realized my mistake. This was just extending the agony. I threw off the bread much to Carla’s distress who made a tsking sound at the waste of food. I held my nose and ate the suri to the sound of applause. It was done. It was over with, I was still alive, and surprisingly, my stomach wasn’t objecting any more than usual. I considered testing its effects on my asthma by chasing down Juvenal and making him pay for downplaying what a suri was.
As I laid in bed that night, I thought I had gotten off scott free. My stomach had settled. Maybe it was food poisoning after all. But when I started to drift off to sleep, my stomach spasmed again. “Oh no, ooooh no!” I said out loud. I tore my mosquito net out from under my mattress and ran to the building with the bathrooms.
I made four more trips to the restroom that night. The fourth time I got a quarter of the way there when I heard a growl.
A potoo bird, I thought, suddenly all too aware that I wasn’t supposed to be outside alone at night. But what if it wasn’t a bird. What if it wasn’t, and my stubborness to not wake anyone up led to an unexpected meeting with a certain jungle cat.
I swallowed my pride and ran back upstairs, not caring who I woke in the process. Time was of the essence. I dashed into the room I shared with Sarah. “Sarah,” I bleated. “Sarah, are you awake?” No response. I tried again. Nothing. I grabbed the pump that we had bought to give the men as a parting gift. If worst came to worse, I could always defend myself with it, or at least entice the jaguar with a game of soccer. My stomach seized again. No time for games.
I moved toward the exit, but then I thought to wake up Erica or Hanako. I ran to their room. “Erica! Erica!” I cried out. “Can you please come with me to the bathroom?” I heard her shift beneath her mosquito net. “Sure, I’ll come,” she said groggily and I breathed a sigh of relief. She laughed at the sight of the pump and when I told her about possibly, maybe, not really hearing a jaguar growling. She had another giggle when I got faster as I got closer to the bathrooms because she thought I was afraid of the jaguar.
But my sudden burst of speed had nothing to do with that predator.
“Oh God, are you alright?” Erica asked as I wretched out all the contents of my stomach. I had made it to the stall but just barely. “I’m fine, thanks,” I said unconvincingly. After I was finished, a sense of misery was replaced by one of gratitude. I was a little embarrassed about the situation, but I was so grateful that Erica was there. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t sick and alone in the middle of nowhere. Still felt terrible though. “I don’t think this is food poisoning,” I murmered. “I think Queros gave me parasites.”
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After spending almost the entire night awake, it seemed that I had food poisoning. Or… something else. I had no appetite, no energy, and my stomach growled like some angry mountain lion. This was the day we were leaving the native Wachiperi community in Queros for Pilcopata. How was I going to walk two and half hours in the heat with my stomach churning like Dr. Von Dark’s Tunnel of Terror?
Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about that quite yet. “Chicas locas,” Dioni called out for the umpteenth time. “We are going to have an archery competition now, okay? The Wachiperi will show us how to do this.”
My stomach continued to turn, but not as much now that it was empty, and I didn’t want to let down the audience that had gathered to watch us embarrass ourselves, so I followed the chicas locas to the middle of the lawn where a bullseye had been taped to a soccer goal. Eddie stood by as the older gentleman who had sang and danced for us that night before beamed at us, bow and arrow in hand. He held up the weapon and shot at a point in the distance. The arrow flew through the air and pierced the grass at the far end of the field, feather pointing toward the sky. He made it look so easy, but as with most things in the jungle, it really wasn’t.
Shooting the arrow was like trying to shoot a pool cue with a piece of floss. On my first try, the arrow collapsed a few inches in front of me. “Well this is promising,” I thought to myself. On my third try, I mustered all my concentration, pulled the arrow back with all my might, and let go. Miraculously, the arrow grazed the target. I looked at the old man who smiled at me. Now I understood why a seventy-something-year-old had biceps like Schwarzenegger.
All the chicas locas improved over time, and the laughs from the locals came less frequently. By the end, we had hit the target multiple times; Hanako even managed to knock down the entire thing, which for some reason sent Eddie into a fit of uncontrollable, unending laughter. Erica was the master, and with one final well-placed shot, she won the championship by several points. Her prizes were a necklace, an arrow, and a woven purse she got to paint with dye made from crushed purple seeds. But just like the Ellen show, no one went home empty-handed, and the rest of the chicas locas got necklaces and arrows decorated with macaw feathers. As I ran my hands over the beautiful craftsmanship of my arrow, I thought about how much fun it was going to be trying to get a weapon with feathers from an endangered animal across security at the airport. Lots I was sure.
Sarah beastin’ the bow and arrow.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
After our impressive display of athletic prowess, it was time to leave Queros. We came, we saw, and we were conquered. Between the bugs, moon shine, and possible parasites that were dwelling in my guts, I was ready to go. But I wasn’t ready for the two and half hour walk that was necessary to get to the main road. Once again, Dioni managed to swoop in at just the right moment, possibly saving my life: “Chicas locas, today we are not walking. We will take a car to the road, okay?”
The car was like a tiny clown truck you’d see at the circus, and we piled way too many people in, accordingly. It was a bumpy, bumpy ride, and at times, I clutched at my stomach like a soon-to-be mother with labor pains. Hanako and Sarah sat with their backs to the driver and I was in charge of warning them of incoming branches, which turned out not to be the best idea, since I kept forgetting about my charges and they were continuously being beaten in the head.
Toward the end of our journey, the truck stopped in front of a small bridge stretching across the river. “Okay, chicas locas,” Dioni addressed us. “Now we are going to walk because last week the bridge broke and two people died.” Right.
We jumped off the truck and steadily walked across the bridge, getting vertigo by watching the river crashing meters below between the floor boards. Thankfully, we all survived the crossing and safely reboarded on the other side of the river. Soon we were at the main road where another slightly larger automobile drove us to Pilcopata, Dioni’s hometown.
Pilcopata was more of a “city” than our dear old Salvación. There were more cars, more stores, and more people than livestock. Young people filled the square who stood around looking at each other, trying to exude coolness and sophistication. Erica and Hanako laughed as they filmed two curious teenage boys who had settled on a small decorative bridge behind us, playing Justin Bieber on their mp3 player. In the distance was a large tent filled with carnival games and prizes that only a handful of children were taking advantage of. There were even coolers with ice cream in that place. My stomach was feeling better, so I gladly ate an ice cream cone as we sat on a bench, taking in the scenery.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
No matter where you go, you can’t escape Bieber Fever.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Dioni strikes his model pose.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
“What do you want to eat for dinner?” Dioni asked us. None of us really minded, and after the ice cream, my stomach was beginning to object, so Dioni made the decision.
After we returned to our hotel for a bit, he took us to an empty restaurant. No one was talking very much- we were all exhausted from the trip.
A young woman brought out some soup. I looked down at my bowl. Normally I have a voracious appetite, but the sight of the watery liquid sent my stomach into spasms. I hate leaving food on my plate, especially in the jungle where it was considered disrespectful to the cook and wasteful, but after a few bites, I couldn’t stomach any more and pushed the plate away.
Suddenly, everything went dark. Not the apocalypse, just a power outage. I turned on my headlamp as the waitress dashed to light the candles on all of the tables. After a few minutes, we were once more thrust into the light, nullifying the warm ambiance of the candles. Just as our eyes had finally adjusted, we were sitting in the dark again. Back and forth, back and forth it went. By the time we left, my eyes were as confused as my stomach.
Back in our hostel, Sarah and I talked about things back home and played card games until the lights cut off again. We forgot to turn the light switch off before we fell asleep, and we were so tired that we didn’t wake up when the lights came back on, so they blazed on for hours. We were in yet another hotel without a real ceiling so Erica and Hanako wondered what the heck we were doing up, and our other neighbors were probably not too happy with us either. I felt a bit guilty, but not too much considering one of our neighbors had taken to traipsing about in the nude.
Much to Chico the monkey’s dismay, the chicas locas were off again after a night’s stay at Atalaya Lodge. I tried to offer him apples as a parting gift (i.e. left-over apples Carla had forced upon us when we left the MLC), but he took a bite from one, threw it on the ground, and gave me a look of disgust. I sighed and one of the “pirates” came up to us and pulled out a banana from behind his back. Chico lunged at him and consumed the fruit within moments. “Yeah, this monkey is spoiled,” I thought to myself. “A year with humans and he’s already picky about his fruit.”
I took the apples to Gabriela in the kitchen who gratefully accepted them. I tried to warn her that Chico had already done a number on one of them, but she didn’t seem concerned and placed them all in the icebox. “No problem. Muchas gracias, Tina. Visit again?”
After a twenty-minute drive and a two hour walk in the heat down a dirt road, we arrived at Queros in record time. It was… empty. With the exception of Eddie, our guide, and his friend, no one else was around. A bare lawn between a set of houses made me think of an abandoned school playground over summer vacation. That is if the school playground had been overrun by chickens. I laughed to think that I was just reflecting on how nice it was to be back in civilization again, and there we were in a village where the foul were more plentiful than inhabitants.
Eddie and Dioni took us to a wooden cabin at the entrance of the village. After my experience with Reynaldo, I was expecting squat toilets and cockroach-friendly accommodations, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that we had a REAL toilet, REAL beds, REAL walls, and wait for it… electricity. Really. Mind you, they only ran the generator for two hours at night, but hey, after a month of living in complete darkness at night, a couple of hours of synthetic light felt like an extravagant luxury. In fact, I was a little suspicious of it. It was blindingly bright, just glowing away when it wasn’t even necessary. So in your face. So flashy. Still, I was glad to finally charge my camera which had died out halfway through our Atalaya experience.
After our long walk, all of the girls including myself were too exhausted to move. I felt obligated to go talk to Eddie and find out more about his community, but I couldn’t help it, I was so tired, so I collapsed on my bed with the rest of the chicas locas in our room. By that point, all of the volunteers had gotten bitten on nearly every inch of flesh, so we passed around the cortisone cream like it was a peace pipe, taking relief in its soothing chill.
We laid there for nearly two hours, barely moving an inch. Some slept, but personally, I was just staring blankly at the top bunk, feeling my brain curdle from tiredness and heat.
“Chicas locas,” we heard from the dining room. Dioni, who had survived ten days in the forest eating nothing but leaves, probably thought we were the biggest sissies of all time. “It is time to get up. We are going to make jewelry and baskets with the women now, okay?” We quietly groaned and dragged ourselves out of bed.
Outside, the women had already gotten started. They threaded beads onto strings and wove baskets out of thin, bendable leaves. An elderly man was polishing a smooth arrow with macaw feathers protruding out the end.
“Girls, the woman pokes holes in these seeds and puts them on the string,” Dioni told us. “You can try now.” We began to make our own necklaces and bracelets while Dioni and the woman told us the different seed names: sera sera, walking palms, and huayruro seeds- the luckiest, most sacred seeds of the Amazon. The red of the seed symbolizes the earth, and the black represents all life. Drape yourself in these seeds, and you will be protected against evil and attract abundance. Once I had finished, I tied my necklace around my neck, but even the huayruro seeds couldn’t prevent was soon to come.
Dioni asked us if we wanted to escape the heat by going to the river. Erica and Hanako wanted to relax in the room, so Sarah and I joined him. Sarah just wanted to take pictures, so she sat on the bank as Dioni and I tried to find a safe place to swim. The water was frigid. The current tugged at my legs. “Are you sure about this?” I asked Dioni who was already several yards ahead, diving into the cold waters and laughing. “No problem! Come, Tina,” he called out to me. I followed him but kept my feet on the ground.
I looked back at Sarah who was barely visible close to the horizon. I turned back, shivering, took a breath, and dove in. Ice. I imagined the blood in my veins congealing. As cold as it was, the current was not as intense as it looked. “You see!” Dioni laughed. “No problem!” I laughed too and started doing the backstroke against the rushing water. No problem.
After a few minutes, Dioni swam to another bend in the river. He turned toward me and motioned for me to follow. I decided to walk there again. I didn’t want to take any chances with this river.
Once I got close, I felt the current turn colder and stronger. My foot met a large rock jutting out from the bottom of the riverbed, and I tried to readjust my footing, but it was too late. That one misstep sent me backwards, and before I knew it, I was being dragged along the river on my back, unable to stop myself. It was just for a few seconds close to the bank of the river, and I laughed, not taking what was happening seriously, but looking back, I remember how strong the pull of the water was- a siren impossible to resist.
“Give me your hand!” Dioni called out over the roaring water, and I reached out to him. He grabbed ahold of me and pulled me out. He laughed. A fish out of water. “Dioni, you quite possibly just saved my life,” I said somewhere in between sincerity and jest. What had just happened? Was that real or had I imagined it?
The sun was going down. We found Sarah where we had left her, beginning to look very bored. “I saw you out there, but then you disappeared for a bit,” she said. “Well, yeah,” I squirmed. “I kind of, possibly, almost drowned out there, so that’s probably why you didn’t see me.”
When we returned back to the community center, it was time for dinner. Now this is my speed, I thought. Food. Delicious and filling food. Nothing to fear.
The main component of the meal was yucca- the most common food in the Amazon, and sadly, the most boring food in the world. It has the carbyness of potatoes without any of their buttery goodness, and it leaves your mouth dry and your body constipated. The other dish we had was palmito. It’s the inside of a palm tree, and tastes surprisingly like buttered corn. I. Loved. It.
“Señora, this is the most delicious food I’ve had this whole month!” I beamed at the cook. She smiled and offered me more. I ate seconds. I ate thirds. I had three glasses of banana juice and some water from the tank that was deemed safe by our guide. Now I was content. All the heat exhaustion was gone and my bites were even itching less, and a vague sleepiness settled in my bones.
“Chicas,” Dioni addressed us. “Now we are going to a bonfire with some of the Wachiperi. They will show some typical dances and typical songs and tell some typical stories for us, okay?” Okay. We were sleepy, but we could swing this. How often do you get to experience the culture of an Amazonian community, anyway?
We got to the fire and were joined by Eddie, his friend, and the older gentleman who had been polishing the arrow earlier who was now dressed in traditional clothes made from squished plant fibers. He was proudly holding his arrow polished with a special blend of honey and minerals.
Eddie lit the fire in the traditional way, by rubbing two pieces of wood together, representing the meeting of the male and female. Then he offered us a drink called chuchuwasa. “It’s very good. Strong,” he said. I took a sip. It was strong alright.
The older man told Dioni in Spanish with a Wachiperi lilt that he should translate his stories for us. In the first, there was a man named Ananewa who was the strongest of the Wachiperi. He would fight with jaguars and win. After the man died, the people of the village began to name their sons Ananewa out of respect. Until. All of the jaguars began to come after these boys and kill them. You see, the name had become a challenge to the jaguars. This is the reason why the Wachiperi never name their sons Ananewa. To do so would be to guarantee their untimely death. And apparently, there hasn’t been a strong man in Queros ever since.
The next one had something to do with a fox and a fire. Firefox? I tried to concentrate, but couldn’t manage it. All I know is that the stories came fast and furiously, with lots of repetition and lots of reprimands. “No, you’re not translating right, I know,” the man would say to Dioni. “Uy, no, no, no.” The stories went on and on. We were too tired to focus on discerning the man’s Wachiperi tinged Spanish or Dioni’s English, so we all sat there, smiling and nodding, not understanding a word.
When it was time to leave, we thanked the men and dragged ourselves to bed. I was so happy to finally sleep. Such a long day. Such a long, long day. Something stirred in my belly. I turned on my side. My stomach growled. I turned to my other side. Nope. I wasn’t going to let a little stomach ache stop me from sleeping. As I was drifting off, my stomach spasmed like an alien was trying to break through. “Oh, no,” I whispered as I instinctively jumped out of bed and ran to the outhouse.
A frog was perched on the toilet seat, staring at me with huge, buggy eyes. “Oh no. Oooooh no,” I said, opening the door to give him a path of escape. Any other time, I would have flipped out and ran to grab my camera, but not. right. now. I turned back to the toilet. He sat there watching me. “This is my toilet!” I said, shooing him away, my stomach seizing. He didn’t move. I took my shoe and poked him. He hopped off and disappeared. “Where did you go?” I said, checking inside the commode just in case. My stomach seized again. “I don’t have time for this,” I told the phantom frog and slammed the door.
Eight hours and many trips to the bathroom later, I determined that I must have food poisoning. I cursed the palmito that I had loved so dearly just hours before. But then I remembered the water I drank. It had something floating in it. Something white. I ran to the bathroom again for good measure.
As the sun came up and I stared wide-eyed at the top bunk, I hoped that what happened in Queros would stay in Queros.
Sarita’s new bff, Chico the red howler monkey.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Shortly after my extremely fruitful mission with Reynaldo (not), it was time for all of the volunteers and Dionicio to go on our joint expedition to visit Atalaya lodge, the Wachiperi community in Queros, and Pilcopata, Dioni’s hometown. It was our final hurrah before we all set sail and went our separate ways.
We arrived in Atalaya without any landslides or highway robbers to deter us. We stepped out of the car and into a forest much different from the one we had grown accustomed to. The sound of rushing water followed us through the tall trees and the honking of cars melded with the screeches of wild birds. Here, this part of the Madre de Dios River was called Pilcopata River and boulders the size of buses generated madly churning waves unlike the steady pull of the current at the MLC.
We saw Atalaya Lodge in the distance across the river. I scanned the horizon for some sign of a bridge, but there wasn’t one- just a light-haired man by a long cable, smiling at us. “Hello,” he greeted us in accented English. “Don’t worry, this is a new cable. There were a couple of tourists who fell into the river and died close to here just a little while ago because of a bad one, so we changed ours just in case.” The chicas laughed uneasily. “Okay, who’s first?”
Despite the tourists’ fatal end, I was intrigued by this mode of transportation. “I wish we had one of these at the MLC,” I thought as I watched the other chicas locas cross.
Finally, it was my turn to go. “You know,” the man said seriously, “the cable is weakest with the last person.” I laughed and the man grinned slyly.
As I sat down on the seat, I accidentally touched the cable. “Do you want to lose a hand?” the man asked as he pointed to the sign above my head that read in capital letters “DO NOT TOUCH THE CABLE.” “Oops,” I smiled as I steadied myself on the sides of the contraption. The man pulled on a rope and suddenly I was gliding meters above the perilous river. “Next best thing to flying,” I thought, landing on the other side much too soon.
(Photo cred: Sarah More)
We crossed a small bridge over a creek and came to the lodge hidden in the foliage. An older woman and a little girl waved to us from the kitchen as a gray dog ran outside to greet us. They had the same cardinal rule as the MLC: no shoes inside, so we kicked off our boots and walked into the living area.
Approaching Atalaya Lodge.
“Oh my!” I cried as I noticed a red howler monkey perched on the bar. I excitedly dashed to pet the furry animal, but she yawned, seemingly uninterested by the presence of yet another human. Soon another monkey came into view- equally bored. This did nothing to thwart my advances. I reached out my hand to pet the monkeys and was surprised to feel fur almost like human hair. “Better start watching what I say around you,” I thought as I looked into the human-like eyes, held the human-like hand, and stroked the human-like hair of the nonchalant monkey.
“Chicas locas,” Dioni turned to us. I reluctantly turned away from the popular kids. “You will stay in these two buildings,” he said pointing to two wooden cabins behind the living area. A cage with a weasel-looking creature caught my eye in front of our lodging. “So, we will meet back in half an hour, okay? We go to the waterfall to swim, yes? Then we have lunch at one o’clock.”
It didn’t take long to get ready, so Sarah and I went into the living area to wait on the other chicas locas. Behind the tables we noticed a large whiteboard listing a range of different projects and English sounding names to the side. This lodge had A LOT of volunteers but where were they all?
“The volunteers are not here for the weekend,” Dioni said, answering my thoughts. “They leave for Easter but will be back later.”
“Some will be back today,” chimed in the cook, Gabriela in Spanish. “I think you will meet three of them” she said.
The little girl who was sweeping stopped in front of me. “¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her. “Gabriela,” she said shyly. “¿Y tú?” she asked me. “Tina. Are you related to the cook?”
“No, I just like to help here,” she smiled. “I live in the village nearby.”
One of the red howlers got my attention lounging on the floor. The little girl looked hesitant and walked back toward the kitchen. Not a fan of the monkeys I guess.
“I don’t think Tilman would approve of pet monkeys,” Sarah laughed. “You’re probably right, but they’re so cute,” I said as I laid down on the floor next to him, holding his small hand. Gabriela laughed at the scene from the safety of the kitchen. Soon Erica and Hanako joined us. “Okay. Chicas locas, it’s time to go,” Dioni said.
After a mostly uphill walk, we came upon the famed waterfall. At first, we only neared the smaller rapids, but finally Dioni convinced us to go under the larger cascade in the distance. Imagine getting sprayed in the face with a fireman’s hose while Jackie Chan continuously punches you in the skull. I felt the way I do when I’m on a roller coaster that has a drop that’s just a bit too much. The feeling that if the fall was just a little more intense I would certainly, irrevocably explode.
The volunteers still weren’t back when we returned, so the fellow from the river pass who turned out to be one of the coordinators took a seat by yours truly for lunch.
“I’m Alvaro,” he introduced himself and the chicas locas followed suit. I fell into my usual pattern of interrogation and discovered that he was an environmental engineer from Sevilla, Spain, and that he’d only been in Peru for nine months. “Do you miss it there?” I asked him, expecting some show of emotion for Seville, one of the most beautiful cities around.
“No,” he shook his head. I paused for a beat, waiting for more than a one word answer.
“Really? Not even a little?” I asked.
“No,” he repeated. Then he thought for a moment. “Well, sometimes I miss the trees.”
After lunch we had a little bit of down time. We all parted ways, and when I thought everyone was out of view, I walked up to the cage holding the weasel-like creature furiously pacing back and forth. He froze and locked eyes with me.
“What are you? A weasel? An otter?” I asked him quietly, walking up to the chicken wire keeping him in. He sniffed at me, sticking his snout out one of the holes. I knew that I shouldn’t, but I quickly reached out my hand and touched his wet nose. He growled at me and gnashed his teeth.
“Do you want to lose a finger?” I heard someone say from behind me. I was caught red handed by gloom and doom Alvaro.
“You saw me, huh?” I said stepping back from the cage.
“Yes. You know, I’m serious about your fingers. He bit off two of the monkey’s.” I made a face. “Won’t happen again,” I promised, raising my hands in defeat. “What is he?” I asked, changing the subject. “Some kind of otter or-” “No, no, no. He’s part of the musti-musti-” “Mustilidae family!” I finished his thought, pleased that my brief stint at the Natural Science Center had come in handy for something. “Like a weasel or ferret?” I continued.
“Yes, yes, that’s it, we’re going to release him back into the wild soon. He was illegally trafficked.”
“Oh. Is that why you have the monkeys?” I asked wondering if it would be possible to reintroduce these monkeys back into their natural habitat knowing how clever they were and how accustomed to humans they seemed to be. “Yes, and we have turtles too,” he led me to a small pond with two turtles sunning themselves on rocks. “Now THEY are mean. They will definitely bite you, so don’t even try touching them,” he chuckled. “Wasn’t really planning on it,” I retorted.
“And we used to have two pumas but we let them go already…”
“Wait. What? Pumas? Seriously? And you let them go?”
“Yes, far away from here.”
“Well, aren’t they used to humans now? Don’t they go up to them?”
“Probably,” Alvaro shrugged and walked away. Knowing him, he wouldn’t mind having another unfortunate event to recount.
Suddenly, the male monkey came bounding toward me. I bent down to pet him and he leapt onto my shoulders. Alvaro turned back to the two of us. “Poor Chico. He’s been rejected by Paula. Now he sleeps in the beds of the girl volunteers. Such a lover. Do you want me to take him off?” he asked, stepping closer. Chico tightened his tail around my neck, practically choking me in the process. “No, no, that’s okay,” I smiled. Alvaro nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Let me know if you need help getting him off of you,” he said. “Thanks. I will,” I smiled, having absolutely no intention of asking Alvaro for help.
Chico’s such a lady’s man.
“Sarah! I have company,” I chimed as I walked into our joint cabin. “Wow, you have a monkey on your shoulders!” she stared incredulously. “That I do,” I said holding the monkey’s hand in mine. His weight was somehow grounding, and I had the absurd feeling that I had missed having a monkey on my shoulders. I descended into a fantasy of having a constant companion who I imagined would screech whenever ill-wishers would come near and lead me to safety if I was ever lost in the jungle.
After some time, I passed Chico off to Sarah who taught him how to read. Hey, never say never. He climbed on us like we were limbs of a tree with no concern as to whether or not he was strangling us with his tail, pulling out our hair, or smothering us with fur. After more than an hour of being a monkey’s jungle gym, it was time to meet up with the others for some bird watching.
Sarah teaches Chico to read. He’s a natural.
“Alright, Chico, time for us to go,” I said, looking into his far-too-intelligent eyes. I moved to take him off of Sarah and he growled. I tried again. “Ow!” I yelped as he bit me on the wrist. I looked down and saw two sets of fresh bite marks. “The skin’s not broken,” I said more to myself than to Sarah. “Just a love bite, that’s all. But…um… What are we going to do with him?” I asked.
We decided to walk toward the kitchen and hope that he would abandon us for Paula or perhaps a nice snack. We stopped on the way to show Erica and Hanako what we had gotten ourselves into. “I want to hold him!” Erica exclaimed, staring excitedly at Chico who gave the usual unaffected glare. She reached for him and Chico growled. “Ow!” she howled, jumping away from Chico. “He bit me! I don’t want to hold him now,” she glowered. Chico readjusted himself on Sarah’s shoulders. This monkey was proving to be a man who could not be moved. Taking Alvaro up on his offer was starting to look better and better.
As we walked up to the living area to wait for Dioni, Chico leapt off Sarah, onto the railing, and bounded toward the kitchen. Simple as that. I wondered if he just wanted a ride all that time.
“Chicas locas,” Dioni called out to us. “We are going to see the Cock of the Rock today. We must be very quiet. I see you girls are not wearing bright clothes. This is good. So. Yes. We go now.” He turned and we followed him into the forest. The sky had turned gray so I silently tilted my head back and blew at the clouds to keep the rain away as Tito had taught me.
Before long, we were at the lookout: a small, wooden structure overlooking some trees. We squeezed onto the bench and waited for the Cock of the Rock to show his face. I saw a vibrantly colored bird stir in the trees. I pointed him out to Dioni. “No, this is not it,” he said.
Finally, an orange bird came into view. I laughed at my recent blunder. This bird was so brightly-colored, he was like the traffic cone of the jungle. We watched quietly- the only sounds being the strange honking of the Cock of the Rock and the steady clicking of Erica happily snapping pictures. Soon, an entire clan of the birds showed up and we marveled at the trees dotted with with their brilliant orange.
Eventually it was time to go, but Erica was determined to get a better shot, so she made her way to the birds and I tagged along. We inched forward, holding our breath so as not to scare off these sensitive creatures. Finally, we were in their midst. They must have seen us, but they stayed anyway, emboldened by how far below we were. I flagged Erica over to the side where one lone Cock of the Rock was hovering out in the open. She snapped the picture and we retreated after the rest of the group that had left long before us.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Sarah and Hanako had found a massive rock on the outskirts of the river. And by found I mean they had found a way to get to the top and were in the middle of doing a dance. “Oooh no. No way am I climbing up there,” I told Erica as I speculated on how the heck they had gotten up that slippery slope of a rock. Erica, unphased, walked up to the rock, found some mystery leverage, and had scaled the thing in a matter of seconds. Well, damn. Guess I was climbing after all.
Getting to the top was surprisingly easy in comparison to getting down. It started to rain, so we all awkwardly slid/jumped of the side and counted our lucky stars when we landed on solid ground. Before long, it was pouring down and we practically ran through the forest to get to the relative dryness of the lodge.
(Photo cred: Erica Moutrie)
Three young people greeted us as we walked in- the Atalaya volunteers had finally arrived. There were also two dreadlocked, bearded men who appeared to belong to the same pirate clan as our project director, Juanma. Because of the table set-up, we ate segregated from one another. The Atalaya volunteers spoke in hushed tones, unlike us unruly chicas locas. After dinner, the girls wrote in their journals while the pirates conversed in a corner. We asked if anyone wanted to join us in playing cards, and Andrew from Australia, the only male volunteer there at the time, was the only taker.
As we were playing, Masacho the dog began to bark madly in the direction of the kitchen.
“It’s a porcupine. He’s broken in again,” Alvaro told us, running off to scare the animal off. Apparently this was a common occurrence at the lodge. Masacho went close enough to scare the animal, but he knew not to play. A face full of needles is no joke. Soon, the porcupine ran out the back and Dioni guffawed at his waddling escape. Once the excitement of the evening had died down, the staff and female volunteers dispersed for the night.
By the end of the night, the candle burned down to the cusp of the holder and the flame licked the bamboo, setting it on fire. That’s when we knew it was getting close to bedtime. Dioni blew out the glowing flame, and before long, we headed off to sleep.
Reynaldo and me living fabulously in Shipitiari.
Starting out on the wrong foot.
I didn’t exactly feel rested when my alarm went off at five o’clock in the morning. Thanks to Reynaldo’s pep talk, I decided to sleep without my earplugs, and what with the frogs, the squealing baby next door, and a mishmash of other unrecognizable jungle noises coming from all directions, I woke up every half hour. I dragged myself out of bed and plodded like a zombie to the bathroom. Since there was nowhere to rest my clothes, I laid them on top of the commode while I took a cold shower. By the time I got out, I was shivering like a leaf, and in one spastic motion managed to knock my shirt and only clean pair of underwear into the toilet. Fantastic.
Just at that moment, Reynaldo knocked on my door. Of course he chose that day to be early. I hurriedly flung the sopping wet clothing into a plastic bag I had found at the bottom of my book bag. I pulled on another shirt I had brought along and ran to open the door.
“Buenos días,” Reynaldo chirped. “Buenos días,” I parroted.
“Are you ready?” “Um, not exactly,” I mumbled. He looked off to the side. “Is this bag ready?” he asked, motioning toward my large back pack. “Yes,” I answered, figuring I could stick the rest of my stuff into my daypack. “Okay, the bus is leaving soon, so please come when you are ready,” he said, picking up my back pack and walking out the door. When he left, I frantically began to cram things into my pack and gave the room one last search before grabbing my machete and heading out the door.
“Are you ready?” “Um, not exactly,” I mumbled. He looked off to the side. “Is this bag ready?” he asked, motioning toward my large back pack. “Yes,” I answered, figuring I could stick the rest of my stuff into my daypack. “Okay, the bus is leaving soon, so please come when you are ready,” he said, picking up my back pack and walking out the door. When he left, I frantically began to cram things into my pack and gave the room one last search before grabbing my machete and heading out the door.
I bolted to the common area expecting to see Reynaldo, but he was M.I.A. “Must’ve gone to catch the bus,” I thought, not considering the fact that I didn’t know where the bus stop was.
I darted outside and saw a man building a wall across the street. “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?” I asked in Spanish. “Si,” he nodded and pointed down the road. “¡Gracias!” I cried and bounded down the road. “Thank goodness everyone knows everyone around here,” I thought to myself. I kept rushing along, not pausing to consider if I was supposed to turn somewhere. After walking for a good five minutes I began to get worried. Leave it to me to get lost in the smallest town ever.
I saw a guy on a motorcycle across the street talking to a friend. “Excuse me, have you seen Señor Reynaldo anywhere?” I interrupted, trying to disguise my desperation. He smiled and pointed in the opposite direction. “He’s at the market,” he said. “Are you sure?” I questioned. He nodded. “¿En verdad? Really?” “Si, en verdad,” he laughed.
I had to make a split decision. I didn’t think Reynaldo would leave me, but then again, I didn’t think he would leave me before, and I wanted to be absolutely sure I didn’t miss that bus. “Can you take me?” I blurted out. “Si,” the man conceded and made room for me.
I leapt onto the bike and we drove… all of a few seconds. If I had been looking hard enough, I could have seen the marketplace on the horizon. I convinced myself that the motorcycle ride was still necessary- time is money after all, and thanked the man profusely before he drove away. There, casually sitting on a bench, was Reynaldo, completely oblivious to all the heartache he had caused me. “Hola, Tina. The bus is late,” he smiled. “Of course it is,” I thought.
After thirty minutes, the bus finally arrived. Thankfully, there was a lot more room than last time, and we actually had seats to sit in. All the stress of the morning dissipated as we ambled along. There seemed to be no divide between the forest and the passengers; the palm trees whipped their leaves through the windows, blessing us with water droplets that fell on our faces and shoulders. A little girl with pink bows in her hair reached out her window, grabbing at the trees to catch a handful of leaves. We drove over streams and rivers, rocks and mud, and under an emerald canopy framed by a clear blue sky.
After an hour and a half, we stopped in Shintuya, a small jungle town, to have a fish and rice breakfast. Shinutuya is at the heart of much environmental debate in the Madre de Dios region. Its leader seems willing to allow an oil company to come into the area to pump oil. The town would be paid off, but their way of life would certainly change, and since the company does not have an excellent track record, the Amazon would be impacted as well i.e. deforestation and oil leaks.
At the time, I had no idea any of this was going on, and I sat there, oblivious to the undercurrent of rising tension, silently eating my breakfast and watching some old Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on television with a bunch of kids.
Sit down, you’re rocking the boat.
As we finished cleaning off our plates, a man came into the home where we were eating and spoke with Reynaldo. “Our boat is here, Tina,” Reynaldo relayed back to me. We got up, thanked the Señora of the house, and headed down to the river. It was another peke peke, not much bigger than the one we had back at the MLC. The man who spoke to Reynaldo turned out to be the driver, and there were a few more passengers waiting on the boat. I was the only woman there.
Those first three and half peaceful hours on the boat were my favorite part of the journey, riding down the river, watching the shore zip by and the birds dotting the sky. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Suddenly, the boat stalled. “Uy!” the driver exclaimed. We had hit a sand bank and the motor was rendered useless. All of the men jumped out and began to push the vehicle upstream. I motioned to join them but froze in my tracks when Reynaldo put his hands up to stop me. “No, Tina. Stay,” he commanded. I sat back down and waited for a bit, but once the water had become shallow as a kids’ pool, I couldn’t take it anymore and leapt over the side of the boat to lend a hand, much to Reynaldo’s dismay. “I can handle it, thank you very much,” I smiled, half believing it myself.
We pushed with all our might, the peke peke straining against us. When we came to deeper waters, we had a different challenge of walking upstream through the powerful current. We continued on like this for half an hour. I couldn’t fathom how some of the men were accomplishing this barefoot while I was struggling in my rubber boots, water up to my mid-thigh. Just before we came to dock, the water deepened and the captain told us to jump back on. “Oh, no,” I thought. The boat was moving quickly now and I had been pushing in the back. Within a few seconds, the boat was out of reach and I was left behind. Reynaldo shook his head. “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I grumbled as I trudged my way through the murky waters to the dock.
It’s not easy being green.
One of the passengers on the boat was a park ranger named Manuel. Before he attended to whatever business he had in Shipitiari, he joined forces with Reynaldo, the driver, and me to look for chiwawakos. We had been planting trees as part of the reforestation program for so long that I had taken for granted where the seedlings were actually coming from. I had no idea that every time new cedros, awanos, or chiwawakos were needed, an expedition was launched to find them in their natural habitat.
Things were different in this part of Manu. Characteristic of a primary forest, the trees were huge, towering meters and meters above our heads, and unlike the jungle surrounding the MLC, the air was thick with mosquitoes. I had doused myself in insect repellant, but they didn’t seem to care, landing on me without hesitation and feasting off my blood. “Focus on the forest,” I told myself as I resisted the urge to scratch.
I caught my breath as we came upon an enormous tree that seemed to be as old as time. “What kind of tree is that?” I asked Manuel in awe. “A chiwawako,” he replied. My mouth dropped open. There we were, searching for chiwawakos and I had no idea what a grown one actually looked like. Massive. Imposing. Ancient. I wondered how long it would take for a small seedling to become the size of that giant.
Hanging out with the chiwawako tree.
After forty-five minutes or so of looking in the prime locations and finding nothing, the driver and Manuel left Reynaldo and me to continue looking. Reynaldo showed me a seedling similar to the one we were looking for and we hastened our pace to keep up with the sinking sun. We didn’t have much daylight left due to our late bus and the river road blocks.
I wasn’t yet adept at identifying the plant, so I kept getting my hopes up every time I saw a promising looking weed. Part of me felt like I was more of a burden than help to Reynaldo. He was even getting concerned about the bites accumulating on my fair skin. “Estoy bien, I’m fine,” I told him again and again, though I’m sure the expression on my face told him otherwise. As I was starting to feel sorry for myself, I noticed a bunch of tiny green leaves poking up out of the soil. It couldn’t be. The plant was far too small. “Reynaldo!” I called out. He was already far ahead. “I think I found one!”
After the first chiwawako we unearthed two more specimens. “How many do you normally find?” I asked Reynaldo. “About thirty,” he replied. “Oh,” I whispered, suddenly unimpressed with our findings and realizing why this was usually a two person job.
It had gotten too dark to see without a headlamp, so we abandoned our search. Reynaldo reminded me of someone as he gently wrapped the roots of the seedlings in banana leaves. “You’re like Johnny Appleseed,” I told him. “¿Quien?” he questioned, and I told him the tale of the kind man who loved nature and gave apple seeds to people for them to raise their own orchards.
Reynaldo aka Johnny Appleseed with a chiwawako seedling.
Shipped to Shipitiari. Be back soon.
Having aborted mission chiwawako, Reynaldo set his sights on another goal: a fish farm in Shipitiari. Reynaldo explained that we were going to visit every home in the village and meet with the families to see who would be interested in raising fish since the river itself had none to catch.
There was no need for doors or walls in Shipitiari- walls would just lock in humidity, and no one was going to steal from you anyway- so most homes had a very open floor plan. Some houses were simply straw roofs on stilts.
While they were all farmers, every family was different- some reserved and suspicious, while others were loud and outgoing. Some used plates and cutlery, while others preferred to eat off the table using just their hands. A constant was the smell of cooking fires and fresh papaya.
The locals all generously shared their yucca, fish, potatoes, and eggs- simple, hearty jungle fare. I gladly ate the food they offered me at every house. I was famished. I found that I loved chicha- fermented corn- and masato- fermented yucca. The daughters of the village brought the drinks out in clay mugs that were about as big as them.
Despite my efforts to “blend in,” I may as well have started doing the dougie, for all the stares that were being directed at me. “Blanquita! Blanquita!” I heard again and again. One family couldn’t stop laughing when I told them I had never eaten purple potatoes or papaya with seeds in it before. “Where did you find this girl?” a woman my age asked Reynaldo, throwing me a challenging glare.
The peke peke driver, Juan, his family and I got on better. I gave his little daughters some chocolate and I was deemed “ok” in their books. I’m really not a fan of papaya, but I needed something to talk about, and the family’s papaya tree caught my eye. “That’s a nice papaya tree you have there,” I told Juan. “You like papayas?” he asked. “Yes!” I said. With that he walked over to the tree, cut me down the largest papaya he could find and handed it to me. “For me?” I stared at the enormous papaya that took up my entire lap. He nodded. “Wow. Gracias,” I thanked him. I was sure someone at the MLC would appreciate it.
By a community house in Shipitiari
After a long, long day we made our way to the last family of the night. The father met with Reynaldo while I sat waiting on a stump, tired and a bit saddened. A little girl no more than five years old came out from behind me, gleefully running with a butcher knife. I began to make the most ridiculous faces I could muster up, in hopes that I could catch her eye and get her to forget about her “toy.” I made a monkey face as she flew by me. It worked. She paused, hiding the knife behind her. Apparently I survived a month in the jungle only to die at the hands of a five-year-old.
She smiled at me, revealing a perfect set of pearly whites. Oh, she was cute and she knew it. She giggled as I continued my shenanigans. She disappeared for a moment and came back knife-free. She stopped in front of me. “¿Cómo te llamas?” I asked her. “Dahlia,” she whispered shyly. “Hola, Dahlia,” I said. “What’s that?” I asked in Spanish, pointing to a toy plane nearby. She picked it up and brought it to me. “Un avión,” she said. I took the toy and began to make sound effects as I rolled it across the ground. She laughed and clapped her hands and came to sit on my lap. I put my hand up for a high five. She looked at it confused. I held hers up so we could complete the hand gesture. “High five!” I said. “Sheesh, I’m so North American,” I thought, but she laughed and hit my hand again. “Tina!” Reynaldo called out. “Time to go.” I reluctantly stood up and put Dahlia back on the ground. “Adios, Dahlia. Bye bye!” I cooed, making silly faces as Reynaldo and I disappeared into the darkness of the forest.
I sent up a silent prayer into the canopy that Dahlia would stop playing with knives but never stop being happy.
Even the birds are staring me down in Shipitiari.
We slept in the empty community house at the front of the village. It was another sleepless night, but I wasn’t too worried about it since I knew that sleep would come easily back at the MLC.
Our boat left bright and early. We shared the peke peke with a couple and their two small children. The woman nimbly perched on the side of the boat, a pole in hand, staring at the horizon. She expertly navigated between the sand banks so that we only had to get out to push a few times. The sunrise colored the sky in pinks and oranges, and after a couple of hours, another color show came into view- the biggest rainbow I have ever seen.
An arco iris
By the time we got to Shintuya, our bus was there and ready to go. At the beginning, the bus was relatively empty, but as time passed, more passengers piled in, and the atmosphere became rowdier and rowdier. By the time we got to the outskirts of Salvación, there were kittens mewing from underneath a seat, an elderly woman was selling an alcoholic beverage in little bags, and the bus driver was playing music at full blast. A smiley grandma plunked down next to me and asked me to help tie a sling around her neck to hold her grandson. The baby was so big that he ended up sleeping on both of our laps. I had to be vigilant the entire ride so that the enormous papaya I’d been given didn’t roll over and smother him.
And then there was Jorge. Jorge came onto the bus and all the passengers noticeably sighed. He locked eyes with me and grinned. “Hola, blanquita,” he said as he sat down in a seat already occupied by someone else. “Peru veeeery beautiful, no?” he asked in English. “Si,” I nodded and looked out the window. “¿No entiende español?” he asked Reynaldo, wondering if I spoke Spanish. “Si, entiende,” Reynaldo said. For some reason Jorge did not accept that I spoke Spanish. “Peru veeeery beautiful,” he repeated. Then he pointed to his chest. “I am your friend.” He pointed to Reynaldo. “He is no your friend. I am your friend,” he reaffirmed. Everyone laughed. “You understand?” he asked me. I smiled and nodded. He turned to Reynaldo again. “I thought you said she speaks Spanish,” he said, even though he had been speaking to me in English. “She does,” Reynaldo said.
“It’s your stop, Jorge. The banana plantation,” someone yelled. “Mmm, that’s okay,” Jorge dismissed the idea. “I will ride around one more time.” Everyone on the bus groaned. “No, Jorge, you need to go to work,” one woman demanded. “What will all those bananas do without you?” another asked. “Aah, you are right,” Jorge acquiesced, rising from his seat. “Hasta luego, blanquita,” he crowed, turning to me. He took my hand, vigorously shook it, and exited the bus. As I looked down at the baby dozing in my lap I shook my head. There’s no place like Manu.
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.