Say it ain’t so.
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.”