Journey deep into the Amazon jungle
Getting off the plane in Iquitos, I was hit with a wave of heat and humidity that took my breath away. I took a motorcycle cab into town. On a Saturday night, Iquitos is hopping. It is a city of 300,000 set in the middle of the Peruvian Amazon, and near to nothing. There are no roads to Iquitos and the only way here is to fly or take a long ferry boat up the Amazon or one of its tributaries. The city was founded by rubber barons in the late 1800s, and in the days of the rubber boom cities like Iquitos were very wealthy. Today, Iquitos is a wild jungle town filled with loud vehicles and colorful characters. The Werner Herzog film ‘Fitzcarraldo’ was filmed here, starring Klaus Kinski. It is a tale of the rubber baron Fitzcarraldo and his ambition to bring a massive boat over a mountain to one of the tributaries of the Amazon.
I set off with a single guide for an “adventure” trip as opposed to the many options to stay in lodges and more organized excursions. A small wooden boat with an outboard motor took my teenage guide, Gary, and I three hours or so up the Amazon and then up one of its tributaries to a village of indigenous people with whom we would be staying the first night. The home of the family we stayed with was right on the river. A family of 10 children, all living in an open hut, no walls, just a wooden plank with a thatched roof above it. Gary and I stayed in an adjacent hut in a couple of hammocks with mosquito netting. We arrived and the family seemed to initially take little notice of me for the most part. Almost immediately, we set off for a trek into the jungle.
Passing banana trees and small “slash and burn” areas for crops, we broke through to the thick of the jungle. It was sweltering hot and my glasses immediately fogged up so that I could not see anything but varying shades of green. Gary led the way, followed by Lao, one of the members of our family. Hacking away with machetes we went deeper and deeper in. As we trudged on, it occurred to me that I have never been to a place where so many things are there ready to kill you or harm you in some way. There is the bot fly that bites and places eggs in the skin that later morph into a larval worm that feeds on flesh and then grows until maturity while the victim experiences great pain. There is the bushmaster, a snake with a fatal bite that is known to just lunge out and bite people as they walk by. A host of numerous other poisonous snakes, poisonous spiders, electric eels and not to mention the jaguar, the caiman or the anaconda. A particularly nasty creature is the bullet ant that has a bite that apparently feels like getting shot by a bullet and has venom similar to that of a cobra, only in a much smaller dose. I would have been better off knowing less about animals going into the Amazon. We wandered around for a couple of hours and then it started to rain hard. It is dangerous in the jungle when it really rains. We hiked back to village.
After dinner, we went to sleep early to the sounds of the jungle. I climbed into my hammock and zipped up the thick mosquito netting and could hardly breathe in the dank humidity. I lay there for hours trying to sleep in the damn hammock but just tossed and turned for hours, gasping for breath. Every now and then I would pull myself up in the hammock to stick my mouth out of a hole I would unzip in the netting and breathe like a fish in stagnant water. Soon, there would be the buzz of some mosquitos in my enclosure and I had to lie there with the flashlight trying to spot the little bastards and smudge them into blood-red spots on the sides of the netting. I lay there tossing and turning and fantasizing about the horrors of the jungle and how I would need to reenter the following morning and spend the night there. I wanted to go back to Iquitos but there was no way, the boat had left us and we were in the middle of nowhere. I felt totally pathetic and weak, ashamed of myself. I guess I finally fell asleep. The following morning the sky was blue and the children were playing about. After some breakfast we set off in another direction, into the jungle passing squirrel monkeys screeching in the trees. Gary explained to me the various ways one can use the plants of the jungle to survive. We cut down vines and drank the water drizzling out of them; one is used as a cure for rheumatism. At one point, we reached a bog covered in chartreuse water lilies with a giant log, also covered in lilies, that we needed to cross.After another hour or so, we found a palmetto tree that is known for the hearts of palm we use in our salads. Lao started to cut it down so that we could use it for an addition to the night’s dinner and while chopping away he got stung by one of the bullet ants. He looked terrified and was bracing himself for the pain. In all of his years living in the jungle, he had never been stung by one.
We decided to try and make it back to camp and more or less ran through the trail. Lao left us in the dust, and when Gary and I reached the camp, he was sitting there bracing for the imminent pain. Luckily, it appeared the ant had not injected its toxin in him and aside from a large bite, he seemed OK.It looked like it was going to rain and, absent-mindedly, Gary forgot the tarps at the house of our Indian family. Lao went back to get the tarps and Gary and I hung around the campsite. At one point we heard a human voice and it really seemed to freak Gary out as we were in the middle of nowhere. Later, there were footsteps that sounded human. We lay there on our hammocks, as I watched a troop of army ants carrying their brood through the campsite. After about three hours Lao had not come back and we were worried that maybe he was feeling the effects of his bite and couldn’t come back, or something. It really started to rain and this time, there were strong winds – this is a truly dangerous time in the jungle. The rainforest exists on a very thin layer of topsoil and trees can come down easily in strong winds. The native people do not enter the jungle on days like this. We decided to head back to the village. Lao appeared with the tarps about halfway, looking a bit relieved that we were heading back. Squishing along, finally we reached a clearing, a sign of human habitation. We were near our “home.”
Coming out of the jungle, some native children saw me and ran away screaming. Gary explained that to the native people the white man was known as “Bella Cara,” which means face stealer. Apparently, years ago some outsiders, killed some of the people and cut off their faces and took their hearts to sell to practitioners of the black arts. So, seeing a white man emerge from the jungle on a stormy day is a bad thing to see. Having seen no tourists anywhere, no boats passing by, just me, made me a little concerned about my safety. The day before I had to peel my wet shirt off in front of the people and I hoped that not too many of the locals looked to closely at my tattoo of a skull with a heart in the forehead. They probably don’t recognize the heart symbol as a representation of the organ, but who knows? The dappled light and shadows dancing in my mosquito netting that night made me paranoid that the villagers were approaching my tent to kill the “bella cara.”The family killed a chicken for the night’s feast and the children gathered around and watched me eat it. It was some of the nicest chicken I have ever tasted. Sitting around a fire, Gary told me of the local legend of the “King of the Jungle,” a sort of Bigfoot character that lives in the jungle and can shapeshift to appear as your walking companion and lead you astray. Gary was very serious about the King, and said that it lived in unexplained clearings deep in the jungle, and that if one picked any of its fruits or vines it would come for you. He also admitted to being quite frightened by the voice and footsteps that we heard in the jungle earlier but did not want to let on.
There are still undiscovered peoples throughout the Amazon. Apparently, there are also people out there who want to steal your face and heart. Brian McQuade is a freelance writer, avid traveler and owner of Space Cowboy in Breckenridge.
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