Do I believe in God? Well, I suretainly believe in the rainforest.
These days, you can’t walk into an elementary-school classroom without books about the rainforest, but that wasn’t true for us 1970s-born kids. I believe the change had something to do with growing environmental awareness in the 1980s’ days of acid rain and a fraying ozone layer.
At some point, Anton mused that what made me a good traveling compañero was that I never say no. I rebuked: I would have said no if he’d objected to either Machu Picchu or the rainforest. The rest was gravy. (And Pisco Sours.) If Machu Picchu reminds people of one sort of idealized paradise, an El-Dorado-like metaphor for something one might spend one’s life futilely searching for, then the rainforest has come to represent the more biblical, or Miltonian, type of paradise, a ritespring of lush diversity that we need to save us and the world. Peru has both paraisos perdidos. #meencantaperu.
Anton and I went to the Madre De Dios region and rode Rio Tambopata, one of the Amazon River’s headwaters. There, we saw capuchin monkeys, spider monkeys, marmosets, caimans (three-foot alligators), capybaras (or as The Princess Bride had it, Rodents of Unusual Size), parrots, gorgeous macaws, piranhas, hoatzins, astonishing butterflies, tamarins, toucans, tarantulas, turtles, termites, cock-of-the-rocks, vultures, ants, and more. But it’s the trees, the lushness, the constant interplay of unknowable, uncategorizable biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest is to flora and fauna what India is to human culture: there’s just more types/religions/languages/colors there.
To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply walk into the jungle. I know what I’ve said about packages and non-packages, but no one visits the rainforest on their lonesome. What are you going to do, white man, kayak up the Amazon? No. That said, we signed up for the cheapest possible adventure: three days, two nights, less than $1000. Before we left California, our company warned us about two dangers: not having enough inoculations/pills, and having too much stuff. Weeks ahead of time, we re-upped on TDAP and Hep A and typhoid inoculations. We skipped the yellow fever shots (mosquitoes hate me anyway, which is great because I hate them). Along with the altitude sickness pills that we’d brought to Cusco (and never used), we brought diarrhea pills and Pepto-Bismol and malaria pills and insect repellent. Upon arrival in Lima, we saw old signs regarding Ebola and new signs regarding Zika. Upon arrival in the rainforest, the guides never brought up anything disease-related in English or Spanish. I began to think the whole disease concern was a joke on gringos.
The company’s emails warned that many travelers must leave luggage at the company office near the Puerto Maldonado airport. Anton and I were both, in our own way, determined not to leave bags there. Anton’s total baggage in Peru consisted of two medium-sized bags, and he figured to bring them both into the rainforest. However, when we arrived in Puerto, the company asked Anton to bring only one bag. As we sat in their thatched-roof, open-air greeting office, Anton hovered over both his bags like a mad scientist switching potions and switching them again. Nice boxer-briefs buddy! Meanwhile, I leafed through a National Geographic I’d brought that detailed Manu National Forest – highly protected, inaccessible to us, very close to where we were going, having the same ecosystem. An older New Zealander, who had just come back from her rainforest excursion, struck up a conversation with me. I happened to ask her about howler monkeys. She said she found them soothing, like ocean noises. I wound up giving her the magazine, not because I needed to lighten the load.
You think you pack light? I packed one backpack-sized bag for twelve days in another hemisphere. Back at LAX, when Anton fretted about my bag’s weight, I said, “Oh, a baby could lift this thing.” During seven internal flights in Peru it never failed a carry-on weight test. On those flights I wore jeans and my fleece and a long-sleeve flannel. In that backpack was 13 T-shirts, 13 pairs of socks, a swimsuit, a pair of khakis, a rain poncho (in its case it’s no bigger than my hand), a long-sleeve thermal shirt (which doubled as my eye/ear cover on the rare mornings we slept in), toiletries, chargers, a Ziploc bag of printouts of all of our reservations, and a few things Anton didn’t bring in either of his bags: binoculars, a plug adapter, a miner’s headlamp, a deck of cards, and a mini-Spanish-English dictionary. (Okay, I separately carried a Camelbak.) You could say that Anton defeated the purpose, because thanks to him checking a bag we had to wait at every baggage claim. You could say that, but it wouldn’t be true, because packing light makes me happy wherever I am. I got the same feeling thinking of how I’d left my house-car-keys with wifey, knowing that she could always leave them in the mailbox if she’d be out when I returned. Anton hadn’t thought of that, so his house-car-keys were one more thing to think about throughout Peru.
In fairness, the perils of carry-on-only: my bag became even lighter on the way from California to Peru, because the TSA took away my big old sunscreen, insect repellant, and Swiss-Army knife. Yet these were replaceable. I will admit to rather constantly checking my back pockets, not so much for the small replacement sunscreen in old left-back (no big deal if lost), but for the iPhone in old left-back and the passport and wallet in old right-back. Every brush with a stranger brought my hands back to my lovely butt. It was stupid, really, because Peru is safer than Oakland-Berkeley, where I happen to live. I never needed or replaced the knife.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wait a minute, no I don’t. I know what I’m thinking. What about the rainforest? Be there in a minute. Packing light meant that each departure’s mental checklist was a little long, which leads me to a funny story. At the end of our Machu Picchu day, we went to our hotel, where we ran into the wonderful couple from Minnesota with whom we’d scaled Mt. Machu Picchu. I never told them this, but the man looked and sounded like William H. Macy in Fargo. (“Now, you said this would be a no-rough-stuff-type deal.”) Macy insisted on buying us beers, partly because we’d (very slightly) helped his wife when she fell on our way down the mountain. Anton’s and my train back to Cusco would leave in about an hour – and the station was about 500 feet from the hotel – so we were happy to accept their hospitality. I charged my phone on the lobby’s plug socket. We discussed the Minnesota Vikings, the death of Prince, the fate of Paisley Park, and the differences between Minnesota and California.
For the one and only moment in our twelve days in Peru, rain fell from the sky – and not just any rain, but a torrential downpour. As our train departure drew near, Anton and I withdrew our rain ponchos from our bags, and our Minnesota friends helped us put them on. We walked 500 rainy feet to the station. We passed through a colorful indigenous market and an anodyne checkpoint which required our tickets, passports, and visas – this being standard operating Perucedure. Even though the train station is built in the narrowest valley imaginable, it somehow has two train platforms, and we somehow had to cross the minor land bridge to the far one, where we got in a messy crowd of train boarders, where I finally got my hands far enough past my rain poncho to touch my lovely butt…and realize that I’d left my iPhone charging at the hotel. Anton laughed. “You better run back!”
Running through a tropical tempest is not something one wants to do on the same day one scales a 9000-foot mountain. But I do it. And before getting to the hotel, I run into William H. Macy. Nice guy that he is, he ventures out without rain gear to bring me my phone and charger. I knew, and he didn’t, that he never would have made it past the checkpoint. I thank him profusely; he gives me a big man-hug. On the way back, I shortcut and wind up in the indigenous market, caught in a delirium of alpaca-vicuña woolen products and smiling girls hands raised above their heads “ten soles, sir,” and me “no, gracias”-ing and panicking and spinning and…eventually finding the checkpoint again and making the train with a few minutes to spare. Anton’s smile was as broad as Colca Canyon. All right, all right, I’ll pack heavier next time.
The following morning, we awake at our usual Crack-of-Dawn-o’-Clock to fly from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. Some of the people on our flight, upon descending the staircase to the tarmac, snap photos of the stairs to the plane. The airport is smaller than Cusco’s, maybe two gates. Our tour company meets us there, drives us minutes away to the thatched-roof office. After a half-hour or so, they take us on a 45-minute trip to the “put-in” point. We meet our guides, a jovial local named Lesten and a shy trainee named Soledad. I ask Lesten if we can call this area “the Amazon” even if it’s not on the Amazon River. Yeah, I’m told, it’s still “the Amazon.” I stare outside the window. Sure, I’ve been to Hawaii and other tropical locales, but this is it. These trees are it!
At the put-in point, Lesten joins rando Peruanos eating empanadas. I’ve been chatting with him for an hour in Spanish, and I ask if I can have one. He says that’s “street food,” not good enough for us. I object with what I hope is humor. Minutes later, on our slim riverboat, Lesten gives us lunch: rice, beans, and some kind of meat or meat-like flavoring wrapped up in plate-sized leaves. Rainforest burritos! We loved them. In retrospect, this moment represented a downshift of our culinary journey. I haven’t lingered on it, but Anton and I ate like kings in the Andes. Everything was new and different and more delicious than the last thing, and by California standards, cheap. I’m no James Beard finalist, so I’m not going to describe delicious food, but when you go to Peru, get ready to eat like emperors.
Until you get to your rainforest expedition. Our tour company didn’t do anything wrong; they just gave us American food. Well, to be more specific, they gave us lasagna and meatloaf and other American standards. One could argue that this was because of the need to serve large groups, but…what a step down. The only uptick about leaving the rainforest was returning to real comida Peruana.
As it turned out, Anton and I weren’t part of a large group. It’s only the two of us, and two guides, in the boat that motors upriver for about an hour. Anton only makes about five “Apocalypse Now” jokes; I was impressed with his restraint. With no more than his eyes, Lesten spots every bird, beast, and bug worth a second look. We stop for turtles and caimans. “Everything is possible in the jungle,” he announces. Eventually, the boat arrives at a rickety, haunted-housey staircase that goes up a riverbank and into the jungle. We arrive at the lodge, and more specifically, our room. Here I have to defer to the photos. Check out each bed’s roof of mosquito netting (the actual thatched roof is cantilevered 30 feet above our heads). This is living, baby.
In Peru I’m Mister Hydration, wearing my Camelbak everywhere. The books and sites all warn you never to trust Peru tap water, so everyone buys water bottles, which are cheap. I had been buying them and pouring them into my bladder for days, so I could really appreciate that our lodge had water-cooler jugs set up about every 50 feet. Turn the spigot, refill my bladder with sweet, sweet H2O. Well done, lodge.
In our room I also came to appreciate the New Zealander’s appreciation of the howler monkeys. As a distant group, their noise is less of a disruptive howl and more of a distended growl, rolling thumpa-thumpa-thumpa through the background. They sound more or less like this, although the ones we heard were less erratic, more steady (and in no way terrifying, despite this clip’s title). I learned the secret noise of a dozen Hollywood foley! For an example, check out 20 seconds of this clip from The Mummy (1999) starting around 00:35. Soooooothing.
That afternoon we acquire two tour-mates, who happened to be youngish guys from Switzerland. We take a nature walk. We learn about trees that stand on candelabras of exposed roots, so that they can be easily uprooted and replaced by other trees. We watch lines of ants, each carrying leaves fifty times their size. Lesten says that the many capuchin monkeys and tamarins we see swinging above our head “have no home.” The tops and bottoms of the trees are dominated by predators (birds of prey, jungle cats), so they have to keep moving through the middle. Lesten said this so many times that at one point I asked him, “What if a pregnant monkey is a month from giving birth?” Lesten replied, “That’s her problem, right?” Other than the sexism, Lesten was a great guide.
We walk through a dense jungle that opens up into a large clearing, where we see something that scares me more than any animal (granted, we never did see a jaguar or puma): the canopy tower. 120 feet of staircase, not unlike one you’d find in any skyscraper, except the metal chassis for this bad boy was apparently suspended by thin iron cables. I’m like, heh, do we trust Peruano engineering? Anton and the Swiss guys have no visible problems; I white-knuckle it all the way up. I think of my wife the whole time and how she would wonder why I bothered. I think of how much I don’t want to lose her. I think that it’s good I have this fear because it proves that I want to live, that I’m not just dead inside, that I still want to do things on this Earth. And then I see this Earth. Or at least, I see its beating heart, kind of like those scientists who enter the heart in Fantastic Voyage.
At the top of the canopy tower, we can literally see miles in every direction. We see where the Rio Tampopata meets the Rio Madre de Dios, both of them on their way to meet the Amazon River. We can’t see Puerto Maldonado or our lodge or even a native settlement; no traces of any civilization, just thick, close-packed jungle, or in Spanish, selva. Lesten makes bird calls. We see several macaws in gorgeous flight; cameras don’t do them justice. Lesten manages to seduce a toucan into getting near. I imitate Lesten’s toucan calls, terribly. I’m still freaking, but hey, maybe if the tower collapses I could wind up like this lady. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-17476615 Lesten says that normally he has to rotate groups on and off of this tower, but we’re lucky (I keep saying fortunado, talking myself into it): the four of us can remain atop it for an hour and watch the entire sunset. So we do. It’s a quick sunset at the equator in May, sumptuous and splendid. As we walk down the stairs, as we alight on the jungle floor, I want to kiss the ground.
Night falls like a curtain, but now the tour gets even better. Night sounds, night smells, night moves. Walking back to the lodge, we see all sorts of crickets and katydids despite their near-perfect camouflage. We see “bullet ants,” which are as big as your thumb. Lesten stops at a little hole at the base of a tree and strips a nearby branch so that it has but one green leaf at one end. “Get out your cameras, I’m going to bring out a tarantula. When I do, don’t gasp, don’t say wow, don’t make any noise at all.” Sure enough, his bait works perfectly, and a hand-size tarantula pops out from the hole under the tree. We’re inches away. I know many, many people who would have freakin’ screamed, or screamin’ freaked. After that canopy tower, this glove-black arachnid is about as scary to me as a Hello Kitty doll.
Back at the lodge, I look up at the stars, as thick as the selva. No light pollution gives you the Milky Way “rim” and then some. Stars always make me think of time, of how I’m seeing light that left them more than 100 years ago. When that starlight started, the area in which I stood was overrun with rubber barons. Yes, they were robber barons, but that’s no typo: they were also rubber barons. At the turn of the last century, Peru’s rainforest was infested with greedy whites a la Fitzcarraldo (I think his official title was duke of douchebags), plundering every rubber tree they could find. Decades of deforestation happened until the day a British entrepreneur took enough seeds to the Malay Peninsula to start a rubber plantation there, and – see any map of the strip of land from Thailand to Singapore – the British government decided those rubber trees would be easier to defend than crossing the damn Andes. Just like that, the rubber boom ended, and in many ways Peru’s rainforest reconstituted itself. I muse about the vicissitudes of world history. In our American cities, it’s easy to believe that “progress” only progresses one way, but the rainforest knows better.
The next morning we’re up at 4am to go piranha fishing. It’s pitch-black, but I have a miner’s headlamp, and think I’m so much cooler than Anton and his mere hand-flashlight. And we’re walking down the steps to the boat and I miss one and BADLY twist my ankle. I mean it hurt like 17 teeth being drilled. Within a day it blew up to the size of a grapefruit. I am feeling my birthdate-mate Steph Curry right then (even though I have no idea he and the Warriors are that week getting knocked back by the Thunder). I consider returning to the lodge, but Lesten assures me I can’t miss the morning on the lake. So I go, limping and wincing. As I type this three weeks later, my ankle is still sore.
We have to take our boat upriver and walk another ten minutes in pre-dawn light. Luckily we have a third guide, a friendly woman, luckily I’m still speaking Spanish to all three of them although at this point what’s the difference? Cuidado, careful, es lo mismo. We see more lush flora and fauna on the way there. I fall again on the way; my ankle is en fuego. They make me a walking stick, which helps. I drink almost my entire Camelbak. Our lake boat is less motorized river knife and more Tom Sawyer-ish raft, set up with merciful benches; I can leave my foot up, gracias a dios. We have a riverman, a boat tiller. The lake is spectacular in the sunrise. Birds and butterflies, baby. The hoatzins, which are “punk chickens” that some consider the only living descendants of pterodactyls, are particularly interested in posing for us.
Yes, we go piranha fishing. Lesten brings out a couple of slabs of meat and slices them into thumbnail-size chunks. Lesten describes the three kinds of local piranha, and when we catch other types of fish he’s the first to say “doesn’t count.” Piranha aren’t like Hollywood movies, he says. After he catches one, he holds it in his hand. It’s the size of a coffee-drink lid. Its mouth is moving, but that would be true of any dying fish; the only difference is its tiny teeth. Still, piranha fishing. You don’t do that every day. And it’s only us four tourists on a raft clearly built for twenty. I’m the only one of us four who gets the Spanish jokes that the guides make with each other. Now that Lesten has another man with him he can really let his sexist flag fly, but I don’t bother to interpret. The friendly woman guide and I share more than a few eye rolls. I like knowing how to speak Spanish. I don’t like an ankle that looks like a used softball. As I use my new cane, Anton says in his best Gandalf, “surely you would not deny an old man his walking stick.” We give the tillerman propina. In Peru it’s often hard to know when to tip and when not to; foolishly, Anton and I tip based on vibes.
Upon our return to the lodge, I say “tienes hielo?” I’m asked to repeat. “Tienes hielo?” I say very correctly (tee-en-ays ee-ay-lo). I’m asked to use English. I say “la palabra ingles es ICE,” rhyming it with NICE. Oh, hielo! our three guides say in unison. Normally I would be amused by this sort of thing – did they think I said “yellow”? – but I’m not really in the mood. Thank the sun god, the lodge’s all-hours bar can indeed give me a plastic bag of ice. All I want to do is all I do: lie in our room and ice my ankle. And play Scrabble on my phone. And call wifey, and get a call from work to correct some grades (wow they reached me in the rainforest!). Anton goes off to a duck blind to see macaws eat from a salt lick. To make a very, very long story short…the rainbow birds never show up. After multiple efforts. Damn you, deceptive rainforest advertising.
At some point, not far from the lodge, at least thirty capuchin monkeys swing above our heads, as though we’ve happened upon their commute. Yes, you can see them in zoos, but being part of their habitat and watching them make like Tarzan from tree to tree gives you a tingling sensation you will never forget. Almost enough to make you forget a sore foot.
After a day of recovery, Lesten insists that I go see the shaman. Oo, does he fix sprained ankles? Well, no, they were going to take us all to him anyway, and Lesten kinda can’t give us gringos any root medicine anyway. I hate taking the stairs to the boat, and the stairs from wherever the boat lands but…I figure this is my one chance to see real indigenous people in tribal wear. Aaaand…we only meet the one guy, who’s wearing a T-shirt and jeans. And we wait for five minutes after we meet him, and the whispers I catch in Spanish make me think that the real shaman never showed up and Lesten is just pretending with his buddy. Sham shaman? Which witch doctor? Anyway we walk around his village and learn about ayahuasca and other drugs (no, we don’t try anything). I lean on seemingly every tree in the jungle.
I simply must share the story of the peccary, which is a boar-pig-like beast that comes up to us in the shaman’s (or “shaman’s”) village. She’s bigger than a labrador, but Lesten assures us that we can pet her coarse wiry fur, and we do, though I catch our shy guide saying “tengo miedo” (“I’m afraid”). I have never seen a dog needier than this peccary. She follows us everywhere, cuddling whenever possible. I stop feeling the slightest concern about her big choppers. As sunset rolls around, we depart the village, and the peccary follows us down the small beach to our boat. She jumps in the motorboat. Lesten laughs and pushes her out. She jumps in the boat again, and again. Now Lesten instructs our motorboat driver to position the craft apart from the beach, so that he can undo the rope at the last second and strand the pig. It works, or does it? The peccary jumps in the water and swims after us. Lesten’s eyes widen to the size of saucers. He’s been this organic veteran jungle guide, but I believe him when he says he’s never seen anything like this. We’re worried that the peccary will just keep swimming so we turn the boat and kinda scare her back to the beach. She alights on the sand and for the first time that afternoon, squeals. She’s so sad! She squeals and squeals as we go. Never have I meant more the next word I say: pobrecita.
I felt like that peccary vis-a-vis the rainforest: I wanted to stay forever. But with the ankle I really couldn’t do much, so I was happy the next day when the time came for us to go. “Everything is possible in the jungle,” Lesten had said, but that was almost too true. On our way back to the put-in point, we saw something mammalian swimming across the river and wiggling its butt side to side as it scrambled up a riverbank. I liked that this was something that no guide knew the name of. I called it a chupacabra, but it was probably this.
My foot was a small price to pay for such a spiritual journey. It’s comforting to muse that of all the nuclear weapons aimed at places in the world, probably none of those places are the Amazon’s rainforest. Sure, Peru and Brazil won’t do well during any total Armageddon, but being there, one senses that’s where Mother Nature will stage her comeback. Jared Diamond, who I discussed at length in Part 1, only came to be the world’s foremost explainer of racism/imperialism as a secondary career; his first love was equatorial tropics, particularly the birds. I get that. Macaws, maybe the world’s most beautiful birds, don’t migrate. They’ve got it all right there. Maybe us migraters could learn something from them.
To be concluded next week with Ica, Nazca, Arequipa, Lima (Part 3 of 3)