Killing Ants With Machetes; Adventures Researching in the Peruvian Amazon
(Non-fiction Series, First 3 Entries. Name and Locations have been changes to protect privacy.)
Entry One: Arrival at the Jungle. Bullet Ants and Strange People
The hot air hugs my exposed skin as I leave the tiny airport of Puerto Maldonado. I am welcomed on all sides by towering green, tropical trees. No other buildings are in sight as I meander with my bags into the parking lot, scanning for relevance. The airport parking area is larger than the entire airport building.
I’m far too excited to be in the rain forest to lend myself to the fearful thought: nobody is here to pick me up. Not to worry, being personable and asking strangers has always been an essential part of the travel experience. I think of international travel as Tarzan swinging from vines— asking others for help is like grabbing the rope to stop a painful fall (or experience).
The previous December, I was accepted to join two programs: One for two weeks, working with Monkeys in Panama, and one for three weeks, working with Macaws in Peru.
Confronted with this hard choice, I ask a friend: “Panama is hot and has a lot of animals. The further south you go, the more animals. Plus, you can’t turn down The Amazon!”
You can’t turn down The Amazon. With this sound advice, I sign up for a journey to work with macaws in Peru.
When I accept the position, I receive a packet of material to study. I merely skim the learning material in the busy weeks beforehand, thinking I can tackle it on the long flight down there…But I discover that some of the material is to learn tens of distinct bird calls, which turns out to have extremely intricate distinctions, and are impossible to memorize in that time. That is just the beginning of the many ways in which I land in Peru completely unprepared for what is in store for me.
I have vague instructions to look for a particular tour company, so I wander over to a small van. “Hi, Do you know where the group for Tambopata is?” I ask the young, tan, Peruvian guide, standing next to the doorway of a dark green tourist van.
“Hmm, no…” He answers in an accent, “I think you want the toucan bus. Just wait for one like that to appear.” He points to another van. “Maybe that one?”
Jungle sounds caw and tweet in the background as I thank him and jog over to the colorful toucan van.
The driver is shoveling tourist’s suitcases into a cargo trailer behind the van, already full of waiting tourists.
“Hi there, are you the tour to Tambopata?” I ask, hesitant.
The guide, a youthful man with strong jaw and whips of long hair stops shoveling bags and beams at me.
His hand comes to my back as he says, “Ah yes! Give me your name, let’s find you on the list. Excuse me,” he jogs over and grabs his trusty clipboard. An object to make sure the right people are coming with him into the depths of this jungle.
“I might not be not he list, am a new volunteer…” I explain further as he scans it for the name I gave him. I worry this might be the wrong one as well.
“Ah! A new volunteer! Well, get on then!” He belts, warm and welcoming.
He takes my bags into the pile, except my backpack, and I climb into the bus, realizing he never asked to see any documentation to prove I am who I say I am. Surprising and weird. I take a seat in the middle and look out the window, waiting to depart.
When we pull out of the airport lot and under a grand stone archway, the guide starts talking on a microphone, explaining their itinerary. I don’t know how much of this applies to me, or for how long I am on a tour before starting work. I am supposed to get to Tambopata, meet other volunteers, and work with the Macaws in the Amazon rainforest, that is all I know.
I withhold the urge to ask copious questions, like where we are going, but the guide seems to know what I'm talking about when he takes me into the bus, which is now heading toward the jungle. So, I relax and enjoy the ride, wherever it will end up.
The van putters along bumpy dirt roads, flanked by modest tin-roofed houses. Chickens and children run about, clucking and laughing with joy. The rain is on and off for twenty minutes, one minute to the next, sometimes harsh or sometimes light. The sky cannot make up its mind about what kind of day to turn out to be, but I expect this is the usual in the tropics. This village borders the Amazon river, a vein with which to get into the rainforest and lodges, which I imagine we are driving towards.
We turn off the road about twenty minutes in and pull onto a brown muddy parking area in front of a bamboo lodge. Is this it? This can’t be… “Okay everyone out!” The cheerful guide announces at top volume to the group. At this moment, the rain is relentless. Tin roofs all around are clanking with the beating drops, it is hard to hear anything. Everyone is hesitating to get out the van, but soon people start hopping one by one onto the muddy floor. I hold off until last, stopping by the guide.
“Even me? This can’t be the place I’m going…” I start to say.
“Yep, it’s the place, just get out.” He beams. Ugh. I try to argue, but he stops answering questions, only motioning to get me out. I have no clue where we are as I plop down into deep slots of run over mud. Tourists are now coming at me with bags and luggage blocking their faces, as I inadvertently stand in their path from cargo hold to lodge.
I get shoved by the ant farm of moving bags, the latter knocks me off my balance. I fall sideways and catch myself against a metal pole halfway onto the muddy floor. “Hey!” I shout over the clanking tin, but perhaps not loud enough as the tourist keeps walking. Rude. My right forearm is now licked with a stripe of mud. I slip between others, careful of their lack of vision and get to my bag. Again I am hesitant to remove it, and again I stand around stupidly until I can confirm anything with the tour guide, who keeps insisting I bring it into the new pile at the lodge anyway.
“I am a volunteer, I need my bag in the jungle for the next three weeks…” I explain.
“Oh, well, it’s okay we will add it to the pile in the lodge for now and bring it back in at the end. We are processing everyone here.”
Finally, some answers.
Satisfied, I enter up the wooden stairs onto the open-air lodge. Wooden beams replace walls, curled green tarps line the ceiling. In bad enough rain, they can close these walls in. All the tourists are changing, and a line wait facing a processing counter.
I hate standing in lines, I might as well wait for it to die down. I wander further into the lodge and out the inner sides, where a beautiful wet garden of tropical flowers awaits discovery. I stand under cover, watching the falling wall of thick droplets that borders the outdoors. Here it is more peaceful, the sound of rain falling on grass and wood rather than the tin sheds out the front. A large pink-fond plant stands in the middle, and luscious bright green fans splay out in all directions. Their red multi-chambered flowers bloom from the middle.
I turn around to go in for processing. The line is now down to the last three people, and I stand behind them, looking around the room. The thatched roof is visible between wooden rafters. Another partitioned room fails to reach the ceiling. A furry red monkey has taken advantage of this space, sitting atop, looking down on us. I jump as I notice him, my first creature! I pull my camera from my pocket to attempt a photo. He stares at me with sunken eyes. His long tail curls up behind him. I stretch my hands to get closer, trying to take his photo. I move about as he hops off his perch and starts climbing on the wooden ceiling beams. He moves closer to me. When I move my camera away from my face, his little human-like hand is reaching down, an inch from my camera! I pull it away from him.
My heart pounds as I realize how close I just came to having my camera stolen by a monkey. On day one. Before even entering the jungle…
After check-in, which finally has me prove my identity to someone, the tourists file back into the bus with backpacks for their four-day tour. Now finally permitted, I insist on shadowing them to make certain my bag actually makes it back on board, although soaked. I hope my clothes inside stay dry, but I will have to check on that later.
On the bus, I look over my red monkey photos. I sigh, they are all blurry. It's now obvious he was heading straight at me. I sigh again with the relief to at least still have a camera.
The bus bumps along the linear rode, the only road around with no cross streets, for the better part of another hour before stopping at a muddy cul-de-sac. The road's end. I can see a river on the far side of it, and an empty warehouse off on the right side. Likely for storing local cargo coming and going from the river. Many of us hop from the bus and beeline to this shelter to escape the rain.
I grab my backpack and slung it over one shoulder as I step off the bus, the backpack’s last clean moments of existence. My clothes slosh in moist discomfort. I shiver and huddle with others in the warehouse. My hands grip my light sweater cuffs to enclose them into keeping in the warmth.
“Who knew it could be cold here?” I say to an older couple huddling beside me. We smile and exchange pleasantries, looking out at more walls of green foliage by the van in front of us, and the flowing grey river to our right.
Three large black roosters strut into the warehouse from the forest. A thin, long wooden boat is now by the river, and the guide is loading it with our bags and chatting with two other locals, the boat operators.
“Oh hello! Don’t like the rain either?” I say, as the handsome flock bob towards me. They come close to inspect me with their beaks turned sideways. I suspect they want some food, but I have none to offer them. They are so close that I reach out to one and try to pet his sleek black feathers. He jumps back indignantly and struts out of the warehouse.
His response prompts my thoughts as I stare at the river— I need to end this habit of touching things before I enter the rainforest.
The guide calls for us to enter the boat, and everyone scattered around the area converges on the wooden longboat. I squish over the muddy bank, ducking under its low roof and around our fastened baggage as as I climb into the sheltered vessel with my backpack. A small middle-aged Peruvian man with some missing teeth grins at us from the hull and helps us in with one hand. His right-hand holds a rudder steering control beside a large motor.
Inside, the longboat reminds me of the earlier lodge in that it too is open on the sides, with wooden beams holding the roof up, and long rolled green tarp along its edges for dropdown walls. The tourists and I sit on simple wooden benches along the sides of the narrow boat, our jovial young guide facing us at the back beside the boat driver. The driver pulls a ripcord and the mighty motor blasts on, propelling us into the open river.
“Is this the Amazon river?” a black-haired woman asks the guide.
“Oh, yes, but this isn’t THE Amazon river— it is a complex system comprised of hundreds of rivers, like branches on a tree, this is just one of them.”
“Ah okay! Thank you.” She replied.
We wind down the broad river for the better part of three hours, where the same landscape of enormous jungle greenery seems unchanging. I can hear some birds calling in the distance, but overpowered by the sounds of the motor boat and soft water waves slipping under our boat as we speed along.
At what feels like a random point along the river, the boat starts making a left turn towards the shore. All the tourists and I look out to see what has happened.
“Welcome to Refugio Resort Lodge.” Cries the tour guide, as we creep closer to shore and an impressive dark wooden dock becomes visible between the dense greenery. We take our things and follow him, many groaning as they note at the end of the dock, a steep jungle staircase of polished wood leading up past the muddy riverbank and directly into the jungle foliage.
“The lodge is up those stairs, folks, but well worth the cardio!” he exclaims as we all trudge up at our own speeds.
He is right, at the top, we are greeted to the sight of a an open-walled, support-beamed thatched roofed, two-story paradise in the jungle.
“We will spend one night here before departing in the morning to Tambopata.” He says as we gather in a semi-circle by the entrance. He turns to me and says, “That is where we will drop you off. I will stay with my group for three days there.” He informs.
Behind him I see the views of the jungle out the four open sides, and the entire high-ceilinged room with slowly turning elegant fans. From the floors to the abundant lounge furniture. Thick draperies segment off different areas on the first floor, with a bamboo bar in the center. Smiling hostesses take our things and hand us drinks. I spot the long eating tables at the far end, adorned with tropical flowers. I have no doubt this is a five-star resort in the jungle.
Even the bathrooms, which I creep in to browse, are full of fluffy white towels, fresh flowers, and sprayable fragrances.
“Now, everyone, let’s go explore your rooms, have a rest, and then meet back for lunch and an afternoon hike.” Announces the guide as we follow him through the open floor, to the inner jungle side.
A raised wooden path guides them ten feet over the jungle floor to bamboo bungalow rooms. Like those famous pictures of Tahiti but in a jungle. Looking over the bamboo banisters, standing among tall trees, I peer down at the wild jungle floor, a perfect viewing place for animals.
There are no doors, only white curtains to separate their rooms from the pathway. I inspect an empty room, which has one large made bed decked in fine white linens and topped with a folded white towels and ornate orange jungle flower. Above the beds hangs a tucked away mosquito curtain to go over the bed after dark. One wall opens in a large window open to the jungle. Fronds stretch past the opening, finishing an elegant and blissful scene.
I decided back at the bathrooms, but now I am sure, that I would love to live here. Wait— where am I sleeping?
I have not paid tourist prices, I am not here as one of them, but surely, I have to sleep somewhere. I don’t want to be any trouble, I don’t know how this works, so I timidly find the guide again and bring up the worry.
“Why you will come to the staff quarters, with me.” He answers and I follow him back down the exotic open path into the main lodge.
“Oh, is that upstairs?” I ask hesitantly, looking at a polished wooden staircase. It is lighter than the floor’s deep red color.
I can’t help but feel excited— though this place is bit pampered for the jungle, I feel so privileged to be staying in the jungle more than just the couple of days the tourists are. I feel a bit sorry for them.
“It is down some side stairs behind the kitchen.” says the guide, in a less peppy voice than usual.
I grab my suitcase and follow him down some back steps, across the grass tucked next to the right side of the lodge, walking on raised stone steps.
We pass another building, evidently shower rooms.
A dozen Peruvian men sit on the broad steps, eyeing me inappropriately and saying things in Spanish.
My heart races and veins pump in the unease, but I ignore them as the guide and I pass, who reassures me as we continue past an immense multilevel laundry line in front of a long bamboo building. Up some steps we walk along the single outdoor hallway passing curtained entrances every few feet. The staff rooms are a much less fancy version of the bungalows, it appears. The rough wooden floors are unpolished, in stark contrast to the tourist quarters. We pass an open-curtained room with a broadly grinning man. I gulp and ask if it is not too late to take an extra tourist room.
“I cannot do that, but if you want we can stay in a room together, it can make you feel better.” He offers.
We stop at an empty room and slip inside. The small quarters contain three beds— a normal twin and a bunk, just enough room for three people.
“It will be me on the bottom bunk, and you can take the bed.”
“Thank you, I appreciate that.”
I feel more comfortable now as I stow my suitcase and backpack beside the bed. To my delight there is also one open jungle top-half-of-wall, which is all I need to be content with the situation. The jungle is alive with chirping insects and rhythmic bird calls, playing like an orchestra, and I feel at ease with my bed bordering it. It’s too high a window due to the raised story of the building for anyone to creep inside anyway, I assure to myself.
“Come, let’s get some lunch,” He declares and I follow him back to the main hall, this time through a shortcut in the stone which leads under the impressive tourist bridge along the jungle floor. It is muddy, but I still feel the pride of being somewhere. The tourists never see this place! I tell myself, making light of the situation.
We take seats at the long table where what I notice something about the tourists. Between them, me, the guide, and staff, we were ten people on the boat, but somehow it wasn’t until now I see there are actually only six tourists, three men, three women. Everyone introduces themselves, and we learn they are three couples, from several countries. Though I can’t tell who is who by how they sit lumped together. I’m not paying too much attention to be honest.
After lunch, it is time for our jungle excursion.
“Can I join you?” I ask the guide as we get up from our seats, still not certain as to my role here.
“Certainly! If you wish to come it is no trouble!” beams the guide, warmly bringing his hand up to hold my back just like when we first met. I am thrilled at being included, my first jungle tour! I ease into the luck of having this day. I get to be a free tourist before the work days!
We gather on the opposite end of the main lodge from where the staff area is, on some large wooden steps that lead down to a jungle path. On the bottom of the stairs are rows of upside-down green rubber boots, “gumboots” as they are called. Everyone plucks a pair from the wooden peg holders.
Smart to keep them upside-down like that, I think. You never know what critters would crawl into them out here if they were sitting around face up and empty.
Everyone now sporting green gumboots, we are ready to trudge into the jungle.
Entry two: The Jungle
As expected, the trail is full of luscious greenery. Ferns and large leaves poke through the general trees on all sides. The plants are so packed in dense foliage of all shapes and sizes, I can hardly tell where one starts and another ends in the tangled mass.
The guide explains what we are looking at. “You see, many of the plants around us are young, new growth that sprouts up and dies fast. Like much of the Amazon basin, this area of the jungle is a floodplain, which means a lot of heavy rainfall can wash everything out, destroying plants.”
It gets darker as the sky replaced by a canopy of large trees entangled by vines.
“The Amazon has so much rain that it floods out all the salt, a nutrient in high demand by the organisms here. Salt is the mineral requires for plants to grow stable and strong, and without it, plants grow quickly but fleeting.”
We pass an occasional giant tree, which stands out with its white trunk among the tangled green masses. Shrieking birds and cacophony of nearby insects seem to scream at us. The humid air deprives my lungs of decent breath.
“The salt deprivation also has notable consequences for all us humans walking in the jungle.”
He is right-- since we stepped into this environment, I have been feeling an odd sensation, like the jungle is aware of our presence, it is somehow targeting us. Am I being paranoid or can the jungle feel we humans are a foreign entity it needs to purge?
“The salt you exert when you sweat in this hot environment is a resource they crave.” He explains. Ah ha! No wonder I’m covered in insects, I think, continuously swatting away everything from flies, bees, mosquitos, even grasshoppers.
More species of insect have been trying to suck the sweat off me in the last ten minutes than exist in all of North America.
The problem exacerbates as we step into the sunlight for certain stretches. Peering into the jungle I wonder, where are all the butterflies and flowers? I think a friendly insect or plant would do wonders for welcome. I had expected more wondrous colors, not the rugged and inhospitable present, choking us in mono-colored claustrophobic density.
We do finally come across an opening in the path containing a ten-story metal viewing tower, painted green to match its surroundings, I expect to be a minimal disturbance— too late for that, they have already smelled us and descended, what’s the color of a metal contraption matter at this point?
What happened to me? I am only ten minutes into the depths of the Amazon and already grumpy. Isn’t this supposed to be the honeymoon phase?
Our green gumboots clink loudly up the spiraling metal staircase, round and round for ten dizzying stories. At the top-level platform, the claustrophobic feeling vanishes, my pupils expand as I gaze over the tops of miles of an unbroken sheet of shaggy green umbrella tree tops. A dazzling breeze refreshes my face on this stewy day in the tropics. Checking behind me, I witness it goes on in all 360 degrees. Scarlet macaws fly overhead, their squeaking calls echo across the landscape.
All too soon it is time to head back into the thicket below. I am among the last to come down, winding again around the steep staircase a hundred steps. Close to the bottom, I wrap my left hand on the last bit of railing, trying to launch myself over a deep muddy puddle on the forest floor. A sudden stabbing pain shoots through my entire body from the hand, catching me off balance and obscuring my vision momentarily— a haze caves in from my peripheral vision and engulfs my view in a purple spiraling blindness.
I yowl loudly in harsh surprise, no idea what is happening. My left-hand jolts with repeated searing needle stabs. All in one quick moment, my heart beating wildly, I stand frozen in place and hear the steps of the tour guide approaching me, while tourists gather in confusion. My vision returns in a daze, seeing the guide’s face very close as he takes my pulsing hand to inspect it.
“It appears you have been bitten on the finger by a bullet ant.” He says, then cocks his head upside-down at the railing. “Yep, the little bugger was walking on the bottom side here when you grabbed it.” I cock my head as well to the underside and see it— an inch-long hairy black ant with prominent mandibles.
“An entomologist named Dr. Schmidt, was famous for traveling the world studying insect stings. He claimed the bullet ant to be the most painful bite in the world. Schmidt compared the pain to being shot. The pain can last for up to twelve hours, some say even days, as the poison makes its way to the heart!” he explains to the group, taking advantage of a learning moment.
He points out the bite wound on my pinky and massages it while talking. The group Oo’s and Ah’s, shuffling to inspect the oversized ant.
Meanwhile, I’m still in throbbing pain and none too happy with the news.
“In some cases, the bite can cause a fever as the victim battles the ever-encroaching poison… Anyway! shall we move on?” he says cheerfully to the group and motions down a narrow path on the other side of the viewing tower. He hangs back and asks me if I want to go back to the lodge, adding that there is nothing they can do to stop the pain except wait. I bite my lip and reply that in that case, I might as well continue with the hike. If it’s doing to hurt wherever I am, I see no reason not to continue with the jungle excursion as planned.
“You are very brave,” he says, again petting my back as we continue walking on behind the six tourists.
An unquenchable sting beats up my finger as we walk on. The jungle is eerily quiet. As the minutes tick on, the pain starts to move into my entire hand, then encompassing my wrist, then lower arm… I have an idea to lift it high above my head, maybe that will cut off circulation and slow the poison’s progression up my arm. Others check in and ask me what it feels like and if it still hurts.
I sweat and snap my head about, avoiding brushing up against any leaf, lest any other dangers lurking out of sight and within striking distance.
I tell the guide how the pain is getting worse, slowly engulfing my arm. Is that normal? “Oh yes, that is the poison making its way to your heart. They say it hurts a lot more when it gets to your… this…” He cups his left hand into his right armpit and looks at it.
“Armpit…?” I frown, my left arm still upright over my head like an inverted sling.
“Oh yes, it is… full of nerves there. That’s where the real pain starts.” He nods.
My heart beats faster as he says, “Excuse me,” and sidesteps to the front of the group to walk in the lead. Oh great, now I have something new to worry about. If this isn’t the “real pain” how much worse will it get?
As we walk I begin to notice details of the others, three couples. There is an older white man with gray hair, four people in their late twenties, two from Ireland, two from Australia, (as I recall them their introduction at lunch), and a beautiful Latina woman around her mid-thirties with luscious black locks. Walking in single file I automatically begin to sort out which individual belongs to which couple based on relative age and looks.
It is my little game to take my mind off the stinging, pulsing arm pain crawling towards my heart.
I assume that the handsome red-headed young Australian guy of slight build is here with the attractive Latina, and that the homely young black-haired guy with the pubic hair beard is here with the homely girl with short mousey hair and very crooked yellow teeth. I had not noticed at lunch who came with who. That left the average looking blonde lady to, I guess pair with the older man… perhaps his daughter?
Soon I see why the guide had moved to the front, we wind down some rooted curving path sloping down and dead-ending at a clearing. We all stop and form a vague semi-circle around him in the clearing— a panoramic river view appears.
“We will now take a little river cruise in a kayak.” He explains. “These wetlands conceal many amazing creatures, if we are lucky, we may see some of them today. Perhaps the tall reeds are concealing an alligator or two, or an anaconda.”
A great blue heron flies by over the tall freshwater reeds. My eyes adjust to the wide landscape, taking in the treat of seeing more than a few feet in front of me for the first time since standing on the canopy overlook. We start taking seats here and there atop mossy logs while the tour guide pulls a wooden canoe out from behind a swamp bush. He hands out a stash of life-vests from inside the canoe, and finally, the couples pair off.
I see my powers of observation have been way off! The older gray-haired man stands beside the beautiful Latina, the handsome redheaded guy pairs with the homely mousy haired girl, and the homely black-bearded guy pairs with a moderately attractive blonde, who suddenly seems older than him.
I am dumbstruck about these pairs— don't know why it should shock me so, I guess sometimes you just want the world to make sense. My arm still hangs awkwardly above my head and the pain has now spread halfway up my forearm, so I focus on watching the handsome man and homely girl, their micro-expressions, their eyes, their style of touching and nonverbal communication. Maybe they aren’t a romantic couple, but siblings? This notion ends when I see them kiss on the lips just before stepping into the boat. Or maybe he just has very poor self-esteem.
I am perhaps a little off in the head right now. It has now been three hours since the bite. As we file into the boat the men are handed paddles, and I’m placed in the middle, one arm still in the air. I think it feels better without as much blood supply.
The canoe pleasantly glides through the reeds down a clear water path. The guide encourages us to peer into the water and spot the piranhas.
“There are a few different species of piranha, they are red, yellow, and green. Each is different sizes, and different levels of danger. Some you can swim with, without harm, others are more aggrh-essive…” the guide lectures happily, sounding out the last words in his accent. His pronunciation of the fish is 'pee-ran'ha'. I find this wierd.
There is no way I will remember this if I have to make a decision while fleeing them this month. Best just avoid going in the water altogether.
“Look!” Says the guide after a few minutes, between the cacophony of insect chirps that surround us. He is stretching to look into the tall grass over the canoe’s left side. I lean and see what he is referring to— a large brown anaconda, curled up in the reeds, enjoying an afternoon nap. We all stretch to get a glimpse of him and take photos, arguing with each other as the boat tips precariously as we try to coordinate not ending up in the piranha infested waters. Crap that information would have been smart to remember now! The boat rocks and I grab on with my free hand, bending low into the middle of the boat. “Everyone, take turns!” he gasps, trying to direct people in an organized fashion.
To our luck, the boat settles back down and we avoid falling in. Nearing the end of the river cruise, close to four-hour mark since my bullet ant bite, I feel the poison move in my arm.
It begins to flow into the upper arm, retracting slowly.
Just before reaching the armpit, pooling back into my pinky again. A somewhat pleasant throb of natural morphine fills the pinky, a familiar feeling resembling the aftermath of having a finger smashed by a hammer. Throbbing but healing.
It is this point, as we march back up the jungle path back towards the lodge, where I finally feel safe putting my arm down. I’m so proud of my body for beating it before reaching my arm pit.
After our jungle tour, we return our green gumboots to the pegs and tromp up the stairs for pre-dinner rest and recharge.
I stand on the exotic wooden walkway bridge, taking in the jungle floor, not all too eager to return to the staff quarters. Something rustles below me. There is a little creature there! It looks like a miniature version of a capybara (the world’s largest rodents who resemble small bears)— brown coat, square-shouldered, broad bummed, with a cute whiskered face. The cat-sized rodent is poking around the floor, brushing away leaves as it browses presumably for nuts and berries. I can tell it's clearly a rodent, especially when it goes into a squirrel-like sitting position, balancing on two legs and nibbling a nut, exposing large front teeth. While watching this creature, I finally comprehend how a capybara can actually be a rodent. Whatever I’m looking at is the missing link between that and a properly behaving rodent.
He fumbles around in the leaves for a while, but after ten minutes leaves the area, darting off under the bridge and into the jungle, queuing my return to my quarters. The guide is already there when I enter, casually sitting on his bed.
I start unpacking toiletries to have a shower before dinner.
“What did you see on the bridge earlier?” he inquires.
“Oh, it was like a capybara but smaller…” I explain, sitting on my bed at the sudden conversation. “Do you know what it is called?”
“We call this an agouti! Let me see your bite again…” he asks, changing the subject abruptly. He comes over and sits beside me on my bed.
“The pain is all gone already?” he asks in amazement.
“Yes, I think holding it above my head was a great trick. It was also just my pinky, after all. The furthest place for the poison to travel from.”
Then something unexpected happens. He leans in, holding my hand in his. “You are so strong…” he coos.
I am naive and take it as a general compliment. Yeah! I am strong, like a jungle warrior! I often forget that I am a young woman. At least until he leans closer to and tries to kiss me on the mouth. I snap back and suddenly am on my feet. I can’t hide the surprised, uncomfortable expression on my face. This is not happening! My mind races— I trusted him, he is supposed to be a professional! I am here in his care, under his protection in the secluded rainforest. Now who can I trust?
“I… I don’t feel safe in the room with you anymore…” I say. He stands up too and attempts an insincere-sounding apology before leaving the room in silence. I don't think he is used to rejection.
During the group dinner, he is his usual lively self, merry and joking with the guests. I can hardly believe it’s the same person.
I my eyes scan the dining hall at the other passing lodge staff, just to be sure there isn't a look-alike working here.
I don’t dare go alone to the staff group showers and decide to go to bed as is. When I enter my quarters gain after dinner, he is already inside, sitting on his bed awkwardly hunching over his cell phone, which I know has no service.
We avoid eye contact and go to sleep in silence. I slip a butterfly knife from my backpack under my pillow as I get into bed, just to feel there is something I could do should the situation escalate or worsen.
If he tries anything funny, I’ll be ready.
With the wild sounds of the jungle clamoring (and no, not serenading) me to sleep. I dimly drift off in discomfort and paranoia, entering a vivid feverish nightmare, where the lines between reality and my worst fears blur.
The tour guide is coming up to my bed again, standing like a shadow over me, watching me sleep.
I jolt back awake. It was only a dream.
I drift out again.
This time, he gets up and is climbing on top of me on all fours, holding me down on my sheets. I struggle against him, sweating in the heat, attempting to reach down for my knife, and in that movement, awaken to realize none of it is real.
The room is quiet save for the insects at this dark hour, and the man is sleeping peacefully in his bed, unaware of my situation. Okay, so he is not that dangerous, but I still resent him for that nightmare.
I still hate him for making me uncomfortable on my first night in this unfamiliar place.
Entry Three: Starting Life as a Tambopata Volunteer
We set sail early the next day. The tourists, our bags, and the guide pile into the long wooden boat, and I look back as we kick off from the polished wooden dock— a perfect welcome mat to a pampered paradise we have just inhabited. Even the hidden stairs between the lodge to the water’s edge added a vital dose of adventure to a jungle paradise-- and anti-flooding.
Soon, the dock is lost among the expansive jungle as we motor upstream, the barefoot boat operator guiding us fiercely through today's unsettled waves. Windy rain sprays the left side passengers and soon the green tarps come down.
“We go upstream,” shouts the guide over the roaring motor and rain, “to get to Tambopata. The way back is shorter, only four hours with the current.”
"And Tambopata?" asks a tourist.
"To Tambopata, six hours if we go all at once."
This means I won’t likely be seeing that five-star resort again on the way back.
“Yes— it is the only way to reach Tambopata.” The guide answers an unheard tourist question over the splashing rain on the left-side tarp, “It will be four more hours before we arrive there, including one stop. We must disembark at immigration on the way into the national park. Everything, food, people, all supplies, comes into the reserve from boats like this one. You will also need to take passports for stamping.” He answers another question,
“Yes— they have medical supply kits there… No— they don't contain snake poison antidotes…. Yes— we have many, many poisonous snakes here.” We bump along in the waves and discouraging weather, both unsettle my stomach. What are they gasping about? I am the one spending three weeks here.
The immigration stop is a nice break from the sea. I stretch my legs as we all climb another long staircase up a cliff towards a small bamboo thatched roof hut. There are at least fifty other tourists here, with several boatloads arriving together. It is like making a spiritual pilgrimage, except our ritual is to a bored man in the hut stamping our passports... And we get to use a proper bathroom. I commend the Peruvian Government on having control here, they track who comes and goes from the Amazon jungle, important for anti-poaching and conservation.
Our boat powers upstream again, for our last leg. The landscape grows steeper, with more exposed red-muddy riverbanks topped with immense greenery. A few rocky beach outcroppings provide a softer contrast as we round the river bends.
Just as my stomach growls in anticipation of lunch, we finally dock at a modest spot along the mud banks. To me, it is indiscernible from the landscape. These boat handlers really have a good sense of the river landscape. They help us hop from the boat and we enter the jungle canopy, taking a twenty-minute hike through the jungle— large trees strangled by moss, ferns, and vines... Upon the completion of this shoe-ruining muddy trek, the dense foliage opens to an oasis of civilization, with its grand welcoming entryway among the brilliant green grass, with pitched front roof protruding handsomely like a proud flagship.
As our group ascends the front steps, I spot with relief a similar rack of gumboots around its base. Our vehicle to the jungle from now on, I think as I remove my sad, muddy sneakers.
Peruvian women arrive in the polished but modest entryway to greet us with a silver platers full of tropical drinks, like the day before. I look around the lodge, my new home for the month. It is long and narrow, having entered at the middle, each part more segmented, and less overtly fancy than the lodge we have just come from. The hall is lined with white curtains, behind which I have no doubt are the tourist bungalows. There is a small lounge with gift shop counter on one side of the hall before a dark narrow passage, and the other side has four hammocks hanging down from the wooden rafter beams, and looks out to a large dining hall. Other than that, the view of the jungle is visible wherever bamboo walls aren't. The shining red floors sparkle up at me once again.
We have made it to paradise again…
That thought doesn’t last.
A lodge staff member with a clipboard arrives, a grim-faced woman, who is assigning tourist rooms. I inform her that I am a new volunteer.
“Volunteer! Go that way!” She shoos me with a hand indicating left down the dark passageway passed the couches.
She turns her back on me, and I watch my ex-comrades head right, down the walkway into the dining hall full of long wooden tables.
“Did you hear me, volunteer? Go left!” she repeats sharply, pointing this time at the notice of me still standing around the lobby.
“Okay I’m going!”
I grab my bag from the pile newly brought up from the boat, and power walk away from her without turning back.