It’s eight in the morning and we’re in a motorcycle trailer with the two guides and six days of supplies being driven down a dirt road by a thirteen year-old boy with headphones blasting cumbia. As we get closer to the river a giant cobra lurches out onto the road. We’re going into the wild.
Our guides distribute the supplies throughout the four-person canoe: Javier would be paddling in front, Silda in back, and Léa and I sitting like royalty on bed cushions in the middle with the cargo.
The whole canoe trip through the Pacaya Samiria jungle wilderness area was a fluid procession of plants and animals that felt simultaneously exotic and yet somehow familiar. Perhaps because of the Discovery Channel?
Our guides did all the work, paddling for six days through a corridor of vivid sights and sounds. It was mostly really pleasant, relaxing even, save the evening mosquitos and a few exceptionally hot afternoons.
We were generally on the river during the first light of morning. Depending on how much it rained in the preceding twelve hours the water level and river width would vary quite a bit. The weather was in constant flux. Rain clouds came and went like passing trucks.
On our way out we were paddling over fallen trees that we had floated under on the way in. Sometimes Javier would have to chop our way through with his machete.
During the day, we didn’t really talk to each other. Instead, our eyes and ears were trained on the surroundings, looking forward to spotting the next new creature.
Capturing all the animal action on camera was too difficult for the little lens of my point-and-shoot camera. We’ve got a lot of raw video footage capturing the movement and sounds, but not much imagery to share right now. “You had to be there…”
We actually kept a list of animals we spotted as the number grew out of control. Sloths, several types of monkeys, an ant-eater, many types of birds, loads of fish…so many fish! It became clear that Javier’s favorite part of being a guide was the fishing, whether it was with his spear, with rods, or by net. We had fish three meals a day, and piranha was our favorite. Léa was good at catching them.
I wasn’t very good at it. In fact, I seem to have lost all fishing skills.
We also saw crocodiles, electric fish, sting rays…as we asked Javier what things were, we noticed how often his explanation would end with, “And if you’re not careful, this can kill you.” We never went swimming.
We got out of the canoe for a jungle hike on the fifth day, to get a new perspective on the wilderness around us.
In the evenings we would settle in to our camp. Huts with palm leaf roofs under which we’d pitch our tent to avoid the mosquitos. Silda would prepare a fire to cook some variation of fish, rice and plantains. Léa and I discovered that we hate boiled plantains. They’re impossible to swallow.
It was during the moments after dinner and before bed that we would really engage in conversation. The sounds of our voices competing with a cacophony of nighttime jungle sounds. The warm light of one or two candles projecting shadows up on the palm ceiling.
Often we would end up hearing some of Javier’s stories, which usually left us speechless. It was tough to tell if/where the line between fact and fiction was drawn in his mind. He told us of a nun with a pet parrot who ventured deep into the jungle to teach indigenous children the spanish alphabet. One day in her absence the parrot escaped. Months later and miles away the nun was surprised to discover several wild parrots, all reciting the alphabet in the trees. He told us of a group of biologists who once camped at the site where we were sleeping, but that after an altercation with some illegal lumberjacks they had been found dead in the river, heavy car batteries tied around their necks. He told us fables, of how the vulture lost the feathers on his head by sticking it into a very cunning and patient horses’s ass. He told us of devils and jungle spirits, and about the shamans of old communicating with river spirits that would steal people, drowning them, to wed them in the afterlife. Of different tribes, including a man with five wives and thirty-five children who requested that the state provide him with a school in the jungle for the community he fathered. Of himself, exhaling shaman-blessed cigarette smoke onto his baby for the duration of a trip in canoe to prevent it from becoming ill in the land of bad spirits. We listened to him, wide-eyed. The jungle got louder.
Six days later we step off the canoe for the last time. After gathering our things and our senses, we make our way to the Lagunas port. A full moon and passing clouds above, we sit and scratch our mosquito bites in silence, waiting for the big boat to Iquitos.