From the comfort of home, it’s especially hard to believe we were in the Amazon this summer. None of the documentaries, none of the things I read beforehand, nothing prepared me for the shear wonder and sensory shift I’d feel there. Nothing prepared me for the creatures, the magic of the place, the incredible impact of being in such a special place. If we’d been questioning whether we wanted to leave the mountains (And we were; read previous post), I think it’s fair to say that we changed our minds as soon as we landed. Honestly, the only thing that stood in my way of totally immersing myself in
the exotic pull of the place, was the mere idea of snakes. I hate them. Don’t even like to look at them. Trying to be humorous, a few friends (they know who they are, and should feel guilt as they read this) had made numerous references to snakes before my departure, pointing out the movies about snakes that are set in the Amazon. (Python, Python II, Boa, Anaconda and it’s sequel, you get the idea… of course, I’ve never seen any of these movies, because I hate snakes… more than Indiana Jones.) So, as silly as it may seem to some of you fearless folks, I kept expecting one to drop into the boat, or to see them hanging from each tree; heck I actually expected that there would be snakes everywhere in the Amazon. And so, I was leery.
However, the Amazon works it’s own brand of magic and I lost my fears (briefly) and thoughts on the boat ride to the lodge, caught up in the incredible beauty and lull of the scenes we passed. I arrived in a haze, the trip down the Amazon a truly hypnotizing experience. After a wonderful lunch and a siesta in a comfy hammock, ignoring the two parrots who did a perfect imitation of two small dogs barking at each other, I heard laughter and happy screams coming from the river. Naturally, I wandered down to see what was happening. A group of local children from across the river had swam over to play with a group of kids from the U.S. who were in the Amazon on a summer educational program, and were paddling around in canoes. (For the record: when traveling in S. America, locals hate it when you say American, referring to anything from the US. For example: “We’re from America,” or “We’re American,” or “American kids and local kids.” They are American as well: South American. They consider us North Americans.) The kids were all tipping each other over in canoes and the younger kids from the village competed with one another to see who could do the most impressive flips off of the tied up boats for Explorama lodge. Their energy and enthusiasm was incredible and I watched them for ages, tempted to jump in myself.. but leery of snakes and piranha. They asked me to take photos and then got excited to see the images in my viewfinder. I stayed on land and took pictures. They were a riot.
Our rooms were rustic, but at least had toilets. That would change at our next destination. All meals were eaten in a common dining room at both Explorama and ExplorNapo, the only screened in area in either place. The daily meals were served all you can eat buffet style and consisted of locally caught fishes, chicken or beef, fresh fruits, vegetables, potatoes, rice and a dessert. Nothing was gourmet, but every meal was good. The fish, every time they served it, was amazing and I ate more fish in the two weeks we were in Peru, than I do in months at home… if you don’t count sushi. The rooms were simple: singlebeds with required mosquito netting, a kerosine lamp, and at Explorama: bathrooms. Chugs of fresh water were stationed in the dining hall and outside each section of rooms. The water is not safe, unless boiled.
Our guide Luis told us to meet him outside our rooms, after dinner and to bring flash lights, for our first adventure: a tour of the jungle by flashlight. It is difficult to explain just how dark it was, but we truly could not see our own hands in front of us, without the lights. At one point Luis had us all turn our lights off to listen to the jungle and experience the darkness… I kept thinking just how amazing it was that Luis had grown up in a jungle like this, and without flash lights or many other modern technologies, he told us. Within the first five minutes of our walk, Luis pointed to a hole in the ground which none of us would have noticed, had he not pointed it out. “Come here everyone,” he coaxed. I stood behind Middle Man and looked over his shoulder. When Luis put a stick in the hole and a tarantula the size of my hand came out, I
nearly wet my pants a little… and Principessa had a full blown panic attack.
Honestly, I thought she was kidding. If I hadn’t thought that, I probably wouldn’t have laughed so hard. Probably. (I have been known to laugh at others’ crises. For instance: bees crack me up, when they’re bothering someone else.) She wasn’t kidding. Principessa had
foolishly worn her Tevas (open toed sandals) for our night walk in the jungle, and now every single thing that touched her feet (Did I mention biomass? Leaves? Vines? Tarantulas?), made her loose her cool. Completely. So now we were walking through the jungle, Luis pointing out poisonous jumping spiders (Sorry, but who cares if they’re poisonous; they jump!); beautiful frogs; moths; bugs of every shape, size and color; and tarantulaS. (Yes, there was more than one), and Principessa was a wreck. It occurred to me pretty quickly, as it probably had with her, that if Luis saw one in the first few minutes, and another shortly after, how many were we not seeing? And, if I was wearing Tevas I’d probably be crying and squealing, and clinging to those around me (too), but I had worn my solid hikers, long pants and anything else that might keep all of the above noted creatures off me. Principessa in Tevas: not so much. So give me my mother of the year award: I laughed until I nearly wet my pants a little, again. At my age, these things happen. (Night photos all taken by Middle Man, who is very good at it! L-R: Stick bug, deadly leaping spider, adorable frog, tree frog (there were so many types of frogs!), and leaf bug.)
The jungle is a whole other beast at night, and for that matter, there are whole other beasts that are in the jungle at night, that you don’t really encounter in the day. Tarantulas for example: they really are nocturnal. We were warned a couple of times that they like to crawl into suitcases, because they’re dark and warm. Smart Guy actually knows someone who came home from the Amazon and had a tarantula in their suitcase, no urban myth here. That knowledge alone had me checking my shoes each morning, shaking out all of my clothes and checking my bags. No doubt some of you are wondering why anyone would go on a vacation where tarantulas can climb in your suitcase; and, I hear you. There were certainly moments when I too asked: why aren’t we in Paris like so and so (so and so, you know who you are), eating stinky cheese and drinking wonderful wine, instead of drinking fermented corn and alcohol and dodging crawling, slithering things? But, in the big scheme of things, I am clearly an adventure girl, and fermented corn alcohol gets you buzzed just like expensive wine. Some of it may make me uneasy, but I prefer the edge. Admittedly however the jungle at night, despite creepers and crawlers, was spectacular! It was magical and mysterious in all the ways one might imagine it would be, if you’re wearing sensible shoes.
The next day we boarded yet another boat to transfer to ExplorNapo lodge, another two hrs. down the Amazon. We would spend 2 nights and three days there. The ride was just as beautiful and I arrived excited to see what adventures lay ahead. Each day, there were three “adventures.” Early morning, afternoon and evening, Luis would meet us and take us somewhere to learn about the Amazon and the area. Like Explorama, ExplorNapo had a screened dining hall, a wonderful covered area with the most delicious hammocks anywhere, a small bar, a dock area and private rooms. However, our rooms at ExplorNapo (the first of the lodges built by Peter Jensen– from the U.S.- in 1964) were even more rustic than Explorama, and had no toilets in the room. Having seen bats flying around the stalls in the pit toilets and heard rumors of a tapir in one of them, this did not sit well with a gal who would inevitably need to go in the middle of the dark, dark night… when tarantulas, snakes and other creatures come out. I promptly commandeered the metal bowl that was to be our wash bin, put it in a corner and as quick as you can say kitty litter, I had my own private toilet. Don’t use this bowl, I told Smart Guy, just in case there was any confusion. Amazingly, at ExplorNapo, there were no toilets, no hot water for showers (rustic wood-walled, open air showers with icy cold water) and all drinking water is brought in from Iquitos, BUT, there is wifi!
After breakfast we headed out on our first big adventure: piranha fishing. Yes, seriously. We took a small boat, low in the water, to a smaller tributary off the Napo. The water was truly inky dark and the small clusters of local houses appeared in the thick jungle, along the river. Occasionally we were greeted by locals out fishing as well, in dug out canoes. They waved and greeted us, always friendly, though I couldn’t help but thin, that we must have been intruders for them. The fishing itself was a lesson in a lot of beef for little tiny fish. Piranha eat meat: other fish, mammals that are foolish enough to be in their water, humans- if you’re bleeding and in the water. Luis explained that you will see locals with small chucks of skin missing, generally from piranha bites. I kept my hands in the boat, and saw no one swimming here. For bait, Luis and the driver used pieces of bloody, red beef, on sharp hooks on the end of thin lines. Smart Guy caught the first fish, a freshwater sardine. It might have tasted good had I not
freaked out flinched when it wiggled in my hands, as I held it. I leapt out of my hands, across the boat and over the side. Shortly after I caught the next fish, our first piranha!
They are beautiful fish, piranhas. This was a surprise to us all. After all those documentaries where all you see is flesh being torn away and snapping, sharp, needle like rows of teeth (all true), I don’t think any of us had stopped to really notice that piranhas are actually quite beautiful. They do in fact have the infamous jaws and teeth that we all expected, but their skin is a veritable rainbow of colors: emerald greens, pink, blue, rosy reds, vibrant orange, yellows, with a bright white belly and a sharp, impressive a line of sharp fins across it’s spine. When caught they snap and bite forever. They flop around the boat and you move out of the way. You don’t even try to touch it or hold it,
like I did with the sardine; you leave piranha alone. And that is not easy. They stay alive for a very long time. I admit to some guilty feelings, watching them try to get back to the water. All the while, as we put more meat on our hooks and hoped to catch more, we stayed clear of those tiny fish flopping around the bottom of the boat. Of course, Luis caught the biggest, most amazing piranha I could imagine. It was a Great White of piranhas! After we’d fished enough and we had several small and the one large fish on a stake, we headed back. For lunch, we had the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten, pan fried piranha! Little Man brought home the piranha jaw. (Local fisherman, beautiful scenery, children by the shore, our catch for the day, and lunch… absolutely delicious!)
One of our days there, Luis took us to see a local village as one of our outings. I had truly mixed feelings about the experience. It was fascinating to see how they lived, to go inside one of the small houses up on stilts that we’d watched as we went up and down the river. It was humbling to see what they have and what they don’t; much of which we take for granted at home: clean water being the most obvious thing. It was interesting to ask questions and spend time communicating in my broken spanish, with other mothers in other cultures and small children who were inevitably excited to meet us. But, we felt like the voyeurs we were, and we were all very aware that even as they welcomed us into their homes, they did it to feed their families and would clearly prefer to live their lives
without us sitting on their open air decks. How would I feel if strangers walked into my kitchen to ask me questions, to see how I keep my house? What if welcoming them meant my that my kids could get school supplies, or I could buy food? Changes the picture entirely, and we knew it. I did not take pictures in their homes, or the village. Still as we walked along the shore between houses of the village, a few locals came out on their own to exchange greetings. One woman, speaking only in the local spanish they speak (which sounded like Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and something in between), complimented me on my children and told me she had three sons, but wanted a daughter. I told her that her house and garden were beautiful, and she shook my hand and smiled, and then gave me a delicious piece of a fruit I’d never tasted before. As we got back in our small boat, she stood on the shore and waved to us smiling sincerely.
We spent another early dusk coasting up yet another tributary, watching the locals bring in their animals, bath their children in the river (piranha do not live in every river), fish for dinner or just paddle up and down the river to visit friends. We saw two sloths high in a tree, but we all doubted Luis’ good eyes, as they only looked like lumps to us. We saw the moon rise on the water and listened to the cicadas and other night creatures start to sing. We lost track of the number of species of birds that Luis pointed out, but held up
our binoculars each time he spotted one. Each adventure was special, was wondrous, and each one, for me, was sandwiched between trips to my hammock, where I read Game of Thrones, wrote in my journal, napped, or fought to keep Jose- one of two Trumpeter birds that live at the lodge- away from my hammock. When he wasn’t chasing the poor, little black dog that he bullies all day, he was fascinated with me and I would wake to find him sticking his beady eyes in to see what I was doing in my hammock. Crazy bird. Hard life: lying in a hammock, eating, and going on adventures. If there were proper toilets and hot water, I might stay.
So what of the snakes I feared? How many did we see? Did they drop into our boats or cross our paths? Did we see snakes sliding down the branches of the trees as we hiked in the jungle, over our four day stay? Spoiler here: No we didn’t. When we got back to the compound, after our hike in the jungle our first night we were told that there was a snake on the grounds: a rosy boa. Damn! I thought. I knew it! They’re everywhere! We followed the board walk to where the snake had been spotted. Nocturnal creatures, we were told that it would probably be in the same area/spot. It was. Hanging down from a branch and stretching out to smell something, was a 6-8 ft long rosy boa. “A youth,” Luis told us; I
had no desire to meet its parents. I noted warily that it was hanging from a tree, just 200 feet from my room, with its open walls and ceiling. I can’t lie, it was pretty. Yes, pretty…. in an Amazon jungle wildlife kind of way. And that, that one snake was the only one we actually saw the entire time we were there. But, it was enough to make me think that I saw them everywhere. It was enough to suggest that they were in fact hanging from branches, waiting to drop in my boat or on my head; it was enough to make me watch carefully where I went and which vines I grabbed while hiking; it was enough to make me duck my head when low branches moved. That one little (relatively) snake, however, was our only Amazon snake and I was happy to see it. Who wants to go to the Amazon and not see any snakes?
In the next (and likely final) Peru post, we go to the top of the Canopy, visit a Shaman, get tattoos, find a baby to adopt and spend a day in Iquitos. That’s right… if you caught that teaser: I fell in love and want to adopt. Meet her next time. (See why this takes multiple, lengthy posts!?) But… we do not see any snakes.
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