Thursday, February 5, 2009

Travel Blog #18: Into the Jungle...Starring YOU!

There’s something different about this sun, you realize, as the riverboat chugs toward the makeshift looking pier. It’s starker on your skin. Stronger. The heat resonates with a silky caressing power as it coats you.

Ahead, the tourists make their way down the narrow walkway between pier and shore. There are no handrails – just a walkway. To your right a mother and her three children sit by the water. They wave in a happily abstracted way and you wonder at how perfectly they are all four, a part of the jungle, an extension of the water.

“We are going to walk up the path ahead,” says your guide. He’s a little man called Eni, but he seems more at home here than anyone. You’ve had a lot of time to talk to him over the lazy two hour boat ride. He speaks seven languages, he lectures in the university of Manaus – and he is currently in his favorite part of the world: the Amazon jungle.

“The hotel we are going to isn’t like your hotels at home,” he says. His eyes twinkle as they speak. Honest. They twinkle. There’s no electricity. No phones. No television. Cooking is done over an open fire and only fire and candles give light at night. We’re coming back here later for supper. But first we go into the jungle.”

He has told you what to expect. Okay: he has given you an idea what to expect. You need to cover yourself with serious insect repellant. You need to put your pant legs inside your socks to prevent soldier ants from getting in, this requirement illustrated vividly by the telling of a story about another tourist who ignored the clearly stated requirement of LONG pants and WALKING shoes and got badly bitten.

All eyes turn to a balding fat man. His legs stick out of the legs of his shorts and they look like sticks to you. The legs seem impossibly thin – too thin to support the massive body above it. He is wearing sandals. He looks back at the group.

“No one told me,” he says, exchanging a worried glance with his son, who is similarly attired.
Poor bastards, you think. They are meat.

Eni offers them the choice of staying at the lodge and waiting for the jungle walk to return. He tells them that, should they choose to take the walk, they will need to stay close to him.
The man looks uncertain for a moment. Then he shakes his head and declares that he and his boy are going on the damn walk. He begs copious insect repellant from the other travelers and coats his skin and his son’s skin before they leave.

The walk through the jungle begins with no ceremony and as you step into the lush greenness, you realize that civilization has vanished. You can’t see even the rudimentary shelter of the huts. A few steps away from the compound – and you are in the jungle.

You can’t help but feel like an interloper. Strange sounds, sounds you cannot identify are all around you. The air is heavy with the scent of life and decay. You look down at the jungle floor and see why: it’s a slippery coating of fallen leaves and vines and rocks that look so very out of place.

Eni stops beneath a massive cone. It’s twice as large as he is. He strips off his shirt and tells you he is about to demonstrate how to call the ants.

Is he nuts? you wonder. He plans to CALL ants?

Rita, a trauma nurse from Melbourne Australia, gets in close with her camera. You’ve noticed that Rita, who laughs frequently and does not appear to have a shy bone in her body, likes to be at the center of all activity. She’s close – and you wonder uneasily if she has heard that Eni is going to call ants.

He stands directly under the large cone, an ant nest, and claps his hands. He spreads his arms wide and instantly, a trail of black flows from the nest, covering him. The guy is covered in ants. Holy crap!

Rita leaps to one side with a squeal. You notice the man and the boy in shorts take several steps backward.

Eni isn’t concerned. He brushes the insects off of himself and holds out his hands.

“This is the best insect repellant in the world. Smell.”

Dutifully the assembled jungle safari types sniff Eni’s hands. It’s a raw organic scent. Bitter – but not unpleasant.

This is seriously cool you think.

Tramping through the Amazon jungle requires all your attention. It’s so very humid that the sweat pours off your face, burning your eyes if you forget to wipe it away. The ground is slick. You notice that the sounds of the jungle don’t stop. If anything, they intensify. When you look up it is like you are in a building made of green growing things. You cannot see the sun, although you can feel its heat around you and as it rises from the wet earth the heat is intensified somehow.

You come eventually to a clearing.

Eni and another Amazon guide confer briefly in Portuguese and Eni tells you they are about to demonstrate how to start a fire in the wild. First the guide demonstrates how to create friction with a bow and stake. You’ve seen this before. Lots of times – and you suspect that if it ever comes down to you needing to start a fire this way, you are gonna die a lonely cold death for sure.

Next Eni tells you how to build a fire out of two batteries and steel wool – which is highly flammable. The Amazon guide holds the batteries end to end, just as you would load them into a flashlight. He touches the steel wool to both ends of the batteries and there is a tiny whoosh sound and fire erupts. Damn. That’s cool, you think. If you ever happen to be stranded in the jungle and you happen to have a flashlight and steel wool, you will be able to make fire.

You are about to move off when the Amazon guide says something the Eni (who you have started to think of as “Survivor Man”) – and he stops and turns back to the stump they have just used for the firemaking demonstrations. He lifts a block of wood and underneath is a centipede. It is curled, but it must be at least seven or eight inches long.

You look around and see horrified looks on the faces. You smile. This is probably a joke you decide. No way that thing is alive. No way they would have done all that stuff right on top of a venomous centipede. You take a picture anyway.

The guy in the shorts stands behind his kid.

Eni pokes the insect with a stick – and it moves. It moves fast. It scuttles down the stump and up another tree so quickly that it is almost a blur. You have to marvel, even as you hyperventilate just a little, at how those dozens of tiny legs propel the creature so quickly.
Rita is looking a little faint – but she’s laughing louder than anyone. Nerves you think.

You leave the clearing and go deeper into the jungle. Along the way Eni points out other insects, massive termite nests. He shows you cocoa and impossibly red flowers. Wind rustles through the trees and it’s cool touch is welcome on your face.

You decide you could walk in the jungle forever, as long as Survivor Man is with you.

He shows you how the natives rig traps for meat. He shows you an ordinary looking vine, pressing a thorn into it until a pasty white liquid comes out.

“Curare,” he says. “A few drops paralyze the animal for six hours.”

He lets you try a blowgun – which is a five-foot long tube with a dart in it. It seems a highly impractical weapon, unwieldy because of its length. You try to fire a dart at the target and miss entirely. Eni takes the blowgun and the dart is sticking directly into the mock bird – which serves as the bull’s eye.

You move through the jungle and eventually, too soon, you come out again back at the Amazon Village.

The man and his son are scratching habitually at their legs and arms. But they are smiling.
As you wait for the next phase of the trip – a canoe ride to an Amazon village – you notice two glorious parrots watching you and your wife. Parrots mate for life – and their unblinking twin gaze draws your attention.

Your wife crosses toward them. When she walks to the left, the parrots follow, with a strangely graceful waddle. When she walks to the right, they follow and you find yourself thinking of ducks. She laughs and you smile at her with your heart. This woman finds joy in everything.
She takes their picture. You take a picture of her taking a picture of the parrots.

Life is good. You’ve already taken a river ride, been for a “walkabout” in the Amazon jungle. Now you are bound for a real Amazon village – and then you get to eat a meal prepared by Amazonians over a fire.

Does it get any better than this?