In Luis’ back garden one bright morning, he randomly brought out a couple of snakes he’d caught for identification and study purposes, before releasing them back to where he’d scooped them up. For God’s sake, let me take hold of one. Had I been body-snatched? On the brink of flinging it away from me in a trajectory as far as one could manage with pipe-cleaner arms, I held onto my teetering nerve along with the writhing creature. To calm myself, I called it Sally; now a ‘she’, I noticed Sally possessed the temperament of a purring pussy cat; and wasn’t actually writhing at all; rather, lay quite still in my hands. She didn’t even have teeth.
Minutes later, I happily handed Sally back to Luis. I’d just done something that had terrified me. Relinquishing irrational fear is a process and I suppose I’d undergone the necessary-evil start of one. If nothing else, I remained unruffled on the proceeding night walks. And wasn’t it Elizabeth Gilbert that said, “The point is not for you to do something that’s never been done before. The point is for you to do something you’ve never done before.” I headed off back to my cabin feeling satisfaction rather than smugness. You betcha!
Stepping foot into the Amazon rainforest by day is a world apart from its overpoweringly exotic experience at night. In dappled daylight, you are entering: a pharmacy and DIY first-aid kit; a carpenter’s dream and house-builder’s heaven; a birth control clinic and beauty parlour. As a starter for ten. It’s the Genie’s bottle inside Aladdin’s Cave. I was too human to absorb the significance of everything engulfing me but tried to drink in the enrapturing benefits of it all. Starting with smearing an anti-wrinkle tree sap around my eyes, upon which Jason assured me took a day off.
The sap of one tree for instance is used to cure diarrhoea while the potent sap of another would do more than bung up your business; it would anesthetise, or in greater quantities kill as a component in a poisoned dart. Luis had to use something approaching ‘the knowledge’ in order to avoid getting us all heinously lost, especially penetrating the swampland. We later encountered a tiger vine, which when a negligible sized nugget is cut away, boiled down to a treacle like oil and drunk, relieves symptoms of asthma. Whoa!
Next up, a tenant-loathing tree grabbed my attention when I learned that it sheds its ‘skin’ every year or so, in order to cast off anything parasitic—clinging on for a free ride. The natives refer to it a selfish tree, although I preferred to think it was ‘survival-chic’. I meandered a little further along the snaking forest floor and met a walking tree. Sounds like a scene from Lord of the Rings meets a scene out of Avatar—what a profound message-invoking movie that was—but this tree was literally capable of upheaval, putting down new roots and moving 20 centimetres about every 20 years. Por qué? To remain in an optimum position, alive and kicking. Well, it’s more of a snail-paced walker. Knock me sideways; utterly dumbfounded. What Jason and I wouldn’t do to become Luis’ lifelong apprentices.
We stuck our fingers on the latex sap of a rubber tree, observing from where the material of our wellington boots and ponchos had derived. The jungle canopies alone give adequate protection from showers. A tiny cut made by Luis into an inconspicuous tree oozed a strong anti-malaria sap—one where the smallest of smears spread on the crease of your arms at the elbow and cheeks—the places where you sweat first—combined to emit the most potent smell, apparently; an aroma that mosquitoes loathe and will keep their distance for hours on end. Armed with rain gear, repellent and rubber boots along with my Girl Guide approach, I really needn’t have bothered.
Luis pointed to a tree bearing an exotic orange coloured fruit—its vitamin C levels tenfold that of an orange and one that can be fermented to produce a rather energising beverage. If you can’t be a good Girl Guide and glug a little too much of the enticing ‘Red Bull and vodka’ jungle equivalent, you may end up needing the tree rich in a substance capable of preventing the prospect of pregnancy. Indeed, there’s no morning after pill here but guess where the chemical properties of said birth control capsule comes from? Amazing, ya.
If you are a good Girl Guide or Boy Scout, you might not fancy getting gazebo’ed in the jungle with your fellow foresters. Then why not snap a twig from a scrawny branch off another particular tree, light up the end and enjoy a soothing smoke on a long, somewhat-skinnier-than-average ‘cigar’. No nasties inhaled either—beats the non-nicotine out of those faux Parker Pen cigarettes. And keeps any biting blighters at bay to boot!
Upon side-stepping around a city of termite houses, we eventually noticed that they were always constructed on the west side of the forest. Why’s that then? Because when it rains here, precipitation always comes from the east. Did you know that the exterior of their habitats also incorporate ridged drainage systems, which allow any rainfall to neatly drain off and divert away from the material holding their live-in premises together. Talk about enterprising engineers and award-winning architects for ingenuity.
On an arbitrary note, I clocked columns upon columns of leaf cutter ants, all on their global deforestation programme. They crossed the trail, carrying dismembered plants from one side to the other, despite there being plenty of plants on the side they were already on. The reason for this I am yet to become enlightened. Every so often I’d spot a lost ant away from the colony; like a line dancer looking for a line.
Although the snuggery of Siona Lodge was more untouched by tourism—the Caiman lodge in our second week was the landing spot for backpackers—attracted by the mixture of low cost and authenticity. A shock to the system having left the sunny exuberance of Luis and four other like-minded jungle-adoring explorers, compared to around 30 kids and 10 others all chomping at the bit for a piece of jungle pie. Come now, let’s have you all jump aboard the motorised canoe and tootle back from whence you came. Not that I was suffering from a bout of fellow-outsiders-ruining-my-authentic-experience annoyance or anything.
Plus, I’ve never been sold on the idea of modern-day ‘adventure tourism’. For me, adventures should involve chewing your way through undergrowth with your bare teeth, dodging jaguars and patching up wounds with a spider monkey. Going on well-established tours several times daily, led by guides who cater for all your needs is only as ‘out there’ as going to a job interview wearing a loud tie.
“Mira”, pointed David, our new naturalist guide at Caiman Lodge bringing me back to where I should be. Look. A load of yellow-handed titty monkeys. Arrr, wow—haven’t seen those before. See Lisa, stop being prissy because all’s good again. It always was. Just look where you are! The two of us were given free rein with our own personal guide, away from the masses and the rigidity of schedules, plus a second week in the Amazon for free in exchange for some professional shots and a little aerial footage. Which kept us just about on budget despite being where we were…right oh, I’ll stop being a ginger whinger.
A canopy tower from the Caiman Lodge, at 25 metres tall gave us access to a different perspective, showing us secret gardens of jungle life from the treetops—impossible to see from the understory—standing like a sentinel guarding the fruits of the forest. It facilitated travel through different levels of the rainforest and emerged us on top of the canopy. Caiman Lodge was growing on me fast.
David had to depart so hanging out with Vin, perhaps one of the Caiman Lodge’s most knowledgeable and enthusiastic guides took over and us deep into the Amazon. By means of a slightly leaky, slow-going paddle canoe. The experience that greeted us was worth the wait. While we watched tropical birds and chatted like monkeys for hours, Vin had a 101 stories—all filled with firsthand knowledge of indigenous peoples throughout South America, their shaman culture, the forest and rural life. What it is and what it can be. I felt at ease and content, full of peace around the guy.
The Amazon has to be one of the most exuberant places on Earth, a place some people still get to call home. Upon entering a native village Puerto Bolivar one day, I got to glimpse a life so simple, so achingly beautiful that I couldn’t stop staring: a laughing child waving at a canoe, a shawl-clad woman gracefully throwing grain to her hens. A breathless charm. Each little thatched lodge we passed, nestling amongst its banana palms, drenched in sunlight, was a vision of Eden. A vision of happiness I wanted to keep. Surrounded by the Amazon’s wreath of wildlife, I was beginning to think…Could we stay right here; til the end of time; til the Earth stops turning? The forest was starting to get at something very deep in me.
A stillness settled over the lake as dusk grew closer. A hand pointed at 9 o’clock from the bow and I led my eyes in said direction. A fully matured boa coiled itself serenely around a low tree branch, at eye-line with us in the canoe. Like the snake, I was unable to blink. I watched the silken surface of a small inlet below, broken only by brown and gold leaves that fluttered onto it from nearby trees. My life it seemed, had been transformed, the scales fallen from my eyes. I idly scooped up some water and let it aimlessly trickle through my fingers. How on Mother Earth would we leave this place? They say endings are usually laced with regret while beginnings are sprinkled with hope. We glided close to the bearded shores of the creek to get a more intimate look at this limbless reptile. She was a boa beauty, embossed with a flawless and bewitching skin.
The Amazon’s orchestra of indigenous organisms—comprises en ensemble so large in one given location—is, well, beyond wild. The air is permanently alive with cicadas; in harmony with a pacifying symphony of tropical birdsong, which paints the air with colour; magnified by growls from the howler monkeys; and a bit of base from the bull frogs. Mentally spent from over-stimulation with cravings for more—despite holding in a myriad set of visuals—is how one will leave the Amazon. Because fortunately, your filters will be forgotten. We lived, breathed, ate and slept at becoming one with nature; my umbilical cord connecting with the roots of the jungle so profoundly, I felt an energy like no other.
The hauntingly beautiful power that Pachamama—Mother Earth had over us was simply a given. Not to mention almost tangible forces at all levels: whether furrowed deep in the understory, forging ahead on the forest floor or reining over all high in the treetops—we absorbed an assembly of colours, sounds, scents and the most captivating creatures on Earth. A chance to perceive life ancestral of Pachamama and forest nature; it’s all here in the lungs of the planet. Yet in the face of wanting to feast our eyes on it all, we only saw a finger monkey’s breadth of it.