My silence over the past few days wasn`t because either of those Amazon inhabitants got hold of me. It was much more mundane. I had very little access to a computer and very little writing time, but I was in the Amazon Jungle.
Last Monday, I flew to Puerto Maldonado from Cusco for a visit with an old family friend who is now a priest in that frontier town on the Madre de Dios River, where many jungle tours originate. Chris Ross lived across the street from us when my children were growing up and he and my son are about the same age, so the boys became best friends and have stayed in touch over the years. Chris joined the Family of Jesus as a monk after completing university and then went on to study for the priesthood in Lima, Peru. He is now Father Issac. The small group of monks, priests, and nuns have moved to the hot, rusty, dusty town of Puerto Maldonado to serve the local population.
I heard my name called in the Puerto Maldonado airport, and there he was, hand extended through the lattice divider between passengers and those waiting to greet them. One of the other brothers had come along, and we piled my backpack into their van and drove to their modern communal house for a delicious lunch with the rest of the Family of Jesus members. All wear long khaki habits and sandals and they admit that these are not cool in the ninety degree heat, but nothing really is, is it?
My online-reserved Tambopata Hostel was a pleasant surprise, open and airy with a central garden and screened rooms, and a very welcoming and helpful hostess named Soyla, who understood some English. My private room with double bed covered with a mosquito net tent cost $10 per night and was very comfortable with only a table fan, as things do cool down at night to a pleasant 78 degrees.
I asked Soyla about arranging a jungle tour for Tuesday and Wednesday as Father Isaac was busy midweek, and she called her young friend, Johnny, who is a professional guide for other eco-lodges on the river. He came over to talk about possibilities. It´s not cheap and I had the choice of doing one very full day (which would have been extremely hard slogging now that I know what it entailed) or two days with a night spent in a private lodge run by a family living on Lake Sandoval. I decided on the longer version, even though the cost was $270, knowing that I probably would never be this near to the Amazon Basin again.
After a siesta, Father Issac returned in the evening to the hostel so that we could walk to the city center and have dinner together. It was very good to have some time to catch up over the years and we had some great sandwiches and then an ice cream cone to walk back to the hostel with. Johnny was back to make final arrangements and the two men met while we went over the plan to visit an animal rescue refuge as well as the large lake where I would see many species of wildlife – monkeys, macaws, giant otters, cayman (a small alligator), snakes, butterflies, and lots of birds. Father Isaac said goodnight and I was to see him later on Thursday when three of us, including Sister Mary Theresa, visited the local serpentarium.
I had no flashlight and needed to get cash from the ATM, so I hopped onto the back of Johnny´s motorbike and tooled through town as he drove about, picking up his baby son to ride, helmetless, on his lap as we did our shopping and errands. This town may be pretty rough around the edges with gold miners who come in from the river on the weekends, and all kinds of industrial and tourist endeavors using it as a jumping-off point, but it is full of friendly, natural, good-hearted people who don´t have it half-bad.
In the morning, Johnny and I set off on the river in a long, hired motorboat taxi. After an hour, we arrived at the Reserva Ecologica Taricaya, www.projects-abroad.net, for a look around and a climb to the tops of two large Kapok trees. Here volunteers come for varying lengths of time and some of them were building a new butterfly enclosure. Long strips of black plastic mesh were being handsewn together by some girls, while other volunteers were building the wooden framework. We walked past them into the jungle and soon were adopted by a pair of black and white, hen-like, wild birds who accompanied us just like a couple of pet dogs. They must have known we´d be awhile on the Kapok trees so they hung back at last while we climbed straight-up ladders to the very top of the first one. Then, it was a long walk across a wire suspension bridge joining the two trees. On the platform atop the second one, we could look out across the whole jungle canopy and see for many miles. This reminded me of my canopy tour in Costa Rica where we slung from tree to tree in harnesses.
On the way back to the riverside ecological station, our little doggy birds were waiting for us and picked up the walk they figured we were giving them, disappearing when we visited the rescued animals in their various cages. All were either recovering from injuries or were pets that had been abandoned or confiscated, and they would be gently returned to the wild when ready. Tending these fell into the duties of the volunteeers.
We ate lunch with the volunteers and staff at Taricaya and I was able to speak to a few of their very international group. Most seemed to be university age and the few I spoke to came from London, Reunion Island off Africa, and, I forget where else, but all over. I trucked out my maps of South America and went over my Spinal Analogy theory of the Andean Cordillera. None had thought of it before, but felt that it was a very original theory. After lunch, I spent some hammock time talking to Daniel Medina-Guzman, a staff botanist, who is working there for the year.
Then, it was off in our motorboat to the trail leading into the park containing Lake Sandoval. This is the rainy season and though the day was dry, the clay roadway was not. It was a landmine field of mush in great big puddles that might have a thin border to support the feet, but often did not. Luckily, we had high rubber knee boots that often tended to mire down in the quickmud or threatened to slip out sideways and plop us, facedown, in the chocolate cake mix. Five kilometers, or roughly three miles, of this slippin´and a-slidin´….luckily without a pratfall….got us to the Miranda Property and their rustic cabin guesthouses. The next day, we only had to struggle through three kilometers of this goop on the way home, as we could canoe part of the way on the return.
I was assigned a large bed alone in a duplex-sort of a cabin, the other side of which was occupied by a limey and an irish guy. They were scanning their flashlight upwards to the thatch roof which was populated by a few palm-sized, black and hairy Tarantula spiders. “No way I´m staying in here for the night!” said the limey from London. But, where was he to go? Indeed, inside the large thatched dining house, the owner showed us several other fine, furry black Tarantulas and said that they never bothered anybody and were not aggressive. All live together in peace. I was thinking that they would probably take care of the big roaches that I had spotted in the cabin and anyway, if they accidentally fell from the ceiling, we had all that mosquito net tenting to keep them off of us. Not a problem, and indeed, we never thought another thing about it and I saw no more roaches, either, though I shook my clothes well before repacking my small overnight pack.
Johnny paddled a long wooden boat canoe with his group of one (me) around the edges of the lake several times. In the afternoon, in the dark of the night, at 5 a.m., and early afternoon before we left. We bagged many wildlife sightings, among which was the most unusual Hueztsong bird, which is thought to be a throwback to the dinasaurs. It´s a bird, but shaped like a chicken, rusty brown-orange and black, with a spiked crown of feathers running along the top of its neck and head, and it can´t fly too far, but manages in its tree condominiums back and forth above its nest. It huffs air out of its lungs and is very noisy. Its babies look like reptiles at first. They taste terrible so are not hunted – by anybody or anything.
In our night run, we had the unusual fun of catching the Cayman eyes with our flashlight beam, so we looked for billiant orange orbs under the vegetation at water´s edge or moving silently across the lake. Johnny could even tell the age and size of the animal by seeing their illuminated eye. This blinds that one eye momentarily, but since there are a number of tourists in boats with flashlights each night, any Cayman born there probably thinks it´s a normal bit of jungle business to get flashes in the eyeball early in the evening.
Then, there were the pirañas, which we saw in small pods when they went into a feeding frenzy during their fishing. Little black backs rose above the water in the white froth they stirred up. They were all over the lake, but Johnny said that Hollywood has overblown their reputation. If you stuck your hand down in the water, you would not come up with only bones. If you went swimming while bleeding, you very likely would feel their nibbles but they wouldn´t eat your flesh away. So, later that afternoon, when he suggested that I might like to swim in Lake Sandoval, I didn´t even think of these fish, just that it would be my only Amazon opportunity to get into the water and so I did. It was lovely.
Just as I have used these two rather famous animals for their sensation value, so have others before me; when the reality is that, in the danger department, these two are often no-shows. Don´t believe everything you hear!