The Jungle – part 2 (Xmas 2009)

I set off into the Amazon jungle partly for it’s mythic ulure, but mainly to have a fun Christmas with a bunch of adventurous travellers. I checked out the well known but pricey expedition organizer Explorama, but they didn’t have a group for me to join. I could have gone alone with them, but that would have been even more expensive. I checked out a couple more places and it was the same story – no sign of a group to tag along with. I went back to my hostel, the Hobo Hideout, where only two other guests were staying. It looked as though this Christmas would be lonelier than expected.

I joined the two other guests, both elderly Americans, and the owner of the hostel, Jimmy, for a beer. Jimmy had a slightly crazy, wide eyed stare. He lived for hunting and that’s what brought him from North America to the Amazon. He no longer entered the jungle for the novelty, he wanted to catch the biggest fishes and alligators. The hostel walls were covered with stuffed carcasses and skeletons of animals he’d caught.

Knowing that he also ran an expeditions agency, I told him of my plan. He said that he was keen to go back into the jungle and that he could take me. He showed me pictures from previous expeditions. Him holding a massive fish. “I don’t about what those other guys do, this is what I’m about!” He was a bit self absorbed and loved showing off his catches. He said to go with him would take at least 6 days. I hadn’t planned to spend that long and wasn’t sure about the hunting but since I didn’t have a better option I agreed. Later I googled Jimmy and found a story claiming he threatened to kill some native Peruvians (link). Yikes.

That evening I met another traveller who worked in London and, like me, couldn’t find anyone to go into the jungle with so had booked a solo trip with another agency. Too bad we didn’t meet the previous day.

The day of the trip arrived and I found Jimmy, wandering round the Hobo Hideout in only his shorts. He was angry and shouted about the boats not running today to where we’d planned. They wouldn’t run till after Christmas. I was angry because I could have found another expedition had I known. I didn’t want to hang around till after Christmas as I wanted to get back to Lima to celebrate the New Year. I set about town and found another agency. I would leave the following day to a different tributary of the Amazon. Just me and one guide.

I met Victor, my guide, the following morning. In his early 20s, he grew up in the Amazon in Brazil.

On the first boat journey my stomach was hurting badly. By the second journey I was hunched over in severe pain. Victor spotted a sloth in the top of a tree and stopped the boat. He climbed up the tree to lure it down. Although I wanted to see the sloth, I wanted more to get to the lodge and nurse my stomach in private. Here’s me straining to look happy:

The lodge was a basic wooden structure raised on stilts, there we met a young man who was our cook and helper.

I finally got to lie down. While I rested Victor and the cook needed to pop out to pick up a flashlight and some other supplies.

I stayed in bed until the sun went down. Thankfully my stomach pain went away and didn’t return for the rest of my time there. I got a slight thrill from being totally alone as the dusk light faded to blackness, replaced by the incessant high pitched vibrations of crickets, and other more alien noises. I walked around using my keyring light and imagined that Victor had been killed by pumas or something else, and thought about jungle based horror film scenarios.

The next day, we paddled up the river and went on a walk through the trees and bushes. Victor showed me some poisonous termites, and white termites which you can rub on yourself as mosquito repellent. A poison plant, and corresponding antidote plant. A poisonous tarantula. A bunch of plants and herbs which can be used to cure ailments. When I say ailments, I mean a bad stomach – it seems that anything non-poisonous can be used to cure a bad stomach, which usually gets better on its own anyway.

After this we went fishing, using a little wooden rod and bits of chicken skin to use as bait. I was pleasantly surprised to catch 2 pirhanas and a sardine, despite all containing only slightly more meat than the bait used to catch them. We cooked them and had them for dinner with pasta and tomato sauce, very nice. This was Christmas day.

When it got dark, we wandered round, getting bitten by mosquitoes and looking for the nocturnal animals. We found a scorpion and a bullfrog. Victor asked whether I wanted to eat the bullfrog tomorrow. I said no, since it’s an endangered animal. He replied “Thank you my friend. That’s the right answer!”.

With our flashlights, we paddled out. Well, not me, I just sat uselessly trying to coax an image from my camera in the darkness while Victor and our helper rowed through the mess of trees and bushes, hacking through them with a machete so the boat could pass.

We got to a calm clearing of still water, where hundreds of fireflies darted about the reeds and water lilies and where camen, or alligators, were lurking.

The first camen they caught was a couple of feet long. I held it clasping the jaw really tightly between my finger and thumb like I was told. When they put it back in the water it just sank. I thought it was dead but Victor assured me it wasn’t, and also that next time I shouldn’t hold the jaw quite so tightly. Man, it looked like I killed an endangered animal after all. (The next day we came back to them same spot and found the first camen floating, dead. I was happy to hear that apparently it wasn’t my fault but the fault of our helper, who caught it by spearing it in the belly instead of the tail.)

The second camen they caught was slightly bigger. I held it, but clasping the jaw slightly looser this time. It slipped out onto the boat. Victor and I frantically kicked down at it. At this point I didn’t really care that it was an endangered animal, in fact I was actively endangering it. We kept kicking and trapped it between our boots so Victor could pick it up. Thankfully it was fine and he offered it to me again but I’d done enough terrorising so we let it go.

That night we slept away from the lodge in hammocks and mosquito nets.

On Boxing Day we swam with dolphins, or more accurately, swam in murky water in the vicinity of dolphins. Victor was shocked by the state of my back. He took a picture and showed it to me.

Although itchy, it didn’t feel half as bad as it looked. I imagine it was mosquitoes biting through my t-shirt.

An English couple from Bromley turned up at the lodge. They keep pet snakes, give talks to kids about snakes, dream of owning a snake shop, and were in the jungle looking for snakes. Basically, they like snakes. They’d been on three or four expeditions previously and hadn’t yet seen one in the wild so were really hoping to here. I told them I’d seen one that morning, it was cool but I’m sure they would have got more of a kick out of it. Happily they found a similar one that day.

We ate together and all had a beer afterwards which was when the snake couple’s guide, Ricardo, told his story. It started with “do you all know what bestiality means?”

…to be continued


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