swingin' in the amazon

iquitos, peru

white puffy, cotton candy cumulus clouds blowing over the muddy brown horizon. with portentous gray underbellies, promising or threatening, rain, depending on how you look at it. but rain it will be. at least a few times a day. in iquitos, peru. northeast, far over the andes, up towards the colombia and brazilian borders. where you can find the source of el grande rio amazonas, take a river boat - or raft for that matter - and float down the great waterway of south america - and in 19 days - reach the atlantic ocean 3000 miles away. no roads here connecting the villages. too much inland water. too many tributaries. too many other rivers feeding the great amazon. just boats. river busses. barges toting tons of felled giant trees. heading towards the sawmills, the lust and greed of international industry. and local need. the great amazon river. and jungle.

wati and i are on the budget jungle tour. we still have the english speaking guide and the green mosquito nets in our rustic jungle cabins. we've rented the knee high rubber boots for the mud, and at least i'm employing the 2 cans and one plastic container of insect repellent i've toted from “the travel medicine shoppe” in beverly hills. wati doesn't like the smell, and like a stubborn child refuses to apply the trendy, stinky, but effective gop. what the hell is she thinking? the point is the mosquitoes don't like it either. but no, she swings freely in her hammock, in some private jungle idaho of her mind, not here in the real and sweltering amazon, thinking miss indonesian village girl doesn't need any middle class mosquito spray or cream. but guess who's scratching and whining now? not middle class nature boy, who doesn't have a bite to report. nosiree. but miss indonesian princess, speckled and eaten by the rapacious and indiscriminate jungle fiends. nope, those damn insects don't discriminate by color, or caste, or geography, or age. just blood, baby. just blood.

so we're speed boating down river, passing all the aforementioned local transport, looking for the female-gray and male-pink fresh water dolphins. every minute or two a mostly gray, graceful leap half out of water elicits a gasp from the eager tourists. but i'm more interested in tossing myself into the muddy mix. my fellow touristos think perhaps i have a touch of jungle fever, but ernesto, our guide, assures me that the amazon is safe here and i won't contract any unpleasant skin funguses, so heeding my knowledgeable guide instead of my fellow fearful compadres, i strip down and heave myself off the boat. it's... wet. it's... the amazon. trying to keep my mouth closed underwater, i frolic along with my gray and pink mammalian amigos and pull myself back on the boat, much to wati's displeasure. (she doesn't much approve of the combination my spontaneity, cultural ignorance, and hard headedness).

but soon we're docked in the mud along the banks of the river to visit a local family, whose breadwinner is a local animal collector. i make my way behind the nearest hut to change out of my wet suit, and after exposing myself to the gaping children, i discover that everyone's gathered around the hut to watch the show. not me - but the snakes. yes, i've positioned myself right behind the snake hut, and everyone has a good laugh at my expense when i discover an ambient tail undulating out of the hut in my direction. ever the clown, i run back to my log seat to join the audience. it seems our host has pulled a variety of oddities from the local banks and trees, including various varieties of boa constrictors, anacondas, 3 toed sloths (masked like jungle bandits), fat black tapirs, baby caymans (alligators), and muchos jungle turtles, including a prehistoric version with a bearded, flat head, called a "mata mata".

playing along, i am volunteered to handle each of the beasts, including the anaconda (or is it the constrictor?) around my neck. i've forgotten how odious a live snake smells, and for the rest of the afternoon, i am repelled by the stink of my own neck. we make it to the first jungle lodge where we are given our standard welcome drink, evening night walk itinerary, and feeding program (are we the animals in the jungle to these locals? or just their meal tickets?), & we're shown to our rooms. not bad at all. the green mosquito netting doesn't have too many tears, and the giant tarantula up in the beams of our hut is at least masked from advancing by the ceiling netting. the cold water shower works, and the snake stink is vanquished.

the jungle sounds like an insect symphony immediately after dark, and whereas we see no giant mammals like we did in north borneo, it is still unique and impressive to be in the amazon jungle. loud. and beautiful. the next morning we trek an hour through the mud to a local village where it finally seems that the villagers haven't been called an hour before to get out of their jeans and into their tribal costumes. why? well first, there aren't any telephone lines - or seeming cell phones around - and second, the women and children are mostly naked. breast feeding in front of us, smearing red dye from jungle flowers on our faces as a welcome greeting, and posing guilelessly and generously for pictures, as our second guide, angel, explains the tribe's history, dating back to an unrecorded time, and eluding even the dominance of the pre-spanish incas. the chief puts on a spectacularly accurate blow gun exhibition with non-poisonous darts, we do our obligatory tribal dance with the natives, and afterwards we both trade and buy all the local crafts we can imagine fitting into our ever-expanding bags. a blowgun for a cap. a beaded necklace for a jacket. there is no monetary logic to the bartering. just improvised mutual exchange. nike for yaguas? sounds like a fair deal to me.

the next day we're swinging in another group of hammocks, having made our way down river another 70 kilometers to a more primitive camping site. no private baths. no clean bathing water (only the muddy brown amazon pumped into a shower tank). more rapacious insects. we motor our way through the rain, up the jungle tributaries, sometimes machete-ing our way through vine-covered gaps, winding our way through the darkening network of interconnected waterways, but it's all part of the flow. giant lily pads, the biggest in the world. white fisher kings, graceful egret-like birds, gliding over the water looking for dinner, sienna sunset over the jungle grasses. back to the campsite for fresh caught piranha, a floppy noodle from the pith of a palm tree, fried yucca, sweet potatoes, and a fresh lettuce, tomato, & onion salad, we've now thrown caution to the wind. eating hungrily, hoping our internal colonic folia have adapted to the local air and water.

in the morning i have one of those rare travel epiphanies that one is occasionally struck dumb by. as the rest of the tribe (4 other tourists) go on their morning jungle eco-walk, wati and i just chill (ok, not exactly chill), in our hammocks back at camp. as wati is collecting another torrent of bites, i'm feeling suddenly and unpredictably - one with the jungle. not greater or smaller than any of my insect army troops. or swimming piscean pescados in the rolling river. or simian swingers in the trees. or for that matter - than any of the taxi drivers, money changers, or touts back "home" in iquitos. or than any of the starving beggars in bombay, or the rapacious producers in hollywood. or than the flying ants, slithering snakes, homeless vets, suburban housewives, overweight americans, bombed out iraquis, angry frenchmen, smiling peruvians, beckoning ecuadorians -- it seems we are all the same. small and meaningless in the big steaming soup. me, my mind , my ego, my individuality - finally no more or less than anything else in the universe. a stone, a rock, a desert, a dessert. all the same. all part of the meaningless, or meaningful, mix, once again depending on how you look at it.

but it feels good. and freeing. and one of the rare moments and exquisite fruits of travel itself. losing oneself to the environment, to the jungle, to the wholeness of the planet. to the universe. to the atman. the bhrama. the totality-tundra-chi of it all.

entiende? comprende? understand?

si? bueno.

no? then just attribute it to the same jungle fever. or to this (ego)eccentric writer's fantasy and imagination indulging itself in the great amazon atman for just a moment in timelessness. and then -- back to iquitos. and then -- back to lima. and then -- up north along the desert coast of peru - to the playas (beaches) of ecuador... less than 3 weeks left...

hasta, nos amigos,

wati & i remain, feuding, loving, freezing, & sweating

in peru,

don enrique of el amazonia