Friday, November 18, 2011

Pacaya Samiria The Real Amazon


The canoe looked like nothing more than half a tree trunk carved out. The slightest movement could capsize it. Yet three tourists and three days worth of camping supplies could fit, bracketed by two local guides who rowed through the Samiria river. All you could hear was the paddle parting brown water and the screeches of parakeets and parrots. The paucats, curious yellow-bellied birds, were the noisiest. The females industriously build nests from long strands of straw and guard their eggs inside these hive-like sacs. The male paucats cheerlead on the side by gossiping and singing. What else did we see? A sloth slowly chewing, reaching, picking a leaf, bringing it back to its mouth. A lot of blue martin kingfishers with their long fisherman beaks. Capuchin monkeys, a white-faced tamarind. An elegant black-spotted white heron who could have been at the center of a Japanese painting.

Our guides Marcial and Maria whipped up full meals, spaghetti and fried eggs, over nothing but a woodfire. Marcial especially was a hardcore Amazonian man. Soft-spoken and shy, he turned out to be deadly to river fish. After sunset, he took us out in the canoe: river and trees might as well have been one, so solid was the black sheet of night. The only light came from his headlamp, sweeping the waters for dormant fish. With one hand on the paddle, his other hand stabbed into the water with a three-spronged spear. A few seconds of bubbling and splashing later, his spear brought up a flapping fish. He must have caught at least eight them and hardly ever missed.
Suddenly, something heavy and wet jumped straight into my lap and started flapping up and down between my thighs. The city girl in me screamed, the wannabe adventurer in me tried not to flip the canoe mid-freakout. Apparently, the fish here often jump out of the water to escape predators. Too bad they're completely blind and land on people in boats. Only when my brave friend sitting at the front of the canoe punched the fish in the head with his fist did the flapping stop and my screams. The next morning, I had the same fish for breakfast.

Where we slept was an open-air wooden house of sorts, balanced over stilts. At first we were excited but having a room to ourselves with platforms and thin mattresses. But when darkness arrived, so did the cockroaches. The lack of electricity meant it took us awhile before noticing. A flashlight and candle were our only source of light.  It started with the one on the table, almost scampering into my journal. Then there were the ones on the walls, the floor, the doorframe, on our backpacks, inside our jackets. Giant Amazonian roaches the size of my palm that stood up on their legs. When my friend was about to hang up a bag of food on a nail, she suddenly realized that the nail was actually a cockroach. By the time we came back from fishing, that plastic bag was dripping in roaches. Marcial indulged us pansy foreigners by killing a dozen of them. Right after, another dozen arrived. Along with twin giant gray spiders half the size of my face. That first night, I did not sleep a single second. By the following night, I was so exhausted I told the roaches to all go to hell and slept like a rock.
We went piranha-fishing the next day with pieces of fish as bait but they were too smart for us. Marcial told us about a British tourist who once got half his forefinger bitten off by a piranha and I quickly withdrew my fingers that were streaming in the water. We left the water for a hike where the path was barely discernible through all the vines and shrubs. The tangles onshore are even more dramatic inside the forest. We came across a 500-year old tree, the oldest tree in the park. Its roots could have encompassed rooms. Several roots seemed to rise out of the ground as if standing on tiptoe. I wonder if it was the earth that sunk or the roots that yearned for light. The path started getting very muddy. My whole foot would get sucked into these puddles. Marcial used his machete to clear the path and to fashion us staffs as we climbed and balanced on slippery logs.The mosquitos were a super breed, piercing through repellent and cloth to get a taste of me.

The jungle or "selva" is a web with every leaf, wing and fish scale connected. Vines are the threads that build it. Even trees and roots mimick their shapes, curving and twisting amongst each other in a chaotic interdependence, so unlike the predictably straight trunks of pine forests, maples of the North. Each vine thread leads to a clumb of roots, like messy tassels, that dangle above the water or spread and disentangle within it. On our way out of the park, the last inhabitant we saw was a furry river otter bobbing up and down, calling out to a hidden friend on the shore. I wanted to think that it was talking to me. I wanted to think that within the last few days, I too had become a thread in the intricately woven and chaotically beautiful selva.