Saturday, 24 August 2013

Welcome To The Jungle

My adventure in the Amazon

“Just leave me” I managed to moan. From my vantage point, all I could see were bare feet pacing the ground in front of my face and... what looked like a wild boar staring me down from beneath a tree in the distance.

“Agua” the guide shouted. “Agua”. My one remaining brain cell asked, what guide enters the jungle without water? Here I was five thousand miles from home, flat on my back in the Amazon, certain I was about to die. I would be eaten by lions, or worse by that bloody hog glaring at me. Who dies from a bucket list experience? A headline flashed through my aching cortex. ‘Canadian girl dies of alcohol poisoning in the Amazon Jungle’.

I had packed water for this expedition but clumsily managed to break the bottle getting onto the tiny raft. It never dawned on me that neither the man maneuvering the raft or the guide taking me inland wouldn't have water.

Understandably, this morning I was a little rough around the edges. The night before I had forgone sleep; not intentionally but let’s just say I was enjoying myself way too much. “I can sleep when I’m dead” I remember saying, glancing at my watch reading 4:00AM. Why travel if you’re not going to submerge yourself in the local culture? That was the whole idea. So when I left the ‘boteco’ at 5:00AM I had only enough time to pack a few items before heading to the water’s edge to meet my guide at 6:00. Note: The South American botecos (bars) serve a little differently than here in Canada. Instead of ordering your drinks and running a tab, the bottle of your pleasure is ceremoniously presented to your table and left there. A marker is then swept across the bottle indicating the level. When checking out, the waiter measures your bottle consumption and charges you accordingly. It’s a money-maker for the bar and just too damn tempting when your glass is always empty and the bottle is right in front of you. Suffice to say that there was nothing left to measure. Sure I’d generously shared, but Jack Daniels and I bonded.

I’d waited all week for this trek. Heck I’d waited years to see South America. Number five on my bucket list. As well as tour various regions, I had lined up a couple experiences. One was to mine semi-precious gems. To any collector, Brazil is a gem cornucopia - amethyst, emerald, topaz, aquamarine and countless other. And of course I wanted to experience the wilds of the Amazon river and the jungle, particularly to meet up with a rainforest tribe who would teach me how to hunt various plants and seeds that produced natural color and paint-like pigments.

The raft up the Amazon was an eye opener, even in my half awake state. I’d glanced at my guide’s knapsack several times intending to ask for water but was continuously sidetracked by everything around me. The Amazon is the wildest river in the world and as we snaked in and out of narrow tributaries, we floated past hundreds of different birds; Parrots in the wild. Insects of such vivid color skimmed atop the water. A school of piranha swam by, not all that big for their fierce reputation. A very large black and foul smelling vulture stood upon a fallen stump; head, neck and claws caked in who knows what, but it smelled like death. It’s legs bigger than my arms and its eyes piercing red. Small monkeys scurried among the treetops or hung from branches screaming at us as we slowly drifted by. Even an anaconda half buried in a mudflat lazily peeked out at us. Yes, this is exactly how I envisioned it. Everything was so alive... but what really fascinated me were the enormous, lime green water Lilies; eight feet across and supposedly capable of holding 136kg or almost 300 lbs. It appeared as though one could hop from one pad to another, but with what surely lurked beneath these giant shelters, I wasn't about to jump on one and find out. “Later, we swim in natural pond with waterfall”, said my guide.

The sound of the jungle is something I could listen to all day. The mornings are best, but then the serenity of mid day when animals are napping is pure serenity. The nights – well about the closest I will get to spending a night in the jungle is through youtube.

After forty minutes we navigated closer to shore and disembarked. As my guide explained some of the dangers of the jungle, instructing me to stay close and not to wander, I began to feel ill. “Suck it up”, I said to myself. "You’ve come a long way for this adventure. Breathe. Drink some water". The forest was dense, hot and the pungent scent of trees, grasses and moss reached straight down into my gut. We weren't fifteen minutes into our hike and I knew I was going to be sick. And then - I blacked out.

I awoke to a very small man, wearing a very small G-string and a bare breasted woman hovering above me. I’m in a National Geographic nightmare I thought. “No aqua” I heard the woman say. I rolled onto my side to be sick again and watched the little man with machete between his teeth shimmy up a nearby tree, only to disappear into the canopy of a thick green cloud. Seconds later I heard the thud of something hit the ground and looked up hoping it wasn’t the little man. There he was coming toward me, carrying something, machete still in his mouth. He knelt beside me and summoned me to watch. He split what looked like a large nut. Digging his dirty fingers into the pulp, he scooped some into his mouth. I watched him make a sucking motion, his hand running down his throat indicating the juice. He spit the pulp on the ground. Suck-swallow-spit. He gouged another handful of pulp and shoved it into my dry mouth. They don’t call it jungle mouth for nothing. Cautiously I bit down on the bitter seeds, desperately holding down another heave while slowly letting the juice trickle down my throat. Spit. Again, he motioned and after three infusions and the help of the woman sitting beside me, I was sitting and smiling. The little man beamed, his two front teeth missing. “Magic!” I pointed to the nut. “Que?” “Cacao” said the woman. “Chocolate nut” said the guide. “Does Bayer know about this?" I asked. Nobody got the joke. Within minutes I was standing, revived and ready to continue on. I reached into my knapsack, bowed my head in thanks and handed the little man my Guns N’ Roses/Welcome To The Jungle t-shirt. Again, he gave me that wonderful toothless smile.

As we trekked deeper my guide informed me that we would soon stop to eat and the scent of smoke and something cooking wafted through my nostrils, reminding me that I was running on empty. Another small man (it seemed the deeper you ventured into the jungle, the smaller the people became), wearing only a loincloth appeared out of what seemed nowhere and enthusiastically shook our hands. He led us to a clearing where upon a makeshift grill lay the ugliest, charred, black fish I’d ever seen. Lunch? That fish may have been the most grotesque looking thing, but it was the tastiest fish I’d ever eaten. Coupled with platano (banana) I was now completely restored.

While licking my fingers of every last morsel of lunch, a small group of nearby villagers arrived and displayed in front of us an assortment of wares – exquisitely designed blankets, jewelry made of quills, red and black huayruro beads (seeds) and mescal beans. There was pottery, sacks of medicinal herbs and bark, beautiful hand woven mats and baskets – all color dyed from indigenous plants. Plants such as the vibrantly red-podded urucum, more commonly known as the lipstick tree. This plant’s seeds have traditionally been used for body paint and dyes for over 2000 years. The seed is also used to flavor foods and today you can find urucum fruit traces in soft drinks, popcorn, cheese and butter.

After purchasing herbs and jewelry I relaxed in the shade with a cup of camu camu juice before a refreshing swim in a nearby pond. As I floated on my back, hearing the small waterfall in the background, only then did I truly realize just how important the sustaining of our planet’s rainforests are. We are dependent on its entire biodiversity and as I write this something new is being discovered. Whether it’s a plant or bug that can be used medicinally, or a natural food additive or a fiber (rubber/latex) or even a new animal such as the ‘olinguito’ only discovered this year (2013) – these rainforests are our lungs and life blood.

After studying different plants and painting our faces in vibrant colors, we said goodbye to our new friends and began our journey back to the raft, stopping along the way to collect leaves, bark, seeds, hazel nuts and acai berries. There on the path ahead was the little man that had saved my life. His bare breasted companion behind him. I thanked them both again, thinking that I really should have given my t-shirt to the woman. As we waved a final goodbye I rummaged through my knapsack searching for something appropriate to leave with her. I could find nothing suitable except a tube of my favorite coral lipstick. I ran back, took out my mirror, applied the lipstick to my own lips and placed the tube and mirror in her hands. Her smile was as illuminating as that evening’s full moon, of which I witnessed before being lulled into a ten-hour dream where I floated down the river on my own giant lily pad. What a day. What a memory.

FunFact: Although when most of us think about the Amazon rainforest, we think of plants and animals, birds and snakes, fish and crocodile, but did you know that today, there are over thirty million people living inside the Amazon rainforest? Nearly three million indigenous people from over 300 different indigenous tribes, some sill living in isolation make it their home sweet home.