Before I forget, and for the benefit of those who shall follow in our footsteps, we are staying here in Leticia at the Hotel Yurupary. It is a good hotel, with swimming pool and an excellent breakfast, even though a bit expensive. I chose it to give Annie a break, and want to believe that the four nights we spent here have had some cathartic effect on her. At least it is now only every other day that she threatens to take the plane to Los Angeles (a bit of an empty threat, because from here it would take a couple of days of very imaginative travel to reach an airport of the size to support flights to the US), and only once did she regaled the administration with some complaint about the “nasty little room” (the room is neither nasty nor little; it just happen to have a very hard bed and no hot water like everywhere else in subtropical areas).
But I divagate. Today we are starting our 2-day jungle adventure, with the Jorge and Miguel Jungle Explorations outfit, which operates out of the Hotel Divino Niño. Sounds a bit sketchy, and we plunked down a bit of money for this outing, but Annie liked the guys, who offer an alternative to the commercial tours. We were not picked up in a van, but had to walk to the port, where our expedition vessel was waiting, the unsinkable Titanic. The Titanic was a typical river canoe, with a shade canopy, a Styrofoam cooler as ancient as the jungle itself, an outboard motor with a very long shaft (I have seen the same outboard motors in China and Malaysia), and a smiling captain named Josué. He was the expert technical staff behind all our adventures, and truly we could not have hoped for more. The rest of the expeditionary force was composed by Miguel Mendoza (firstname.lastname@example.org) our young guide in his mid-thirties, and Joel Mendoza, a fifty-something supernumerary who came along for the ride and ending being an entertaining source of information about the jungle and its inhabitants. Both Miguel and Joel spoke good English, so Annie was a happy pup.
Well, the first thing we did was cross the Amazon into the Peruvian jungle, where we got lost inside a small estero or estuary tributary, which was going to be our home for the following two days. About a mile upstream we found a small Ticuna community, where we stopped to unload all the food (Miguel had gone shopping the previous afternoon) and become acquainted with the place where we were going to sleep. The Ticuna are “typical” of the inhabitants of the Amazon. They dress just like us, and enjoy turning the generator for a couple of hours in the evening so the family can enjoy the flat-screen TV, but they are true jungle people in that almost all they need for daily living I provided by the jungle, and they are happy in their semi-isolation. They live in stilt-houses, because every year during the rainy season (November to April) the river floods and their low jungle becomes a swamp in which you move from place to place by canoe. During the dry season, just like now, the river stage drops, the islands emerge from the water, and they resume their happy lives. At the height of the dry season (August to October) the river stage will drop so much that the estero will go dry, and then they will leave their boats at the edge of the Amazon, and trudge the mile through the jungle every day to fetch water and fish. We are delighted, because we have finally met the true inhabitants of the Amazon!
We were staying at the house of Doña Betty, who may be the mother-in-law of Miguel (but we were never sure of the relation). Both Miguel and Joel seemed to have lived here in the past, but again the details were vague. In any case, Joel took us around to visit the community, which extends for about half a mile along the shore of the estero. We visited the one room schoolhouse, and said hello to the professor and the kids (all 29 kids from all grades combined into one class!), and then went to the community store and community center, where Joel invited himself to the grilled fish that seems to be always cooking at the Ticuna houses. More than grilled it is smoked or turned into charcoal, and everyone is welcome to take a snack while visiting. For all we could tell kids move fluently from one house to the next, playing and browsing as they go through. They do have chores (like washing dishes or fetching stuff from the river with their tiny canoes, but have plenty of time for homework (which they like doing all huddled together, the younger ones learning from the older ones), play and mischief. They are a motley crew of ragamuffins, but their mothers work hard at keeping them scrubbed and wearing clean clothes (which with kids means that laundry seems to be a never ending activity of the womenfolk).
Back at the community center I had to pass on the offer to much on a small, broiled caiman’s head (you know I am really sick when I let such a unique opportunity pass), but got to play with one of the two little monkeys kept there.
On the way back we stopped to see a fellow use his chain saw (Husquevana, so they go for top of the line) to cut planks off a felled tree. The planks were close to what we would call 1-by-6, and he could cut them by eye, without ever varying the dimensions. Not all in one cut, but letting the saw “sink” by its own accord little by little. The planks are not for sale, but will be used inside the community to build the stilt houses, canoes (a group of two men can build a plank canoe in a day!), or the ubiquitous “bridges” that are used to connect different rooms in an elevated house.
Once we returned from our stroll, and just as we were starting to wonder if we were going to spend all day doing nothing, Miguel called us to the boat and we went on an expedition to spot sloths. To our untrained eyes the little animals were practically invisible, but they know the type of tree where sloths feed, and once you have located the tree it is relatively straightforward to look for the slow moving animals. Annie and I speculate that that particular tree must have some active drug, so the little fellows are stoned most of the time, not unlike the Australian koalas.
Back at the community I had to lay down in a hammock, and pretty quickly was profoundly asleep, trying to get rid of my stomach malaise. I missed lunch, which according to Annie was delicious (big words of praise coming from her). The sleep was very good to me, though, and prepared me for the afternoon walk through the jungle. Josué took us a couple of miles upstream, and there he left us, with Miguel and his machete, to walk back through the jungle. What a great trek! Miguel showed us the rubber tree, the poison tree (with a poisonous sap that is deadly if ingested or used in the tip of an arrow), the walking tree (which walks by the simple expedient of throwing out new roots in the direction it wants to go, and then letting the old roots die out), the water-producing vines (yes, we got to drink from them), the footprints of a jaguar, and all sorts of interesting birds, flowers, and edible fruits.
Back in the community our hammocks had already been prepared (with a clever “tent” of mosquito netting around them), and a tent had been provided by Joel in case we were not keen on the use of the hammock. Annie chose to be a ground dweller, but I right away signed up for one of the hammocks. Next we had to wait for supper to be ready, and in the meantime made the acquaintance of another group of “explorers” who were also going to be spending the night. Three nice Israeli young men, who had come to the jungle to fish, hunt, and drink beer. Supper was a delicious spaghetti with fish, which we all enjoyed very much. Doña Betty is a superb cook!
For the evening adventure Miguel and I went for a short night walk to look at tarantulas, and then Annie and I boarded the Titanic to go for a caiman hunt (caiman in Spanish, alligator in English, and yacaré in Poutuguese). The technique is in theory simple: You shine your light against the banks, and the caiman eyes shine back bright red (not as easy to spot as it sounds). We went for quite some distance before spotting any, but once Miguel warmed up he would shake his light, the captain would cut the engine and head for the bank, and Miguel would dip his had in the water to catch the animal. He got three in close succession, from small (1 foot) to large (2 foot), and we were suitably amazed. Ah, but he had to try it one time too many. The fourth was the only one for which I saw the red eyes, we cut into the bank, Miguel leaned forward, and with a shout to back up threw himself backwards into the boat. . . A large, 9-foot gator splashed into the water, giving us the fright of a lifetime!
We were laughing so hard when we got back to the house and sought our “beds”. The Israeli boys were already in their hammocks, Annie took possession of the tent, and the kids slept around her, under a big canopy of mosquito netting, when all of a sudden a roar was heard inside the house. Everybody jumped up . . . everybody, that is, except Annie, who calmly explained to them that it was not a jaguar in the house, but her Honey snoring. Then followed a few hours of torture, where nobody was able to sleep. Apparently the hammock position was most conducive to me snoring particularly loudly, and every time people started to doze I woke them up. Annie and the kids made a game of it and were giggling their heads off. Miguel was holding his head in his hands in despair, and the Israeli boys were begging Annie to make it stop. She told them that she normally pokes me and says Honey, and that sometimes that helps, so there is Joel poking me gently, and the Israeli boys singing Haonnie in chorus, but alas to no avail. It was a hard night for one and all, except for me. I slept like a baby!