Monday, February 09, 2009

The Amazon

[I should add a disclaimer here that this is long. It is essentially my last summation of my Peru trip and covers 4 days of action packed adventure in the Amazon jungle. Read over time, skim it or skip it and just look at the slideshow at the bottom - but beware, that is pretty lengthy with over 200 photos. For those of you who are not my mother and are willing to slog through the whole thing, best of luck and thanks for reading.]

The last stop on our Peruvian itinerary was a stay at an eco-lodge in the Amazon jungle. When I began my initial investigation into Peru, I started with the NY Times travel section and stumbled onto this article about the desert and rain forest of Peru. I wanted to do both, but I also wanted to go to Machu Picchu so I discussed the options with my sister and pushed for the jungle. About five years ago I went to Costa Rica with some friends and had a few days on my own at the end of the trip. I ended up staying at an eco lodge in the rain forest and it was incredible so I convinced my sister we needed to try this. The article gave a glowing review to the Posada Amazonas so I looked into it - expecting it to be expensive. It wasn't. And we ended up booking a four day stay at the Refugio Amazonas, one of the three eco-lodges run by Rainforest Expeditions on the Tambopata River.

On the morning of January 2nd we flew from Cusco to Puerto Maldonado. Stepping off the airplane was a shock after the thin, cool mountain air of the Andes. The sky was a brilliant blue with high, white puffy clouds and the air was thick and heavy and despite the fact that it was not yet noon, the temperature had to be over 90 degrees. Erin had wisely prepped our clothes with her special clothing bug spray the night before but we used the time waiting for our luggage to appear to spritz on a bit more bug spray and slather on some sunscreen. The airport was small but unlike others of its kind I have encountered, this one did not just pull the trailer of luggage up for people to grab their stuff; the truck pulled up outside and a couple of guys loaded the luggage onto a conveyer belt that once inside had to jump up a lip to get on the circular baggage claim rack. Passengers waiting for their luggage turned into helpers as they shifted and jostled luggage that was not prepared to make the jump. Before we even had a chance to consider purchasing water or anything, our names were called and we met our guide - Jhin. I have no idea how he recognized us so quickly but we were happy to have our bags taken away from us and led to a mini-bus. Until we were left sitting on the mini-bus with its hot, stale air waiting for other passengers. The mini-bus filled up and we were off on our journey. But we didn't go too far before stopping at the Rainforest Expedition's main office to pass along our departure flight information, use the restroom, re-hydrate and reconfigure baggage. We didn't have a lot of baggage but for those who did, the main office offered to keep extra bags.

Back on the bus again we began chatting with our fellow passengers, most of whom were also just coming from Cusco and Machu Picchu. It was a fun and lively group from Ireland, Oakland, Minnesota, Boston and LA. Erin and I were seated near the back and made immediate friends with the couple from Oakland and a guy from Ireland and were disappointed to learn that they were headed to a different lodge than us. After an hour or so drive we stopped near the river and loaded into the canoe style boat. Despite posted signs indicating the approximate length of the journey, we all felt it was much longer than expected. We reached the first lodge after a couple of hours and lost the bulk of the passengers. Those remaining on the boat we soon got to know quite well: a retired couple from Minnesota, an engineer couple (they met at a math conference! I think nerd love is cute) from Boston (although the wife was French) and a father and daughter from LA (but the daughter is in school in Paris). The Minnesota couple were the most chatty on the boat and explained how they were arriving early for an Earth Watch expedition. I was fascinated as they explained how they were volunteering to assist researchers who were studying macaws. They would be in the jungle for 14+ days observing and counting baby macaws. Such a great program, right? I enthusiastically asked many, many questions and I believe Erin internally rolled her eyes at me for thinking this was something I could do. I will explain later.

Luckily our long boat ride was not only livened up by conversation but also by beautiful scenery, our first (and sadly, only) macaw clay lick observation, lunch, a brief thunderstorm, a harrowing rescue of a lost life vest and a few random stops - one which included signing a book and getting a passport stamp. Peru seemed very into stamping passports at tourist attractions - we had one at Machu Picchu and one entering the Manu Reserve jungle area. When we got out and were instructed to bring our passports, I expected to finally be asked for that yellow fever immunization card I carried around for no apparent reason. But no. They just wanted to put a colorful stamp in my passport. Not sure how the US government feels about these. I wonder if our national parks do this? Can I get a Yellowstone stamp or maybe Statue of Liberty? Maybe I could fill my passport more quickly if every country did this. In Europe, at least back was there ten years ago, they rarely stamped passports. In fact, my sister does not have a single stamp from her study abroad in Switzerland or any of the countries we visited when I picked her up at the end. I guess she would make a good spy.

Lunch was fantastic. We were each given a banana leaf tied up with some sort of vine string containing vegetarian fried rice. It was delicious. And in keeping with the eco friendly premise of an eco-lodge, the whole thing could be tossed over board (save the plastic fork) after eating for the piranhas to nibble at. Yes, allegedly there were piranhas in the Tambopata River but we never saw any. Not that I was looking. And not that you could see anything beyond the muddy red surface of the water. I suspect the water was so red because it was so swift. Despite its width, it moved much faster than expected and was obviously deep during this rainy season as there was no sign of a bank - the river just pushed up against the jungle trees which served as a dark green contrast to the bright red river with the brilliantly blue sky overhead. The colors were incredible.

Near the end of our journey, all of the passengers became a little impatient and cranky - and concerned about what time we will have to get up to make an 1130 am departure flight. We finally reached our destination just before dark around 6 pm. After a short walk through the muddy jungle up a number of stairs we came to a clearing and discovered our lodge with its thatched roof raised above the forest floor on stilts. Jhin showed us our first Brazil nut - which is the size of a coconut, did you know that? - and gave us a demonstration of how to crack it open with a machete before ushering us into the lodge. Oddly, I never ate any brazil nuts while we were there. We were greeted in the lodge with a refreshingly cold wash cloth and a glas of ice cold lemonade. I was immediately happy with the place.

After a brief orientation, we were given our room assignments and our bags arrived shortly afterwards. I loved the rooms. The entire lodge is on stilts - to prevent flooding during the heavy rains I am sure, and I'm guessing it probably helps keep various critters out as well. The guest rooms are branched off away from the lodge and connected by stilted walkways. Our room was a short walk away and we were between the Minnesota couple and the LA father/daughter. Our front door was a curtain and the room had three single beds and a private bathroom (again, no door, just a curtain). There is no power in the lodge so everything is lit by kerosene lamps or candles by the bedside or flashlights and headlamps brought from home. The room is very open and breezy but still felt private despite the fact that it only has three full walls and the ceiling is a high lofty one shared with the other rooms in the wing. Although, the rooms aren't exactly a great place for a private conversation given the thin walls and lack of shared ceiling. The fourth wall facing the jungle was half-height and allowed for an open and intimate view of the rain forest. Although, I must admit after reading about this feature in all of the literature I received before-hand, I was kind of hoping the jungle was closer. Probably only in theory because the 6-10 foot cleared buffer between our half-wall (and beds) and the trees probably kept the creepy crawlys at bay. I loved the sounds of the jungle. The birds and monkeys and insects and frogs all crying their individual songs are much louder than one might expect. So loud, in fact, that Erin struggled to sleep with everyone making such a racket. Erin was also a little less enthused about the novelty of sleeping half-outside and chose the inner-most bed while I selected the bed nearest the outdoors. Neither the sounds nor the threat of jungle critters disturbed my sleep.

That night at dinner we quickly fell into an easy rapport with our fellow guests upon discovering we had the place virtually to ourselves. While the lodge can hold 100+ guests, that night there were only 3-4 people other than our rowdy group of 8. We took full advantage and had lively dinner conversation filled with laughter. Erin and I were very happy with our guide Jhin and the father/daughter team we were paired with. Morgan and Tiffany were sarcastic and asked hilarious questions of our guide and had an entertaining dynamic between them. Morgan, the father, had not taken a true vacation in nearly twenty years while his 20-year old daughter had seemingly traveled the globe and back again - and stopped off for tatoos at every destination. We quickly learned not to make judgments based on first impressions because while I would have expected Tiffany - all gloomy and dressed in black with tatoos - to be sullen and irritable, she was hilarious. And Morgan cracked me up with his paranoid fears of anaconda, heights, jaguar and nearly every moving thing in the jungle. We were more frequently in trouble with our guide for our noisy laughter than anything.

That first night we met soon after dinner for our first jungle walk with Jhin. We each selected a pair of tall rubber wellies and a helmet and strapped our headlamps on top a la miners. In my haste to pack leanly, I ended up packing a bit too much on the lean side for this trip and ended up with a limited selection of clothing for my bottom half which included, in total: one pair convertible pants, on pair light rain pants, one pair capri pants, one pair heavy rain pants. Ideally, I should have had at least one more pair of pants in the mix that would have been suitable for traveling home but I failed to plan which meant I needed to try and keep the one pair of real (or closest thing I had packed to "real") pants clean for the journey home. Which meant, for all of our jungle time I had to wear the capris or light rain pants. Which worked fine, I guess. But a word to the wise about a trip into the jungle. It is hot. And humid. Hotter than you are imagining right now and yet more humid. Which sounds deliciously inviting sitting here in the middle of February but once you start tromping around in that climate, you are going to really want fabrics that breath. Because you will sweat. Throwing in my favorite sports bra at the last minute was one of the best things I packed for the rain forest, despite the fact I had packed it for the trekking portion of the trip. Those of us non-natives were strongly encouraged to wear long sleeves and long pants for jungle excursioins due to the fact that everything in the jungle bites. The clothing spray and the extra bug spray helped but my wrists still endured many bites. Erin packed the best shirt - a light weight white anti-sweat stain, if you can believe it, shirt she bought at REI which I thought always made her look fresh and clean. I generally looked and felt like a sweaty mess. That is my excuse for the photos.....

But back to the frog hike. Our expectations were blown away that first night. At one point as we sloshed along through water that threatened to reach the top of our wellies, Erin whispered to me that she felt like we were on a show on the Discovery channel. And that about sums it up. As our guide effortlessly (and almost noiselessly) slid through the muddy path in search of frogs, we sloshed and squished and crackled and stumbled our way after him in the dark, splashing water and struggling to keep our balance. Ever so often Jhin would pause and to listen to the jungle and then miraculously located a tiny frog for us to ooh and aah over. My boots kept me dry but shortly after I voiced my concern over a fear of leaky boots, as we stood at maximum depth, both Erin and Tiffany complained of slow leaks in their wellys. After my first pitiful attempt at capturing a frog on my camera, Jhin threw in a free photography tutorial and took my camera from me and started pushing buttons and making adjustments and then presented me with this stunning photo:

Never in a million years did I think my camera could produce such a photo. Oh, maybe because in my hands - even though I swore I didn't touch anything - it couldn't. I was constantly taking blurrly photos of frogs and passing my camera back to Jhin to fix and take another spectacular photo. Except for that part where I had apparently zoomed (a huge no, no!) and no one could get a decent non-blurry photo. But even with the proper settings I kept getting all shaky and messing up the pictures. But never fear! Between my sister and me we got a startlingly large number of beautiful frog photos which I had a difficult time weeding down so the slideshow has a lot of frogs. Just so you are warned. We retired to our mosquito netted beds at only 930 after quick cold showers to rinse off the jungle gunk. While I was in the bathroom brushing my teeth I saw one more frog - a laughing frog - perched on the shelf next to the kerosene lantern. I have a tendency to wander around while brushing my teeth and when I returned to the bathroom, the frog had disappeared. But not for long. Immediately after I finished spitting and rinsing in the sink, his cute little head popped out of the drain!

Our group opted for the late start - much to Jhin's dismay - with a 730 am breakfast despite our early retirement. This was vacation after all. I slept soundly all through the night and did not budge until - prior to my alarm sounding - I awoke to find my sister standing over my bed, towel piled atop her head indicating she had already showered. Since I was the time keeper of our team, Erin was concerned about how late I was sleeping. It was barely after 6 am. Apparently the early rising birds and monkeys and frogs roused Erin pretty early. She also claimed it had rained in the night. I did not hear a thing.

Shortly after breakfast, on day 2 in the jungle, we donned our jungle attire and set off after our guide down the muddy paths. I was the first to get in trouble. Jhin gestured for us to be quiet and whispered to me "monkeys" and nodded toward the trees as he raised his binoculars. Following his quiet lead I turned to the other three in our group behind me and gestured to be quiet and pointed into the trees. The monkeys stopped cackling and soon vanished. Apparently, they do not like rude tourists pointing at them. I had no idea.

We continued our walk until we reached a large tower of stairs. Erin grew nervous. She knew the canopy tower was on the agenda but seeing it rise up above the top of the jungle was a little daunting. But she wasn't the only one afraid of heights - Morgan grew nervous as well. But we bolstered their confidence and everyone climbed the 13 or so flights of stairs for the staggering view of the jungle below. It was breathtaking. Jhin hauled a telescope up to the top and focused the lens on a couple of different toucans - beautiful! - and we watched pairs of macaws and other birds soar and swoop above the jungle.

Back on the jungle floor Jhin pointed out fascinating details and took advantage of our eagerness by making us sniff trees and chew on random leaves that numbed our mouths. At one point while we were walking I heard what can only be described as a jumbo jet of bugs hovering somewhere around my ear. Erin must have seen the look on my face because, without prompting, she said "it's as big as it sounds." I chose not to turn to try and catch a glimpse of the jumbo jet.

I did, however, stoop down for a closer look at the ants. The hundreds of thousands of millions of ants that were forever working all over the jungle floor. There were points where their well-worn super-path of industry intersected with our jungle trail and from over five feet up, it appeared that the trail was fluttering along on its own. The ants blended in with the red clay but the bits and scraps of debris and leaves they carried on their backs fluttered above them in contrasting greens, yellows and varying shades of brown. It was fascinating. And all too easy to imagine these crazy workers pulling together to overpower a person and cart them away to their lair. Here is a creepy close-up:

We spent part of the morning on a boat rowed by Jhin across a stagnant lake that Jhin explained had once been condemned. He explained that an entire village of natives was once killed near by and as a result legend kept people away. It was so hot and we were all pretty tired from traipsing through the jungle that we just nodded and didn't really let the story sink in too much. But then Jhin tried to tell us that the piranhas in the lake were vegetarian. Morgan never got over this one. At that point we decided Jhin thinks we are completely gullible and will believe anything he tells us. Which we kind of did.

After tromping around the forest on the other side of the lake, we were all very much ready for lunch and were disappointed when we discovered we had to not only get back in the boat on the hot windless water, but we had the long hike back to the lodge standing between us and lunch at 1 pm. Back in the boat I pulled out my trail mix and offered it around. Jhin took one tiny little dried raspberry and made a face once my back was turned. He was much happier when I picked out m&ms for him as he was a crazed chocoholic.

Lunch finally came and we were able to eat and relax before our next excursion: a local farm. I don't think any of us were very excited about this trip because we did not know what to expect and Jhin liked keeping us in suspense on the details. We saw bananas and star fruit and crazy huge spider webs and sampled fruit we had never heard of before - honestly, what is leaping toad fruit? Is that even its real name or was this another trick our guide pulled on us? It must have some other name because google doesn't recognize leaping toad as a fruit.

When we returned to the lodge we were disappointed to discover a rather large group of people had joined us and were threatening to take over "our" lodge. Especially disconcerting was the fact that I was unable to take a shower before dinner since while Erin complained she only got a few drops of water - I had none. Sure, I took a shower before lunch but I really needed another before I was willing to present myself at the dinner table. But I was forced to make do with a few wet wipes and fresh clothes. Our group was lively and animated over dinner as we compared notes with our Earth Watch friends - the Minnesota and Boston couples. Heretofore, the Boston couple had been fairly quiet and we didn't really even know their names yet, which made it difficult for me to enquire as to where the husband half of the couple was over dinner after I noticed he was missing a second meal and had missed their afternoon excursion climbing trees (I really wish I could have climbed trees by the way, it looked really fun!). Claire, in her dainty French accent, responded curtly to our inquiry with an off-handed "I have keeled him" and turned back to her dinner. We all laughed and waited for further explanation that never came . . . luckily he did turn up later and was probably just not taking to the jungle heat or food too well.

After dinner we were supposed to go caiman hunting. Unfortunately - or fortunately - the water was too high or something like that for us to go. While I am disappointed that I never saw any of these supposedly "miniature" alligators in the dark jungle. Especially since further research has revealed they are not actually miniature. Instead, we decided to continue a game of Hearts we had started before dinner. I should back up a bit and explain a funny little side drama that started with our territorial possessiveness over having new people show up at our lodge and was escalated over some bizarre antics that played out over a power strip.

As I have explained, the lodge does not have power. The lodge does, however turn a generator on for a few short hours around dinner time and during that time they provide a power strip for charging essential electronics - like camera batteries. Knowing we were heading into the jungle with zero power, Erin and I used every outlet in our hotel in Cusco we could find to charge ipods and cell phones and blackberries and camera batteries and whatever else we might need. I had two camera batteries but was only able to charge one and unfortunately it turned out to be the older one that does not hold a charge very long. By the end of that second day without charging I needed to charge at least one battery so prior to dinner I brought my charger down to plug in. And I walked into a mess. Our friends also had a few items to charge but the charger only had room for one more item so we agreed to keep an eye on them and swap out. But apparently the new people did not get the memo about the no power thing and decided to descend upon the power strip and claim it as their own to charge everything they owned using bulky converter plugs that blocked other available plugs. Ugh. It was a mess. At one point while dinner was still finishing up I walked over to the charger to check on the progress of my battery because I didn't want it to stay plugged in longer than necessary. Morgan walked over with me to check on one of his things to see if we could swap things around. As we were surveying the mess, I - far too loudly - scoffed "why would anyone charge their cell phone when there isn't even a signal up here?" Of course, of course! the owner of said cell phone had snuck up behind me like in a bad sitcom and quietly and humorlessly remarked "as a matter of fact I use my mobile as an alarm." I tried to laugh this off and joke around with the guy by way of an apology while he peered over my shoulder at what was happening at the power strip but he stood stoic and unmoved. He also hovered over the power strip the rest of the evening monitoring everyone's actions. It was ridiculous. Later when I walked back to check on my battery some other guy was standing there holding my charger in his hand! I pointed at it and before I could say anything he said "is this yours? the light was green." I was irritated. He had already taken the spot I was saving for a member of my group but rather than stir up more drama, I took my charger and walked back to the table where my group was lingering after dinner. There were a few people who seemed fine enough in this new group but a couple of bad seeds were really ruining our impressions of them.

And the "dudes" or "bros" as Tiffany called them didn't help. They were probably not bad guys but they just seemed so frat boy-ish they felt awkward hanging around the lodge, hovering just beyond our perimeter, clearly wanting to join us but not brave enough to say anything and we were content enough with ourselves not to reach out. Which sounds more calculated and rude than it was. We just really got along and were enjoying fun conversation and card playing into the later hours of the evening. In fact, we stayed up late enough that someone had already gone around and snuffed out all the lanterns which was fairly troubling since none of us had bothered bringing our flashlights to dinner with us. Oh, and it had started to rain. Which meant, we had an exhilerating run through the rain along the hardwood raised path back to our room in the pitch black darkness. I remember running on the slick planks of wood in my tevas with my hands spread out wide so that my fingers skimmed the surface of the railing on either side of me so I would know when I reached the T and not run right off the stairs and onto the muddy jungle floor. My eyes couldn't adjust because there was no contrast - just black upon black upon black. We snickered and tried to be quiet as our feet slapped against the wood and I tried to make out the shapes of the others following more cautiously behind me.

Once again, I slept well that night.

On Day 3 we were instructed to attend the early 630 am breakfast if it was not raining and to sleep in for the 730 breakfast if it was raining. Unfortunately we woke to the sound of heavy rain that dampened almost all the other jungle noises - save the frogs - as the monkeys and birds slept in as well. We all lingered over breakfast as the rain poured down around us and the temperature dropped and dropped and we tossed out ideas for rainy day entertainment. While I almost always travel with cards - and rarely end up using them - this trip they were left home and the deck we had borrowed from the bar the night before had already been claimed by the newbies.

We were disappointed to be missing our walk to the macaw clay lick so Jhin pulled out some videos on macaws and had the generator turned on for a couple of screenings - ironically negating the need for the previous night's "power" struggle (heehee!). After watching about 45 seconds of one documentary with the bizarre commentary of an overly enthusiastic newby (because on Day 3 we were soooo much more experienced in the ways of the jungle), I called it quits on the movie watching and began wandering the lodge in search of something to do. I tried reading in a hammock but ended up just chatting with an extremely low-key Australian guy who I only ever saw dressed in a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and what can only be described as hippy pajama bottoms. You know you have seen these pants before on stoned dudes at concerts, on dirty vagabond travelers in train stations around the world, on an unwitting returned missionary recently back from a two-year stint in South America. Sure, they look comfortable but that is all that can be said about them. Of course the guy was super nice. And mellow. He had been traveling in Africa for a month before recently coming to Australia. How he had the time or money for this trip, I have no idea but he certainly didn't let the rain get to him. We later saw him in the airport leaving Puerto Maldonado in his uniform and flip-flops. The only thing he was carrying was a small plastic bag that could not have held more than a beverage and a book. Yet somehow, when he got off the plane in Cusco and waved farewell, he had acquired a long-sleeve shirt. Had it somehow been stuffed in the tiny plastic bag or was Erin correct in guessing he bummed it off a fellow-traveler when he realized that Cusco is significantly cooler than the jungle? I guess we'll never know. But I suspect this guy is still wandering around South America somewhere with his plastic bag and money belt under his shirt.

Despite a decent conversation with the mellow Aussie, the option of a good book and a notebook to write in, it didn't take me long to get stir crazy. While I believe in some down time on vacation, I felt I had had enough relaxing and was ready for more adventure, thank you very much. So I occupied myself with photographing the lodge. Drinking hot chocolate and getting to know people better. And I learned a lot. For example, I learned that although the Minnesota couple seemed fairly nice and normal, they were a bit nuts. The wife brought something up about drinking or noted that I wasn't drinking and pressed me as to why I abstained. After I divulged my religious affiliation she pointed accusingly at her husband and exclaimed that his sister is Mormon and she is a piece of work . . . with a hurried "not because she's Mormon" disclaimer afterwards. She then went on an unprovoked rant about all the kids this sister-in-law had as I stood there trying to figure out how to get out of the conversation politely, not in the mood for arguing. Then the woman turned to her zero population growth theories which I really did not want to argue with her about but could not just let slide. I mean, honestly, I thought zero population growth was a late 80s/early 90s thing that has fallen out of favor now that Europe is encountering so many population issues after having many of its citizens ascribe to this zero population growth theory. She conceded that maybe smart, well-educated people should have kids or everyone may end up dumb (uh, yeah, a very elitist and classist concession if you ask me) but I needed an exit from this conversation. I realized this was the reason for her odd tone when she explained away that her husband had two duaghters who she raised but she didn't have any kids. Unfortunately, not long after I extracted myself from that conversation by searching out more hot chocolate, I landed in another - not as irritating in substance - discussion with the husband. I have no idea what we were talking about, all I know is the conversation went on too long and I grew weary of it. I really needed a new distraction and Erin was occupied with her new BFF Tiffany. Those girls hit it off surprisingly well and soon had their own inside jokes.

Still bored, I signed up for a massage before lunch. I had low expectations for my brazil nut something, something massage but it was cheap so I decided to give it a try. The massage room was located right off the lobby and next to the walkway to our wing of rooms. It was private in the same way everything else was private in that it had curtains for a door but instead of walls, there were curtains surrounding the room, which isn't so bad when the wind is calm but . . . a simple breeze makes the curtains dance around quite a bit. Now, I am used to massages where you have to strip down and crawl under a sheet. I didn't really have an issue with this. It was a little odd to me though when I walked in and the woman simply held out a basket for me. Through gestures and simple words I asked if she wanted my clothes in there and she nodded and did not move. She did not leave the room and she did not turn her back. She just stood there encouragingly. Ok then. I stripped everything off until I was just in my sports bra and panties and paused and she gestured for the sports bra to come off as well so I wrestled that off over my head as she stood there collecting everything in her basket and I crawled under the sheet before she could direct me to remove anything else. With the curtains billowing in and her staring, I need to keep something on. The massage was what I needed to finally relax and by the end I think I even fell asleep. That is until the lunch bell rang and I realized the massage was over and the woman was just standing next to me. She stepped out of the room as I got dressed and tried to decide which way to face that would expose me the least as the curtains billowed inward and people shuffled by outside on their way to lunch.

By the time we finished lunch, the rain had stopped and Jhin announced we were taking a walk to the mammal clay lick. We were anxious to get out and excited at the prospect of seeing larger animals. As we were preparing for our afternoon walk, some of the other groups were trying on wellies in preparation for their first jungle tour. We soon discovered that our little pretend rivalry with the newcomers was not the only tension in the lodge. I had noticed one of the new guides at dinner the night before as he was tall and thin and attractive. He was also very neatly and cleanly dressed. At lunch he had spoken to me briefly and had that arrogant manner that screamed machismo - this guy thought he was the best and was doing me a favor by talking to me. Ugh. As we put on our helmets to head into the jungle, Rico Suave, as I named him, started harassing Jhin about our silly hemets and the fact that Jhin was carrying a machete. There was clearly a rivalry between the two and we realized the intensity of the rivalry when Jhin looked at Rico Suave and said "You are an ass hole" in his delightful Spanish accent. It was hilarious. Jhin later confessed that he meant to say it in Spanish. We joked about it the rest of the trip.

By this point in the trip, we were all so comfortable together and I was in such a good and relaxed mood I was singing made up little songs along the way and everyone was teasing each other. We had really jelled as a group. And when Erin pulled out her video camera I frequently performed little dances for her to grab her attention as we trudged through the mud and carnage from the storm. I had a lot of pent up energy. Which was not exactly good for this particular excursion. After a not too long walk, we reached the little camouflaged hut up on stilts where we were to hide and wait for animals to come lick the clay.

Despite the fact that I had insisted to Erin earlier on that I would love to do one of the Earth Watch trips like the one our fellow travelers were signed up for, she did not think I had the patience for it. I argued that maybe when I was older and retired it would be good for me. However, sitting on a hard plank bench and staring out this little slit of a window down at the jungle floor where nothing happened, I realized I could not do it. I lasted about 45 minutes of silent sitting before I got completely restless. About that time Jhin got up and wandered out of the hut. When he was out of sight Morgan nearly panicked. Had we been abandoned? How would we find our way back? It was actually very funny because Jhin had just told us about the panthers that wandered the jungle and then disappeared. I was pretty sure we would not be encountering any panthers and I was likewise pretty confident Jhin just needed a pee break but it was funny how we all immediately started talking and confessed our boredom as soon as Jhin left. I broke out some snacks and we chatted for a while when Jhin returned about the different jungle animals. At some point the conversation turned toward what I referred to as "my babies." On the first morning in the jungle I had discovered an odd swelling on my left elbow. I assumed it was some sort of bug bite but it didn't look or act like a mosquito bite so I didn't really know what it was. For whatever reason, over that first breakfast as we compared bites and heat rashes (Tiffany's, not mine), I joked that something had implanted babies in my elbow during the night. This became an only-funny-if-you-were-there running joke with us and at one point Morgan had asked if I had named my babies and I agreed to name them after the group members as there appeared to be three of them. Somehow my babies came up while we were sitting in the hut snacking on cookies. Jhin had somehow missed the prior discussions and responded "the bot fly?" only, the way he pronounced it, it sounded like butt fly. Being the mature adults that we are, we found this hysterical. Until he told us this bot fly does in fact implant its babies under the skin and I asked if they will make me lose weight as we all laughed. Jhin got gravely serious as he looked at me and said "you are very beautiful, you do not need to lose weight." Which was both very sweet and kind of funny because he did not realize I was only joking because of course I do not want some crazy fly to plant its babies in my arm even if it does make me lose weight (unless there are no other side effects of course). Over the course of this discussion Jhin also described some sort of wild pig with "holes above the bottom" which emit a stinky odor which of course resulted in all of us snickering and later erupting in laughter as we repeated his description to each other over and over. Again, you probably had to be there but with the accent it was so funny and I know you are thinking exactly what we were in terms of these holes. . . .

That night was our last dinner together and everyone was in an upbeat and fun mood - I think because most everyone had a few cocktails prior to dinner. More people had arrived at the lodge and the dining room was now nearly full and yet our group was the loudest by far. For reasons I forget or never knew, I became the easy target of everyone's teasing. The crazy Minnesota woman said something vaguely offensive but also hilarious to me that we were all laughing at but I forget it now and Tiffany decided to jump on the bandwagon and at some point after we essentially had the whole room's attention blurted out "That's Why You Aren't Married!!" The dining room went almost completely silent in shock until I burst out laughing so hard I was crying and I was soon almost doubled over I was laughing so much. We were finishing up three very enjoyable days with an odd-ball group of people that somehow worked together. I guess you could say they were drawn together by their ability to mock me. I'm helpful like that.

We were hoping for an evening jungle tour but Jhin had apparently had enough of us and we were left on our own with instructions to be ready for 5 am breakfast. The shower I took at 430 the morning of the 5th was the coldest shock of a shower I have ever experienced in my life and the last I had before I was back at my own apartment around 3 pm on the 6th. The boat ride down the Tambopata was much swifter than the nearly 5 hour journey up the river and we were boarding a van bound for the airport sooner than we had expected. We made a stop back at the offices to pick up the boarding passes that had already been printed for us before heading to the airport. Jhin hopped on his motorcycle to follow us to the airport and gave us one of his signature gestures: a lift of the nose and a slight "Miss America" hand wave to signal the "fancy people" or snobs. We loved this so he gave us one last glimpse as he jumped on his motor cycle:

We said our goodbyes at the airport where we were surprisingly early and I was happy I still had some Mrs. Fields truffles in my bag to give Jhin the chocoholic along with his tip. He was really an incredible guide and made the trip.

The last thing I will say about our trip to the Amazon is a word about airport security in Puerto Maldonado. When I first led our group of four to the security desk that man told me to come back in 15 minutes. Not having anywhere else to go, we lingered a few feet off wondering what the deal was. Not five minutes later, a couple walked up to the same security guy, he spoke with them in Spanish, inspected their tickets and waved them through. So I walked up to the desk where he looked a bit sheepish and asked if I spoke Spanish. I faked it a bit and said I spoke a little and he let us in. Weird, right? Not sure what he thought I over heard but it was enough to get us entrance. But the best part was that once we got to the conveyer belt, it was not moving. In fact the x-ray machine was shoved up against a wall and there was just a table next to the metal detector frame. It was like going to a concert. The woman opened my backpack, poked around a bit and then waved me through. It made me wish I had tried to sneak in a bottle of water or something more than a can of pringles.


ma said...

Fascinating! I'm glad that you wrote about your adventure while it's still fresh on your mind.

Tiffany said...

Your ability to recall details floors me. Is it your law training or have you always been this way?

By the way, the pictures are amazing. Does the word "amazing" come from "amazon" and did you already raise that question?

TyGa10 said...

Great read, Thanks

I have the same type trip planned in June and am looking for any tips I can get.

I like the way you are able to find humor in a lot of situations.

katie said...

Great pictures! Not sure I could go to the Amazon but your pictures might change my mind.

s00z22 said...

I absolutely love reading about your trips! And I can say with 100% certainty that I do NOT need to go to the Amazon now! I enjoyed seeing your photos of frogs and bugs, but am in NO way compelled to go! YIKES! (I hate creepy crawlies!) :-) Thanks for taking me along the virtual trip - it's as close as I'll ever get!!!

KamilahNYC said...

What a fantastic trip! Seriously, wow.

Anonymous said...

I love your pictures! I loved every detailed experience you shared. However, I got stuck on your phrase of "nerd love." I know for some reason,I will be using that often in the future! I also love the picture of you bird watching, and remembering when you told us that story!

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