Marcus P. Borom
Saturday 26 June1993 *
The Beginning *
High Altitude Rearrangement of Plans *
Sunday 27 June 1993 *
Bureaucracy and International Flights *
The Great Travel Board Game *
Iquitos At Last and 3 Star Hotels *
Monday 28 June 1993 *
On to the Amazon *
Waterfalls and Hog Hotels *
Tuesday 29 June 1993 *
Base Camp and Lake Ubos *
Wednesday 30 June 1993 *
Birds, Bats, Snakes and Giant Lily *
Pygmy Marmosets (not) and Ants, Ants, Ants. *
Thursday 1 July 1993 *
Motor Launch to Lake Cumaseba *
Canoeing into the Unknown *
Lake Atun, Piranhas and Salt *
Lake Atun at Night *
Friday 2 July 1993 *
Hoatzins and Screamers *
Little League and Jungle Backpacks *
Swimming with Piranha and Bitten Buttocks *
Night Time Paddle Back to Cumaseba Coche *
Saturday 3 July 1993 *
Catepillars, Choked Waterways and Balsa Rafts *
Reunited, Cakes and Dancing *
Sunday 4 July 1993 *
A Day of Rest *
Monday 5 July 1993 *
Launching Another Campout *
Big Snakes and Black Water *
An Afternoon Hike in Terra Firma *
Up the Yanayacu *
Hike to the Headwaters of the Yanayacu *
A Dip in the Yanayacu *
Wednesday 7 July 1993 *
Awake in the Jungle *
Base Camp Revisited *
Swimming With Pink Dolphins *
Red Lace Panties and Tarantulas *
Thursday 8 July 1993 *
Market Day *
The Last Arrawana *
The Great Jumping Fish *
Friday 9 July 1993 *
Iquitos Bound *
On the Town *
Saturday 10 July 1993 *
Appendix A The Creation of an Adventure Trip *
I. The Beginning *
II. Transmission of Initial Information *
III. E-Mail Messages *
Appendix B *
Bird List *
Base Camp Map *
Marcus P. Borom
Marcus P. Borom
Saturday 26 June1993
High in the Andean peaks, in the shadow of the sacred Incan citadel of Machu Picchu, melting snows give birth to the white waters of the Urubamba. The Urubamba tumbles and cascades through mountain gorges in a relentless effort to reduce the jagged landscape to a flattened plain a process we can only imagine on a geological time scale. The rushing waters blend with other streams to become the Ucayali which at its intersection with the MaraÒon becomes the Rio Amazona the greatest flow of water in the world and the life blood of the greatest concentration of diverse life forms on this planet.
The climatic conditions in equatorial rain forests in general and in the Peruvian Amazon basin in particular do not experience large shifts in temperature. Life forms of all types, plants and animals, have evolved to fill every available ecological niche where predation, competition and resources are in balance. And in the constancy and abundance of the Amazonian rain forest, a niche can be as small and as limited as that for a species of mite which lives its entire life on the hind leg of an army ant.
Planning for this trip began in late 1992 when I set out to get together a group of compatible people to fill a tour of eight. (see Appendix: The Creation of an Adventure Trip) With eight people we could secure a personal expedition into the upper reaches of the Peruvian Amazon. So far up the Amazon, in fact, that it is no longer the Amazon. Our base camp was to be on the Yarapa river near the confluence of the Ucayali and the MaraÒon.
I had originally planned to go on this trip with a group of four friends in March. I unfortunately slashed my left leg open in a fall in February. With regret, I sent an electronic mail message to my friends telling them that I would not be able to join them and signed it, ìYour former leader." The festering wound took 2 1/2 months to heal accompanied with two postponements of my own trip. Finally, in Miami, at the end of June with my wound reduced to a fading scar I boarded a Faucett airline L-1011 powered by Rolls-Royce engines and headed off to Iquitos, Peru.
High Altitude Rearrangement of Plans
That night at 30,000 ft. over the Caribbean, 125 nautical miles from Cartegena, Columbia there was a loud, sharp report from the left side of the plane. Those people seated toward the rear of the plane on the port side were also witness to an accompanying, large fireball that rolled out the exhaust of the port engine. From my vantage point, the plane seemed to lose altitude and speed, but it stabilized in short order. The in-flight movie, "Home Alone 2" started and the flight proceeded as if nothing had happened. In the middle of the movie the video tape was stopped and the captain announced that we were preparing to land in Panama since we had lost an engine.
In a conversation later with the captain, I learned that the accessory case gear box which drives the fuel pump and the hydraulic system in the No. 1 engine had self destructed. With no hydraulics, the inlet guide vanes ahead of the compressor slammed shut and the compressor stalled and sent a fire ball out the rear. With no fuel pressure and no hydraulics, the engine was beyond restart. We were fortunate that there was no fire and that a suitable alternate airport was nearby. The landing was uneventful. The passengers broke into spontaneous and prolonged applause as it rolled out after touchdown.
"WOW!" I thought, "Maybe some things are destined not to be.î
We were served dinner in the cabin of the parked airplane and were not allowed to deplane. By midnight, we had been on the ground for 2 hours and there had been no sign of activity outside the aircraft. My bet was that we would overnight in Panama. There are were two groups each of about 30, 13 year old children on board and they were getting antsy and restless.
At around 3:45 a.m. all 250 of us were herded from the plane to the empty boarding lounge. There was a paucity of information. For several hours people stood around, tried to sleep on the bare marble floors, or aimlessly wandered the halls of the empty airport. We passed freely back and forth through the unstaffed security points.
I went back into the plane and stretched out to sleep. As I began to drift off, I was awakened and told that the plane was to be ferried, empty, back to Miami and that we were to be transferred to a new plane that was to arrive soon.
Finally after much confusion, we were shuttled on 20 minute centers, in groups of 40 to buses and taxis to several hotels in Panama. I shared a room in the Hotel Revion with Bob Kincheloe, a retired electric engineering professor from Stanford University who was now living in Seattle. We got to sleep about 5:00 a.m. local time (6:00 a.m. EDT).
Sunday 27 June 1993
Bureaucracy and International Flights
We were up at 9:00 a.m., had breakfast in the hotel (covered by Faucett Airlines) and I hired a taxi with 4 other members of the Amazonian Expeditions Party (Jan Cate, Jim Easterling and Don and Joan Felch) for a brief tour of the city (the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court, the ruins of Noriega's headquarters, the US Army base and the Panama Canal). We arrived back at the airport at 12:30 p.m.
Nelson Buchwald, a red cross worker bound for Iquitos, had taken it upon himself to serve as the interface between Faucett Airlines and the passengers. He informed us that there was no plane yet, but that one from Miami was supposedly in the air on the way to Panama. The plane we arrived on was still on the ground where we had left it the night before. Another little grabber here was that, since we had been in Panama for more than nine hours, we would have to pay a $20 departure tax. Faucett would supposedly remunerate us for the tax.
Luncheon vouchers were to be issued but nothing had happened along those lines by 3:00 p.m. and we were still without a plane. The problem seemed to be that Faucett had an agreement with a snack bar within the boarding area but they had not yet settled on the payment of the departure tax and we could not pass through security without paying the tax.
At around 3:20 p.m. we were led up to a cafeteria outside security and treated to lunch (max. $7). From the restaurant we could look out over the runway. During lunch, fire engines and other emergency vehicles were scrambled out on the tarmac in preparation for the arrival of a four engine Aero Peru flight with a shut down No. 2 engine. The landing was also uneventful, but it highlighted concerns about aircraft maintenance in South American countries.
At 4:30 p.m. there was still no plane for us.
While waiting for something to happen, I engaged, Glenn, one of the Faucett Airlines pilots in conversation and told him we were on our way to Iquitos to meet Patty Webster of Amazonia Expeditions. Glenn volunteered that he had, at Pattyís request, purchased a pizza (vegetarian junk food) in Miami to be delivered to her. Another passenger overheard our conversation and wanted to learn more about our trip up the Amazon. Glenn interjected that there were three basic types of Amazon trips: the least stressful is the luxury liner cruise where the passengers eat gourmet food and sleep in air conditioned cabins; in another a bit closer to nature, tourists sleep in a comfortable, bug-proof jungle lodge and are given the sense on being in the jungle without really having to be; and then there is the type of trip led by ìJungle Pattyî where you march off into the bush with only a Bowie knife and eat tree bark and monkeys. ìWell.î I thought, ìthatís exactly the kind of trip I am looking for.î
The Great Travel Board Game
While waiting in the ticket lobby, our group of adventure travelers began to ponder how we could turn this experience into a great board game. The goal of the game would be to get all 11 players from Miami to their base camp on the Yarapa River beyond the end of the Amazon. Possible scenarios could include:
Engine failure causes forced landing in
Rain forest jungle
Group is dispersed in several hotels.
Members can be lost going to various sights (including Panama Canal, Balboa monument, Simon Bolivar monument, etc.)
Wake up calls are missed
Members can be arrested for failure to pay cab fare.
Failure to have boarding pass stamped by Customs on reboarding requires return to pay departure tax and flight is missed.
Emphasize Central and South American history and culture
While waiting, we also learned of a verse written by Kalli Halton, one of the 13-year-old children on board. It is to be sung to the tune of "This Land is Your Land":
As I was flying on Faucett Airlines
I saw beside me the engine burning
I saw below me the plane was falling
This end was made for you and me
The story was that there were to be two planes rather than just one. One was coming from Lima, Peru and the other from Miami, Florida. Another wrinkle in this travel board game was that one of the planes was to take passengers to Iquitos that afternoon and the smaller of the planes was to take passengers scheduled for Lima directly back to Lima. The problem the plane for Iquitos could not accommodate all the Iquitos-bound tourists. They were shy 13 seats and would be looking for volunteers to fly to Lima at 11:00 p.m. that evening and not to continue on to Iquitos until 6:00 a.m. the next day.
The 11 members of our Amazonian Expeditions party were successful in boarding the flight to Iquitos. Around 5:00 p.m. we began the process of passing 250 people through the bureaucracy of departure and security. By 7:00 p.m. we were finally in flight to Iquitos. Dinner onboard consisted of a glass of soda and one small bun slapped around five slices of cheese.
The Air Haiti 727 was showing signs of poor interior maintenance none of the overhead rack doors would stay open while you stored your luggage, some ash trays in the arm rests were missing, arm rests were loose and the baseboards around the cockpit were sealed with liberal applications of clear silicone rubber (maybe that was what was holding the cockpit on the fuselage!). I was left with nagging questions about more important issues of mechanical maintenance.
Iquitos At Last and 3 Star Hotels
We arrived safely in Iquitos around 10:00 p.m. All our luggage was delivered and passed through customs with no problem. Patty Webster of Amazonian Expeditions was waiting to greet us with a small school bus.
We settled into the "Ambassador Hotel". The hotel sign proudly displayed three gold stars beneath its name. Patty informed us that the hotels are self rated. I roomed with Jim Easterling, a 63 year old MD from Orlando who shamed me by complaining that he had brought too much along. His luggage consisted of a small carry-on and a small day pack as opposed to my large backpack, a full sized suitcase, and my substantial camera bag. I had packed and repacked three times trying to cut down on my needs with very little success in reducing them..
We went out to a brightly lit, very clean hamburger cafe for a bite to eat before turning in for the night. Iquitos at 11 p.m. on Sunday night is quiet but the streets are not empty. I was impressed with how clean the streets were; then I thought of constant cleaning provided by daily rainfalls.
We hit the sack at around midnight for some much needed rest. The air conditioning turned the room into a refrigerator.
Monday 28 June 1993
On to the Amazon
Up at 7:00 a.m. for a warm shower. Our room was on the 1st floor. The rooms on the 2nd floor had no running water. After a full breakfast, I sorted out what I would need in my day pack since the bulk of our luggage would follow in a second boat. I had enough time for a quick six-block walk to the correo (post office) to buy some postcards and stamps. The streets were now alive with traffic. There are very few cars in Iquitos. The motorized vehicles are motorcycles and three-wheeled, open-sided motorcycle taxis. The passengers in the latter sit on a canopied bench seat behind the driver.
At 11:00 a.m. we and our luggage had been transported to the banks of the Amazon. Our 40-foot long, 8-foot wide covered safari boats awaited us at the base of a steep, thatch-covered staircase.
The first view of the Amazon is breath-taking. It is about 5 miles (?) wide at Iquitos, light brown in color, peppered with flood debris including whole trees and flowing with a strength of purpose. It is clear that the river is the pulse of Iquitos. Boats of all sorts and sizes were crisscrossing in the current.
The sky contained scattered puffy white clouds knitted together with patches of blue. The temperature was maybe 75-80∞F and the humidity was low. This was not what I had expected in the Amazon, but the dry season had started.
We pushed off at about noon and headed south and upstream. Our boat, powered by only a 65 hp outboard, made steady headway over the calm waters. Lunch was cooked in the galley, served on a fold-up table which runs down the center length of the passenger section, and was excellent. We would grow to appreciate the cooking skills of our chef, Danielo.
As we pressed further south, we saw fewer and fewer motorized boats. There were thatched roof houses in the open areas scattered along the shore line but most of the bank was heavily forested right down to the water line. People were traveling on the Amazon almost exclusively in dug-out canoes with from one person to as many as 13 in a single canoe. The canoes are principally paddled from the front seat. They have so little free board that it is a wonder they don't swamp when a boat like ours passes by.
Most of the time we traveled close enough to the bank to watch for birds and other wildlife. I found that the best observation point was on the flat roof of the boat. I had to take care to avoid over-exposure to the sun. We passed a lot of secondary growth forest attesting to the amount of cutting and clearing which has gone on recently.
Around mid-afternoon, our launch left the Amazon and headed upstream into the much narrower Tahauyo River. The water of the Tahauyo is much darker and there is a sense of more intimacy with the jungle.
As we plodded our way along the lazy Tahauyo, Patty Webster introduced us to two native alcoholic concoctions made basically from sugar cane rum. Huitochado is a sweet, strong liquor flavored with Huito, a fruit, and honey. The second was called ì7 rootsî (not to be confused with Segrams 7). It was equally strong. Each of the roots (of unspecified origin) is supposedly endowed with curative powers. There is a drink called ì40 rootsî for men over 70 which restores their sexual prowess, or maybe it just makes sex seem less important. At about 3:00 p.m. we pulled into shore a little upstream of the village of Santa Ana, which was to be our overnight stop, for a hike to one of the few waterfalls in this area of the Amazon. Amazonian Expeditions uses this as sort of a transition from city to jungle life.
Waterfalls and Hog Hotels
We were advised to wear long pants tucked into our socks, jungle boots, a long sleeved shirt, and a hat. We were overdressed. Our hike took us along trails through cleared areas planted in bananas and through people's yards. At one point, we came to a stream crossing. The stream was dark, tannic acid tainted water, about 15 ft wide and somewhere between 1-2 meters deep. Our means of crossing was a very leaky, dilapidated, dugout canoe. The canoe owner on the opposite bank would try unsuccessfully to plug the one-inch diameter hole in the hull with clay after each crossing before shoving the canoe back to our side of the stream for another passenger. This, I though, at one person per time, was going to take all afternoon, and then we would have to repeat the process on the return.
To the surprise and amusement of some and the horror of others, I doffed my back pack and camera and stepped, fully clothed, into the cool waters of the stream and waded across. It was arm-pit deep in the middle. From my vantage point in the stream, I was able to help stabilize and guide the canoe with its lone occupant as it was shoved from one bank to the other. It was interesting to watch the canoe go into almost uncontrollable rocking as each passenger overcompensated for its lateral instability perhaps prompted by fear of falling into the "piranha invested" stream.
Patty and I were the last to leave the crossing, since we had assisted the others. The day was wearing on and we were late in arriving at the waterfall. The falls themselves were only about one meter high and flowed over the only bed rock shale that I was to see on this trip. It was refreshing to take a quick dip in the cool clear pool below the falls. The canopied forest and the low light of late afternoon evoked a feeling of spiritual calmness amidst all this diversity of life.
On the return hike, there was an enhanced awareness of decreasing light. The stream crossing had been improved by a replacement canoe with no leaks. I chose not to hike in a pack of 11 people and set out ahead of the group. The trail, although not marked, seemed fairly straight forward. I remembered many landmarks and remembered that we had kept turning right on the way in. All I had to do was bear left and I would reach the landing.
Near the end of the trail, I passed two forks which seemed unfamiliar. These forks also had forks. I was potentially compounding my errors. With no insect repellent, no flash light, and only minutes of daylight left, I began to see the handwriting on the wall.
I was fortunate to run into Jungle Patty who was bringing up the rear. Even Patty had to ask directions as we approached the river landing.
Back at the boat, the others expressed visible concern that I had disappeared. I promised not to repeat the experience. I allowed, however, that my delayed return had permitted me to see a Great Potoo in the darkened pathway.
To the inquiry of what is a Great Potoo, I replied, ìIt's like a night jar, or a goatsucker, or a bullbat.î
Jan asked, îCould you narrow the category down to animal, vegetable, or mineral?î
"How about bird?" I offered.
We were all to see a Great Potoo before the trip was over.
We arrived at Santa Ana after dark. Santa Ana is a small village containing perhaps a dozen typical Amazon huts built on stilts with open walls and thatched roofs. The water had receded 12-15 feet in the last few weeks and the huts were now surrounded by a plain of fine, gooshy mud. We were further informed that there were no toilet facilities. With our sleep deprivation in Panama, this was almost too much for some of our party and there was talk of aborting the trip and returning to Iquitos. Jim Easterling dispensed some super tranquilizers to those most stressed out and talk of returning to Iquitos evaporated.
We were bedded down on mattresses laid side by side and surrounded and covered by individual white mosquito netting (mosquiteros). To get into bed, you merely untucked one corner of the netting and got in as rapidly as possible in an attempt to leave the mosquitoes behind. Success was judged by the absence of mosquitoes in your enclosed environment. To top things off, one of the women, Jan Cate, heard a noise outside her netting and lifted a corner to find a large jungle bamboo rat looking her in the eye.
Patty had warned us that we might have trouble sleeping here because of the hogs, and she was right. All night long, the local hogs engaged in snorting, grunting, and growling fights directly under our cabin. Patty spent most of the night slogging in the mud trying to chase the hogs away. I personally slept reasonably well in this place which we dubbed "Hog Hotel" and gave a self-rating of minus 99.
Tuesday 29 June 1993
Base Camp and Lake Ubos
We woke at daybreak to an absolutely gorgeous morning. The tranquilizers had done their job. The hogs and disturbances of the past evening melted away with the increasing light. We were soon on our way further up the Tahauyo. There were many birds in the trees along the banks of our narrow, dark river. Various trees were pointed out to us as we passed. Cecropia the food tree of the three-toed sloth; Labuna, the tallest tree in the forest; the flowering Jacaranda with its pink and white flower tassels, and the Machimango a tree whose bark is used for jungle twine and rope, to name a few.
We cut through a short canal and re-entered the immenseness of the powerful Amazon. At this point, the Amazon was filled with water hyacinths and resembled the upper reaches of the Nile where it becomes choked with water vegetation in the region know as the Sud.
We made a brief stop at a sugar cane rum mill that was not particularly exciting. We reached the confluence of the Yarapa, the Ucayali and the MaraÒon Rivers. This is the beginning of the Amazon. We entered the Yarapa River. The water of the Yarapa is even darker than that of the Tuhauyo and the river is narrower. The jungle comes right down to the water's edge.
Twelve to 15 feet above water level we could see the high water mark from the flood level of less than 6 weeks ago. It is hard to imagine the volume of water that had occupied this extensive area. Not only had the rivers been 15 feet deeper, but also flooded were the hundreds of square miles of surrounding lowlands . This annual massive fluctuation in water level has produced special survival strategies among the jungle plants, animals, insects and even fish.
We pulled up at our Amazonian Expedition Camp in the late afternoon. Our accomodations were typical, rustic native fare. One large, open-walled thatched roof structure was to be our communal dormitory with floor mattresses and individual mosquito nets. The dining room was a separate screened-in building. The johns and showers were in a small, raised, thatched building separated from the dormitory by a 40-foot-long split-cane walkway. All modest, adequate, dry and comfortable. There were no complaints. No one expected more. If anything, we had expected less.
After general instructions and bedding assignments, we all boarded the camp's two open, 18 foot motor launches for andafternoon swim in Laguna Ubos.
Lake Ubos is a beautiful, small, oval body of water only a few minutes downstream from the base comp. The water was actually cold and refreshing. A recent rain had draped a spectacular rainbow over the eastern shore of the lake. We were all apprehensive about swimming in this mystical water which evoked all the myths and strange tales of the Amazon. In spite of our apprehension, we all took a dip in the dark water. I dove under the surface and swam up to the treading legs of Bryan Burns, one of the three twenty-something sons of Charme Burns, and pinched one of them. I heard the resulting shout underwater. When I surfaced, I was greeted by a forced smile and, "That was eff-ing funny, Marc; really eff-ing funny."
We were to become more and more comfortable with our new environment as our stay progressed and folk lore was superseded by reality and understanding.
After dinner which was superb the group made a return trip to Lake Ubos for our first experience of nocturnal lake life and sounds. The entrance to the lake was guarded by a tree dwelling tarantula which was at least six inches across the legs. I took my tape recorder and shotgun microphone along and recorded some of the indescribably wild and raucous frog choruses. There are frogs that hoot like owls and are appropriately called owl frogs and frogs that click and buzz and pop and growl and, of course, croak.
Moises (Moy' sez) Spanish for Moses our guide, used a strong flashlight (which I had loaned him to replace his weaker one) to seek out reflections from the eyes of nocturnal creatures. If your line of sight is directly down the beam of the flashlight, eye shine, even from tiny spiders shows up like brilliant sources of light against the dark background of night.
A sweep of the shoreline picked up reflections from the eyes of a caiman (an Amazonian alligator), a number of nightjars and a Great Potoo. The Great Potoo perches upright on the end of a stick or stub of a tree and points its beak skyward. In this posture and with its bark-like coloration, the Great Potoo easily passes as just the end of a stump. We were able to get within 20 feet of one before it floated, feather light and silently off into the surrounding darkness.
The lake was rimmed with patches of water plants that resembled clumps of furry bib lettuce. In the center of many of these plants was a dot of phosphorescent light emitted by the larvae of an insect. It was easy to imagine that constellations had sprinkled down from the sky and come to rest in this soft greenery.
Wednesday 30 June 1993
Birds, Bats, Snakes and Giant Lily Pads
At 5:30 a.m. I joined Don and Joan Felch, two extremely avid birders, on a float trip down the Yarapa to view the abundant early morning bird life. Again, our guide was Moises. He speaks English, is extremely knowledgeable regarding plants, wildlife and jungle survival and can spot birds that are even sitting motionless in deep underbrush. To attest to his prowess, in a two-hour trip I lost count of all the different species that we saw here are a few that I recall:
HAWKS Black collared hawk
Slate colored hawk
Yellow headed caracara
PARROTS Green Macaw
Blue and gold Macaw
HERONS Black capped heron
White necked heron
GENERAL Black tailed trogan
Amazon fruit crow
Black capped woodpecker
Red capped cardinal
Masked crimson tanager
Black nun bird
Note: The appendix includes the full listing of the birds that Don and Joan Felch logged during their ten days at the base camp. Their final count was over 125 new species for their life list.
In addition, we observed a tamandou (a tree climbing anteater), two three-toed sloths and squirrel monkeys.
After breakfast we continued our immersion into the Amazonian environment with another short excursion from the base camp to Lake Chontillo (Chon-tee'-zho) downstream of Lake Ubos. Chontillo supports a colony of hoatzins strange, crested, almost prehistoric birds. The water level had dropped to the point that direct water access from the Yarapa to the lake no longer was available. The 18-foot-long aluminum boat sans motor would have to be dragged through 100 yards of mud and undergrowth to the lake.
The boarding party disembarked at the river bank and began cautiously making its way toward the lake rim. People were trying to avoid the unavoidable mud. In addition to mud, the area around Chontillo abounds with thorns and spiked Chontillo palms. We were cautioned against touching anything.
On our reaching the swampy fringes of the lake, I realized we were going to have to wait quite a while before the boat portage was completed. Rather than stand around and serve as a smorgasbord for mosquitoes, I abandoned all attempts at avoiding mud, slogged back to the river band and assisted in dragging the boat across the mud and through the brush including crossing a three-foot-high log.
In addition to Hoatzins, the lake is home to five-foot diameter, Queen Victoria lily pads, fresh water angel fish, ciclids and armored catfish the latter three are highly sought after by aquarium enthusiasts.
The hoatzins nest over the water in the Chontillo alms. The trunk spines help guard the nests against predators. The prehistoric nature of the hoatzins is displayed in the nestlings who possess bat wing-like hooks on each wing in the position of the thumb and forefinger. The hooks help the young birds climb back into the nest if they jump or fall out of it into the water. As a matter of fact jumping out of the nest into the water is a defense mechanism used against aerial attacks.
The hoatzins are truly strange birds. They are herbivores and feed on very hard to digest leaves. As a result, their craws are much larger in size than those of most other birds. Their craw, in fact, occupies almost one third of the keel generally reserved for flight muscles. As a consequence, the hoatzin is a poor flyer and must climb to the top of a tree to get a good glide to the other side of a river. Hoatzins do not migrate.
Here we were also introduced to sap wing bats which roost on the trunks of trees near the water line. Their camouflage is almost perfect. They appear to be simply pendulous, tear-shaped knots on the tree. This is an example of an interpretation challenge that we encountered on several occasions. Our guides knew what they were saying, we sometimes didn't hear them right. These bats are, in fact, white-striped sack-winged bats.
Moises captured a lovely emerald-colored five-foot-long vine snake that was in the process of eating a lizard. The snake provided several good photo opportunities, although one woman, Mirinda, was reluctant to share the boat with the snake. I think if it had gotten loose, she would have jumped overboard.
After helping drag the boat back through the mud, which was easier the second time since we had stirred it into much the first time through, it was nice to be able to wash up. There are showers at the camp, but like the camp staff, I found it easier to wash both myself and my boots off from the dock on the river. The water is extremely soft and dirt can be removed readily from fabrics.
Pygmy Marmosets (not) and Ants, Ants, Ants.
After lunch, Moises took a group of five of us by boat down to a trail which led to a tree where pygmy marmosets the world's smallest primate feed on the sap. During the hike, Moises demonstrated face painting using the seeds of a tree which provide local indians with a bright red face paint. We looked like we were all set to go to war.
Moises pointed out several plants which had medicinal benefits the sap of the cecropia tree is used to combat diarrhea, there was a special tree bark for use in the event of snake bite to block the effect of the venom; and ginger root is used for internal fever. Termite nests can be used for protection against insect bites. A hole can be cut in a termite nest into which one can insert a hand. As termites crawl over the invading hand, they can then be squished and their juices can be spread over ones body. These juices keep insects away. The nest, abandoned or otherwise, can be burned on a campfire and the smoke will drive insects away as well.
It was clear on this hike that ants of many kinds were everywhere. There were leaf cutter ants with their trails of little green sails flicking back and forth as they made their way back from their leaf source tree to their mounds some as large as double beds. The leaf pieces which are cut from the forest canopy are used deep in their mounds as the substrate on which the ants culture a special fungus which serves as their food.
Army ants are small, but powerful, and vicious when provoked. Standing or sitting in the wrong place can be sufficient provocation for an army ant attack. Army ants build their nests high in the forest canopy. Army ant tests can be distinguished from termite nests by their terminating in single or multiple points like stalactites. Woe be it to someone seeking insect repellent who mistakes an army ant nest for a termite nest.
Then there are the 3/4 inch long, black bullet or sabah ants which can deliver a debilitating bite and sting. Standing or sitting in an uncleared area is to be done with great caution and thatís without even considering snakes, spiders, scorpions and six inch long centipedes.
During our return, the sky darkened and a rushing noise moved toward us through the jungle. We learned why this is called a rain forest. I had already abandoned the gringo mode of long pants, boots, etc. for a T-shirt, bathing suit and sneakers. I just allowed myself to get wet with warm rain. I had no camera gear to protect at the moment.
After supper that evening, I discussed a potential camping trip with Patty and Moises and we decided on a three-day trip up the Yarapa to the Cumaseba River. Rather than go on another evening outing on Lake Ubos, I stayed back at camp to try to cut my gear down to a single back pack plus camera and recording gear. Tomorrow was to be a big day of anticipation and uncertainty.
Thursday 1 July 1993
Motor Launch to Lake Cumaseba
I awoke at 5:30 to complete my packing details. Moises looked over what I was taking and said it was not too much. He could easily have said that it could be less, but at this point I would not have been ready to believe him.
After breakfast, the entire group left the base camp in the two motor launches with a dugout canoe in tow. The game plan was that we would all motor up the Yarapa to the Cumaseba River and on into Lake Cumaseba to see the pink dolphins. Moises, Roy (one of the younger staff members) and I would proceed on by canoe to a more remote lake Lake Atun.
The Cumaseba River was even narrower than the Yarapa and reminded me a lot of the creeks in my home county of Burke in Georgia. I was beginning to feel more at home and less threatened by my surroundings. My father had counseled me many years earlier that we fear most those things we understand the least. With understanding, fear is replaced with respect and ignorance with knowledge. The Amazon with it diverse life forms is working its way into my knowledge base.
The trip up the Cumaseba was not your usual paddle boat ride in Central Park. There were snags to be avoided and in several places huge trees spanned the entire river. In one instance, a tree had dammed the surface flow and caused an impassable blockage of water hyacinths. The solution was to take the motor launch to the more upstream part of the tree and push against the trunk with the full forward force of the bow. This tactic seemed futile against the combined weight of the tree and the force of the flowing river. But the tree began to pivot slowly up current. On becoming parallel with the current, it was easily swung like a heavy door on well-oiled hinges, permanently clear of the channel.
We then were faced with an impossible blockage of hyacinths. For as far upstream as we could see, the entire width of the river was green with vegetation. There was an alternate, narrow canal connection through Lake Diablo to an entry upriver of the blockage. Hacking a path through a tangle of lianas and underbrush for the shallow water passage of our flotilla was an amazing accomplishment. That was an experience worth the price of the trip alone.
The boats successfully reentered the Cumaseba River and easily negotiated the channel into Lake Cumaseba. The motor launch containing Moises, Roy and me proceeded unexpectedly beyond our luncheon spot and entered the brush thicket at the end of the lake. We pulled up to an extensive ficus tree with its curtain of multiple trunks descending into the water from the canopy above.
I didn't understand what was happening until Patty announced that this was where I was leaving the group. In the middle of this swamp? With a canoe with so much gear that there was hardly room for one person, let alone three? With only one inch of free board? Without lunch? Why not at a dock? Why now?? Is this necessary???
Get out, Marc !!!
All I could think of was the instability of that dugout canoe back at the crossing to the waterfall. I could see me, my gear and my guides turning turtle in this dark water in front of half of our group. With some anxiety, I stepped from the secure base of the motor launch into the surely unstable dugout. Firmly positioned at last in the dugout, we said our good-byes and pushed deeper into the tangle of undergrowth. I wondered what the next two days would bring.
Canoeing into the Unknown
Once away from the motor launch the three of us settled into a comfortable routine. Moises was in the bow in the lead position. I sat on the center strut of the canoe. Most of the gear was stowed behind me and Roy sat in the stern. I took an 8" x 12" fish cleaning board and balanced it on the 3" wide strut for a more comfortable seat. The addition of a nearly fossilized and compressed seat cushion made my seating arrangement more than just tolerable.
In his lead position Moises could guide the dugout through the tangle of undergrowth. The swish and ringing clang of his razor sharp machete as it slashed through lianas, ficus, thorn bushes and saplings became a familiar and welcomed sound. Within 10 minutes we were through the swamp thicket and back out into the Cumaseba River.
Away from the noise of the motor launch we immediately began to see more bird and animal life. A large, red-headed water iguana dropped from a branch just ahead of the canoe and swam ashore. A horned screamer a turkey sized black and white bird with a peculiar forward curved feather sprouting from its head lumbered across the river.
Moises turned the bow toward the bank of the river and pointed out a ruffus jacamar a beautiful, iridescent green, long-billed, sharp-tailed bird about the size of a cow bird sitting dead still on a branch in the underbrush. I, at first, had difficulty locating the bird.
As we backed away from the bank, Moises directed my attention to a 3" diameter hole in a tree about ten feet above the water.
"You can see the head of a white-fronted tree rat in that hole."
Even with binoculars I had difficulty in making out the shape. This rat is locally called a cantinero (Spanish for bar tender), making the word for bar tender a potential insult. I continue to be amazed at Moises' birding skills and his knowledge of the jungle and its creatures.
As we proceeded, the Cumaseba River became narrower and more like a creek than a river. Passage was evidently going to get difficult since fallen trees could now easily span the width of the waterway. I was annoyed that we were joined by a motorized fishing boat about 20 feet long with a boat of similar size in tow. In the long run, this noisy intrusion on our potential solitude was to be to our benefit.
At several dead falls the party of fishermen set out to cut an opening through three foot diameter trees across the stream with a huge chain saw not exactly my earlier impression of primitive indian tribes in this region. While the chain sawing was underway, Moises and Roy would maneuver the dugout canoe close into shore where the tree was supported by a higher bank and hack a pathway for our passage.
We played this game of leap frog with the fishermen several times. We would hack through and get ahead. They would motor past us after clearing a 12-foot-wide swarth in the channel only to be blocked by another large tree in their path.
During those periods of quiet when we were in the lead we would spot numerous birds. Some were becoming very familiar to me. Large Amazon kingfishers were our constant companions. As those birds would fly ahead of us only inches above the water, startled small fish would leap above the surface. On occasion we would be joined by the smaller green kingfishers and their yet smaller cousin, the ruffus kingfisher as well. White winged swallows would dart back and forth catching insects in the bright sunlight. Agitated kiskadees with their bright yellow breasts and black masks skittered through the branches at the water's edge.
Brilliant red capped cardinals punctuated the undergrowth. Black tailed trogans and black nunbirds with their bright red bills sat high up in the trees. The mournful call of the tinamou emanated from the darkness of the forest. Our eyes would be drawn to the striking blue color of a large morpho butterfly as it flickered above our heads. We were immersed in an abundance of life.
Moises guided the canoe into a low muddy bank and pointed to Lake Atun about 40 yards away through the swamp. I was getting attuned to this Amazon stuff. Off came my shoes and I joined Moises and Roy, both barefooted, in dragging our canoe over to the lake's edge.
Lake Atun, Piranhas and Salt
A huge curtain ficus spread out over a 50 foot diameter area in the little cove. Beyond, stretched beautiful Lake Atun devoid of boats and any sign of human traffic. The water of the lake is dark and still. Majestic rain forest trees graced the shore line. The water's edge was rimmed with hyacinths and patches of that fuzzy water lettuce. The surface was occasionally broken by pink dolphins rising for air.
The lake was inviting us to fish. Roy and I began casting with spoons and plugs. Within a few casts I had hooked a double-had-sized red-breasted piranha. One look at those perfectly interlocked, razor sharp triangular teeth gave me misgivings about swimming in this water. But what a beautiful fish. They are a flash of silver and red in the water.
As our fishing continued, I began to absorb some of Moises' fishing skills but certainly not all. He could tell from the way the fish struck whether it was a piranha, a tucanare, a freshwater barracuda or an arawanna. The piranha would hit at the lure with a short, vicious burst. If it failed to contact the hooks it would immediately initiate one or two more short bursts.
The strike of a tucanare (a yellow bellied bass with a prominent spot on its tail) was filled with more energy. The water behind the lure would roil, then explode as the fish closed in for the kill. If the lure was missed, the tucanare seldom returned for a second hit on the same retrieve.
From the standpoint of food, bass were highly prized. Their flesh was flaky and made good fillets Piranha were good eating but there were many small bones to contend with.
We paddled past two potential camping places. We rejected them because the shelters, which only weeks earlier had been under water, were in a sad state of repair. Either the roof was missing or the brush was not cleared or some other inadequacy. The third spot was atop a ten-foot-high embankment on the edge of a run down banana grove. This was to be our overnight resting place.
The structure had a floor which was raised about 5 1/2 feet above ground level which forced me to walk under it in a crouched position but was just right for Moises, Roy and the local people. The open-walled house was already occupied by a middle aged man, a 67 year old wizened and wrinkled woman and a eight to ten-year-old boy.
There is a tradition here that homes are shared with transients. After we were welcomed, we cleared an area of sticks and seeds for our four-man, external frame, mosquito-netted, nylon tent. The quality of the tent was a real surprise. The self-inflating foam air mattress, which I had almost not brought along from Schenectady, added a real touch of comfort.
We had not eaten since breakfast. After we had set up the tent, Moises and Roy stoked the already burning cooking fire and prepared a big lunch/supper including open flame grilled piranha spiced with onion and garlic. All I had to do was to wait and have my meal served to me.
The real disadvantage of these sites is that there are no tables or chairs. I longed for a place to sit and lean back anywhere. Ants are, however, king here. There is hardly anyplace to either sit or stand that has not been claimed by some species of ant. And some of them are small, vicious and aggressive like the tree-dwelling army ant or the much feared, ground dwelling sabah ant whose sting is as potent as that of a scorpion. The indigenous people have solved the sitting problem by developing a good hunker position just sitting back on their haunches. That doesn't work for me. It also appears that it is polite for guests to share food with the home owner. Even partly finished plates with chicken bones still containing meat were gratefully accepted and consumed. Nothing edible goes to waste.
The people here love to laugh and find humor in every situation possible. I prepared myself a cup of coffee from freshly boiled dark lake water and added two heaping teaspoons of sugar from the zip lock plastic bag we had brought along. I was standing in the group when I took that much savored first sip. I almost gagged. I had added salt instead of sugar. Everyone, including me, just roared over this mistake.
Lake Atun at Night
At 6:00 p.m. we set out for a canoe circuit of the lake with Moises in the bow, me amidships and Roy in the stern. I had my substantial camera case along including my recorder with the directional shotgun microphone. By 6:20 p.m. it was dark. There is not much twilight near the equator. Somebody just turns the sun off and darkness descends with a vengeance. Tonight, however, the nearly full moon was already well above the horizon at sunset and bathed the lake in a shimmer of silver.
We moved silently around the shore line. Moises scanned the waterís edge and the underbrush with my strong searchlight for the glint of eye reflections from caimans, frogs, toads, nocturnal birds and mammals. At one point we pulled up to the bank to investigate a reflection back in the trees on the ground. The source of the eye shine was an enormous toad maybe 8-10î in diameter. The rain forest is full of surprises.
There was no breeze. The surface of the lake was as still and as smooth as glass. We stopped and sat quietly as I recorded the incredible frog sounds. There were different species in different and separate locations. The raucous hoo-WHOOP hooting of the owl frog remains my favorite. It is interesting to ponder the dichotomy between each frogís need to have a strong call in order to establish territorial dominance and attract a mate and the danger the frog incurs on announcing its location to frog eating bats, owls and snakes. Itís really a jungle out there.
As our lights scanned for creatures, I was amazed again by the abundance of pinpoints of light in the underbrush near the water line. The reflections revealed a spider at least every six inches miniature predators with efficient, killing fangs lying in wait for some unfortunate insect. We are a part of that same web of survival. We are no different. We just think about it more.
We were successful in spotting several caimans but there was too much ambient light from the moon to allow a stealthy approach. As we came near, each caiman would just sink beneath the surface and disappear. Moises said that totally dark nights were better for caiman hunting.
Even with the bright moon, the stars were spectacular. The sky in the southern hemisphere is becoming more familiar to me. The stars of higher magnitude were readily visible. The Southern Cross with its associated pointer stars for locating the South Pole was prominent as was Scorpio. At around 8:30 p.m. we paddled directly across the lake and were settled into bed by 9:00 p.m.
Friday 2 July, 1993
Hoatzins and Screamers
Moises and I were up by 5:30 a.m. and, without breakfast, were underway in the canoe by 6:00 a.m. We headed directly across the lake to the western shore. The lake was dead calm. A layer of fog hung above the shore line suspended between the tops of the understory trees and the lower branches of the majestic high canopy. Morning light had flooded the lake by the time we reached the western shore. Moises sought out a spot in the thicket that looked like any other to me and pulled the canoe into the underbrush. This was actually a channel into a weed-choked adjacent lake.
Moises guided the canoe through the thick underbrush finding a way when no way existed. Hugh ficus trees draped walls of aerial roots in our path. Downed trees blocked our advance. Low-water saplings like closely spaced fence posts created a maze of vertical lines through which we had to pass. Like a chess master, Moises planned his advance four to five moves ahead, carefully assessing the next position of the canoe with its length and width relative to the space available modified where required by appropriate swings of the machete.
This is a strange world of low light closed in by a speckled roof of greenery. As we approached the fringe of the dead lake, the light level increased. There was a flash of motion and there perched nearby was the diminutive pygmy kingfisher a kingfisher in every respect except that it is about the size of a house wren.
We were drawn to the edge of the undergrowth by the combined calls of chattering mealy parrots, croaking hoatzins and the WHOí-who hoots of horned screamers. The dead lake was alive with large birds.
Hoatzins with their punk rock like crests were directly above us no more than 20 feet away. Horned screamers turkey sized black and white birds were more difficult to approach but we were able to get a good view of their ridiculous, long, forward curving white horn-like crest.
Any attempt to exit the underbrush for a better view of the birds perched in the trees was blocked by the thick mat of those fuzzy pastel green water lettuce plants. The floating vegetation made a nice promenade platform for the wattled jacanas with their outlandishly oversized feet.
On our return trip through the flooded undergrowth, Moises began searching the shallows for fish. He had borrowed a handmade, three-point spear from the fisherman who was sharing the camp with us. Moises would point to a spot ahead of the canoe. He would cock his right arm to throw with his forefinger caressing the butt end of the spear shaft. Experience had taught him to adjust his throw for the offset in the location of his prey due to the refraction of the water. He cast the spear three times and had three fish. The last was a 2 pound tucanare which was sure to be on the dayís menu.
It was fun to watch Moises in action in the forest. This short, slender, wiry, curly-headed man with a calm and gentle demeanor was totally at home in this environment. We had all been admonished to wear boots with long pants tucked into our socks. Moises wore only jungle shorts and thongs on hikes. We would return with mud all over our boots with splotches up to our knees. Moises in his thongs would be mud free. While mysteriously avoiding mud, his keen eyes would be scanning sky, trees, water and earth for wild life. When there were no apparent birds or animals around, Moises would course through an incredible array of imitated calls to entice the birds and animals to reveal their location. He is an exceptional guide.
Little League and Jungle Backpacks
We returned to camp around 9:00 a.m., had coffee and rested a bit prior to setting off on a jungle hike. There were several breadfruit trees around the camp and the spherical fruit lay around on the ground. I picked up a softball-sized one and motioned to our campís rather somber and quite young boy if he wanted to play catch. He showed no hint of understanding what I was trying to initiate.
I tossed the breadfruit ball and it fell at his feet. He had not even raised his hands in any fashion to catch it. He did understand that I wanted him to throw it back to me. After several exchanges he was actually catching the ball. A smile began to spread across his face. This was the first time in his life that he had ever played pitch and catch! We continued until he caught 10 tosses in a row without dropping even one.
At around 10:00 a.m. Moises and I started a walk through the jungle. The vegetation was composed primarily of several species of low palms scattered among taller canopy trees. This area was on higher ground and had been exposed above the high water line for a longer time than any other area I had yet visited. The forest floor was covered with leaf debris. Ants were everywhere.
Moico (Mo-eeí-ko) I had been with Moises long enough to feel comfortable in calling him by his nickname introduced me to additional medicinal jungle plants. A red fungus is used to rub on your feet if you have athleteís foot. The cambium layer of the ìrheumatism treeî can be placed on arthritic joints to relieve pain. Moico scraped off the outer bark and gathered scrapings from the underlayer and had me squeeze them in the crook of my arm.
ìIn two minutes you will feel heat,î promised Moico.
Actually in about ten seconds I began to feel warmth not unlike the reaction produced by Ben Gay.
We passed plants which were now becoming familiar such as jungle ginger and Ajo Sache with its tree bark garlic. A new one was the clear sap on the pendulous, red, claw-like heliconia flowers which is used to treat eye infections. I feel like I am going into information overload.
As a side line, Moico collects seeds from different varieties of palms which he sells to a horticulturist. There was one species in this area which he needed. We located a tree which had dropped numerous grapefruit-sized, knobby seed pods each containing around six seeds. Moico would hold the pod in his left hand and split it open with the machete. If I were to try that, I would, at a minimum, chop off my left thumb or worse yet, chop my hand off at the palm (no pun intended but Iíll take it anyway).
We collected 100 golf ball sized seeds with no bag in which to transport them. Moises invoked his jungle skills. He cut appropriate palm fronds with his machete, interwove them into a frame, added a banana leaf liner, closed off the back by tying the fronds together and finished it off with Machimango bark straps. We were in less than 15 minutes with a jungle back pack filled with palm seeds.
On the hike we sighted a black saki monkey and a new bird for me a blue-eyed tapicula.
We returned to camp around 2 p.m. The deep jungle had been devoid of breeze and was hot and humid. My shirt and boxer bathing suit were soaked with sweat. It was good to be back in the camp clearing. (I had begun to adopt Moicoís jungle dress, but I still wore Viet Nam-style combat boots for protection against thorns on these jungle hikes).
Swimming with Piranha and Bitten Buttocks
The lake where we had caught the piranha looked inviting. In spite of the Hollywood image of blood frothed waters of piranha feeding frenzies, I paddled the dugout 30 yards away from shore, lathered up with soap and jumped into the dark water of the lake. The water is very soft and you feel squeaky clean after a bath, and you come out of the lake with all your body parts. I took this opportunity also to wash some clothes.
Lunch consisted of rice and the much favored tucanare grilled to perfection. I sat in the shade of the thatched hut on a banana tree log with my plate of rice and fish balanced on my thighs. In the middle of a mouthful, some insect took that opportunity to remove a chunk of my buttocks. I whooped and stood straight up. Rice and fish scattered to the breezes. The gringo once again pitched the natives into convulsions of laughter. The trade of protein for humor was a fair exchange.
In an attempt to recover my dignity, I took out a three-foot length of sash cord I had brought along and set out to demonstrate my powers of magic. I was standing at ground level. My audience consisting of Moico, Roy, the fisherman, the wizened old woman and the young boy who were seated, facing me, with their legs dangling from the edge of the second floor of the hut. I doubled the rope into a hair pin in my left hand. I handed the fisherman my Swiss army knife and asked him to cut the exposed loop. I then tied the cut ends together and demonstrated by tugging on the loose ends that I now had a repaired rope with a knot in the middle of its length.
There were polite smiles that conveyed a message of "dumb trick, gringo". The smiles turned to looks of amazement and disbelief as I covered the knot with my left hand, uttered the magic words, "Ubos, Chontillo, Cumaseba.", and pulled a complete, uncut original length of rope from my left hand.
Night Time Paddle Back to Cumaseba Coche
We broke camp and left around 4 p.m. to canoe back to Cumaseba Coche. The afternoon departure was timed to give us an exposure to the nocturnal scene on the smaller river.
Before dark we sighted several anhingas or snake birds sitting in the trees. I added chestnut fronted toucans to the bird sighting list. This part of the Yarapa reminded me a lot of the creeks and rivers in Georgia. That familiarity went a long way toward reducing any potential anxiety. The risks here are not much greater than in Georgia if you are familiar with running creeks in small boats or canoes. The exception was that we were an eight-hour paddle from base camp which was a ten-hour boat trip to Iquitos and a hospital where you probably would not want to spend any time.
Before dark I had a chance to fish in the river. On several occasions the lure got caught in the bushes and had to be retrieved. In the shallows it was not unusual for small angel fish and shrimp to jump into the boat. It is amazing that there are so many ocean-fish equivalents in the Amazon basin angel fish, shrimp, crabs, sting rays, barracuda, dolphins, etc. That must be due to the fact that there are no barriers to the migration of sea life. Iquitos is at an elevation of only 600 feet above sea level. There are no waterfalls for at least 2,000 miles and the climate is virtually constant throughout the year along the length of the river. In addition, this region has never experienced an ice age. In retrospect, it is not surprising that diversity of life also extends to the waters of the Amazon basin.
After darkness closed in on us we drifted silently on the current and listened for jungle sounds. Moico intermittently scanned the river with my flashlight for snags. He searched the shoreline and overhanging trees for eye shine and on occasion mimicked the muted calls of the elusive nocturnal owl monkeys.
Moico's efforts were rewarded with a return call and a rustle in the low hanging branches ahead of us. Frozen in our flashlight beams were several, bunny-huggable, large-eyed, owl monkeys. This was the closest we had been to monkeys of any kind. Seeing these elusive creatures up so close in their wild setting was an exhilarating experience.
Another set of large eyes was connected to a spectacled owl. We had unfortunately disturbed his meal of a tree rat which fell into the flowing water as he flew away when we approached within ten feet of his perch. While we were inspecting his lost dinner, the owl returned to reclaim his meal. I am sad to report that the two probably never got together again, but on the other hand, the piranhas and catfish benefited from the owl's loss. Nothing goes to waste in the recycling of jungle matter.
We pulled over to the bank in the dark exactly where we had seen the rufous jacamar on our paddle to Atun Coche. There in the hole in the tree were two burning coals of light. Our white fronted tree rat had not been the spectacled owl's catch.
We were further graced with a close sighting of a great potoo perched on the end of a dead tree trunk. Moico sighted and captured an 18-inch-long baby caiman. We hoped that its plaintive croaking distress cries would summon its parent. When this did not occur, we returned the small reptile to its natural habitat.
The jungle at night can hold terrors even for its inhabitants. A possum frightened by our approach and confused by our lights fell from an overhanging branch into the river. Rather than swimming toward the near shore, it began a frantic dash for the opposite bank. I could imagine the thoughts that were running through its marsupial mind: "In the water I am potential prey to hungry caimans, electric eels and ravenous piranhas. Get the hell out of the water!" And he did with all scurrying haste.
We pulled ashore at our camping site at Cumaseba Coche around 8:00 p.m. The skies were cloudy and threatened rain. We had been extremely blessed with clear skies and dry weather on this excursion. I was prepared to get wet. But the weather held during this entire camping experience.
Saturday 3 July 1993
Catepillars, Choked Waterways and Balsa Rafts
We were up at sunrise. Roy and Moico prepared a big breakfast of macaroni and canned tuna with a side dish of scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes. I knew by now that this meant there would be no lunch stop. We had a hard paddle ahead of us.
There was a papaya-like tree at the edge of our clearing. I noticed that four-inch-long black caterpillars with yellow body rings and bright orange heads, foot pads and rumps were making their way up the trunk of the tree. As they progressed they would flick their hindquarter with its single, black, filamentary tail in the agitated fashion perhaps as a warning to predatory birds that they tasted awful. Clusters of dozens of these large caterpillars formed higher on the trunk as they moved on toward their leafy breakfast. I learned later that these were to become the brilliant blue Morpho butterflies which grace the streams and rivers. I would have liked to have brought some back to pupate and metamorphose in the States. I settled for some macrophotos instead.
On breaking camp we paddled along the shore of Cumaseba Coche and tried our luck again with fishing. I caught my first arawanna, a strange looking fish with a tall, thin body, a long narrow jaw with two prominent black feelers on the lower jaw and a caudal fin extending the length of its lower body and terminating as a tail. Even though the fish was almost two feet long, it was considered a baby and was released to grow more. I did succeed, to Moicoís delight, in catching about a three-pound tucanare.
We continued fishing on reentering the Cumaseba River. We had numerous strikes and landed and released several piranha. On one cast, my lure got snagged near the bank as I tried to flick it over a floating log. I jerked it a number of times in a vain attempt to free it. We were forced to back paddle up to the bank. A surprise awaited us as I reached out to free the fouled hooks. Two five-foot-long electric eels had been attracted to the commotion and were suspended almost vertically in the water inspecting the lure. This is a place of wonder.
We reached the hyacinth-clogged stretch of the river and entered the by-pass to Diablo Coche. In the two days we had been away, the water level had dropped another 6-8 inches. The passage was much more difficult and it was doubtful that the large motor launch could have negotiated the passage. It was good that we had made the trip when we did.
As Moico hacked a passageway for the canoe, we were forced several times to backtrack and search out an alternate route. We finally reentered Diablo Coche. After the beautiful expanses of Atun Coche and Cumaseba Coche, this small lake looked foreboding and uninviting. On our paddle down the Cumaseba River the canoe traffic increased as we approached the confluence with the Yarapa. Men and even boys no older than eight or ten sat alone back in the overhanging branches in the bow of their hand hewn dugout canoes, spear in hand, searching for elusive fish.
There were more people in this region than I ever would have imagined and additional tourist facilities are being built this far up river. At the confluence of the milk-and-coffee colored waters of the Yarapa and the tea dark waters of the Cumaseba, Roxanne Kramer, an American, has set up a research station to study the pink dolphins that inhabit the black water lakes of this region of the Amazon. It is reported that some of her attempts to preserve the region have created considerable friction with the locals.
In the latter part of 1992, she attempted to close the upper Yarapa and Cumaseba Rivers to fishing. Some of the indigenous people vented their anger by torching gringo property in the vicinity including, in November of ë92, the Amazonian Expeditions base camp where we were staying. Even in the wilds of the Amazon, attempts to change traditional ways must be accompanied by a strong educational program which engenders acceptance. There is an old African saying among the Kikuyu that is pertinent here ìIf you take something away from someone, you must replace it with something of value.î
While still on the Cumaseba, I insisted on taking on some of the paddling duties and relieved Moico in the lead position in the bow. The paddling style here involves a popping sound as the paddle enters the water as opposed to the stealthy, quiet paddling of the American Indians. I decided that the paddle entry noise was a form of communication between the lead paddler in the bow and the rudder paddler in the stern. When it was quiet, I knew that I was pulling alone.
They paddle here with three or four strokes on one side followed by three or four strokes on the other side. The slapping sound of the paddles helps coordinate the team work. After only ten minutes of paddling I had developed a new appreciation for the work Moico and Roy had been doing not only without complaint but also with enthusiasm and laughter. I paddled for the remaining two hours back to the base camp.
On the way, Roy and Moises ate leftovers from breakfast, but the breakfast offerings no longer looked appetizing to me. We passed a man paddling in the bow of a dugout which was filled with 18î square wooden boxes lined with plastic and covered with palm fronds. We pulled alongside and inquired about his cargo.
The boxes were filled with angel fish cicleds, leaf mimicking fish and a wide variety of other tropical fresh water fish highly sought after by aquarium lovers worldwide. The fish had been netted and were being transported to Puerto Miguel for sale and transfer to a commercial aquarium boat for resale in the States. If you ever wondered where tropical aquarium fish come from, the upper Amazon is one of those places.
I took several pictures, and Moico and Roy shared our breakfast leftovers with the fisherman.
Just down stream of Puerto Miguel we approached an ungainly craft with several people calling out to Moico and us. One of the Amazonian Expeditionsí outing options was to go upstream of the base camp, construct a balsa wood raft and float back. The Burns boys, having chosen this option, were aboard this naval aberration along with Rosario and several other staff members from the base camp. They were obviously having fun flopping in the river and making like paddle wheels, but they were not making any headway beyond the speed of the current. I wondered what Huckleberry Finn would have thought of this five log creation with no deck.
Reunited, Cakes and Dancing
It was good to be ìhome.î The other happy campers were both pleased and surprised that we had made it back alive.
In my absence the other ìpassajerosî as we were called by the camp staff had had experiences of their own. Jim Easterling, in his small amount of luggage, had brought along a selection of discarded glasses to pass out to villagers who had never been exposed to corrective eye wear. The word had gone out to the village of Puerto Miguel that free glasses would be available with preferences given to those over 40 years of age. I am sorry I missed out on seeing the expressions on the faces of those who had never worn glasses and who found prescriptions that corrected their vision.
The staff, encouraged by Patty and her ever present smile and infinite energy, do special little things to generate group bonding at what we began to call our Amazonian summer camp. That night Danielo, our cook, presented me with a frosted chocolate cake decorated with the greeting ìWelcome back Mark.î It was truly amazing the things that Danielo could create for 11 passajeros and 17 staff in an open-walled, stilted hut with a log fire for a stove.
This evening there was extra excitement among the staff . It was Saturday night and that meant dancing at the cantina several miles upstream at Puerto Miguel. Passajeros and staff boarded the covered motor launch and set out for an evening of good fun with lights glaring and the on-board boom box blaring. The girls from the staff were all keyed up and bounced on the seats snapping their fingers to the music all the way to Puerto Miguel.
When we pulled up to the darkened, muddy bank of the Yarapa at 8:00 p.m., there was no sound from the nearby cantina. After ascending a steep flight of non-OSHA approved stairs to the flexible, trampoline-like dance floor with its numerous leg sized holes, we learned that the cantina was not open for dancing. A Town Meeting had been called, and to assure attendance, the district governor had forbade the owners to play any music without incurring a fine.
When we learned that the fine was only 20 soles (so¥-lays) about $10, we passajeros turned that amount over to the cantina owner who went to the town meeting to pay off the governor. There was some initial controversy regarding the volume level of the music, but it soon got to going at top volume. Strings of Christmas lights hanging from the open rafters, cast a non-seasonal holiday glow over our gathering.
There was no one there initially except our group. The young women on the camp staff sat separately and across the dance floor from me. When the first Latin American rock number cranked up, we all wondered who was going to brave a piece like that. The answer was forthcoming when Royís sister at her full 4-1/2 foot height sidled across the room and asked all 6 feet of me to dance.
I felt that it would be impolite to refuse and we started out with sort of a disco twist. My salvation came when I realized that the beat was the same as a polka. We launched into twists and turns and kicks. I gathered from the hoots of approval from the staff, that these steps had never been seen here before.
It was strange to see Nelson Buchwald, the Red Cross volunteer who had been so helpful in our crisis in Panama, saunter into the 4th of July/Christmas glow. It so happened that Puerto Miguel is his base of operation and this Saturday night he was feeling no pain.
After about one hour of dancing, all the passajeros, except the Burns boys, boarded the covered motor launch for the trip ìhome.î I bedded down in the white cocoon of my mosquitero and drifted off to the hooting of the frogs, the buzzing of katydids and the honk-snorting of several of my snoring companions.
Sunday 4 July 1993
A Day of Rest
We woke to bright sun and clear skies on this 4th of July. It would be a great evening for watching fireworks if we were in another country. After breakfast, preparations were made for a boat trip down the Yarapa to a beach front picnic on the broad expanse of the Ucayali River. I was so far behind in writing up my journal that I elected to stay behind and try to catch up on my entries.
I got in about four hours of writing and filled the remaining time with a shower in the baÒo instead of bathing in the river and with conversing with Juan Salas, a 43 year old member of the indigenous staff who had been left behind as the caretaker.
One of Juanís tasks was to bail out the completely swamped, gigantic dugout canoe. The dugout was about 30 ft. long and 7 ft. wide and had been hewn from a single tree. I sat on the dock and wrote as Juan patiently bailed with a five galon pail. As the free board of the canoe began to increase, Juan would stand straddle-legged on one of the seats and rock the boat on its long axis. If properly done, the water would slosh out. I joined Juan and added my energy to the process.
As the water level in the canoe dropped, we became aware of another life form beneath its surface. An 18î diameter sting ray had been trapped in the swamped canoe by the receding waters of the river. We took a paddle and scooped the ray out into the flow of the Yarapa. Juan told me that sting rays 4 ft. in diameter are sometimes caught in the bigger rivers like the Ucayali and the MaraÒon. I continue to be amazed at each appearance of another ocean denizen.
The day was one of needed rest and relaxation. That evening after dinner, to the light of flickering kerosene hurricane lamps, we all stood up at the table and sang ìThe Star Spangled Banner.î That was our 4th of July celebration in the jungle.
Monday 5 July 1993
Launching Another Campout
Several people had expressed a desire for a jungle camping experience and I was particularly anxious to get into the region of terra firma a region at a higher elevation where the forest is never flooded. The night before, the passajeros who were interested had discussed options with Jungle Patty, Moises and Rosario. We all agreed on going to terra firma and Moises recommended that a trip by motorized dugout up the Yarapa to the Yanayacu would be good for a group of six passajeros.
We were all up by 5:30 a.m. and began finalizing our packing for two nights in the jungle. Our entire group of passajeros had exhibited superb compatibility and I personally had no reservations about tramping off into the remoteness of terra firma with any of them.
Our entourage consisted of first and foremost, if for no other reason than numbers, Charme Burns, who is a mother of three sons all of whom were on this trip and is a teacher in Gainsville, Florida and a founding member of the Mountain Marching Mamas. As a Mountain-Marching Mama, Charme and three other mothers had nearly completed their goal of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. She amused us with tales of those intrepid four whose adventures included hikes for as long as 17 days without seeing another living person, and surviving mountain top electrical storms by squatting, tripod like, touching the ground only with one finger and 2 big toes. She would do ok here.
In addition, we were joined by two of Charmeís sons, Bryan and her youngest, Jamie, both in their 20ís. Charmeís third son, Brad, is an avid fisherman (ìI fish therefore I amî read one of his T-shirts) and had elected to stay behind to fish in the black-water lakes near the base camp.
Jan Cate added her charm and her enthusiasm for the outdoors to our group. Jan teaches a class for very gifted and talented 6-10 year olds in Orlando, Florida. She was constantly searching for shells and skulls to add to her growing school museum. As a matter of fact, she had succeeded in talking Moises out of a softball-sized snail shell that I had hoped to get. Cíest la vie.
Janís friend and traveling companion, Jim Easterling, added his extensive repertoire of adventure travels along with his professional medical skills to our assembly. Jim is jovial and easy going. His Spartan traveling style had taken him on mountain treks in the Peruvian Andes, up the Orinoco river in Venezuela and to isolated out-of-the-way spectacles like Angel Falls.
And then, there buried in this treasure of Amazonian travelers, was unassuming I.
An unspoken requirement among the camp staff seemed to be the maintenance of a high ratio of staff to passajeros. On this outing we were not quite up to 1:1 but almost. Our guides were Roy and Moises from my Atun Coche experience and Rosario reportedly the only trained female jungle guide in the Amazon basin and Ashuka who was to be our chef. There you have it all the passajeros and the staff.
Big Snakes and Black Water
By 9:00 a.m. we had had breakfast and were packed and loaded, two to a seat, in the giant dugout which I christened the Big Canoe-na. We motored up the Yarapa under clear skies and a comfortable 80 degrees. At the confluence with the dark waters of the Cumaseba River we turned left and continued upstream on the Yarapa. The water turned more brown and the river narrowed. We passed a large tourist lodge which was under construction. Every building and connecting breezeway was totally screened in. Each sleeping unit had a private bath. Such comfort seemed out of character with the high pitched, almost Tahitian style, thatched roofs. Eco-tourism for the rich and famous is coming to the upper Amazon basin.
As we proceeded further up stream, the river banks became higher and sandy beaches and sand bars began to appear. The high water line on the trees was getting closer to ground level.
There were more palm trees dispersed in the forest along the banks. Rust colored, termite-like nests of killer bees hung high on the trunks of larger trees. Nests of army ants hung from the lower branches. We were approaching terra firma.
The prow of the Big Canoe-Na had just passed the tangle of a downed tree in the river to our left when Moises shouted from the stern, ìAnaconda.î The outboard was quelled and we drift-paddled the length of the canoe down stream. There in the shade, draped over a dark-barked trunk of a downed tree was the glistening body of a 9 ft. long anaconda. None of us passajeros had seen it. A baby by anaconda standards but, in a global sense, any snake as thick as a grown manís thigh gets my respect.
Moises moved up to the bow and positioned himself to capture the lounging serpent. Roy and Ashuka moved the canoe forward and into the brush. The only sounds came from the gurgle of the river as it passed through the downed branches. Moico stepped from the canoe and onto the dead fall. The majestic reptile stirred, tossed us one disdainful glance and slid silently beneath the secure shroud of the silt-laden water. Another breathtaking brief encounter of the Amazonian kind.
Around 12:30 p.m. we turned right, off the brown colored Yarapa and crossed a distinct color transition into the black water of the Yanayacu River. Yanayacu is Kechua for blackwater (yana black, yacu water). The river was more like a stream with foliage from the opposing banks blending together just above our heads. The air became still and heavy as we entered this tunnel into the region called Terra Firma.
About 40 yards from the mouth of the Yanayaca, we nosed into a high embankment. There on the high ground above was a Shawara camp. In days gone by, these upper Amazon Indians collected and shrunk heads. They still hunt today with blow guns and poison darts tipped with curare!?
The owner was away and we began to claim floor space in a small single-floor guest hut and in the main hut which had a small loft containing some personal items including the skull of a large caiman. Behind the camp a small area had been cleared and planted in bananas and pineapple. Somewhere beyond, among the ants we were on our own to locate our bathroom facilities. Men among the trees to the left, women among the trees to the right. And watch out for snakes.
Ashuka started a cooking fire to prepare potatoes, our staple of rice, and our chicken which had lain around in the heat all day. Our lunch was, in fact, delicious and eagerly consumed. We were invited to swim and/or bathe in the dark water of the Yanayacu, but the opaque water with its gray film of forest pollen looked inviting to none of us.
An Afternoon Hike in Terra Firma
After lunch we divided into two hiking groups. Bryan, Jamie and I went with Moico down stream in the Big Canoe-Na and Charme, Jan and Jim hiked out from the huts. Moico led us down a poorly defined trail and honed in on the raucous chatter of a flock of macaws. He positioned us directly below the tree containing a dozen or more blue and gold macaws engaged in some sort of social dispute. We watched from below, vying for visual vantage points. Without notice, the racket overhead stopped and the splendid birds dispersed into the adjacent canopy.
Moico had several other surprises for us a tree whose bark served as an ointment to reduce the pain of a toothache, a vine that provided pure, sweet water for jungle travelers, and a tree whose sap burned like kerosene.
The liana de agua or water vine grows to a diameter of up to eight inches. Moises would select a vine about three inches in diameter and sever it completely into a slanted cut with a single swing of the machete. He would free a section with another cut about three feet higher. As soon as the second cut was made, water would begin to flow from the lower cut. It was a simple matter to elevate the section of vine above our mouths like a sword to be swallowed and allow the cupful or so of water to flow down our throats.
The sap of the ìkeroseneî tree which is found throughout the jungles of Central and South America could be induced to flow by gashing the bark. The sap could be ignited with a match and would burn with a smoky flame. The smoke had a pungent fragrance. This sap, known as copal was used by the Mayan Indians of Meso America as an incense in ritual human sacrifices. It hardens into a tar-like substance which the indigenous people use to seal leaks in their canoes and to coat and seal blow guns.
Back at the camp we had a light super of packaged chicken noodle soup and waited for night to fall. There were no clouds in the sky when the sun was swallowed by the jungle. The waxing moon which had brightened our earlier evenings had fallen behind in its rising. As we stepped out from beneath the roof of our dining shelter we found ourselves once again breathless as we looked up into what we expected to be blackness.
Up the Yanayacu
The sky was ablaze with stars. There was no pollution, no ambient light from cities or even any light from camp fires to confound our eyes. The stars hung like closely spaced diamonds embedded in deep pile black velvet, each emitting its own enigmatic brilliance. The entire universe in its marvelous splendor draped itself around us like a warm cloak on a cold night. Awestruck, we continued to gaze skyward, drinking in even the lowest magnitude stars. We could even see the two moons of Jupiter with the unaided eye. We felt inadequate in our sparse, combined knowledge of the celestial pathways.
We all boarded the Big Canoe-Na, slipped out under the overhanging trees and motored upstream on the Yarapa River. After some time, Roy shut off the motor and nosed the long dugout down stream. The current gripped the sides of the boat and we drifted silently back toward the Yanayacu. There were no special sightings of wildlife this evening, but the drift itself under the Amazon sky was exceptional. I had never appreciated how convoluted the river course was until I realized that the entire panorama of the sky was rotating in front us. As the bow of the canoe took the bends of the river, we swung through the entire 360∞ of the compass rose. The sky ahead of us scrolled through the complete array of heavenly displays the Southern Cross, Scorpio, Bereniceís hair, Pegasus, Ursa Major and individual players like Jupiter with its moons, and Arcturus, and Spica.
At one point, Jan called out that she saw a shooting star and that it was still shooting. Our eyes followed the guide of her pointing finger and located a steady pinpoint of light traveling in a dead straight line across the uncharted sky. We were jarred back into the reality of the technological world to which we belonged as we watched the satellite disappear in the maze of stars. One of our party members asked, "Why do they put lights on satellites?" without stopping to think that we were merely viewing the rays of our own sun reflected off this piece of orbiting hardware.
We were back at camp by 7:30 p.m. and tucked in bed by 8:00. The tent that had comfortably held Moico, Roy and me on our earlier camping outing had been set up to accommodate Jim, Bryan, Jamie and me. What was once comfortable had now become crowded. Jim made a friendly comment that we would be able to turn over without any trouble if I had not brought my entire chest-of-drawers in the tent with me. By 3:30 a.m. I was slept out.
Tuesday - 6 July 1993
Hike to the Headwaters of the Yanayacu
The entire camp was up and at 'um by 5:30 a.m.
We motored upstream on the Yarapa in the early morning fog for a bird watching drift back to camp. There were not as many birds out as there had been on my first drift downstream from the base camp for what seemed like ages ago. We did log a small kestrel called a tiny hawk, a ruffus kingfisher, a masked crimson tanager and white collared swift. The white collared swifts are found only around the high jungle of the upper Yarapa and are never seen in the company of the white winged swallows which are so common around the base camp. I wondered what combination of competitive pressures like food supply and nesting sites kept these seemingly similar birds isolated from one another. Moico noted that he and others have observed birds in this region of the high jungle which are not named in any of the bird guides available to the Amazonian Expeditions staff. I wondered how many thousands of insects, fish, animals and plants fell into that same category of "UNKNOWN."
Back at camp, we toked up on coffee-soaked sugar and a breakfast of scrambled eggs. After breakfast, Jim, Jan and Charme headed downstream at 8:45 a.m. to the site we had visited the afternoon before, and Bryan, Jaime, and I headed out into the high jungle with Moico. I thought this was going to be a short stroll like the afternoon before. Fortunately, I took along two pints of water.
After about 20 minutes ,we came upon a clearing containing a thatched-roof palapa and a dugout canoe in the early stages of construction. The camp was on the bank of the now very narrow Yanayacu. Moico announced that we were going to hike to the headwaters of the Yanayacu. Moico turned at an angle to the river bank and faced the jungle undergrowth. He cut the air with the heel of his hand indicating our intended direction of travel and said, "We go this way. Three hours." Without hesitation or question, we left the security of our newly found clearing and followed this diminutive man into the dim light of the tangled undergrowth.
The light in the jungle understory was diffuse. No single, defined beam of sunlight could make it through the forest canopy above. The forest floor was 6 inches deep in leaf debris. That carpet of debris beneath our feet was being relentlessly converted into plant food by a legion of bacteria, fungus and insects. This was not the kind of place where one would readily sit.
We marched in a steady but unhurried pace among the vines and low palms. I asked Moises, with a mixture of concern and interest, how he knew where he was going. He looked at me in surprise and motioned in several directions as he answered, "The river is over there, our camp is behind us and the sun is above. What more is there to know?" Moises worked with neither a compass nor a watch. He would on occasion ask someone to confirm the time of day. He was never off by more than five minutes. Since he could tell the time of day without direct access to the sun, I figured he must also have some bits of magnetite lodged in his brain to give him a sense of magnetic direction.
Against my better judgment and with no better alternative than trust, I accepted my situation and pressed forward. At one point, I paused briefly for a relief stop. When I turned to catch up with the others, I was amazed to find that they had vanished. No sight, no sound. Some 40 feet ahead, Jamie had waited for me. It was amazing how difficult it was to see him. The moral: stay together or walk alone.
I walked directly behind Moico and watched him closely for signs of his jungle lore. I noticed that in a very casual fashion he would grip the terminal frond of a low growing palm sapling between his thumb and forefinger. In a flowing motion that did not interfere with his headway he would snap and twist the end of the frond. This action would leave it hanging, tip down with the light colored underside facing in the direction of our travel. Moises was quietly blazing our return trail. The trail would remain marked until the frond tips browned and fell off. Within a few days, the trail markings would no longer exist to confuse another traveler.
Bryan was third in line when he called out, "There's a snake in the trail." A 4 foot long, dark-banded reptile which Moico and I had disturbed in our passing slithered between Bryan and me.
"Don't touch it. It's a deadly coral snake," said Moises mater-of-factly.
As I prepared to photograph the snake, Moises stepped forward to dispatch it with his machete.
"Wait," I said. "It hasn't hurt you."
"But it can kill you."
"If it's in your house, Moico, it's alright to kill it. But you are in its living room now and this snake is part of the balance of life in the jungle. You destroy it and you will change a portion of a natural balance that neither of us understands. Let it live!"
Then I set out to encourage the snake out into the open with a stick. I wasn't prepared for the writhing and lunging display that followed. The snake wrapped the last three inches of his tail into a half hitch, and turned up his yellow belly in a startle display as he struck at me. I gave him plenty of berth. After a few pictures we allowed him to disappear completely under the leaf litter. You never know what you might be stepping on in this forest carpet.
Moises continued leading us, but he was visibly annoyed that I had interfered with his code of the jungle.
We encountered several less threatening residents during this high jungle trek. A foot long green tree lizard hung head down on the trunk of a Ceiba tree. A gaudy cicada with a feather duster tail prominently displayed on the bark of a tree. As we passed some low palms with banana tree like leaves, puffs of fur wafted silently across the trail and came to rest several paces ahead of us suspended from the underside of a palm leaf.
Moises pointed to the small mammal and announced with precision in his words, "Tan naked bat".
"Tan naked bat?," I asked. "Yes, tan naked bat."
The bat was tan and it didn't appear to have much fur on it, so the name seemed to fit. Then Moises showed us where the bats had chewed across the spine of the leaf causing the tip to fold downward, thereby creating a shelter with a roof to shed the rain. I then recognized the behavior.
"Oh, you mean," I said emphatically "tent-making bats.".
Relieved that he had finally been understood, Moico replied, "Yes! Tan naked bats!"
Moises stopped at a large tree that looked like any other major canopy species and called our attention to a series of parallel scratches that spanned at least five inches.
"A jaguar has sharpened his claws here. The scratches are fresh. Not more than two days old."
"Good story, Tonto", I thought, with some disbelief. [I dared not utter that phrase since tonto in Spanish means stupid or fool. How the Lone Ranger old Kemasabe himself (Quien no sabe he who no one knows) got away with that on radio and TV all those years without an Indian uprising is beyond me.]
In the middle of my thought, Moises pointed to smears of mud on the tree between the scratches. "The jaguar rubbed the mud off the underside of his jaw here. The mud is not yet dry. No more than two days old."
"OK, Moico," I thought again. "Tarzan has nothing on you. You lead. I follow."
With the sun higher in the sky, but still no more visible, the humidity in the understory was building. The jungle felt like it was getting more dense. My back was reacting negatively to the lumpy camera gear in my rucksack. I had to sit and rest but all the chairs were occupied by Sabah ants. Comic relief was provided by flocks of screaming Pihahs with their raucous calls. These birds are also known as the Playboy bird since their calls sound exactly like high volume wolf whistles.
Three hours into the hike we came upon the banks of a narrow, shallow, clear stream and Moises announced that we had reached the headwaters of the Yanayacu. With the tip of his machete, he carved each of our names in bold letters into the trunk of a tree. It is interesting to ponder that somewhere in the jungles of Peru, beyond the end of the Amazon, in the upper reaches of the Yanayacu there is a Machimango tree, whose location is known only to Moises Chavez that bears the inscription
We broke off a tree branch and suspended it between two draped lianas. I rested my camera on a fork in the horizontally suspended branch and set the camera in the timed exposure mode. With our make-shift jungle tripod in place and the red count-down light blinking wildly, we four posed in a ridiculously outlandish position in front of our inscription and had our images captured for the lifetime of a Kodak moment.
A Dip in the Yanayacu
We made a forced march home and passed all the land marks that I could identify and all those I couldn't. We even stopped to take another look at the tan naked bats. We jumped an elusive tinamou from its calling place on the forest floor. Our coral snake was no where to be found.
Back at camp, Ashuko had already cut down a palm tree and made chonta, heart of palm salad, and had prepared fried catfish in a delicious batter. The other members of our camping party expressed concern that we were so late in returning. They were so consumed with concern that they had eaten all the chonta before we got there.
After lunch, Jamie walked out on the Big Canoe-Na and contemplated jumping into the Yanayacu. People shouted;, "Don't dive, Jamie. If you jump in, don't put your head under, don't get your lips wet." etc., etc. Ignoring all, Jamie just jumped in. His head and long tresses disappearing under the surface. Later I, too, took a dip in the black water of the Yanayacu which had looked so scummy the night before. It was physically the same, it was just that my attitude had changed. The cool water closing around my fatigued body was refreshing and blocked out all the reservations I had about the river and its inhabitants.
The afternoon was spent just lounging around, looking at butterflies and soaking up Amazonian sun. Around mid-afternoon, a short, heavy-set elderly Shawara Indian paddled his dugout canoe filled with boxes of aquarium fish up to the landing and came ashore. I spoke to him in Spanish and learned that this was his house, and that we were welcome to stay. I asked him if the caiman skull was his and he said that it was. I asked if he was interested in selling it. He said yes and priced it at $5.00 US. I offered $3.00 and he immediately accepted. I had to borrow the $3.00 from Bryan to close the deal.
This purchase blew Jan's mind. She is really into skulls of all sorts and would have dearly loved to have gotten this prize for her collection. She had found a garbage dump on the edge of the camp where parts from butchered animals had been thrown. There she had found the skull of a small forest deer and the jawbone of an agouti. I ended up exchanging the caiman skull for the large apple snail which Moico had cleaned for Jan several days earlier. I somehow felt that I had made a real coup de gras (that's French for mow the lawn NOT).
That evening we shared our dinner of arroz e pollo (rice and chicken) with the owner of the camp. Chicken and rice, fish and rice, tuna and rice, beef and rice. It was always good, but it was getting to the point that arroz by any other name was still rice.
After another silent drift down the river in the evening, we crawled into our sleeping areas for the night at 8:00 p.m.
Wednesday 7 July 1993
Awake in the Jungle
I was not only slept out again by 1:30 a.m., I was also faced with the demanding complication of bacterial warfare that was going on in my lower intestines. I made a rapid exit through the tent flap, trying to avoid stepping in the faces of the other three men sharing the tent with me. With no moonlight and only a flashlight with a small beam, I was faced with the challenge of finding a suitable place to relieve my misery. Wandering through the jungle brush in the dark in a boxer bathing suit was not my idea of going to the men's room at MacDonalds. My rest area ended up being involuntarily selected.
Prior to going to bed, I had sprayed myself with insect repellent. That included spraying whatever clothing I had on at the time specifically, my boxer bathing suit. While wandering around in the brush during my nighttime foray, I had not been bothered by flying insects. I was, however, not prepared for what happened when I had to fly my boxer bathing suit at half mast. In so doing, I opened the grocery store to every blood sucking bug in the nighttime forest. Talk about conflict of interest. I had to have my shorts down but I really wanted to have them up.
Prior to going on this trip, I had read about categories of travelers. The extremes were defined by the terms psycocentric and allocentric. Psycocentric travelers are those who are focused on self and sameness. They are the people who go from home to a resort that is just like where they left. The accommodations are like the ones at home. The food is like the food at home. People speak your language and share your culture. The only change is that you are not sleeping in your own bed and you are not cooking your own food. These are the golf resorters, the Holiday Inners and the Disney Worlders.
On the opposite end are the allocentric travelers. "Allo" means different. Allocentric travelers then are those who focus on a total change in their environment different food, culture, language, accommodations, each with no resemblance to their daily activities. As I squatted in the jungle swatting mosquitoes from my necessarily exposed back side, I realized that I was experiencing truly allocentric travel.
The night had turned hot and sticky. There was no breeze and the jungle was quiet. Rather than returning to the confines of the tent and try to fall asleep in the narrow boundaries of my designated sleeping area, I chose to sit quietly under the thatched roof of the main quarters. The beam of my head-mounted miners lamp attracted a column of flying insects directly in front of me. The column of insects, in turn, attracted insectivorous flying mammals that performed aeroBATics while enjoying their newly found food supply. I was able to capture some of that scene with well timed flash shots. (My camp mates complained the next morning about having been disturbed by flashes of lightning during the night.) I finally crawled back into the tent at 3:00 a.m. and slept until 5:30.
Base Camp Revisited
Breakfast was served at 6:30 a.m., and we departed for the base camp, surprisingly, on schedule, at 7:30 a.m. with the Shawara Indian and his canoe in tow. Just before leaving the landing, all the passejeros were asked to stand up in the Big Canoe-Na to sing Happy Birthday to Jan Cate who had just turned 42 (sorry Jan, you can no longer be 39). Jan has made it a point for the last several years to be in a different part of the world every year on her birthday.
We were in no great rush, so the first part of our trip back to the base camp was done by simply drifting on the current. There must have been a lot of rain upstream because the Yarapa had turned a dark milky brown and had noticeably risen. We saw some additional spectacular birds. Flocks of white-necked herons the Amazon equivalent of the great blue heron commonly seen in the US, played leap frog in an attempt to stay ahead of our intimidating entourage. Capped herons with their black toupee and outlandish blue bills fished in the newly created shallows along the banks. Black nun birds perched in the low hanging branches and black collared hawks like sentinels surveyed the river from the top of the canopy. As we approached Puerto Miguel, we recognized landmark trees sporting their nesting colonies of orapendulas and yellow rumped casiques.
Back at the base camp, the heavy rain that we had eluded on all our camping trips arrived with a vengeance. The sky opened and the clay bank leading up from the river to the camp dormitory turned into slime. We stood under the protection of the palapa and looked out into the curtain of water, thankful that we had more than a tent for shelter.
Swimming With Pink Dolphins
During the downpour, Jungle Patty intrigued us with tales of having seen, just the day before, dozens of pink dolphins at the mouth of the Yarapa River in the bay formed by its confluence with the voluminous Ucayali and MaraÒon Rivers. We had to make the trip. The rain subsided, the sun came out and we all piled in the big aluminum boat and powered down the Yarapa River to see the legendary pink mermaids of the Amazon.
When we reached the open expanses of the Amazon, Roy cut the motor and we drifted and looked, but not quietly. We banged on the bottom of the aluminum boat and whistled at top volume to call the sirens of the deep.
Joan Felch called out, "There's one!" Then there was another and another. These quaint aquatic mammals were displaying with their open jaws pointing skyward. They circled the boat at a cautious distance. Patty announced that this was too much and she jumped into the water to get a closer look. She was soon followed by Jamie and Bryan. Ah, the vigor of youth.
As the boat drifted away, the dolphins came closer to inspect the awash swimmers. As in fish tales, the story will grow to legend proportions in which the dolphins approached close enough to be embraced by the dispersed swimmers. But let it be known that I did not see that happen. From my vantage point as a cameraman who photographed numerous images of empty stretches of water in an attempt to capture a single shot of a pink dolphin, the closest they came to any of the swimmers was 15 feet well, maybe ten feet. In any event, it was an exhilarating experience.
On the trip back to the base camp, another fish jumped into the boat. The fish was not large, only about ten inches long and very tall and thin. Moises called it a dog fish. It looked more like an inhabitant of the deep scattering layer found at depths greater than 5000 feet far out in the Atlantic Ocean. Its lower jaw had two vicious, long fangs that nested into two sheath holes in its upper jaw. When its jaws were closed, the fangs protruded through the skull (Jan doesn't have one of those). At the insistence of Bea Simpson, I returned the weird fish back to its environment.
Red Lace Panties and Tarantulas
Things were beginning to wind down back at base camp. One more day and we would be heading downstream and northeast, back to Iquitos. But we still had market day to look forward to. The word is known around the area that every second Thursday, the gringos would be open to the sale of native crafts. I had never before thought of myself as a market pressure, but I realized that we all were. Is this our impact on the third world economy? Are we being good eco-travelers in bringing our western goods to these people?? I don't have the answer. I do feel strongly, however, that zealous missionaries with their myopic view of culture and morals are doing irreparable damage to tribal peoples throughout the world.
Now that I have said all that, I have to tell you about my impact on the local people. I had been advised by previous visitors to this region, that a good barter item was frilly ladies panties. Back in the states, I had gone to K-Mart and bought, on sale, some panties that would make Fredricks of Hollywood shoppers blush. As I wandered through the forest of displayed lingerie in K-Mart, not knowing much about size, I spotted a petit woman who was also shopping.
"Excuse me," I said. "Could I get your help here? You see, I am going off to the upper Amazon in a few weeks and I have been told that frilly panties are good items to use for barter with the headhunters. You are about the size of their women. Could you tell me what size you are??"
"Is this for real?" she asked. "I've never heard this line before."
When I assured her that no one could make up such a ridiculous approach, she became intrigued and helped me select panties with enthusiasm. (If any male who reads this uses this line with success, I would be interested, solely out of curiosity, in knowing).
I brought out some of my purchases to ask Patty what she thought about using them for barter items. When she saw my pair of iridescent, red lace panties, she said she had to have them. She went to her coffer of barter items and pulled out a blue, velour and white lace dress for a four-year-old girl and I struck my first Amazonian barter deal my K-Mart lace panties for Patty's garage sale dress. The panties fit Patty; the dress was too small for me.
As we were all preparing to settle into bed for the night, Mirinda, one of the women in our group, with her vision fixed on the rail by her pallet quietly, deliberately and very slowly said, "I just saw the biggest spider that I have ever seen that was not rubber."
Later searches for spider shine located the tarantula hiding among the thatch in the rafters above our beds. Good night and sweet dreams, I thought.
Thursday 8 July 1993
I was so far behind in writing in my journal that I took my 1:20 a.m. wake up time as an opportunity to catch up on some entries. I sat in the screened-in dining area and wrote by the light of a kerosene hurricane lantern. At 4:10 in the morning, the jungle outside was under cloudy skies and pitch black dark. My only companions had been bats rustling in the eaves of the thatched roof off to my left. I suddenly became aware of a muffled slap, swish of a canoe paddle out on the murky Yarapa. The first canoe of many was arriving from a distant village. Others followed.
Quietly at first, the villagers beached their canoes, then suppressed waffling of conversation began to spread along the shore. By 5:30 a.m. the villagers had each staked out a place along a corridor paralleling the dormitory to display their wares. They anxiously began the long wait until the gringos awoke.
Then it started to rain. Mild pandemonium broke out. Patty was already up and she moved into gear. In the dim light of a few kerosene lanterns, we cleared the tables out of the dining room and the mass of vendors began to set up shop in the cleared area. People were milling around in the dark everywhere. Beads and pottery were in danger of being crushed underfoot.
As abruptly as it had started, the rain stopped. The villagers knew where they wanted to be and they immediately gathered up their wares and moved outside again. The passejeros were now up and beginning to peer out into the fading darkness. The anticipation of a sale gleamed in the unassuming faces of each of the 30 or more villagers as they stood proudly over their creations of native crafts. I hung the panties and my little girl dress on hangers suspended from my collar and stepped into the fray as a walking barter advertisement.
I bought a canoe paddle for ten soles ($5.00), a six-foot-long blow gun with a quiver of darts for 15 soles, and traded the panties and dress for various exotic necklaces made from palm seeds, shells, caiman teeth and piranha jaws. I also purchased bows and arrows, and several baskets. I was also wearing a baseball type cap with heavy embroidery on the crown and brim. One of the little girls was clearly desirous of my cap. Her innocent anxiousness destroyed any attempt at poker-faced bargaining. I asked her what she would give for the cap. She motioned to her complete display of jungle jewelry and said "Todos," all of it. I settled for a necklace with a snail shell pendant. It was interesting to note the confusion that was generated when buying things with actual dollars. The majority of the villagers could not get it straight whether one sole was equal to two dollars or the other way around.
There were also some obvious problems in market analysis. True blow guns can be up to 12 feet long. There was one man who was proudly displaying a full sized, 12 foot long blow gun. He had never figured out that tourists have a great deal of difficulty in transporting such a purchase back to the States in the bay of a jet aircraft. It was a little sad that we could not buy everything that was offered and some of the villagers probably went away at the end of the market at 9:00 a.m. without having made a sale. Everyone, however, seemed to have had a good time. These people smile a lot.
During the course of the market, after I had completed my own purchases, I noticed a 2- to 3-year old boy crying in his mother's arms. I took out my flute and began to play a lullaby to the child. His crying stopped and he listened intently to a sound like none he had ever heard before.
Market day ended at 9:00 a.m., almost as abruptly as it had started. The dugout canoes pulled away from the floating dock and headed downstream. The mother of the crying child waved a warm good-bye to me as the canoe pushed out into the languid current.
During lunch, we had a town meeting and agreed to collect a tip of $30 each for the camp staff. Patty told us later that that was the biggest tip that the staff had ever received and that they were overwhelmed. They deserved every sole.
The Last Arrawana
After lunch I went with Moises and Jan in the aluminum launch to fish for one last time in Lake Ubos just downstream from the base camp. Jan was a good sport and a good fisher (person?). I demonstrated casting with the left hand and she immediately got the hang of it. Unfortunately, she never personally had a fish strike one of her casts regardless of how good they were. I did get a fish on and she reeled it in with gusto. The 14 inch long arawana was not a trophy catch but it brought pleasure to Jan's eyes.
I stowed the fish in the floor boards of the launch as we continued casting in among the aquatic growth along the shoreline. I recalled the Lil' Abner comic strips of many years ago and the Schmoos, little hamhock-like animals whose greatest desire in the world was to prepare themselves for consumption by humans. The arawana falls in the same category. As the fish suffocated beneath the floorboards of the launch it began to lose its quarter-sized scales. They fell off in large plaques. I had never seen a self-scaling fish before. Danielo later prepared him for dinner.
Back at camp, most people made plans to go to Puerto Miguel for a big soccer game in which some of the camp staff was to compete. I chose to stay back and enjoy a shower. The Yarapa had become too muddy to bathe in. I just lounged around, packed for departure and enjoyed the three-toed sloth who was slowly consuming the leaves in the upper branches of the camp cecropia tree.
While I was in Papua New Guinea working with the identification of jungle moths, I learned about a symbiotic relationship between a species of flightless moth and the sloth. There is a moth that lives on the sloth and feeds on the fungus that grows on its fur. The sloth, like the koala, has a slow digestive system and the Cecropia leaves have sufficient time to ferment in the sloth's gut. Supposedly, that is why the animal appears to be so drunk and is so slothful. The sloth spends most of its life in the tree tops, but it has to make a weekly trip down from the canopy to relieve itself. When it does, the flightless moths frantically abandon ship to lay their eggs in the feces which are rich in vegetable matter. When the larvae hatch, they are guaranteed an abundant supply of food until they can metamorphose into adults and set off in search of another sloth. I was told that sloths are easy to hunt. You hardly have to lead them at all.
As I mentioned earlier, the previous trip by Harald Witting, the adventuresome German (he is actually Austrian), and the things he had done had almost become legend in this part of the upper Amazon. Patty, however, had decided that my exploits exceeded those of Harald and provided me with a hand-written version of the following letter signed by all of the passejeros.
We passengers, totaling 12 wild and adventurous campers would like you to realize this fact.
That Marc Borom walked around in his bathing suit almost naked, for 98% of the expedition. He even hiked in his very tiny bathing suit.
He did more than you did. Went on an almost survival camping trip with Moises walking to Atun Lake by himself. Just Marc, Moises and Roy.
We just wanted to let you know this:
HE BEAT YOUR BUTT.
Patty Webster Bryan Burns
Charme Burns Jan Cate
Jamie Burns Brad Burns
James Easterling Louis Graf
The Great Jumping Fish
Some people never give up. At dinner, we were presented with final options for Amazonian experiences. Most of the passejeros elected to stay in camp and pack for departure the next morning. Not me. At 8:00 p.m. Jim Easterling, Charme and Jamie Burns, Roy and I set out to make one last trip to Lake Ubos to experience the night sounds around the lake.. As we pushed away from the dock, it was apparent that Roy, at the helm, was concerned that Moico was not along. I had not realized how dependent he was on Moicoís guidance as the long launch proceeded downstream. I, El Gringo, had taken on the job of navigator. In my position in the bow, I scanned the dark waters ahead for snags and prop-fowling aquatic vegetation. Roy became more comfortable with my abilities. We even spotted several caimans lying in the water beneath the overhanging branches along the banks of the river.
Roy turned the long aluminum launch left into the access channel into Lake Ubos. We were all scanning the water for caiman shine and scanning the tree trunks along the banks in search of the resident tarantula. Roy seemed to anticipate what was about to happen. He gunned the outboard and the prow of the boat rose out of the water as it lurched forward. A huge school of "sardines" lying just below the surface was startled by the combination of our lights and the bow wave of the launch.
The water literally exploded. Fish lept out in two to three foot arcs. In the beams of our flashlights, they looked like streamers from fireworks. They slapped against the sides of the boat, bounced off our bodies and fell flapping at our feet. We broke into uncontrollable laughter. Even after the boat entered the mouth of the lake and the school of fish was behind us, we were still doubled up in laughter with tears rolling down our cheeks. It was just one of those things where you had to be there.
The moon was not out. This was supposed to be good for caiman spotting. We circled the entire lake without seeing a single caiman. We turned the motor off to listen to the frog chorus one last time. To our amazement, the lake was quiet as a tomb. Not a frog, not a calling nightjar, not a single insect. I was so glad I had not waited until the last night to record jungle sounds.
As we left the lake, we located the tree with the hole where the tarantula lived. Even the tarantula was not to be found. But this night had already been made special by catapulting fish.
Friday 9 July 1993
After, what had become for me, a typical night of rest, I woke at 3:30 a.m. in the disappointing knowledge that my last night in the Amazon had ended. I crawled out of my mosquitero and contemplated my still sleeping companions. Patty stirred and crawled out as well.
"We had just as well get things underway," she whispered to me.
"Can you get to your flute??"
"Yes." I replied.
At 3:45 a.m. the whole camp was startled into wakefulness by an extemporaneous flute concert which rolled with energy and vigor all the way up to high C and back. I was rewarded with giggles from Dolly and general applause from the staff sleeping quarters.
The next set of events was conducted like a military operation. In 20 minutes, the entire dormitory area had been cleared of mosquiteros, sleeping pallets and all our luggage. We were completely loaded and on our way downstream by 4:30 a.m.
Breakfast was cooked in the galley and served on board after we entered the Amazon. The weather was overcast. There was a light drizzle. The temperature felt like 65∞F. We sat bundled up on the gunnel benches with the plastic sheeting pulled down over the window areas to keep out the rain and the spray.
We had become more than a fairly well bonded group. We had lost a lot of our self-consciousness in the process. No one even raised an eyebrow when Jim, who had become our resident medical resource person, asked, solicitously, of a woman sitting diagonally across the boat from him, "How's your diahrrea this morning?" Nor were we supprised when she answered, "Good. I had firm stools in my last BM."
What a contrast to our trip up the river. I had planned to coat my body with some final rays of sunshine; instead, I was wrapped in a sweater, a rain parka and a wool hat. The rain stopped, but the sun never came out. After all, it was winter south of the Equator.
Earlier in the week, the 65 h.p. motor which had pushed us upstream had given up the ghost. It had been removed from the stern of the tour launch, put into a motorized canoe and carted off to Iquitos for repair. Two days later the canoe returned with a replacement motor. Somewhere along the way they had lost ten horses.
With the current in our favor, having only 55 horse power was not such a detriment. We pulled up to the dock in Iquitos just before noon. We had made the trip back in half the time it took us to go upstream. Is there a math word problem hidden in here somewhere? Are you listening, teachers?
On the Town
After checking into the three-star Ambassador Hotel and getting the refrigeration turned on in our rooms, we convened in the lobby for a Patty-led assault on Iquitos. She assembled a convoy of motorized jitneys, negotiated a one sole fare to the Belem district and we were off like a phalanx of Saratoga trotters.
Traffic in Iquitos, as seen from the passenger seat of a jitney, can be terrifying. There are multiple near-collisions as the jitneys vie for position. But none happened while we were underway. One of our jitneys, however, had its drive chain fall off the sproket. To replace it was a simple matter of having the two passengers step out, tipping the cart on its side and repositioning the chain.
Belem is the poorer district of Iquitos and the home to the fabled floating city on the Amazon. There are people here who spend their entire lives living on boats that are moored together. As we walked through the more permanent section of Belem we noticed high water marks almost up to the second floor on the buildings. During the height of the rainy season. The district is under water and the streets become canals.
Today, the streets were dry and filled with vendors' booths. There were some booths that were mini-department stores and others that were specialty shops. One of Patty's favorite shops displayed jungle medicines tree bark, herbs, leaves, etc., and people seemed to know what they were good for. Patty led us to the only store that carried that potent firewater, Huitochado. I tasted it again, but didn't buy. I later bought, for $5.00, a one-person mosquitero for camping in the Adirondacks.
I did, however, cause a major disturbance. As we walked through the narrow marketways of Belem, I nearly stepped on a dead rodent. I called it to Jim Easterling's attention by pointing and saying, "Cuidado. Ratta muerta." I thought I had said "Caution. Dead rat." Well, I was close, but no cigar. The local men within ear shot broke into laughter and kept repeating "Ratta muerta. Ratta muerta." The chant followed us quite a ways down the street.
The Spanish word for rat is raton. I know that. I have even visited Boca Raton (rat's mouth), Florida. Ratta, I learned later, is a crude word describing a woman's private part. I consoled myself in the knowledge that you can't learn a foreign language if you are afraid of making mistakes.
Patty launched another jitney journey across town to the Craft Fair. (In the confusion of paying for and deboarding our jitney, I walked away and left the sack containing my mosquitero in the back seat. It was gone forever.) The Craft Fair is a walled area which houses a number of upscale native craft shops. It is definitely designed for the tourist trade but the jewelry is not quite up to Tiffany's. After about an hour of shopping we had covered all the vendors and had bought all that we needed or wanted.
Jitneys took us all back to our three-star hotel. We walked down to the cliff overlooking the mud-laden Amazon. At an open-air bar perched on the edge of the dropoff, we said our farewells to the river that had offered us so much over the last ten days. I chose not to have any ice in my drink, but Patty said it was alright to use the ice since the bar made their ice cubes with purified water. I went with her judgement.
That evening, Patty (representing Amazonian Expeditions and dressed to party in a short, blue, shoulderless, silk dress) treated all the passejeros and all the Amazonian camp staff to dinner at a local Chinese restaurant. Everyone was exhausted except Patty who went out on the town after dinner.
I put my pooped body in bed by 9:30 p.m. Room #4, which I shared with Jim again was air conditioned and unusually cold.
Saturday 10 July 1993
The Curse of the Shawara
Maybe it wasn't just the air conditioning. I woke at 5:30 a.m. in a cold sweat trying to fight off an attack of nausea. I didn't know what had hit me, but it was bad. And I was facing a five-hour plane ride plus departure and Customs lines on either end. Not a situation to be complicated with nausea and diarrhea. It didn't matter at that point whether I had had a bad dose of Huitochado, contaminated ice cubes, bad Chinese cuisine or whatever. I had to get beyond this.
I rummaged through my luggage, trying not to wake Jim, and took out doses of ciprofloxin, kaopectate and, since it was malaria prophalaxis time, larium. I washed them all down with water I had brought from the base camp in my canteen.
I struggled up to the restaurant for breakfast at 7:00 a.m. but had to rush back to the room and yield to the demands being made of me by foreign invaders. I lay in bed trying to hold on. Others in the group took my luggage out to be loaded in the van. Miraculously, my strength began to return, and by 8:30 a.m. I was able to board the van and stand in lines at the Iquitos airport without fear of cramps and distress. I was really lucky. Or maybe it was just good antibiotics and the rheological control offered by a combination of good old clay (kaolin) and pectin.
The rest of the trip was just plain psycocentric. I had to overnight in Miami at the Maimi Marriott. First class restaurant, free ice for your room, cable TV, king-sized bed, air-conditioned room, smoke-free carpeting, electricity, hot-water showers, in-room telephones, clock radio, etc. "There's none of this in the Amazon," I thought.
As I drifted off to sleep in the expanse of my king-sized bed, the sounds of owl frogs tugged enticingly in the depths of my being. I knew I would return to hear them again.
Appendix AThe Creation of an Adventure Trip
I. The Beginning
Could you find a place for this ad in the Trading Post??
Warm bodies and stout hearts.
Is your life blah??
Is every day the same??
Maybe you need an exposure to high adventure !
Become a part of a Whitney Club noontime presentation. Join Niskayuna Borom this winter (1993) on an expedition to the Peruvian jungles.
Float down the Ucayali in the Upper Amazon basin. Experience first person encounters with hoatzins, sloths, piranha, jaguars, 30 foot anacondas, and head shrinking Campa and Jivaro indians.
If you are interested in more information, send your request by E-mail to BOROM.
II. Transmission of Initial Information
Regarding this wild and crazy trip up the Amazon (with a paddle).
The per person land cost is approximately $1400. Airfare from Miami to Iquitos, Peru (not to be confused with Quito, Equador) is currently $510. The land cost includes all meals and lodging once we have been met in Iquitos by the outfitters (Amazonian Expeditions). The itinerary would require 14 days in Peru plus whatever additional time is required to get to and from Iquitos It appears that we will be able to get to Iquitos in one long day from Albany. The flight from Miami to Iquitos leaves at 6 pm, but it is necessary that we arrive in Miami no later than 3 pm. It takes several hours to get checked in with the Peruvian airline, and if you are not cleared within 1 hour before departure, they confiscate your ticket and resell it. You get no refund. Consequently, this is serious buisness.
We have now settled on a trip date (March 6-March 20, 1993) In Peru we will spend the first night in Iquitos with Amazonian Expeditions. We would spend our second night in an Amazonian tourist lodge a little up-river from Iquitos. This is supposed to be very comfortable and suitable for rubbernecking tourists who are more accustomed to theme parks.
Our third night would be spent one dayís boat ride up-river with an Indian tribe in their village homes. (How about that for wild???) Our next stage involves an additional one day motor launch trip further up river to a base camp (according to Paul, it has been upgraded over 12 years from primitive to rustic). The camp has beds with fresh linen, mosquito netting (they say no mosquitos, but there are at least 29 million other species of insects to deal with) and terrific food. There will be day hikes to visit special places where rare species of animals, birds and fish are to be found (including the worlds smallest primates and freshwater, pink dolphins). If you are really adventurous, there are special excursions which are offered (e.g. a 3 day survival hike into the jungle with an indian guide with only a machette, or a drift trip down a tributary on a balsa raft of your own making see attached journals of previous adventurers)
Some concern has been expressed about the political climate in Peru with major focus on the radical guerrilla group, the Shining Path. I have left the assessment of that danger up to the outfitter, Paul Beaver, who has worked in this area for 12 years and is married to a beautiful Amazonian indian. Paul is a PhD biologist and exhibits great concern and respect for both rain forest ecology and the indigenous people of the rain forest.
I recently talked to Paul Beaver who just returned from one of his Amazonia Expeditions. He says that there is no problem with the Shining Path in Iquitos. Terrorists are detered by the fact that there is a large military presence in Iquitos and that there are no roads leading in or out so any terrorists would be trapped. There has never been any terrorist activity in Iquitos and the city is essentially crime free. Paul says that you could leave your wallet on the street and it would be returned to you with all of its contents intact. The forest people are incredibly friendly and honest.
There are minimal health risks since, Paul Beaver says, mosquitos cannot breed in the tannic acid laden waters (I have since learned that there are loads of mosquitoes there during the rainy season, but that malaria is not supposed to be present I will still take anti-malaria pills). The river water in this region of the Amazon is deemed drinkable (You can, but not me). There are risks from venemous snakes (bushmaster and fer-de-lance) and the usual broken bones, etc. The outfitter, however, has never encountered a case of snake bite, but there have been one or two cases of broken bones during hikes.
The rainy season is Dec. through May and it peaks in activity around April. During the rainy season the forest is flooded which allows one to investigate the canopy by canoe.
Jan. is rainy with periods of dry. It drizzles a lot and often never drys up. March, on the other hand, is a period of convective thunderstorms interspersed with sunshine. It will rain before dawn and again in the late afternoon. You can get views of stars in the early evening before the convective activity begins in the late evening (after 9pm ?). In this time period you will experience the real spectacle of rain in the tropics 3 to 6 inches an hour torrential downpours. During the period of the "flooded forest" the water is clear and you can see many of the tropical fish which are sold for fish tanks and the pink dolphins come up into the clear shallows to feed. The canoes can be taken deep into the forest and sometimes are close to the tree top canopy. The weather is hot since the sun is almost directly overhead.
Late May and early June is another interesting time to consider going, but my druthers were to get out of here during the dead of the winter. May-June is dry and the water is receeding. This is the best opportunity to encounter 30 foot long anacondas and to make hikes into the forest. It is also the time of blossoming of many of the plants and trees.
The expedition is not limited to GE personnel. It is my hope to get together a group of compatible, adventure travellers who are ecotourism minded. I would discourage people who are interested in hunting.
If you are interested in more information, I can provide you with a copy of a brochure which I have.
Thank you for you expression of interest.
P.S. I.assume no personal liability for this adventure.
III. E-Mail Messages
While I was in California last week I talked to a friend who had recently returned from a trip to the Amazon in Peru. He recommended that I read the following and that I join the South American Explorers Club (@ $30) they have an office in Syracuse.
"Neotropical Companion" a book,
Insight Guide to Peru guide book
South American Guide guide book
These are probably available in a local library. There is no need for each of us to get one of these initially. I am looking for volunteers to borrow and assess each of these books. Volunteers, please respond by E-Mail.
Note on insect repellant:
I have been told that megadosing on vitamin B1 before you go makes your skin unappetizing for mosquitos and other bitting insects. It also makes you smell bad to other humans. The people on the airplane should love you.
To: beckjm@crd; brownpf@crd; cameyers; hartley@sol; hogle@crd; hughsvb; lillquist; lukaswj; MageeJane; mazanda; tuckerr@crd; WELLES@EASYGOER; witting@crd
The time has come the adventurer said
to speak of many things
Of snakes and frogs and shunken heads
and insects with oversized wings.
Paul Beaver of Amazonia Expeditions called me Wednesday and said that he needed a firm committment from us ($200) before he returns to the Amazon on Dec. 18 since he will not be back until mid January when the balance will be due. He also needs to order the airline tickets ($510). Our group of 4 had unfortunately dropped below the critical mass of 4 down to 3. I got a committment last night from a friend in Canada so that brings us back up to 4. I have feelers out to Earthwatch friends in Alaska and Canada and still hope to bring together a group that I know will be compatible.
I think it would be good if we could get together to see where we stand as a group and kick around questions. I have arranged for us to meet in Conf. Room 4 on Monday, Dec. 14th at noon. I don't remember if I distributed the "Expedition Briefing" which gave a list of things you would need to take with you. In case I didn't, I will have copies available. Ken Welles tells me that he has nearly finished reading "Neotropical Companion". I hope that Ken will be willing to share some of that information with us.
See you on Monday at noon. If you are not planning to go but are still interested in following the progression of the trip, please join us. If you are committed, please bring a check written to Amazonia Expeditions, Inc. Call me if you have any questions.
From: WITTING HARALD L
Mon, Dec 14, 1992 9:09 AM
I am committed in that we have sent off a check for $400 to Paul Beaver. However, this is for the May 29 to June 12 trip. I still like to come to your meeting today, if I may, to learn more about this adventure.
To: WITTING HARALD L
I hope you will continue to come to our meetings. Perhaps we can add to our mutual enjoyment of this adventure. I hope to have Patty Webster from Amazonia Expeditions come up and give us a talk on the trip. I will keep you informed. If you would like to look at the books I brought in after they are returned, please let me know. If you come up with any good information, please keep me informed.
I have checked with USAir (since I have enough frequent flyer miles to get a round trip ticket to MIA with USAir) and have made the following reservations for myself. It would be nice if we could all go together. The real key, however, is that we arrive in MIA before 3pm on March 6th in order to connect with the 6pm departure on Faucett Airlines (I think that this Peruvian carrier could become a plumber's nightmare). The return flights will have to connect with the arrival of Faucett in MIA at 3:15pm.
My flight arrangements are as follows:
US2017 ALB-LGA 8:45 9:29am
US1433 LGA-MIA 10:29 1:45pm
US2060 MIA-PHL 5:40 8:27pm
US1722 PHL-ALB 9:45 10:46pm
It is interesting to note that even this far in advance, I was unable to get frequent flyer seats on my preferred connection departing ALB at 10:15a arrv. MIA 2:44p due to lack of availability. If you have a frequent flyer possibility, you should begin taking steps immediately.
We are really going to the AMAZON, and I am getting excited. Glad to have you aboard.
Dec. 16, 1992
Have you all considered extending the trip by 5-7 days and travelling to Machu Picchu???? We ought to be able to find the sun and at least one shinning path at 11,000 ft. I am considering venturing into the Peruvian Andes after the Amazon gig is done. If this is going to become a reality, some plans have to be made with respect to return travel (i.e. instead of flying directly back to MIA (missing in action?) there would be a side trip to Lima and Cuzco with a return perhaps from Lima. I have not looked into the possibilities. I have information on a Nature Conservancy Machu Pichu itinerary that could serve as a guide.
If you are interested in thinking further about this, please let me know.
Oh yeah, I asked Paul Beaver about the return of the air fare and he said that the tickets are non-refundable to ordinary passengers, but since he buys around 300 tickets a year he can write his own rules with Faucett airlines i.e. he can have the money returned if required.
We felt that he would not be able to get anything done with the checks you have given me before he gets back from the Amazon on the 10th of Jan. so I will just hold them until December 28.
Jan. 6, 1993
Happy Both Ends Day,
That is the first day in the year when the days start getting longer on both ends. For me that means that we are over the winter hump and can really start looking forward to hot and sticky times in the Amazon.
I went to the library last night and was essentially overwhelmed by the selection of reading material on the Amazon. I picked up an Insight guide to Amazon creatures and a copy of Neotropical Companion plus some language tapes on Spanish (spent two hours last night listening to the tapes I do need more study).
Perhaps we should get together again soon and discuss preparation for the trip airline reservations, jungle gear, photographic equipment, rain gear, fishing stuff, etc. March 6th is not that far off.
In that same vein, the rest of the moola is due (actually past due). If you could get a check to me for $1195 made out to Amazonian Expeditions ASAP, I would send it next day delivery to coincide with Paul Beaver's return from the Amazon (he will be here only Jan 10 and 11 before returning again to the Amazon). I have already sent our deposits and airfare payments.
I would like to make arrangements to have Patty Webster of Amazonian Expeditions (NY office) come up and visit us. Do you have any preferences as to dates maybe a weekend?
Jan. 12, 1993
I talked with Paul Beaver last night and he sounded exhausted as a matter of fact he admitted to being exhausted. In spite of all that, he said that the last trip to the AMAZON was an exhilarating experience. The group was a biology class from Flagler College in Florida. They made a video which included an encounter with a 20 ft. long anaconda. Maybe we can get a copy of the unedited version. Paul said that it rained A LOT and that they never got really dry. I don't like that, but this is going to be an adventure, right??
Our trip has grown to eight: our 4 guys and 4 gals from California and Arizona with the potential of a couple of more women from Georgia, Alaska and California.
I have picked up my airline tickets. Have you guys gotten yours yet?
My itinerary is as follows:
US2017 ALB-LGA 8:45 9:29am
US1433 LGA-MIA 10:29 1:45pm
US2060 MIA-PHL 5:40 8:27pm
US1018 PHL-ALB 9:15 10:13pm
Let me know where you stand with your arrangements.
I have been unable to get in touch with Patty Webster. Paul tells me she is in Philladelphia.
I still don't know what kind of shoes to take. I have simply been advised to take a lot of socks.
Where can we get silica gel to help keep camera components dry?
Where is a good place to buy 35mm film?
Are you studying Spanish?? I am boning up on the language with tapes and texts.
Go, go, go.
I have been buying Kodak film at Kmart when on sale. Best buy is in the 3 pack with 84 exposures (2x24+1x36) ($10 for 400 speed). I have been saving my 36's for such a trip as this. I am taking 400 speed, as it sounds like it can be pretty dim under the canopy, and fast shutters and small f's can compensate for TOO much light.
I plan to take an old Canon AE-1 with zoom/macro, a pocket one-touch camera (auto everything) and a 450 gm tripod (extends to about 1.5 meters). Extra batteries for everything, and a flash. My macro fills a frame with about a 2.5 inch object. I plan to take approx 400 frames of film with me.
Jan. 12, 1993
I talked with Patty Webster this afternoon and she gave me the following tips regarding footwear.
Don't wear shoes that you want to try and keep dry.
Wear shoes that will dry out easily e.g. canvas sneakers with good soles, deck shoes, etc. She started out wearing boots and found that water inevitably would run over the tops and fill the boots and they would become like lead. (Combat boots with drain holes might be ok?) We should take a pair of shoes to wear around camp so that we will have something dry to put on after an outing. Bring along a pair of water slippers to wear to the shower and to wear when swimming (wudn't want the piranhas to nip off your toes).
Wear socks (bring plenty) long enough to tuck your pants into (something about avoiding "ants in your pants")
Rain gear means a good poncho (not the 99 cent variety @ $15 is ok).
The earliest that Patty can get up here to give a slide talk is Thurs. Feb. 25th. That's only one weekend away from our departure, but it might be better than nothing. I will make arrangements for a noontime talk. Patty said that she would hang around until after 5 to talk to the expedition members and answer specific questions. Should we offer to reimburse her for her train trip up??? I think so.
Jan. 13, 1993
It's getting closer.
I talked with Dr. Peter Lardner, chairman of the biology dept. of Flager College in FL last night. He has just returned from an expedition with Paul Beaver of Amazonia Expeditions. He was exuberant about the trip. They did, however, get wet, wet, wet. He has a video of their expedition which he will share with us in 10 to 14 days. They have to transcribe it from Hi 8 to normal VHS. He will also share a list they are preparing of the things they wish they had taken.
A few tips from Lardner:
Read "Tropical Nature" by Forsythe and Miyata
Take fast drying clothing such as Tarpon Wear (a goretex type of stuff). I have found some light weight, reasonably priced, army jungle clothing at Bi-Mor in downtown Schenectady that may suffice.
Take plenty of socks and several pairs of sneakers.
You would kill for an inflatable cushion to sit on during those many hours in canoes.
A simple stadium seat would be worth a fortune.
Take some barter goods. For example, inexpensive, but frilly ladies' underpants (go to Woolworths or K-Mart Fredericks of Hollywood might be too much), sewing kits, etc. Put yourself in the mode of what simple things you might consider to be luxuries in the jungle and buy them.
Don't forget insect repellant. High concentrations of DEET are advised.
I cashed in some USAir Frequent Flyer miles and booked myself on the same flights Marc indicated he was taking. No problem getting on as of 1/15/93. Note revised times and that the return flight from MIA now goes directly to Albany.
March 6: Flight US2017 Albany to LaGuardia (departs 8:35 AM)
Flight US1433 LaGuardia to Miami (departs 10:29AM)
March 20: Flight 2060 Miami to Albany (departs 6:10 PM)
Hope we can all travel together.
Jan. 26, 1993
I think that it is wise to remain informed about the political situation in countries where one is considering travelling. The US State Dept. has issued a travel warning for Peru as follows:
"Due to increased terrorist violence, avoid all travel until further notice. The voluntary departure of all U.S. government dependents and non-essential official personnel has been authorized."
For further information you may contact the State Dept. Citizens Emergency Center at 1-202-647-5225 or its computer bulletin board at
I don't know how to access the computer bulletin board. Maybe one of you could do that and get a printout of additional info.
I am not concerned about this warning, since it relates primarily (I think) to activities in the Andean region. Paul Beaver assures me that there is no problem in Iquitos (but then he also failed to tell me that his base camp had been burned down in November by local indians). Nevertheless, I am geared to go and will. All this just adds to the adventure content.
I am in the process of breaking in my combat boots here at the lab. Maybe they will be more handy than I expected.
Tue, Jan 26, 1993
Subject: RE: Travel warnings
Why not plan a back up trip to the carribean scuba diving or a safari to New Jersey -- why the push to see the rainforest under terrorist conditions? I would think it would be much more conducive to do it without fear . If the Indians did that in Nov. you should probably be aware of what Paul did to instigate the burning in the first place and what he has done to placate them since. At least I would be interested in knowing if I were putting my life in his hands. Maybe they don't like tourists and as tension builds they will do more than burning buildings. You really should reconsider.
I know why the indians burned the camp, and it didn't have anything to do with Paul except that he is a gringo. Does that make you feel better??? There is a newly established ecology perserve in the area and the indians have been restricted from fishing commercially in those parts of the river. They have reacted in anger over the restrictions. Paul has been trying to asuage them and show that he has no connection with the restrictions.
In actuallity, the warnings regarding Peru are much less ominous than those I had for going to Papua New Guinea. There was open warfare being waged in the highlands and there had been kidnappings of American citizens. Violent crime and bodily injury were rampant. See, there is nothing to worry about.
This is not an item for a worry box.
You can save this message and send it back to me as an ìI told you soî if anything goes wrong.
The Unspoiled World of the Peruvian Amazon
Patricia Webster of Amazonian Expeditions
Host: Marc Borom
Conf. Room #1
Noon, Thursday, Feb. 25, 1993
A slide show covering flora, fauna and indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon 100 miles west of Iquitos presented by an experienced expedition leader.
To: brownpf@crd; cameyers; hartley@sol; hogle@crd; lillquist; lukaswj; mazanda; tuckerr@crd; WELLES@EASYGOER; witting@crd
March 2, 1993
Dear Fellow Adventurers
I don't know if this is good news or bad news. You'll have to make that judgement. My body has made the decision for me. I will not be going with you on Saturday. Hopefully, I will be able to reschedule and Paul Beaver will be able to snatch my non-refundable ticket from the hands of the Peruvian airline.
My leg wound split open voluntarially (better here than 100 miles west of Iquitos). The doctors say that the wound had to reopen because of the deep infection (I did worry about the sterile conditions in the jungle clinic where I had it stitched up) and that now it can start to get better (may take a month or so). Bummer. I was really looking forward to going on this trip with a group from here.
Please give Jerry Turner from Canada my regards and help look after him. Jerry will be joining you in Miami on Saturday.
Looking forward to a report of your trip.
I'm really disappointed.
Your former leader,
I'm very sorry that you won't be joining us. On the other hand, you wouldn't have much fun if you were constantly worring about your leg. I'm sure you'll have a fine adventure when you're able the make the trip in a month or so. You'll probably also be a lot less wet than we'll be.
To: brownjf@crd; brownpf@crd; ducheneaux; hartley@sol; lillquist; lukaswj; MageeJane; mazanda; webbjl@crd; WELLES@EASYGOER; witting@crd
There is such irony in life. Here I worked to get a group together to go to the Amazon and ended up with groups of people going at two different times. Then I went and injured my leg and had to postpone my trip by one month, thereby missing my preferred trip in March with 3 guys from CRD and a friend from Canada. I wanted to go in April while the Amazon was still in the stage of the flooded forest and before the weather here had gotten really nice.
As it turned out, the wound on my leg has not closed yet. I received definite instructions from several doctors that the risk of infection in a deep wound was high, so I elected to postpone again and go with the next group from CRD at the end of May.
The real irony is that that group is now filled and I can't sign on board. I have had to reschedule for the end of June when the weather here is great particularly for flying. Anybody else interested in going?
I promise not to reschedule again I hope.
I still am interested in seeing all the prints and videos from the trips as they become available.
GE Medical Services
1 River Road
Schenectady, NY 12301
April 14, 1993
To whom it may concern:
The following table recounts the events leading to medical advice requiring postponement of Dr. Marcus P. Boromís plans to participate in an Amazonian Expeditionís tour of the upper Amazon basin.
Feb. 16, 1993
6 internal stitches, 7 external stitches
Original plans to visit the Amazon region of Peru
March 6, 1993
Plans cancelled due to deep infection and unhealed open wound. Necrotic tissue was surgically removed. Wound was not restitched
Rescheduled trip to Peru
April 10, 1993
Plans cancelled due to unhealed wound. Medical doctors strongly advised against exposing open wound to swamp water and tropical environment, particularly in an area such as an Amazon jungle camp remote from immediate medical services.
Rescheduled trip to Peru
June 25, 1993
All systems go.
I hereby authorize GE Medical Services to furnish to Amazonian Expeditions and Faucett Airlines medical information which pertains to the above treatment received from GE Medical Services.
Base Camp Map