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Trip Report It’s Cold under the Mosquito Net: A Javari Trip Report

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A brief introduction: My wife and I (LaNita and Eric Hazard) have recently returned from a two week trip through Colombia and the Amazon rain forest on the Brazilian, Peruvian border. Below is my report of the first part of that trip. I’m full of hot air, so it’s lengthy. I’ll post upcoming editions in the same thread. In addition, there are photos available at:

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichazard/AmazonRainForestJuly2010#

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichazard/AmazonRainForestFloraFaunaJuly2010#

http://picasaweb.google.com/erichazard/AmazonRainForestInBlackWhiteJuly2010#

Subsequent reports about the Caribbean islands and Cartagena and Bogota will be posted in their own travel thread as the experiences were quite different. If there are any questions along the way, please feel free to ask.

-Eric

It’s Cold under the Mosquito Net: Amazon Jungle On the River Javari, A Trip Report

The long narrow boat is nearly as boisterous inside as it is colorfully painted outside. All ten passengers are freely sharing snacks, drinks, and bilingual stories about travel and life. Chatting to me in Spanish as though she’s known me her whole crazy life is Colombian Angela, friend of Yolanda on the trip with son Diego, the latter having fallen head over puppy love heels for Vanessa, the gal from China on a solo trip through Colombia to improve her Spanish (and conceal her English). Between my broken Spanish, which my mind wanted to intersperse with Portuguese to really gum up the conversational works, and her three words of English, we establish that both of us like pistachios, Franklin the Travel Bear has been to a lot of places, there are a lot of fish in the river and it is hot outside. It would’ve been the longest five and a half hour boat ride in history if we weren’t having some much dang fun putting that little bit of conversation together.

On the unbroken English flank of conversation sits the punctual side of our group, LaNita and I the New Yorkers and Toni and Kanute the Norwegians. Between the four of us, we were perhaps a collective of four minutes late to all camp activities across our four nights. These two provided a nice dose of English conversation and travel realism throughout the trip. Kanute and I dueling throughout the trip for title of best camera marksman, with Toni offering the dry witty observation that leaves New Yorkers giggling and semi-English speaking Colombians baffled.

Bridging the cultural and lingua divide is our excellent guide Guillermo, and his magical mystery Amazon museum in a bag with the occasional odd grunt from the boat’s captain.

In a way, the boat ride resembled the setting for a joke that would go something like this, “An American, Norwegian, Chinese and Colombian are riding in a boat. The American says…” Fortunately, the joke doesn’t end with me offending anyone (at least not intentionally nor in English) or throwing anything I have a lot of off the side.

This is nearly the exact opposite of the same scene played out four days earlier when we were making our way south on the Javari River, splitting the border between Brazil and Peru, when our pitch dark boat ride was accompanied by non-lingual silence and a bit of “what the f--- just jumped in the boat” terror. But once one breaks breaded and fried piranha with thy rainforest camp neighbors, it tends to loosen the mood a bit.

Today was different as we were returning from four nights deep in the Amazon rainforest at the Heliconia Reserve. It was the group’s collective exhale of survival against the perceived threats of a wild rainforest. We have been bruised and bloodied together, at times requesting extra blankets to protect us against the unexpected cold and each morning awakening to the screams indicative of an early morning cold water shower. We ate together, often times helping one another to drag our food out of the bayous and oxbow lakes of the meandering Javari. And even rubbed mud on our bodies together, looking a bit more radiant now that our skin had been properly exfoliated, or whatever the natural cure being touted was supposed to do.

And, perhaps most importantly, we bonded together, with an adhesive equal part exotic rainforest and domestic camaraderie.

As we cruised north along the Javari we just wanted to laugh and smile. It had been a great trip, and like all great trips, it would come to an end soon after the waters of our river confluenced with it northerly neighbor the Amazon.

Sitting at the juncture of these two mighty rivers at the tri-country confluence of tres frontera, stand sister cities of Leticia, Colombia and Tabatinga, Brazil. Leticia and by extension Heliconia Reserve was to be the first leg of our two week tour of greater Colombia. This would include the Heliconia, technically within the boundaries of Brazil (at least technically enough to require a renewed Brazilian visa for LaNita and I and yellow fever vaccinations) but spiritually domiciled in Colombia, a souvenir stop-cum-bathroom break in Peru, the Colombian island territories of San Andres and Providenica, the Caribbean go-go town of Cartagena and a few bits of Bogota thrown in for good measure.

To begin we had to first get ourselves to Colombia, which we managed to do rather effortlessly via American Airlines and their chaotic Latin American hub-and-spoke system out of Miami (more on the chaos towards the end of the report). At the Bogota airport we found our driver with a bit of assistance from other cabbies in the area. Usually, LaNita and I are reticent to acknowledge the approaches of foreign cab drivers, but these guys were persistent, and when we finally told them where we were headed and that a driver had been dispatched to pick us up, they were quick to find our man and away we went, through the ongoing infrastructure investment one might call a highway leading from El Dorado airport to the La Candelaria section of Bogota, where we were staying at the Hotel de la Opera (530,000 COP night for the La Candelaria plan in the Art Deco section of the hotel). Cab ride cost us 28,000 COP, more expensive than a similar ride arranged onsite at the airport but worth a few extra pesos for the peace of mind it gave us when arriving in Bogota for the first time.

Arriving in Bogota in the middle of July, preparing to embark on a greater Amazon expedition for the next few days, we decided to take full advantage of the Hotel de la Opera’s La Candelaria package, which included a welcome glass of wine and a rubdown from a Colombia masseuse at the hotel’s spa. The spa was exactly what we needed to remove the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune from our work weary bodies. Lacking a sense of adventure on the first night, we decided to dine at the hotel’s Mirador restaurant. The food was ok, with a wine list that struggled to produce a suitable compliment for our meal. Many of the guests that had joined us at the spa also joined us for dinner, including a young Colombian woman that sat down next to us. LaNita, apparently lacking vocal volume modulation following a couple glasses of Chilean carmenere, told me rather loudly, “She looks good in a bikini,” which was loud enough for said Colombian’s recent husband to suggest a move to the other side of the restaurant. Or perhaps it was the way I sought visual confirmation to LaNita’s sage pool side observation. Either way, I could see this was going to be a great trip. We retired early to our room and prepared for the next morning’s journey to Colombia’s Frontera de la Amazonia.

(Author’s note: LaNita and I really enjoyed our two stays at the Hotel de la Opera http://www.hotelopera.com.co and we recommend it highly to any looking for lodging in Bogota. The hotel has an excellent location, tasteful décor and a wonderful staff).

Southbound and Down

“Leticia?” asked the backpacked American lingering in the hotel lobby. “I was reading about that place last night. Bring bug spray.”

When one states a desire to visit the Amazon jungle, this is a common refrain one hears, joined by the sister corollaries of “Did you get your shots?” and “Are you taking malaria pills?”

The answer to all the above is yes. In fact plenty. We’d been reading about Leticia and its legendary swarms of mosquitoes for some months so we came armed with various degrees of DDT potency, complete with sore left arms and blister packs full of malaria pills. A lot of things may kill us on this trip, but we’d done our level best to see to it mosquito-borne parasite would not be the main culprit.

The other common question we received was, “How did you find the reserve?” As we began considering Colombia as a destination and considering the options, we made a list of our priorities. For me, a huge priority was Providenica for scuba diving. LaNita expressed a desire to see some “really weird s---” in the Amazon. So I turned to the last page of Lonely Planet’s Colombia guidebook, found the Heliconia listed, checked out the website, like the cut of its jibe and here we are sitting in the Bogota airport waiting for our flight to Leticia.

LaNita’s request also led to an unintentionally funny moment in travel planning. Generally, LaNita and I will put our collective noggins together and come up with some ideas of what we’d like to do during vacation, I’ll then run off to make some suggestions about the time and place, offer her right of first refusal and then book it. This was the case with Heliconia. I found the website and showed it to her. She liked all the activities, the cabins, the photos of the grounds, and said we were good to go. So a deposit of half the full price wired to a Colombian bank and we were all set.

It wasn’t until a couple weeks later that she asked in passing, “Do you think there will be bugs when we go to the Amazon?” I, thinking that perhaps she was trying to be a bit daft for the sake of humor, replied, “Oh yeah…Big ones!” Turns out, it was a serious inquiry and my rather curt and frank response only sensed to heighten the natural entomophobia she has around six legged members of the insecta class.

Hell, I thought that was the point!

But before we could see the “big ones,” we had to get ourselves to Leticia, a small town in a curious spit of land grafted onto Colombia as a result of a League of Nations decision to put a halt to Peruvian-Colombian fisticuffs in 1932. For our inter Colombia flights, we booked on Aero Republica, owned by the same company as Continental. A few reasons for this. One, most of their flights were routed through El Dorado airport in Bogota, as opposed to the domestic airport. Two, the flight times and schedules made boat loads of sense for where we wanted to be and when we wanted to be there. Three, the website was super easy for an English speaker to use.

Colombia may be emerging as a travel destination, but many Colombian companies have yet to adapt to an international travel audience. If I can’t work out how much an airplane ride or hotel room cost without a phone call, I’m less likely to use your services as I tend to book my trip in advance rather than fly by the seat of my pants (pun not intended but acknowledged). As much as I wanted to fly Colombian flagged airline Avianca throughout the country, their website was functionally useless to anyone trying to book airline tickets. Other airlines didn’t offer Leticia flights, or offered them on days that weren’t good for our schedule. Aero Republica on the other hand had an English translated website that operated like any other major airline website that made booking our entire inter-Colombian, ex-San Andres to Providencia, air travel a breeze. (In the end, two tickets on flights to and from Leticia, San Andres and Cartagena cost us 1,708,240 COP, roughly $900.)

Flying out of El Dorado throughout Colombia was a great choice, as the domestic terminal is generally deserted; making negotiating security and finding one’s gate a matter of 15 minutes or so. We’d learn later how this is much more the exception rather than the rule for travelers leaving El Dorado for points abroad, but we’ll get to all of that later.

As I said above, Colombian companies are not yet fully adapted to a fully international audience, and this was fully evident as we sat at our gate watching as our departure time came and went. Apparently there was a problem at the airport in Leticia and we were being held. But even when we tried to get information from the gate agents, there was no one fluent enough in English to help. Eventually we boarded the plane, with more announcement made only in Spanish. I get it, I’m traveling through Colombia, and they speak Spanish there. But it can be irritating for international travelers not to have the lingua franca spoken for those of us with only a cursory passing of the native tongue.

Now a few hours delayed, away we went for the two hour flight to Leticia. For the most part, the flight over Colombia was devoid of scenery due to the thick cloud cover, providing ample time to plow through my book. To accompany me on this trip, I had a selected David Grann’s Lost City of Z; a page turning retelling of Colonel Percy Fawcett’s lost expedition to the Amazon jungle in search of the famed and fabled “El Dorado,” aka The City of Gold, aka “Z.” It was the perfect compliment for those of us descending into the unknown world of the Amazon jungle.

But when the scenery did break, it was rather memorable as there is nothing that will prepare you for the first time you see the Amazon River. It is big. Real big. From a perspective of width, it looks like a lake, if a lake could do S curves through a green canvas. And as we began our final descent into the Leticia airport it introduced itself to the plane, and all of us were in awe judging by the cabezas y manos pressed against the plane windows.

Once on the ground we paid the privilege-of-seeing-our-s---hole-village tax to the Leticia airport authorities (17,500 COP) charged to all who arrive by air, gathered our bags and exited into the maw of sign waving tour guides, finding one waving a sign with our last name on it. He introduced himself as Guillermo, appeared to speak almost no English and then said that we had to hurry as our plane was mucho tarde and we had a five hour boat ride.

“I’m sorry, Guillermo, for a minute there I thought you said five, as in cinco. Did you mean three, tres?” I asked him, referring to the three hour trip described on the reserve’s website.

“No cinco, el rio es muy bajo,” was his response and even my elementary Spanish was enough to understand. The river was low and this meant an extra two hours to our boat ride. In a wetter season many of the river’s oxbow’s lakes are merged back into the flow, knocking a few kilometers off the trip as the boat is able to plot a more direct route. Not this season. What would take an Amazonian bird 59 kilometers to fly, takes us 110 kilometers to boat. At five hours that 22 kilometers per hour. I believe a 13.67 miles per hour chug down a river qualifies as the slow boat.

But before we could even bother with the boat we had to play international hop scotch to leave one country, enter another, only to return to the former to depart for the latter. The airport gave us our exit stamp for Colombia and then it was “vamos a Brazil, mas rapido!” to the cab driver to take us across the border to Tabatinga, Brazil before their immigration office closed. It certainly doesn’t help that in the 10 minute cab ride your clock springs forward an hour.

On the way over, it was determined Guillermo spoke a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese with what he described a “little English.” “No problemo Guillermo. If you fala nao rapido, I should entendo. Comprende?” Was my tri-lingual Spangueselish response. A very polite smiles and shakes of the head in the general vertical direction and we had an agreement.

With a few minutes to spare we made our way to the Brazilian immigration office, and presented to the officer our newly minted visas. This would mark my third trip to Brazil, but alas it had been more than five years since my first trip, so the Brazilians need an update. Living in New York, I was able to take care of all of this in person at the Brazilian consulate back in April, on one of the greatest days of the year: opening day. I had take a day off of work to stand in line at the consulate, go to the Mets opening day game and watch baseball for the remainder of the afternoon. I’ll never forget it as I taught an embassy official a bit about Brazilian geography on that day. As part of the fulfillment of visa requirements, I need to provide proof of onward travel from Brazil, so I brought along copies of the Aero Republica itinerary.

“Why are you showing me receipts for your flight to Colombia?” the woman behind the glass asked me.

“Because I’m entering Brazil at Tabatinga,” came the matter-of-fact response.

“Where’s Tabatinga?”

And so it came to pass a rather lengthy explanation of my complicated trip plans. Not only did the consulate official not known where Tabatinga was exactly, but she also couldn’t grasp the concept that my Brazilian lodge had a Colombian address. In the end though, Brazilian good natured, “tudo ben” won out and I got my visa.

Skip ahead 110 days and Senhor Immigration has a problem. The visa is no good.

As he tried to explain to me in Portuguese, in order for my visa to be valid, I had to have my first entry 90 days after it was issued. This was day 110, so therefore, nao bom.

So, recalling private lessons I had in Portuguese between 2005 and 2007, I began to explain my side of the story. To translate it into English exactly as it came out of my mouth would’ve sounded something like this: “In New York, no problem. I go to consulate. Consulate speak to me to have ticket. I have ticket. Say no problem with date I go to Brazil.”Followed by wild gesturing with my finger on the fine print of my new visa and a little passport archeology to the old visa, explaining along the way in my pidgin Portuguese, “I work with Brazilians in Sao Paolo. Brazilians work in finance. I voyage to Brazil before. No problem.”

All the while, Guillermo stood at my side, offering the odd commentary in Portuguese to the situation. I’m thinking, “if you speak a ‘little English’ now would be a good time to tell me what the hell is going on.”

In the end, Senhor Immigration appreciated the effort, and with the Brazilian thumbs up communicated to me we could enter. Rubber stamp, rubber stamp, obgrigado, chao and vamos. We had a boat to catch.

All of that hassle so that we could journey back into Colombia across the most ignored border on the planet.

The cab driver hustled us to the boat quay and it was as we approached out 30 foot long, 4 foot wide, blue tarped, single Yamaha outboard motor powered boat that I could see what the other half of the hurry was all about. There was a boatload of people waiting. Waiting on us.

Turns out our flight delay not only put some inconvenience into our plans, it inconvenienced everyone’s plans. Some of these people had been waiting for us for two hours. Some longer. The reception we got from the rest of the boat was icy, and it wasn’t just because of the weather.

The crew all here we shoved off and motored our way down the Amazon for our now five hour boat ride and one thing LaNita and I both noticed is the temperature. One would assume that a trip to latitude 4 degrees south would produce a fairly typical weather forecast: hot and humid. So then, why are we shivering? As Guillermo explained, five days out of the year the Amazon jungle wasn’t the sauna we were expecting. Rather it is a bit chilly. Kind of like today. And like the next few days.

Suddenly, LaNita and I both thought back to the fateful packing decision we made the day before. “Do you think I’ll need a hoodie,” she asked me. “I don’t think so, only Bogota will be chilly and we’ll only before for a couple afternoons. I’m not bringing one because I don’t the lug it around with me across the tropics.”

In the book of life decisions, this goes down as a bad one. And as I maneuvered myself toward the front of the bench to act as a windbreak for LaNita, it felt like a really bad one. In case anyone wants to know, long sleeved linen shirts are not an effective insulator against wind or cold.

The trip was quiet as we began first in the Amazon, followed by a right turn south at the Javari when we reached Benjamin Constant. People were tired and cold and there presented a bit of a language barrier. We’d come to find out Guillermo spoke English quite well and during the ride he was answering our various questions. In addition, the Norwegian couple Kanute and Toni was also fluent English speakers. But on the other side of the boat were the Spanish speakers. While they would try to speak to us, and we to them, we hadn’t yet familiarized ourselves with our speech cadence, accents or lingual gaps, so after 30 minutes or so of “que?” we decided to focus on my useful uses of our caloric stockpiles, such as keeping warm.

Darkness also threw a damper on any conversation. It came swift and quick to the cityless Javari river banks. At about 6:30, we were in near pitch black, and our fearless guide Guillermo had to sit at the front of the boat holding a spotlight to keep us from running over any logs, or people, or alligators.

One by one, it seemed as though our senses left us. First it was the sense of hearing, as the constant “wwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaa” of the Yamaha filled our ears and rendered other hearing pursuits moot (see what I did there?). Next was my sense of feeling, as cold temperature and sore buttocks made various parts of my body numb. Then my sight was gone, as the boat was surrounded by darkness with nothing but Guillermo’s spotlight to show us the way along an unfamiliar river in a region that was unknown to modern science only a hundred years ago. It is a strange feeling, realizing my life was entirely in the hands of two men I had known for less than an hour, one of which spoke no English.

As the night grew darker, the trip became more mysterious. The edges of the light seemed only to illuminate anxiety as the region’s many bats were fluttering about in search of mosquitoes. Some bats would pass close enough to the side of the boat where we would hear the brush of wings. There cold, dark and alone we sat, plying our way down the river. “The novelty has worn off,” I told LaNita a couple hours into the trip. The highlight was shifting one’s weight so as return sensation to one a-- check or the other. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. Now I know why Johnny Ramone wanted to be sedated.

Until a lone fish decided to make our lives interesting. Apparently attracted by the lamp, it jump into the boat, flopping around for a bit until I could get my hands around it and toss it back into the river from wince it came. Everyone had one of those thank-god-the-monotony-has-been-broken sighs of relief, followed by a few bilingual comparisons of the harrowing experience.

But then the darkness and the “wwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaa” returned.

After four hours or so, one’s mind begins to play tricks on one’s eyes. With every bend of the river, and with a river as ancient as the Javari, there are a lot of bends; one imagines an innocuous lamp light could be the desired destination. “Is that our camp?” LaNita would ask me, seeing a light on a distant bank. “I don’t know, could be.” I’d offer back optimistically. Alas, each small lamp would come and go and still down the river we’d ply, seemingly into an eternal current of blackness. This must have been what souls on river Acheron were doomed to.

Until the “wwwwwwwwhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaa” let up, the spotlight turned to the left, and we left the Javari.

If the trip down the river was mysterious, it became downright spooky when we reached our “turn.” Somehow, Guillermo found a thin sliver of moonlit ribbon cutting into the shore and indicated to our driver this was our turn. The engine throttle slowed down to provide a modicum of maneuverability to our little craft through the bayou. Where once was the wide Javari gently sheparding us through the dark night, suddenly was the affectionately small banks of this unnamed bog, slapping the side of the boat with its tree limbs and tossing various river life into the boat. *Plunk* *thud* *flop, flop, flop* it seemed like every turn on this twisted bayou was met with the river barfing another creature into our boat. “Pescado?”Asked the Spanish speakers, wondering if that was another fish. “I don’t know…I sure hope so,” was my response, trying to shake the fear out of my mind that anacondas would suddenly jump into the boat and go after Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube.

And even if it was just a fish, what kind of fish? This isn’t some peaceful lake in the Rockies where fish are our friends. This is the Amazon, where fish eat people. The passage I read in The Lost City of Z during the flight confirmed this, telling the tales of the various limbs sacrificed to the piranha gods by early Amazon explorers. The last thing I wanted was to lose a finger as I defenestrated the latest stowaway. Ah, but a coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one, as I bravely put my pinky fingers in harm’s way, catching the fish that would fly at the lamp held in front of the bow and land at my feet. Almost a fast as I could catch the unidentified flopping fish, another would jump in the boat. I wasn’t sure how much more of this I could take.

And when it seemed as though my nerves were near their ultimate fraying point, the engine stopped. The boat coasted. Guillermo’s light, powered by the boat’s battery, slowly dimmed, as though the life force were being strangled out of it by a large constrictor. The constant ringing of the boat’s engine in our ears was replaced by the ringing of crickets in the encroaching forest. Guillermo yelled something from the front of the boat to our captain in the back. From the darkened stern came a response. “What are they saying?” asked LaNita. “I don’t know, I couldn’t make out it that was Spanish or Portuguese.”

*Thunk* our boat beaches to a halt on a muddy bank. The first word in my mind was a four letter slang term used to describe fornication. So this is how it ends. On a dead boat in the middle of the jungle, strangled by an anaconda, my corpse devoured by piranhas. Wonder what they’ll say at the funeral. “Eric died doing what he loved, drifting into the mystic aboard a leaky boat with a guide that only spoke a ‘little English’…”

Wait, Guillermo’s stepping off. He is walking up the bank on a….what is that? Is that a plank?

We had arrived.

Cold and shivering was not how I expected to stop off a boat in the Amazon jungle, but here we were shaking from a combination of adrenaline provoked fear and five hours of chilled river air. In a Babel of languages I could make out that this muddy bank was our stop, and there in some nebulous direction of dark night was the fabled lodge of our reserve. Slipping up the muddy bank, a thin halo of light given off by the spare flashlight I have handy, I make my way through cacophonous cavern of cold jungle towards our rendezvous point. Suddenly, a light and what looks vaguely likely a front porch appear ahead. I can hear different voices there in the dark. Someone is happy to see Guillermo. *Besos* A hundred steps or so further up the bank and through the path and we’ve arrived: Heliconia Natural Reserve (-4° 12' 46", -70° 19' 20" for google maps if one is curious as to where there is.)

Even though it was late, the staff at the reserve was happy to see us and immediately set out to cook us dinner and brew us some coffee. Hot coffee. Steaming hot coffee sent from heaven above to shake away the chill of the Amazon night. You would’ve thought we were the last survivors of a Shackleton expedition, the way we all immediately poured ourselves a steaming cup and held it in our hands as some time of primitive protection against frost bite. And little wonder, even though we alighted from the Amazonian version of the Endurance, we found this place is clearly not built for a cold snap, as the only protection against the chill was to close the doors and ask the wind gods not to blow through the screens. There were no proper walls, and I suppose during normal periods of jungle heat and humidity, walls are more hindrance than necessity.

Fortunately, the hot coffee began doing its job and when combined with the fried piranha fish, plantains and rice and beans, we went from cold to slightly discomforted. This day had been exciting enough; it was time to turn in.

Led by flashlight down a boardwalk illuminated by kerosene lamps, we were shown to our small cabin, surrounded by wire screen and equipped with a mosquito-netted bed. It was late, we were tired, and our nerves were shot. Sleep should come easy this evening for those reasons alone. But one thing was for certain as I prepared for bed by flashlight, we’d really gotten into it this time.

I drifted peacefully to sleep, serenaded by the serene sounds of the rainforest. Isn’t this a setting on a Brookstone noise machine?

That was until 5 am.

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    “How do you say ‘something is eating our roof in Portuguese?’” The wide awake LaNita casually asks me at the dawn’s early light is just making itself known. At the time, I was having that dream with the teddy bears and the gum drops where I’m flying, now suddenly awaken by a translation question.

    “I don’t know,” I manage to mumble through the thin zone that separates consciousness and REM sleep, now trying to remember two years of Portuguese instruction. “Um…I forget the word for roof, but ‘casa’ is house and ‘comer is to eat.’ So maybe ‘algo esta comida o superior nossa casa.’ Why do you ask?”

    “Because something is eat our roof!”

    And with that, as if on cue, I heard it to. The strange clatter that sounded like a mixture of clawing and gnawing in the thatch above our heads, in three-fourths time, as if this creature of the night were attempt to waltz with our roof thatch: “scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw….silent….scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw…..silent.”

    I don’t know if it was the syncopation, the volume, or the sheer terror of the unknown, but after only a few minutes, I grabbed the flashlight, pointed it in the upward direction and said, “ok….I’m turning on the light!”

    Nothing.

    Light darts to the other corner.

    Nothing.

    Light darts across the other side of the ceiling.

    Nothing.

    Silence.

    And then.

    Scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw….silent….scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw…..silent…

    “That’s it!” I yelled as I brushed back the mosquito net, hopped into my clothes and ran out onto the porch. “I have to see what this is,” I said pushing the creaky screen door open and stepping onto our wood planked front porch. Now shinning my flashlight on the outside roof, the pattern was repeated. Whatever previously dark nook was illuminated, still nothing appeared, yet the sound continued. Whatever it was, it was somewhere in between the outer thatch and the interior ceiling and it also wasn’t big enough to disturb the leaves, so my mind went away from worry of death or face gnawing and toward annoyance, such as “how long is this going to go on?” Whatever it was probably wasn’t going to hurt us, it would only bother us. A few tugs on the hammock rope would shake the roof a bit and silence the critter for a while. And then it would start again. Scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw….silent….scratch, scratch, scratch….gnaw, gnaw, gnaw…..silent… Oh well, the joys of roughing it in the wilderness.

    By now the skies were turning lighter and my adrenaline had awoken me, so I had an opportunity to get a better sense of the layout of our cabin. Had one asked me last night to describe it, my description would’ve have been limited to “dark” and “breezy.” And no wonder. The cabins at Heliconia do not come equipped with electricity so whatever light is available is either powered by the Duracell AA power company or the few external kerosene lamps the staff lights each night.

    The walls are constructed of clap board and wrapped in screening, lacking windows, thus one must deal with any draft. I suspect this construction method is more practical during the other 360 days of the year when it isn’t chilly, but a shudder or two would’ve been a nice touch for us. The small inner portion is then encircled by another two walls that incorporate the front porch and bathroom area complete with sink, toilet and a water pipe bolted onto the wall and affixed overhead which one may refer to as a “shower” if one is feeling charitable.

    Perhaps the biggest shock is when one uses the facilities for the first time, particularly if that act requires sitting on the toilet, as you are looking out on the jungle in all of it glory because there isn’t a back wall to shield our toilet goers, or bathers, from the elements. There as squat down is the jungle and all of its beady little eyes to stare at you literally answering nature’s call.

    From our cabin, a small boardwalk leads to a larger boardwalk which connects all the cabins to the larger main lodge. People who have investigated the Heliconia may be under the impression that there are a total of three sleeping cabins and one main lodge, but this is not the case. LaNita and I were similarly concerned and had even prepared for the prospect of sleeping in a large dormitory style cabin by purchasing locks and chains for our bags. However, we were given the smaller cabin, of which there appeared to be at least four. There were also a few larger cabins holding anywhere from eight to 20 people. I was surprised walking around the compound how many cabins there actually were.

    The main lodge contains the kitchen and was the main center for our activities. For a few hours every night a generator provides electricity, otherwise it is run on the power of indomitable human spirit to triumph over nature. One may be tempted to label all of this an ecolodge, as such monikers are all the rage right now, but I’m not really sure if the lodge is eco-friendly, or if it is more appropriate to say it is eco-nomically built. There doesn’t appear to be any conscience effort to conserve, recycle or otherwise minimize the impact on the environment. The only conversation is in the profit margin of the lodge’s owners.

    The night before Guillermo had instructed the group that breakfast would be served at 8 am, to give us ample time for our first full day of activities. By and large, everyone appeared on time, led by yours truly, then the Norwegians, LaNita thereafter and finally, the Colombians. This would prove to be a familiar pattern during our time at Heliconia, Americans and Norwegians first, Colombians a few minutes behind. The latter group not so concerned about “time,” an admirable quality to have on the concept of “vacation” so foreign to Americans.

    Breakfast most mornings was eggs or pancakes, fresh fruit, coffee and a freshly squeezed juice. The latter would prove to be the bane of my travel existence as no doubt, I’d love what I tasted and then sadly, never be able to find it again. And sure enough, the first morning the kitchen staff produced this pinkish nectar, with a flavor of soft citrus and mint. When I asked, “O que o isso?” I was told “yoraraba.” Asked what that may be in English, the response was a shrug of the shoulders. Now back in New York, no luck.

    Our first breakfast together and subsequent pow-wow to discuss the day’s activities gave us an opportunity to get to know one another, and see each other in the light of day. There was LaNita and I, two New Yorkers with a sense of adventure, looking to break out of a mold of three European trips in a row. Kanute and Toni, the Norwegian psychologist and physicist philosopher, respectively, who were in Colombia so she may attend a conference, and had decided to make a three week expedition out of the trip. Vanessa was from China, who offered little background, other than to say she had been in Colombia a while and was heading to Cali next. And we had Yolanda and Diego, the mother and son team, the latter speaking broken English, traveling with their family friend Angela.

    Angela (pronounced with a strong “h” – ahn-HEL-a) was what the British might called “touched,” which is a rather polite way of saying bat s--- crazy. She’d come up and speak to you straight for five minutes in Spanish, then look at you with a somewhat goofy grin anticipating an answer to the question you never knew she asked. Or she’d wander off in the jungle, and someone would ask, “Where’s Angela?” Only to see she had fashioned some jungle mud into a Pikachu like talisman, muttering to herself the whole time. When it came time to dive in the spring fed pool and apply mud to ourselves, Angela was first in, singing a little song while applying the mud while the rest of us were still cautiously toeing the waters and wondering if this was a good idea. Turns out it was, but if there was a gold medal for mud bathing, no one was going to beat Angela that day.

    Most everyone in our group was a stock character and easy enough to understand, but Vanessa, the Chinese girl traveling alone through Colombia held her secrets close. First, she explained to me her Spanish was much better than her English, which was plausible enough, until she began to give way little tells, such as laughing at a joke told in English with a heavy sense of irony, or using rather complex English words or concepts. LaNita suspected she didn’t want to be seen as the go between translator of the two groups, and thus aligned herself with the Spanish speakers. Fair enough, you’re not in Colombia to work on your English. But why the charade? It was very intriguing.

    It was also at Vanessa’s expense that Angela would offer the group a bit a comic relief from time to time. Refusing to learn her first name, Angela simply referred to her as la china the entire trip. Such as “Donde esta la china?” Or “How does la china like dinner?” “Is la china coming with us on the boat?” It made me wonder if she might refer to LaNita and me as Estados Unidos de America. “There goes the United States of America taking photos again.” “The United States of America laid down for a nap.” “The United States of America liked the fishing trip.” Whenever she was referring to Vanessa, it was simply “la China.”

    For the next three days our happy little group fell into a pattern that very much resembled summer camp. Together, the octet would be taking nature walks, cannoning, fishing, repealing, tree climbing, splashing in the creek, cooking out on the beach, telling ghost stories and other outdoor activities. And just like summer camp of our youth, we had a gas and learned an awful lot about our local forest. The biggest difference was that our local forest was the Amazon.

    To start, the first day was focused on the wonder of the jungle. Leading us into the thick of it was our local guide Santiago. He was born, raised and still lived in Santa Rita, Peru; a short boat ride through our bayou and across the Javari from the reserve, as we would soon learn. Suffice to say Santiago knew these woods well and with machete in hand; he led us through the rainforest on a journey of exploration.

    When I returned to New York and all of my colleagues asked me the ubiquitous “how was the trip?” I told them all two things, the first being, “visiting the Amazon river rain forest should be on your list of ‘must dos’ in life.”

    I pass that same advice on to all the people reading in cyberspace.

    There are some photos I have taken which will provide people a sense of all the flora (more flora than one can imagine) we were immersed in and fauna we interacted with for three and a half hours. But the photos only tell one two dimensional, Canon 5D 24mm – 105mm part of the story. The story of the Amazon rain forest is bigger than any photo, or any story, it is a story of life. Life surrounds you, is penetrates you, it is everywhere when you walk this is forest and to those not accustomed to its grandeur, it can be crippling. A sensory overload that leaves one in a state of shock and disbelief.

    That first day and first full night at the reserve we had the privilege of seeing firsthand how beautiful the rainforest can be. Overhead birds and monkeys would screech and shriek as we walked by while the silent butterflies would flutter past. Beside us was the dense, lush vegetation growing in an infinite palate of green colors, punctuated by colorful floral outburst on it canvass and the insects that seemed to appear from nowhere as you eyes focused to near from far. Underfoot, we’d walk past fungi, which at night would provide the second sky of the Amazon jungle. The dense jungle canopy above keeping sunlight to a minimum and the temperature a regulated moist cool, regardless of the blistering heat or unseasonable cool above. The smell fills the olfactory with the duality of life, decaying leaves and blooming flowers, both in equal parts mixed with the ever-present fresh rain.

    And we were also able to see how the local communities eke out a living from the jungle, through small scale fishing. Santiago would lead us past small inland lakes, where locals would be fishing for the ugliest bottom fish on the planet the plecostamus catfish familiar looking to many freshwater aquarium owners who have ever sought to de-algae their tank walls, which when cooked in brodo makes for a rather tasty caldo. The fishermen, no doubt close friends or relatives of Santiago, would yell something at him from their small canoe in the lake and the next thing you know this hideous fish is airborne on its way to the shore. Santiago, scoped them up, found a reed plant, turned that into a basket and for lunch, caldo.

    While not wielding the machete, or blazing a path through the dense, seemingly impenetratable forest, Guillermo did an excellent job following Santiago’s lead through the forest and explaining that what looked like a tree to us, was actually much more. Perhaps it was a living example of a rubber tree, being the first time most of us had seen this substance without the words “Goodyear” stamped across the side of it. Or it may have been a sample of bark which when dropped in water would immediately remove the oxygen paralyzing the fish, making for an easy harvest for the locals. Some trees would ooze a milky white substance that could be used to cure various bodily ailments. Others would shed a familiar looking leaf, familiar we would soon learn because they were used to thatch our cabins. Seemingly every plant held a natural cure, ancient story, or who-would’ve-thunk modern usage, such as the seed pod used as an ashtray, all of which Guillermo brought alive with his hands-on demonstration and lively narrative

    At night, Guillermo would led us through showing us what the dark obscures as our flashlights would pick up the scorpions, spiders, owls, bats, birds in repose, and other creatures more disposed to the night.

    Later, he asked us to allow ourselves to become part of this magical world, silencing our voices and turning off our lights. Only then would one see the bioluminescent fungi glow on the forest flow, little glowing stars of the night tossed on the forest floor. The spectacle brought to life a scene from Avatar minus the blue tailed humanoids of the heavy-handed, left-wing political propaganda.

    And the sound, how does one describe the sound? Everywhere, enveloping, omnipresent, the jungle wraps you in a warm cocoon of noise and just like a night at the symphony, one’s ears become sensitive to all of the parts the creatures play. The mellow strings of the crickets, brash horns of the nocturnal birds singing out, thundering percussion of monkeys crashing above, little subtle ambient tapping on the leaves from the rain; all conducted by mother nature, flooding the floor with natural light from luna above.

    “That was the coolest hike I had ever been on,” said LaNita as we emerged from the darkened jungle to cabin lodge. It was hard to argue with her, and the best I could do is to say the jungle at night was similar to scuba diving a reef, but as she’d never scuba dived before, she ruled the comparison unfair prima face. For now, our latest experience would stand alone on the pantheon of coolest.

    “The Amazon isn’t so scary anymore,” she added as she allowed the sweet lullaby to nocturnal jungle music to lull her to sleep.

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    During the next two days the jungle would continue to be demystified and we seemed to find our natural place in its ecosystem. Every morning I’d wake up with the early light, having slept quite well most nights I was there. This owes itself to a couple different facts. One, the complete and total lack of alcohol. Unbeknownst to us when we motored off from Leticia, we landed on a dry patch of marsh. The lodge doesn’t serve alcohol and doesn’t provide it for sale. Anyone that goes off the sauce knows how sleep returns quickly and it returned quickly for both of us. Second, was the peaceful soundtrack of the nightly jungle. Much like a setting on a noise machine, the rain forest is for the most part very relaxing, helping to rock us peacefully to sleep each evening. Aside from the odd clumsy monkey or bird that may crash through nearby branches, we had no sudden alarming awakenings following the first night’s nocturnal gnawer.

    Following my peaceful sleep, I’d take to the shower. Normally, daily bathroom activities lie outside of the scope of a report of a trip, but this time is different. One, like our commode, the shower lacked a back wall, thus one was left flapping in the breeze while rubbing oneself with soap. Two, this was done rather quickly as the water had only two settings, on or off. When on, the water was cold. When off, the air was cold. Thus, the act of bathing tends to be done rapidly. One morning I had a moment of bilingual inspiration, and captured the feeling in song:

    Agua es frio
    Y quando aqua es frio
    Hombre es frio

    And bathing was quite necessary. The tropical rain forest remained chilly in the morning, necessitating I wear the only long sleeve shirt I had packed on this trip. A few days of trekking through the jungle meant the shirt was, how do I say this gently, a tad ripe. I would’ve rinsed it out in the sink, like I did with my socks, but that wouldn’t meant it would’ve been damp for the next three days, like my socks. As it was, the shirt would start the day off damp, just from hanging up inside the cabin next to the bed. There was that much moisture in the air it made dry a mythical place to search for in the jungle, rather than a state of being. After four days of search, I’m afraid I had to abandon the quest. Damp had won.

    I also made a habit of sipping my coffee while observing the workings of the resident leaf-cutter ant colony. On our first morning, I had walked down to where the boat was beached and noticed a few slivers of leaf cutting seemingly marching on their own across the path. If one looked a bit closer, one could see ants carrying these leaves from the tree branch from which they were sawn to their subterranean lair. As I had learned from an adolescence of not dating and studying biology, the leaf cuttings were then used to feed a fungus, which secreted a substance the ants would consume; a true symbiotic relationship (not for the tree of course).

    As happened the other mornings, eventually the rest of the lodge awakened, breakfast was served and we were off for another day of activity. Today we took our boat out to the nearby bayou, named Lago de Christina, for some fishing. Our faithful local guide Santiago had already been at it, pulling up a few decent sized fish and a few smaller ones, the latter were promptly chopped into bait as we headed out away from shore to try our chance with the local fishing.

    For our angling pleasure, Santiago had sawed off a few flexible tree limbs, affixed some nylon and a hook, each baited with tiny bits of fish. It was as if Tom and Huck had floated down the Mississippi through the Gulf of Mexico, across the Caribbean and somehow wound up in the Amazon. But if the technology was a bit outdated, the fish didn’t seem to mind, as we could hardly keep up with the number of fish that took the bait and were being pulled up. Most common for the boat were Amazonian catfish, a “San Pedro” fish and piranhas, complete with a mean set of teeth. What we caught we eventually ate, as fish was on the menu for lunch and dinner from then on out.

    We were also able to learn much more about the local customs of the forest through Guillermo’s handy museum in his backpack. One afternoon he rolled it out for us and showed us various resins, barks, fish scales, leaves, seeds and other forest sundry, explaining what each was and what the locals used if for. Perhaps the highlight of this little demonstration was the “raile” he produced, a fine dark powder snorted through the nose, said to clear up the sinuses. Um, no thank you, when the dish was passed to me, I remember Nancy Regan and the 1980s and I don’t need to snort this to be cool. But others in the group couldn’t resist and snorted a line. The reaction, “Ow, that burns!” Yeah, what did ya think?

    Nighttime in the rainforest brings forth new experiences, new sounds, new smells, new animals, and tonight would be no different. As darkness fell upon the bog, we placed down our cane poles and brought forth the spotlight. We were searching the marsh reeds for caimans, otherwise known as Amazonian alligators. Manning the spotlight at the bow of the boat was our fearless—he earned the latest appellation after this evening—guide Santiago. The boat would ply the waters slowly, while Santiago scanned the banks, looking for the retinas of the reptiles to reflect red against the dark forest wall. When one was spotted, Santiago would raise his hand, and the boat would crash into the brush, while Santiago plunged forth trying to capture one.

    After only two attempts, he was quite successful, and suddenly before us were four caimans handed to us from the shore. Each was about a foot long and easy enough to handle. We’d pass the around to the others of the boat and then set them free in the waters again. Hands on Amazon.

    When not dark out, we took the boat for a spin in the deeper, wider waters of the Javari to go dolphin spotting. Yes, that was read correctly: dolphin spotting. There lives in the Amazon and its tributaries a species of pink dolphins, which look a bit like a slower, fatter, lazier, Dorito-eating version of the gray cousins, the latter also happily living in the river. The gray dolphins would do what gray dolphins do; rise up out of the water, sometimes even jumping, for the mammalian-mandated breath of air. The folks on the boat would see this, smile and laugh, maybe even clap. You know, what people do when they see dolphins living their happy-go-luck existence in the wild. The pink dolphins could hardly be bothered, as if they’d rather risk drowning that be bothered with a full gulp of air. So one would sit for a while looking out of the opaque waters of the Javari, only to see a smallish, pinkish hump crest above the water in a rather lacksidasical manner, as if the pink dolphin was like, “uh, I guess I go get a breath of air now.” One would have more luck waiting for the Loch Ness monster to accidently swim into the Javari than to try and catch a substantial glimpse of a pink dolphin.

    Terrestrially, we would go for our nature walks, finding ourselves sloshing through the muddy paths of the forest, or rubbing therapeutic mud on ourselves. Following our “gray dolphins are better than pink dolphins” spotting show along the river, we pulled up to Palmari village and its eponymous ecolodge, climbed through the rainforest and found a small little stream, which was promised to be piranha free. The local tradition here was to strip down to your skivvies, take a rather invigorating dip in the water and rub mud all over one’s body. The effect, it was said, was therapeutic, but the reality is that grown adults like to rub mud on themselves when it is social acceptable.

    Going for the gold on this particular day was the group member a few beers short of a sick pack, Angela. While those of us intending to take a dip were doing our level best to stall for time, Angela was in the water and in the mud, all while singing some little ditty to herself. “See it can’t be that bad,” I said to LaNita as I cautiously toed the chilly water. “Yeah, but she’s crazy,” LaNita deadpanned back to me.

    Ok, good point.

    Eventually Yolanda joined in the fun, which lured the Norwegians into the mud, and as the history of mob rule has demonstrated over the years, I had to follow as well, making for one of those “I think you snorted the ‘raille’ powder as well” photo moments of the four of us (Angela went mud covered up the creek to scare school children or something) sitting there grinning through our grayish mud pack sitting on the banks of a rain forest river.

    LaNita was all for wadding in the stream, but declined to do the mud bath, “If I’m going to have mud rubbed on me, I’m going to have it done at the spa.” While noticeably absent from this fun loving exfoliated bathers were Diego and Vanessa.

    A curious thing began to happen shortly after we arrived at Heliconia. Diego and Vanessa seemed to find every opportunity to pair up on activities. This was generally fine with the rest of us as a) we all had natural pairs and b) Vanessa liked to screech at every little thing, making her rather annoying to have nearby on a trail. Here we’d all be walking through the jungle, Guillermo would say, “Look at this spider.” “Oh, ah” would be the response from most of the group until it got to Vanessa, “AAAAAHHHHHHH!!!” “Look a scorpion,” pointed out Guillermo one night, “Oh, ah, oh, ah, oh, ah……AAAAAAHHHHHH!!!” would be the pattern of vocal expression as the single file line moved past the arachnid. Even in a less rugged setting, if a dog barked out of turn it elicited a scream. Or if someone held a large Peruvian rodent: scream. If the shower was too cold: scream.

    So we were all generally ok with Diego taking the brunt of the eardrum assault, today being no different. Vanessa was not going to have any of the splashing around in the pool shenanigans of the rest of the group and Diego stood by her in solidarity, ready to defend her honor to the first challenger. And standby he did, patiently pacing back and forth along the small bank of the creek and following Vanessa like an adolescent ready to return to Rydell High and sing about summer lovin’.

    Meanwhile the rest of us rinsed off in the now obscured waters of the stream, examined our refined, glowing skin and headed back to the boat for the rest of the day. Following some trouble finding our boat, and then the relief of locating it, we enjoyed a lunch of grilled chicken on a white sandy beach on the Peruvian side of the Javari, following by a brief excursion up the river bank to visit the largest Ceiba tree one is likely to see, culminating with a visit to the local community of Santa Rita, Peru.

    Santa Rita is the antithesis of Missouri’s state motto, there is nothing to show. Typing the town into Google maps lends a street corner in a busy conurbation, not the car-less sidewalk strung along the banks of the River Javari that we wandered around. It is almost as though the town doesn’t exist, or more likely, has been forgotten. As we came to find out, it was the hometown of our fearless local guide Santiago, who guided us through the town, introducing us to the local craft vendors and the convenience store owner. He also provided us an agouti, held as a pet by the local children for a few photos. The strange looking rodent looked like a larger, less hairy version of a guinea pig. “At last,” said LaNita, “I can get my ‘Daisy’ photo!”

    To properly understand the comment, one must digress into the esoteria of Hazard travel history. The year is 2006. LaNita and I have rented a Toyota 4X4 and are crashing through the back roads of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. There on the dirt road is a hotel, which we decide to stop at for the night, a sort of unholy genetic mix-up between the Island of Doctor Moreau and the Hotel California, populated by weird talismans in place of guests and only a few locals posing as caretakers. What we came to discover later is that said hotel was really a condo complex and we were unwittingly lining the pockets of the innkeepers during the offseason. But at the time we were taken back by the strange menagerie on the grounds, including an undetermined species of mammal that can best be described as the cross between a possum and a cat. Trying to determine what this thing was called, all we could get out of the zookeeper was that it was a “Daisy.” It was only later when reading an unrelated story about an exotic animal smuggling ring that I learned “Daisy” was in fact a coatimundi.

    Returning to the Peruvian banks of the Javari river, we are asking what this furry thing that LaNita is mugging with for the camera, only to be met with a question mark and a shrug of the shoulders. So now you have it LaNita, you’re very own “Daisy” photo.

    Otherwise, aside from the town’s monkey pet, and the odd rodent, there wasn’t much else to see. As quickly as we arrived, we left. Back to our reserve for one last adventure, the canopy tour. Today would be the day that “the boy” would be back to the reserve to conduct the tour. “The boy” was how Guillermo referred to the guy in charge of the ropes, harasses and clips. No doubt he has a proper name, and since he was at least 30, perhaps he should now be known as “the man,” but we never got that far. “The boy” was here today and thus if one wanted to tour the canopy, now was your chance.

    When the idea of canopy tour was first presented to us, it was one of those ideas that seemed like a no brainer. When we were in Nicaragua, we had taken a canopy tour via zip line on Mount Mombacho and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. For 35,000 COP a person, I was expecting much the same thing. Yep, sign us up we told Guillermo.

    So here we are standing at the base of a 45 meter tall Ceiba tree in the jungle next to our reserve looking up at the ropes coming off a platform. “The boy” and his helper (“Helper boy?”) are lying out the gear necessary for this bit of fun and strapping us into harnesses. When it looks like we are all ready to go, “helper boy” straps on two clips to a rope, places his feet into two stirrups and begins making his way up the rope much like an inch worm works up a tree.

    “Huh?” I thought. This wasn’t canopy touring the way I remembered it. In my memory, canopy touring was placing one’s large American derriere into a harness and having said derriere moved about the trees via the miracle of gravity and Newton’s first law of motion: “every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.”

    But the way “the boy’s” helper was going up the tree, my body was perfectly happy to remain in a state of being of rest. No way was I going to be able to climb my way up the rope. I’d need a big force impressed to make much difference in my current state.

    No matter, “the boy” was going to give it the old college try and began explaining the mechanics of the climb, in Spanish. Something about holding one hand here, then another hand there, while standing up with our feet in the harness. Then repeating the process. Guillermo tried to explain in English, but I didn’t understand, so I continued to watch “helper boy” until he made it to the top of the platform and thought I’d give it a go.

    Hand, hand, stand up. Oof. Hand, hand, stand up. Oof. I wasn’t going anywhere.

    “Now, pick your feet up,” Guillermo told me.

    Ok, feet up, and *plop* now I’m on my back. Ok, try to stand up again, nothing. Not only am I not canopy touring I wasn’t doing any touring at all. And I was tired. To paraphrase Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, if God wanted me at the top of this tree, he was going to have to miracle my a-- up there.

    While not quite a miracle that is what happened. The rest of the group had no trouble. LaNita faithfully inch wormed herself to the top of the tree, followed by Vanessa, and of course Diego shortly thereafter. (Ah young love, propelling us to the top of trees in a never-ending effort to impress the girl you’ll never see again).

    Meanwhile, I was being harnessed in for the repealing assent. “The boy” would do it the hard way, and then much like an elevator works; he flung his body weight down to counteract my body weight up. Before you knew it, I was at the top of a Ceiba tree, looking out over the dense tropical canopy that had been covering us for most of this trip.

    And if that is all I had to report, then perhaps the last sentence would’ve ended something like: there we could see the sun setting in the distance and everything was like a fairy tale with all of us living happily ever after as unicorns danced in the breeze.

    But it wasn’t. What I hadn’t thought of until I was 45 meters up was how I would go 45 meters down.

    Because, yes the sun set was lovely. But then a curious thing happened. It got dark. Quickly. And I looked down and saw that when it is dark above the canopy, it is pitch black below.

    Ok, nothing to worry about. I’m in the hands of professionals. All I need to do is listen to their instructions and I’ll be fine. “Ok, I’m ready to go down,” I proclaimed to “helper boy.”

    “Wah, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah,” was his response. Or at least his response as it sounded to me as I was suddenly filled with the terror that he…didn’t….speak….English.

    F---.

    To recap. I’m 45 meters up. The sun is below the horizon, leaving only the solar radiation burn on the horizon for natural light. “Helper boy” didn’t even have a flashlight until I produced one from my 10-year old Old Navy cargo pants. Below it might as well be a black hole, because there is nothing. Our guide now is explaining to me in his language (Spanish?, Portuguese?, Greek?, I had no idea, the terror had shut out the auditory function) the rather technical maneuver for sliding off the platform and working my way down using my lower hand as a break and my upper hand as a…..wait, what?....I didn’t catch that part. What am I supposed to do?

    Again, he pantomimes and explains in that language (Latin?, Sanskrit?, do people even use this language in the outside world, I can’t understand a d--- thing!) something about using my lower hand to stop and what, what about the upper hand?! I don’t get it. “Que? Eu nao entendo.” was the Portuguese phrase that jumped into my mind, roughly, “What? I don’t understand.”

    He stares at my blankly in response and points to the abyss. Remember that phrase about the hero and the coward and deaths? Well this was how my one was going to come. It wasn’t going to be by snake or fish or unvaccinated disease. Nope, it was going to be blunt force trauma as the result of a 45 meter drop. The New Yorker that lives in a 14 story building was about to fall to his death off a tree. I again wondered what they would say at the funeral. “Eric died doing what he loved, plummeting to his death when he was unable to decipher the technical details of repealing down because the guide spoke Phoenician…”

    So here goes nothing as I sat down on the platform, grabbed the rope, said my good byes to my lovely wife and prepared to plummet to my death. Grabbing the rope with my lower hand, I pushed off the tree with my upper hand into the abyss.

    Nothing.

    No plummeting. No death. I was like a Wiley E. Coyote cartoon when the laws of gravity are temporarily suspended to allow for a well-timed sight gag before my body begins falling in stages. At any moment, Bugs Bunny would step off a ledge next to me, explain he never studied law, and then wave good bye first to my hind section, then to my eyes, following behind a few second as happens in the cartoons.

    Only that didn’t happen either. Instead I slowly began to loosen my death grip on the rope below and slowly started sliding down. Because as I was saying my prayers up above, down below “the boy” and his crew of terrestrial bound non-canopy tourists were safely controlling my descent. While I came down a tad faster than I would’ve liked, or as Kanute deftly explained, “Eric came flying down line,” it was all part of the well executed canopy tour. Feet on the ground, nothing broken. That’ll be 35,000 COP please.

    LaNita was soon to join me on the ground, her descent much more controlled than mine, as would the rest of our canopy touring group. While nothing was broken, and in the end I did survive, I was a bag of nerves, making the night time jungle walk back to the lodge much more chore than pleasure. Unlike the first night time jungle hike, which was so vivid in my mind, the second inhabits the shadows of memory. I know that it was dark, and I know that we made it back, but that is about all. Then there was a shower at the cabin and bed. I had had quite enough excitement for one day, thank you very much. Sleep came easy that night if only because the bow didn’t break and the cradle didn’t fall.

    Bringing us back to our return boat ride to Leticia, where we would part ways with our fellow happy campers and be spread out across the winds of Aero Republica and Avianca. We had to rise early in the morning, 5:30, to provide enough time to eat breakfast, motor on down the river, clear immigration in two countries and catch our flights. What seemed like an unnecessarily long amount of time for all of this became quite necessary when our single-Yamaha powered boat began giving us fits and a few of the girls of the trip requested a mid-river rest stop. A stop that was accommodated by a beaching on a white sand beach and a gesturing of the availability of facilities over there; in the brush.

    All of this is to be expected, we were after all in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and as our four days had shown, quite a ways away from civilization (as New Yorkers, that was the point). Civilization comes in small drips and drabs as one journeys up the Javari toward the Amazon. The jungle will give way from time to time to small outposts of humanity like Santa Rita. Villages of a few huts and a flagpole with a satellite dish or two. Further along the river, more signs of humanity, as boats ply the rivers with cargo and passengers. Then a town Atalaia do Norte, and for a brief moment once dead cell phones will spring to life when the arrival of a few bars signal strength announce the presence of an umbilical cord to the outside world. But as quickly as the bars arrive, they fade, much like as they we’ve just entered a tunnel, or signed up for AT&T service.

    Yet this time, the trip was different. The apprehension was gone. Sunshine had an awful lot to do with it. Our eyes were no longer deceiving us, there is a lot of wilderness between our reserve and Leticia and the only way to navigate it was on this boat. We had also grown comfortable around each other’s presence. Sure, Angela would still sit and talk to me for long stretches in Spanish, but this time she seemed to understand the answers to her question may take a while and a few “que?” before they are accurate. We were having fun and didn’t seem to mind the slight delay. Yes, we all had planes to catch, but none of us were in serious worry of missing any of them. Time was on our side.

    We could also see we were not alone on the river. Past Atalaia do Norte the traffic increased as we approach Benjamin Constant, Brazil, where the waters of the Javari and Amazon meet. Here the cell phone signal grows strong and omnipresent, and omniscient if would seem, as both Guillermo and our boat captain felt the urge to affix a phone to their ears, like junkies suffering from the shakes of voicemail withdrawal. Getting his fix, Guillermo then dialed his boss, the owners of the reserve to apologize for our tardiness and update them on the schedule. What should have been a four and a half hour trip (owed to our working with the current instead of against) was slowed by an hour (owed to the engine giving the captain trouble and his unwillingness to press his luck with a full throttle). Our leisurely boat ride turned into a bit of urgency as we nosed up the trashy boat quay in Leticia.

    So we arrived to Leticia a few minutes late, now pushed against the clock of international time zones, ignored borders and rubber stamps. In order to leave Brazil, we first had to go to Brazil, crossing the sidewalk-cum-border that demarcates Leticia from Tabitigna and catapults us an hour into the future. This also instantly placed us into the siesta time of the Brazilian immigration office, necessitating a stop across the street at the steam-table joint for an impromptu lunch as we waited for the Brazilians to open up shop for the two-second rubber stamping. Then it was back into the cabs, back to Colombia and on to the airport. Where we had to check-in, clear Colombian immigration and it was adios Amazonas. Next up for us were the clear blue waters of the Caribbean on Colombia’s enigmatic island of Providencia.

    Thus concludes this trip report.

    -Eric

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