The jungle is the most inhospitable region on earth with the Amazon rainforest the largest and most remote. I had thought to make the jungle my friend by first interviewing at Aires Burger in Iquitos, Peru veteran guide Juan Maldenado who instructed not to eat before a rainstorm or you´ll get hypothermia, and if lost to follow the small tributaries to larger rivers that will flow to civilization. Then I hired Carlos Grande, a pot-bellied guide who on the eleventh day of a 21-day expedition from the headwaters of the Amazon abandoned me in the chlorophyll.
Everything is green when you´re lost in the Amazon. Carlos Grande left me in a Mayoruna Indian hut on stilts over the Rio Javari because of rumored cocaine narcoterrorist flanks on our overland trek. The Mayoruna, called Cat People for whisker tattoos sprouting from beneath the noses to ears, are a scattered population of about 2000 in the most inaccessible areas. The farther from civilization the quicker the tribesmen appear to drink blood, the naked children touch never having seen white skin, bare breasted women grin shyly, and pink dolphins with reputed ESP jump in the rivers.
As if in silent alarm the village suddenly empties to the river bank, and a fierce faced chief thrusts a paddle out one hand, an outstretched palm the other, and because of a dialect barrier nods at a 6´ child´s canoe down the muddy shore. The rest of the thirty adult villagers bob up and down behind him holding machetes overhead. Thrown into confusion I try the magic of biting off my thumb and swallowing it that draws giggles from children but the chief wiggles his whiskers shaking the oar in my face. So, I dance a jig in a circle like Richard Chamberlain in Shogan to convince him I am too silly to cast off, but he looks sternly past my ears.
Not crazy, I dig in a pocket and hand over the equivalent of $6 for the broken oar and canoe, step in and shove off… in a child´s canoe on an unknown river with no destination other than the courage of early explorer Percy Fawcett and Maldenado´s advice to follow the small rivers to larger ones to civilization.
Day one: No food, sunburnt, plate sized colorful butterflies, water sipped from the river induces fever, a green snake off the bow, more pink dolphins, mosquitoes at dusk, howler monkeys in the trees, and drifting under starlight. Day two: The canoe centerline is one foot and with the least teeter water pours over the lip. I must urinate where I sit, but defecation is out of the question from an empty bowel. Day three: Lost on an oxbow, I rudder into a stick dock and fall overboard into the helping arms of an old gent with fading tattoo whiskers who shares his yucca. Day four: A motorized pecapeca canoe sides mine and takes the child´s in trade for a half-day´s passage to the Brazil border. At the border two barefoot teen soldiers in tattered fatigues wade out bearing down with AK-47s and raised sights on my three-week beard, ripped clothes, sunburned skin hanging with leeches, and enormously swollen feet.
I don´t have the Spanish to tell them, ´My philosophy is when you think things can’t get any worse, it will, so stop griping and deal with it.´ ´Venga!´ they order, ushering me up the bank to the commandant saying that only narcoterrorists look like Indiana Jones on a bad day.
´Welcome to Colonia Angamos on the Yavari River,´ greets the Colonel pumping my raw paddle palm. We hunker on wood crates in his thatch roof, dirt floor office and are joined by the non-military town chief. They politely ask me to prove that I am not hustling cocaine from Peru to Brazil, and satisfied after a ten minute explanation of the abandonment order me carted on the two barefoot soldier´s shoulders to the town hospital where a nurse injects tetracycline and morphine. I fall onto a clean sheet in a provided bed of a thatched hut with chickens and hogs rooting beneath, rats skittering the walls, cats on deck, and parrots flitting in the air. For two, three, I don’t remember how many days I drift in and out this surrealism until jolted upright by a powerful thwak-thwak over the roof. A youth helps me stagger across a swinging bridge onto a grassy military airfield where a General is stepping out a chopper.
´Sir, I address him in Spanish. Do you speak English?´
The kindly man who looks like Walter Cronkite replies, ´Yes, but Spanish is better.´
´I am sick.´
´I can see that.´
´Can you medevac me to Iquitos?´
´We shall see,´
In three hours after meetings with the commandant and officers, the General returns and helps me by the elbow into the copter. It rises into a checkerboard of sunshine and clouds and two hours later drops me at the Iquitos military airport.
´What do I owe, General?´ I ask hopping out and feeling better.
´Your good health!´ he laughs, and the chopper takes off into the sun.