|The farther west you head in Peru, the closer you are to the jungle. From Cusco, where the jungle just fringes the outer landscape, we flew west, deeper into it, to a "city" called Puerto Maldonado. PM's elevation was much lower than the areas I had just visited a few days before (which spelled trouble for my sinuses). As GAP points out, Puerto Maldonado is located in an area referred to as the Amazon Basin, which is quite isolated, and not "available to the casual traveller." I can see why. The climate is severe, vast tracks of land are largely undeveloped (although cultivated as farmland), and the infrastructure to support a tourist culture simply isn't there (save for the lodge and services GAP procures there). And the mosquitoes! Who would willingly put themselves at the mercy of so many mosquitoes!
The airport was a breezy, light affair, with two main desks, and a runway the size of an American driveway. I noticed the drastic weather change immediately: In Cusco the weather was a cool 70; here it was a sweltering, thick-air 90 plus or more, hot. I hate hot. I already felt like going to sleep.
From the airport, we drove via minivan to an office where we would drop off our stuff save for a small pack with only the essentials for two days. While we were picking through our stuff, some of us caught sight of a woman carrying a bag full of brazil nuts in the doorway. It's uncanny: as soon you show up anywhere, there are people waiting to give you what you want. Why yes, I would love some brazil nuts! On the ride here, I listeneds to our guide describe the lush brazil nut crops throughout the jungle and wondered how I could get some. And though it should make you feel inhuman to be approached like this woman did, essentially setting up shop next to the walking dollar signs, it was difficult to find in her, as much as it is difficult to find in most Peruvians, the tint of that crudest kind of opportunism in her eye. You're as much a curiosity to them as they are to you, you feel, and she's simply offering you a mutually beneficial deal, nothing more. So here is a woman selling the brazil nuts I thought I should try to find before I left, covered in sugar no less. Perfect.
We arrived at our lodges after an hour canoe ride down the Tambopata. After dropping off our stuff, we walked around the grounds. There were pineapple bushes (they grow on bushes,I learned, not trees), banana trees, and huge pink jungle flowers. Someone eventually noticed that the entire time we had been walking among the hugest red army ants I had ever seen (see picture). They clearly ruled the ground floor, there were so many of them. And they were hoisting leaves on their backs. It made me think of Thoreau's battle of the ants section of Walden, where he pays tribute to the bravery and industriousness of ants. These ones were certainly industrious, and I wondered if I put my finger near them would attack me for interrupting their workflow. I thought to myself, "this place is teeming" a word brings to mind that dirtiness associated with the blood and sweat that comes from lots of life in one area. That's the jungle. The place is covered in bugs and vegetation, the air is thick, and it's loud. And the blood is always yours--thanks to the mosquitoes.
Later on, when it turned dark, we took a "night walk" down one of the paths leading away from the lodges. It was Rolando, my Peruvian guide, and not the wildlife that was the highlight of that walk. Whenever he got bored, he'd wander off into the woods and come back. Whenever he emerged from one of his wanderings, I flashed a light on him and yelled "it's a mono!" (monkey), my nickname for him. Of course, between his rustling about the woods, and my incessant laughing at him, we were pretty disruptive, and were appropriately reprimanded. We saw a red and yellow bird that looked like a fat parakeet, lots of huge crickets and spiders, and heard some monkeys. I'm sure everyone had these high expectations of seeing something really bizarre, or at least finding some danger, and probably felt some disappointment, but what we saw was probably the most anyone sees on those walks. Finally, at the end of the walk, the guides had us shut off our lights and stand quiet for a few minutes. What an amazing experience; to be in complete darkness, with noises shimmering all around you, feeling true disorientation. Try to interpret all the activity--but there's so much--so much communication parallel to yours!
I was dying to see more monkeys, so I made it a point to scout some out the next day. Luckily, there were some in the trees near our lodge. The monkeys I saw were small and red, and resembled super-hairy coconuts rolling along the branches. It was awesome when they would swing about; then you could see their long arms curling around the branches. The rest of the wildlife I saw that day was amazing: a small piranha, a row of bats, a tarantula (see picture), a crazy camo frog (see picture), a large dog-sized rat called a Capybara, a small version of a crocodile, and a parakeet. The latter part of the day I visited a cocoa and banana farm that belonged to an 86-year-old man who happened to be in town that day visiting a doctor. We got to snoop around his house (see picture) and sample his crops. To think an 86 year old man takes care of even an acre of crops is a wild thought, especially given the climate. His house was a shack, and there were bottles strewn about a lone wooden table, and a chair inside. I couldn't see where he slept.
There was one tree in particular that caught my attention on that farm. The tree's bark would "bleed" when you cut it--essentially, a white sap would ooze from it and turn red from the exposure to the air. I learned the sap is used to treat mosquito bites. The farmer had gouged the tree with hundreds of knife marks--he was obviously "harvesting" the goo for sale. Our guide explained to us that there were many medicines harvested in the jungle which the natives used and sold among themselves, and that they know how to treat virtually any illness they could contract there. The difference between their methods of treating illnesses and ours is simply the duration of effect: they have to wait longer for results. At a blessed pace, we expect nothing less than miracles back in the US.
So went my stay in the jungle-.