We flew on a local airline to a town called Malderon on the edge of the National Amazon Reserve. There we boarded an aging Mercedes bus for a two-hour, tooth loosening, dirt road ride through the lumbered out scrub country. Former jungle, now treeless with an occasional corn field next to a mud hut. Before we reach the village of Infierno (“hell” in Spanish), we make a left. Vegetation is growing denser. Soon we reach the departure station. The tourists refresh with tepid soft drinks while small Inca porters load four bags at a time on their shoulders and disappear into the now jungle, down a steep wooden staircase. Our guide beckons us, five couples follow the porters down the steps until the jungle gives way to the majestic, brown Amazon below. The long staircase melts into the mud as we slog to the waiting long boat. My balance betrays me and I wind up on all fours, crawling aboard.
We motor upstream. The wind runs cool across our sweated bodies. All eyes are glued to the shore, hoping for signs of the legendary Amazonian fauna. After three hours we have spotted four turtles, three white herons and a few buzzards flying over us ominously. Then, suddenly, the motor stops and the guide turns toward shore. We glide silently until we spot them. Three capybaras. The worlds largest rodent, equal in size to a pig. Munching leaves while two blackbirds danced among them, hopping to their backs to pick at insects.
We inched our way up the long staircase, the swaying bannister offering no help. We carved through the humidity and searing heat. At the top we stared at the jungle opening. Following Dixie was my contact with the winding train of tourists. From Holland, Bulgaria, Britain and Canada. After twenty minutes, my angered mind was swearing at the moron who didn’t build the lodge next to the river. Bird calls dropped from the dappled canopy overhead. The guide named each by it’s sound. Never saw a thing.
The lodge entrance was a tall inverted V, raised on pilings off the jungle floor. A waiter brought us cooling towels and pointed to the bar where I swilled down a cold fruit juice I had never tasted before. I looked around. The lobby was large. No walls. Allowing an occasional waft of cooling air. I grabbed another towel.
We sat while the concierge explained the situation. No electricity. Hurricane lamps would light the way along the ramps to our rooms at night. They would be extinguished at nine. Mosquito netting is provided for each bed. Recommendation- use the netting. Which prompted Dixie to hand me my malaria pill. After more assorted instructions we we’re taken to our rooms.
A canvas drape was the front door. The room was spacious. One wall was completely open to the jungle. After peeling our sweat-clogged clothes, we showered and went to dinner. Good chicken. Rice pudding for dessert. Our guide outlined the evening’s activity. We would go back through the jungle path to the staircase with flashlights and board the longboat to hunt for caymans along the river bank. I explained to our guide that we had seen enough alligators in Florida to last a lifetime. Pass. Dixie swooned her approval.
We returned to our room, sprayed our bodies with insect repellant and slipped under the mosquito netting. Tomorrow was to be a busy day.
The next morning we awoke to the expected cacophony of jungle sounds not ten feet from the open wall of our room. The mosquito netting did its job. Not a bite. At breakfast we learned that the couple next door had frogs. In the toilet and the shower. The room toward the back had bats flying through.
The day’s aim was the tower overlook and river otter lake. Breakfast was filled with talk of the animal kingdom ahead.
My step was brisk as we entered the jungle, the dense growth allowed only an occasional dappling of sun. I carried my backpack with camera lenses and raincoats. My video camera in my hands at the ready. And Dixie with her still camera. The trail was narrow but defined. Fallen trees would occasionally block our way. The guide chopped through. A few gullies to scamper down and then trudge up. The heat and humidity was planting its first layer of sweat on my brow. We spied a group of spider monkeys. Did manage to get some fleeting shots on the video. After a while, our first stop. A huge eight story, metal framework tower. Naturally my fear of heights gave me pause. Of course, Dixie bounded up with the lead group. One couple stayed behind, her fear equalled mine.
But I girded my loins and started up the staircase. Slowly, controlling my vertigo at each landing. I managed to climb five stories before I hit my limit. I reluctantly approached the edge of the tower and gazed down at the treetops. I waited for the explosion of parrots, macaws and monkeys.
Nothing. Nada. Zilch. All I saw were the tops of trees. And above, Dixie faired even worse. What they saw were the tops of trees from a greater distance and, in addition, they were surrounded by clouds of insects. Eight stories high in the Amazon was a group of flailing tourists.
Undaunted, we trooped onward. Now the hike was exceeding its brochure claimed 30 minutes. My sweat began to soak my shirt. My legs began to state their reluctance to keep the pace of the guide. I fell behind, only to catch up when the guide would stop the group for a short nature talk, only to have them take off the minute I arrived. The heat was now oppressive. The humidity invoking a thicker layer of sweat. My legs became more and more leaden. It was now 45 minutes and we still hadn’t reached the otter pond. But my years of physical training in Boulder helped me push on. Fuck the group. Fuck the animals. Just keep moving.
At last. The pond. We piled into the long canoe and burst into the open, glaring sun reflecting additional heat off the smooth water. But screw that. At least I was sitting down. We slowly paddled around the perimeter of the pond. Awaiting the appearance of the curious and playful otters.
Nothing, nada, zilch. Saw a white heron. Want to see herons? Stay in Florida.
The watch read one-and-a-half hours. And then the horror struck. I must walk back. The sun was near its highest. I must walk back. The humidity was a physical thing one could actually push against. I must walk back.
Leaving the canoe and pond behind, once more we entered the jungle. The respite of sitting in the canoe proved not restful at all. My legs were cramping. I only hoped that the walking would loosen them up. And it did. However, my pace had slowed considerably. The group and Dixie forged ahead until they were swallowed up by the tunnel path through the jungle. I was alone. Now the sweat came in layers. It clung to me like a gel. No whafting breeze to evaporate it. Only the turgid humidity to keep it in place. I plodded on, picking out a tree in the distance, “I’ll make it to that tree and rest”. I knew that the journey back would take significantly more time. My pace was half that of my starting jaunt. I wondered where the lodge was hiding the litters. Surely I wasn’t the only geriatric idiot to attempt this schlep. They must have carried out dozens of soggy souls from this hike in hell.
I heard a noise behind me. Rustling of leaves. My heart raced. And then my hearing aid went dead. I reached down and picked up a limb and turned around.
It was the guide who paddled the canoe. He too was returning to the lodge. My Spanish leaped into action. I asked if he would stay with me. He said yes and offered to carry my backpack. I handed it to him without hesitation. I kept the video camera for the remote possibility that we might see a jaguar.
I stepped out at a better pace. I hadn’t realized how heavy the damned backpack was. Now I consulted my wristwatch. I would walk for 15 minutes and rest for five. The sweat had now soaked all through my jeans down to the knees. It grew hotter as the sun climbed. We chatted during the rest stops. He was an apprentice guide. He had much to learn about the rain forest since he was a city boy.
I couldn’t possibly relate to you what a struggle it was to plant one foot after the other. But I had no choice. I just kept weaving down the trail. One foot after the other. Then I saw the main guide. He was coming back for me. He explained that he knew guide #2 was behind me and would take care of me. He gave me some water and we started anew.
I was dreading the next portion of the trail. A series of about ten planks zig-zagging across gullies and washes carved out during the rainy season. He held my hand as we crossed them, overcoming my balance problem.
Slowly, steadily, I just kept walking. Sort of a personal Bataan Death March. In my mind danced visions of ice-cold Cokes and Fantas. Another series of planks and I lost my balance. I reached out to a limb to steady myself. It was a thorn bamboo. I yanked my hand away and stared as the blood and sweat began to drip off my fingers. The bamboo was covered with two-inch long spikes. I wiped the blood off on my jeans to determine the extent of my injury. Locating the three biggest holes, I pressed my fingers on them to stem the flow. Fortunately, I’m a quick coagulator. I asked the guide if the plant was toxic. He said no, having had a similar episode a few years ago.
We walked on, now with at least a distraction. Pain. The guide helped me up some of the steep embankments. And downhill he stayed close in front should I lose my footing. He had my camera now. I abandoned my wrist watch routine. I walked as long as I could and a little more. Then rested. The guide said the balance of the trail was flat and he wanted to run ahead to the group and tell Dixie I was alright. And run he did. And walk I did.
To cheer myself I began to sing a song by the Gypsy Kings. “Caminando por la calle, yo te vi”. Translation; I was walking down the street and I saw you. After about twenty verses the dark jungle magically opened. It was the lodge. And Dixie standing there with a Coke.