The Rainy Season, Misahualli, Ecuador, 1985
I couldn’t contain my excitement and shouted to my companions, “There it is—the Amazon River!”
Wide and curvy, it lay far below the embankment where our crude jungle hut sat, surrounded by clusters of coconut trees and tangled vines. The palm fronds dripped rainwater onto the cool, moist ground. Steam rose in the humid, saturated air. I shivered. I am in the jungle.
“Technically, it’s the Napo River, a tributary to the Amazon,” Mark said with a smirk.
I made a face at him. “Whatever. We’re here.”
Joe called from inside the hut, “Where’s the toilet?”
Antonio, our guide to the interior jungle, shook his head. “No hay baño.”
“No bathroom,” Mark translated and grunted. “I suppose the jungle’s our toilet.”
“You got it.” Antonio grinned. “You bathe in the river.”
I eyed the steep cliff overlooking the river. How can I be such a chicken-liver? I just have to get down without killing myself. I couldn’t even see the water. I blinked. Why was it all blurry?
“I will bathe first tomorrow morning,” said Marie, the French girl, in the same way she might say, I’ll take the first crack at the bathroom. Her casual declaration struck me odd considering the unusual nature of our “bathtub.”
“Never fear, l will be more than happy to help either of you ladies down to the river,” Mark teased. “Amy, how tall are you? Are you tall enough for this ride?”
“Huh? I’m five-one … and a quarter. What ride?”
He laughed and slapped his thigh. “The ride you’re gonna take to the river if you attempt to get there on your own.”
Having taught English in Colombia for the past year, the opportunity to visit other Spanish-speaking countries came up regularly. Since it was summer break, I decided to travel to Ecuador. I’d started this trip on my own. Fluent in Spanish, I had no qualms about getting around by myself. I knew I’d meet up with other travelers.
In Baños, I met two women from Europe who said they lived in the interior jungle. Students on a six-month study tour through their local university, they were researching the medicinal properties of the plants in the tropical forest.
“It’s very simple life,” the taller of the two emphasized. “We wash our clothes in the Amazon.”
I caught my breath. I wanted to wash my clothes in the river. Going back to the basics appealed to me–plus, the stories they told me made it sound so adventurous. After talking to those travelers, I decided on the spot to change my course and explore the jungle myself. Later, I stepped into a hole-in-the-wall travel office and inquired.
“Sí, why not? But no can go alone. You find five persons. Come and pay…” he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to indicate the money. “…we go.”
It wasn’t economical for guides to lead one-person tours, and the jungle presented too many dangers to approach it on my own. Disappointed, I went off in search for other gutsy travelers. A few days later at a crowded vegetable market in Quito, I met some expatriates around my age. With the Amazon adventure in mind, I convinced them to visit the jungle with me. In their early twenties, Joe and Mark came from San Francisco. Nineteen-year-old Marie came from the French countryside; a lone traveler trekking through Ecuador on a longer trip around South America.
“Oui,” she said when I invited her along on our Amazon expedition.
Now “we” had arrived.
I looked down the cliff at the river and said, “There’s something exotic about bathing in the same river where you wash clothes.”
“Preferably not at the same time,” Mark pointed out.
I rolled my eyes.
On a grimy blue board in front of our communal hut sat a small monkey. As we approached, it stood up and reached out its hands to be held. Just like a baby. It wore a thick rubber tube around its neck and a small chain, which linked it to the board where it sat.
“So cute.” Marie cried. “Can I hold?”
Antonio handed it to her, chain and all. “Spider monkey,” he said.
She cuddled it close. “Aww. But where…?”
He mimed holding a pistol and aimed off in the distance. When he pulled the imaginary trigger, he said, “Hunter shoot mama. Bang-bang.” He shrugged. “Is orphan.”
I didn’t know if he was trying to entertain us, be funny or simply supplement his poor English skills with the action-packed gestures to clarify the tale, but it got to me. I eyed the rubber tube and the slender, rusty chain. Did this baby miss its mama? Confined to the board by a few short feet of chain, it spent its time in the blistering heat. I hated the round tube. It seemed so inhumane to be tugged anywhere by the neck. When I bent over and touched the monkey’s dark, course fur, my fingers brushed against the hot tube. “Poor baby,” I murmured.
Joe appeared at the door waving something. I squinted, trying to figure out what he had. “Mosquito net.” Oh. Evening came early to the jungle, didn’t it? But still, I should have seen that. Joe was only a few feet away. I shook my head to clear my thoughts.
Eager to check out the premises, we scrambled into the hut. With the Amazon below us, the thatched-roof hut, the monkey and now, mosquito nets, we immersed ourselves in the adventure.
Mark riffled through his bag. “That reminds me. Joe, we still have to take the malaria pills today.”
I stared. “Malaria pills? Wow. You guys came prepared. What else did you bring?”
“Pretty pink pills in case anyone has…” Mark lowered his voice to a dramatic whisper and looked around to see if he had everyone’s attention. “…diarrhea. You know the rest—mosquito repellant, sunscreen, first-aid kit, blah-blah. We got all our shots ahead of time.” He patted a side pouch. “Waterproof backpacks, boots and rain gear. Did we overlook anything?”
I had none of those things. Well, how could I know I’d be jungle-bound? “I…you’re…way ahead of me.” Uh-oh, how did I ever think I could just up and go to the Amazon without any advanced prep? Just as quickly as my fears came, they went. Travelers who don’t live in other cultures believe everything they read in the guidebooks, all of which prepares a traveler for the worst case scenario. I’ll be fine.
I picked up my lightweight canvas army surplus backpack—containing only a few clothes, my toothbrush, sunscreen and a hat—and plopped it onto a cot with the mosquito net already in place. “I claim this bed. Hey, there’s not much light in this hut, is there? Do things seem really dark to you guys?”
Still expecting the premises, Joe looked up. “Not to me.”
“You might see better if you took off your sunglasses,” Mark said.
“Very funny. I’m not wearing any.” It must just be me. Maybe I’m tired from the long trip.
Monkey screeches woke me up early the next morning. I lifted the canvas that covered the so-called window—a square hole—and saw the monkey trying to climb down from the board. I threw off my light cover and slipped on my sandals. Some very fat, ripe bananas sat on the table so I unpeeled one and popped a bite into my mouth. It tasted faintly of apples. Apple bananas. I’d heard of them. They were the perfect size for baby orphaned monkeys. I grabbed a couple extra and headed outdoors.
The monkey grabbed the banana from my outstretched fingers. It seemed to appreciate my offering as it plowed the banana into its mouth, chattering as I handed over the second one. With its mouth full, the monkey grasped onto my finger with its own. Even at this early hour, the pale sun projected faint wavy lines in the muggy air. “Come here. You need some shade.” The monkey put its arms around my neck and lay its head on my shoulder. My motherly instinct kicked in as I stroked it protectively. Eventually, I set it down away from the sun.
I wandered over to where Joe and Mark practiced some martial arts moves near the cliff.
“Hey!” The faint shout came from the water below.
Mark stopped and peered down at the figure. Although a little overweight, Marie exuded a subdued sexiness as she spoke and moved. Joe crowded next to him and looked down. She waved and blew a kiss.
“Hello, my dear,” Joe called and waved back.
Joe retrieved his sturdy stick and snapped his fingers in front of Mark’s face a couple of times to get his attention. “Dude, over here!”
The two began their sparring match again.
Then something a little odd happened. For a moment, they completely disappeared from my line of sight. I looked away and rubbed my eyes. Then turned to look again. About thirty seconds later, Joe and Mark reappeared, still sparring in slow, methodical movements. I blinked. The sun must have been in my eyes. I can’t forget my sunglasses today. We’re right on the equator. Of course, the sun is going to blind me. That’s it, for sure.
Antonio arrived with a local (indigenous) guide and two new additions to our group—Hector, an Ecuadorian, and Grietje, his Swiss girlfriend.
“How do you pronounce your name?” Joe asked.
The amber-haired woman and Hector exchanged a glance, as if they heard this question often. The girl answered. “Greet-jeh. It’s Dutch. Of course you know the fairytale, Hansel and Grettle, yes?”
With her blond braids, she did resemble the fairytale child.
The day’s journey began on the banks of the enormous chocolate-colored Napo River. After a ride in a hollowed-out tree trunk used as a canoe, Antonio pulled it ashore.
The unfamiliar terrain made it hard going . I reached out to steady myself along the way, a wet plant here, a smooth tree trunk there, a slippery vine, a slimy rock, several times to keep my balance.
“No touch nothing,” Antonio warned. “Every tree, every rock, every leaf, has alive.” In his broken English, he explained why. “Danger. Many spider, poison insect, creature only here in jungle. No touch. There is one ant kind, if she bite, woe to you. This ant, she killer-ant. She call to all the friend and attack you. We must careful.”
I shuddered and dropped my hold on the plant. Antonio broke into Spanish to ensure I understood the dangers of jungle life. “Tell to the others,” he ordered.
“Listen up.” I translated warnings about tarantulas, poison brambles, bees and creepy-crawlies. By the time I finished, the hairs on my arms felt super-itchy. I brushed off imaginary bugs, and kept my eyes peeled for unfamiliar critters that blended and lurked in the fertile plant life.
Trekking through the deep terrain made it difficult not to touch anything. But with concentration, I refrained from toppling into the leafy vegetation. Plants suddenly appeared in my path. I’d catch myself just in time. We all had to be so careful. It’s pretty tricky in this unfamiliar terrain.
Antonio noticed my difficulty and extended his hand. “Amy, you stay near to me. Take my arm. I no trust you safe.”
But even with the dangers, the jungle fascinated me. Every few steps, Antonio pointed out something new.
“Look this bird.” He pointed toward a thick canopy of branches. I squinted but couldn’t see any feathered creature.
Joe picked up on it right away. “Wow. Cool. What is that…a toucan?”
“Where?” I peered into the darkness.
“Right there.” Antonio guided my head.
“That grainy thing?” Or was that just leaves? “Do you have any binoculars?”
Antonio fished them out of a worn bag he carried.
The darkness swallowed up the details. Is that light spot its beak? I pressed the binoculars into my face and squinted. Maybe I still wasn’t focused on the right area.
Marie squealed when she saw it.
Mark practically grabbed the binoculars off my face. “Come on, come on, give ‘em up.” When he got it in focus, he whistled. “Look at the markings on that bird.”
One minute the sun blinds me, the next, the jungle shadows get in the way.
Antonio pressed, “Amy, you see now?”
The hot jungle, saturated with moisture, made it difficult to breathe. Every once in awhile, I panted and swallowed a mosquito. I hope they aren’t carrying dengue fever or malaria. Another suddenly flew into my mouth. I wiped it off my tongue and spit. “Pphth.”
The incessant buzz of mosquitoes, which hovered around my ears and torpedoed themselves into any unprotected skin, irritated me. I lifted up my short hair to wipe away the sweat, trailing from my neck down the back of my sweatshirt. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain on my shoulder blade. I reached in and smacked the area where I felt the pain. In the palm of my hand, I found that an enormous, very black mosquito lay dead, trailing my blood with it.
“Eww,” I gasped. Gotta get some air flow onto my skin. I plucked at my sweatshirt but it stuck like glue. Ugh.
Antonio lectured as we hiked. Just behind him, I leaned in to hear him better. Suddenly, I lost my balance. Although I threw out my arms to catch myself, I wasn’t fast enough and stumbled into Marie
She shoved me away. “Watch it, Amy. You almost push me over.”
“Sorry, I guess I’m just—”being Amy.
Our guide played arbitrator. “Ladies. Not problem.” He looked at the sky, “Rain coming soon.”
Moments later, the rain arrived—loud and furious. Antonio shouted to be heard over it as we moved. I slogged through the thick underbrush, relieved that Antonio had doled out thick-soled rubber boots that morning.
Don’t fall. Don’t touch the plants. Remember, deadly spiders. Killer ants.
Deep emerald and olive-colored leaves almost as large as me slapped me in the face. I bent over double to avoid them. So clumsy. Joe and Mark deftly dodged the mammoth-sized leaves with the precision of pinball wizards. I, on the other hand, was the pinball, bouncing off every obstacle.
The rain also did weird things to my clothes. My sweatshirt hung almost to my knees and grew heavier with each step. Water sluiced down the back of my sodden sweatshirt, chilling me. I stretched my soaked sleeves down over my dripping fingers to keep warm. On the other hand, the rain slid in smooth rivulets down the lightweight water repellent rain coats Mark and Joe wore. They even had rain gloves attached to their sleeves. Who wore rain gloves? My hat flopped into my eyes They each had hoods, which tightly conformed to their heads with an elastic band keeping their hair untouched by the rain. They chattered in loud voices back and forth as they ran ahead of Antonio. In contrast, my teeth chattered and my nose ran—of course, not a tissue on me.
People might wonder why I felt cold in the jungle—especially in an environment with such high humidity. At the start, the rain fell so hard it felt like sharp slivers slicing into my neck. But a little later, during our hike, when I looked down, I couldn’t believe it when steam rose from my sweats in little puffs when I moved, looking just like when you take a garment to get steam cleaned at the drycleaner’s.
Finally, we reached an area with a round, open-air, thatched-roof kiosko. We climbed a couple stairs and sat down at a flimsy picnic table and some rickety benches. To our right we saw a steep cliff overlooking the Napo River. Such heavy rain pelted the water, it sounded like a free-flowing waterfall. We waited for the rain to pass. Huddled on the bench, translating stories to the group, I felt like a soupy mess. “Rule #1. If you’re ever in the jungle again, pack appropriate raingear. The books got that right. I lifted my head. It suddenly grew quieter. “Hey, listen. The rain stopped!”
Antonio made a motion to move. “Vamos,” he said, thumping his fist on the table.
Along our journey, Antonio stopped and taught something new every yard or two. Our guide did his job well. He pointed out butterflies, plants, and explained a little more about the killer ants—which cut leaves and carried them to make their home. They destroyed anything in their path, including humans.
A few minutes later Antonio crouched down to see something. “Termites. You look.”
With a pair of work gloves, Antonio picked up the nest and brushed it off. He examined the structure from a couple of angles. With the tip of his glove, he dug into the mound, flicked a few termites to the ground and found what he was looking for—la reina, the queen—and lifted it out.
I narrowed my eyes in the murky light to get a better glimpse.
“You no see? Here.” Antonio playfully pushed it near my face.
“Agh!” I gasped and made a face as I drew back. “Get that outta here.” Do termites fly? Are they like bees? “Antonio, I will never translate a single word of Spanish for you if you ever do that to me again.”
“Lo siento, chica,” he apologized before switching into instructional mode. “The Amazon have about two hundred specie of termite. Many leyendas about termite. Bad for house. Means owner to die soon. Amazon use termite in medicine for people sick. Good you eat. Strong drive. Husband and wife make many childs.”
“A-ha!” Joe turned to Hector, “Are you taking notes here?”
Antonio moved us right along. In a little while, he took a bamboo branch and cut a portion off. He then sliced the bark away, and dug into the center with his pocket knife; handing me the tender shoot inside. My first ever taste of heart of palm. I took it and tasted it. Firm to touch, but soft enough to chew, it tasted a little tart and sweet at the same time. I licked my lips. “Can I have a little more?”
Our guide beamed, sliced off another portion and handed it to me on the knife, then passed out samples to the rest of the group
As we continued on our jungle expedition, Antonio demonstrated vital survival skills.
“You lose your way in jungle. You take knife, and you can to survive, sure.” Antonio demonstrated how to make different-sized traps from vines and small branches needed to capture small game.
“That’s assuming you can kill what you’ve caught,” I remarked.
“You get hungry enough, don’t worry, you’re gonna kill that cute little squirrel. At least, you are if you’re with me.” Joe cuffed my chin.
“Women are such wusses.” Mark snorted.
I laughed. Then blinked. “Hey Mark, where did you go?” Are my eyes playing tricks on me?
“I’m right here, Ding-a-ling. Hel-lo. Is anyone home in there?”
I flushed. The only one I ever knew who spoke to me like that were my brothers. Before I could think of a suitable response, Marie retorted, “I am not ‘woos’. I shoot with my father and brothers.”
I had no doubt that the strong, dark-haired Marie could kill her prey and survive in the tropical jungle. I highly doubted that I could.
What if I get separated from the others on this trip? I don’t seem to be seeing very well today. What is it that will give me an edge on survival if I can’t set the traps? I didn’t have a plan and that somehow bothered me. I cast furtive looks around me, scheming alternative ways to stay alive in the jungle. In the end, I skedaddled closer to the others, unsure I could forge my own way ahead.
Antonio found a very long vine, and whipped it over to Joe, “Jungle Boy, you can climb?”
Joe’s hand shot out and he latched onto the vine. As it steadied, he bent his legs around it to get his footing and swiftly pulled himself up. My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t believe a guy his size could move so fast. He let loose a series of whoops and hollers, pounding his chest when his feet touched the ground again. “Me Tarzan.”
I rolled my eyes.
Mark didn’t climb very high. Instead he hung onto the vine and swung back and forth before throwing it over to Hector, who swung in circles and broke the vine as he acted like an ape in front of Grietje.
“You go now.” Antonio nudged me. “We find another vine.”
I sized up the vines in that area, but they looked dark and tangled.
Our guide took it for granted I was game. “Easy climb. You can do.”
Antonio waved me to his side. “I help you.” He unwound a thin but sturdy rope draped around his shoulders, made some thick knots, and pulled them tight. He gave the rope a final cut with his machete then tied it onto the vine. He scuttled up and tied it to the top of the vine, then easily swung down. “Now you do.”
It took some convincing to get me to buy into this crazy plan. Antonio took my foot and placed it on the first oversized knot. Then he took my hand and gave me a boost up.
I swayed a little as I clung to the vine, now a foot off the ground.
“Antonio, no…maybe Marie wants to climb? I’m no Jungle Jane.” I touched the ground with one foot.
Marie shook her head and backed away. “Not me.”
“Go on, Amy, Go! Go!”
Just step the rest of the way down and walk away.
Mark squawked and beat his arms like a chicken. Antonio shouted “Sube” and made climbing motions with his hands. Now some of the others chanted, “Su-be! Su-be! ” Everyone watched, fascinated, to see what I’d do. I cracked under the pressure. Maybe I can. It’s only a vine. I had no choice but to climb it. Or forever lose my credibility.
I tightened my hold on the thin, bristly cord in my hands one last time, wrapped it around my wrists and inched up the vine. Both hands trembled. I can do this. I gripped the rope so tightly, it cut into my hands. The vine swayed with my weight, and I held my breath, terrified if I made any kind of move at all, I’d fall. This is enough. Yet, instead of heading back down, I climbed higher. I can do it. The closer I got toward the top of the vine, the dimmer the light. “You Tarzan, Me…” Suddenly the light disappeared into the branches of the trees.
Before I could get the words ‘Jungle Jane’ out, I started to slip. Where is that knot? I fumbled. Caught myself. Tried to feel for the knot again without letting go. Come on! Where is that knot? I felt my strength waver and suddenly, my grip slipped and me, along with it. “Oh…I’m falling. Help!”
I slid the whole way down. With a thud, I hit the ground.
Antonio raced to my side. “You okay?” He sounded anxious.
With the wind knocked out of me, I couldn’t speak for a few seconds. I could hardly open my eyes. I lay exactly where I landed. No strength to move. My hands, skinned, raw and red from the rope, burned like fire. My knee, and my behind throbbed. My poor tush.
“…my?” A voice penetrated my lethargic thoughts. “Okay?” Antonio felt arms, knees and feet for broken bones.
Easy climb, he said. Right. I swiped at the tears that welled up in my eyes. My voice sounded far away when I finally spoke. “Yes, I…I think I’m okay.”
Finally, Antonio flashed a grin in relief. “O-kay!” He gave two thumbs up.
I closed my eyes. Grunted.
Mark had the nerve to say, “You shoulda seen the way your legs waved around in your red sweatpants. What a spectacle.”
The color flooded to my face, and I suspected it matched my sweats. I’ll never live this down.
Grietje came over and brushed off my arms and hand. “You must be careful” She looked around at the males and scolded, “Very silly idea for you to swing from this tree.” She extended a hand to me. “Let me help you.”
I held onto her arm as she brushed me off, first my bruised and smarting hand then my arm. I took a deep breath. All right, I fell. So what? Anyone can miss seeing a knot. It’s nothing to get pushed out of shape about.
Grietje made sympathetic clucking sounds when she saw the welts up-close and a purplish hue emerge on parts of my arms. “Look,” she said pointing to a bruise. But instead of upsetting me, her discovery revived me.
Bruises didn’t faze me. I lived with bumps and bruises because I tended to run into things. Just clumsy. Always have been. I brightened. The jungle is still a grand adventure. Didn’t I come expecting as much? My interactions with the environment only made it more memorable, right? “Did anyone get a photo of that?”
Marie swung her camera in a circle. “I did. I got the proofs right here.”
I chuckled. “Don’t forget to send me a copy of that one.”
We trekked through the jungle all that day and ended up back at our hut just a few hours before the darkness fell. My stomach gurgled, and I began to get terrible stomach cramps.
“Joe,” I whispered. “Can I have some of your diarrhea pills?”
He looked at me in surprise. “Uh—I think we still have some. Let me ask Mark if he—”
“No. No. That’s okay.” I didn’t want to deal with Mark’s jokes just now.
“Let me check then.”
Another cramp attacked me. I headed outdoors. “Can’t wait for those pink pills,” I muttered. I can’t see my hand in front of my face. Did I step into the black hole?
I clung to the wall of our hut. “Oh my. I’m gonna…oh no…right here…right now.” I squatted down. Montezuma is having his revenge on me tonight.
Joe returned. “Got the pills.” His voice sounded funny. Did he see what I just did?
“Oh no, not again.” I held my stomach, mortified. “Excuse me, Joe.”
I hissed, “You don’t want to be here for this.”
Ten minutes later, I felt my way around the walls of hut and entered again.
Joe popped a couple of tablets to ward off similar problems. “Tough not having a bathroom when you’re in…dire straits.”
I went in and out of the hut several times that evening, thankful for small blessings—like it being the rainy season. The rain would wash away the incriminating evidence, and even the banana leaves—my au natural toilet paper—would seem only to be part of the jungle foliage.
As we made our way back to our jungle hut that afternoon, Grietje noticed that Antonio was bending over and gathering something. “Now what, Antonio?”
“I pick special mushroom. These mushroom very good. I make drink for you tonight. We have experience very interesting.”
“Oooh! Tell us more,” Marie squealed.
“If you drink too little, you not feel nothing. If you drink too much, you fall down.”
Joe poked me in the side. “Amy, tell us the truth. You’ve been secretly dippin’ into this mushroom concoction since we started this tour, haven’t you?”
Antonio’s expression grew fierce as he eyed the group. I realized he misunderstood and hastened to explain. “Joe is joking. He thinks I drank the mushroom drink because I fall so often.”
He shook his head and wagged a finger to emphasize his words, “No, is not possible. Amy not have permission. I need make drink. Only I know where he grows. You must make careful because poison.”
“He?” Mark asked, mystified.
“Antonio’s translating literally, the word for mushroom is masculine in Spanish.” I explained.
“Oh my. Magic mushrooms?” Marie giggled.
“They’re not magic if they’re mushrooms. They’re hallucinogenic,” Mark corrected.
Antonio sounded mysterious. “If you good person, you see good vision. If you bad person, you see very bad vision.
“That’s karma for ya,” Joe said.
Grietje asked, “You mean vision as in spiritual vision? Like will I see angels and clouds and hear harp music if it’s a good vision? What if it’s bad, will I see a little red man with a pitchfork or monsters?”
Antonio shrugged. “Is different for each one.”
Joe jumped in, eager to get started. “Hmmm, I can’t wait to try out this brew. Come on, hup-two-three-four. Let’s move on with this jungle tour.” He marched to his own cadence.
Later that evening we had fun calculating our weight on the metric scale so Antonio would know how much of the special brew to make for each of us. Our weight would determine the amount we drank.
“I’m not quite sure about this mushroom beverage,” Grietje said when Antonio was out of hearing range. “How do we know we aren’t going to pass out and get robbed or something?”
Hector drew her close. “I would never let anyone hurt you. This is something especial in the jungle. Is famous.”
She didn’t seem convinced. “How can you be sure? Maybe I will just watch.”
Joe’s jaw dropped. “Are you kidding me?”
I wondered how to put her mind at ease. “This is just part of the tour. Antonio ‘n’ the Indian guide will prepare this drink themselves.”
“I’m not drinking any,” She declared. “You guys can take your life into your own hands, but not me. I don’t want to be robbed, harmed, or certainly, see any kind of ‘vision.’ I want to be in total control.”
Hector put his arm around his girlfriend. “This is our friend, Antonio. He is a registered guide, remember?”
She looked adamant. “I don’t care. You and I are not interested.”
He shrugged with a helpless “I’m-with-her-what-can-I-do” grin on his face.
Marie unwound her long braided brown hair. “This should be a fun. I like new experiences.”
“Unless you have a bad vision,” taunted Mark.
Seated cross-legged on the straw floor, I leaned back and stretched out. “Can you tell us a little more about what it’s about?” I wasn’t sure if this was something as a Christian that I should participate in or not.
“Venga” He motioned us closer. Antonio had all of our attention now. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “A brujo come to our hut tonight. Big experience for you. You take mushroom drink and see spirit tonight.”
Now I really wasn’t sure it was something I should participate in.
Mark turned to me. “What’s a bru-ho?”
I slapped at a mosquito. “Like a medicine man, literally, a witch doctor.”
Antonio continued in a hushed tone, as if he were telling us a ghost story. “First you sit circle.” He lowered his voice more. “In short time, open the door, and come into the hut un brujo—”
Joe leaned forward on his haunches.“Yeah?”
“—He say some words to call to many spirit. He know very well the spirit. You feel good and listen some word. You like. Not afraid.”
We mulled that over.
Antonio said, “I and my friend go now prepare this brew.” Antonio placed a hand on the other guide’s shoulder. The tribal man never said a word but nodded often. I dubbed him the silent partner.
Presently, Antonio came into the hut from behind where he was mixing the drink.
“Amy, tomela.” I made a quick decision. I’ll do it. No turning back. I reached for the glass. Still warm. I took a whiff of it as I got up the confidence to taste it. The dark green, yellowish brown mixture contained leaves and bits of mushroom sticking out. Here goes nothing. I drank half the mixture and coughed.
Soon, Joe, Mark, Marie and I sat in a small circle on the hardened dirt, straw-strewn floor of our hut and waited.
The picnic table where we ate our breakfast had been pushed to one side. Our rolled-up sleeping mats leaned against the far wall. A slender beam of light cast from the oil lantern projected long shadows in the gloomy thatched-roof hut. Someone—maybe Antonio—turned off the lantern and replaced it with flickering candlelight.
Joe, the large, big-boned Californian, sat cross-legged next to me. “Do you feel anything?” he asked. Joe moved a fraction, apparently waiting for the concoction to take effect.
Marie raised a thick eyebrow and yawned. “I don’t.” She giggled “How long did he say it would take?”
Mark made a face. “Depends on your size, I guess. I definitely don’t feel any different yet.”
The door opened a crack. “Look.” I jabbed Joe. “Here comes the brujo.”
My skin prickled. My heart beat faster. Who knew what kind of vision would come.
Antonio followed close behind and handed our spirit-leader a palm leaf that he cut off from one of the trees. He placed his knife back in his belt.
The brujo took the lid off some small brown bottles and placed them around the room. A heavy, woodsy smell filled the hut.
We watched from our circle as the brujo waved the palm frond to call in the spirits. He shuffled his feet back and forth from behind.
I marveled at our luck. This is not touristy. How many others ever get to experience such things in the heart of the Amazon?
Joe sputtered. “Maaaan, I ain’t feelin’ nuttin’ This ain’t the real deal.” He raised his voice. “I need more of that magic potion.” He rubbed his hands together in anticipation. I wondered if he knew that he was slurring his words a little bit. He poked me, “What about you, itsy-bitsy clutzy-wutzy? You feelin’ anything?”
I ignored his jibe. “No. Not yet.” I was sure that my vision would come in a few minutes. At ninety-seven pounds, even a little of whatever I consumed affected me.
Marie hushed everyone and pointed at the brujo “Shhh. He must concentrate to bring the spirits. I’m waiting for my vision,” she whispered.
I peeked at the man whose job was to usher in the spirits. I wished they would turn some lights on because the whole experience seemed out-of-focus. It’s just the mood, very mystical. The brujo moved behind us.
I took a peek a couple of minutes into it but all I could see was something turquoise around his neck and some bright feathers and what I guessed was a lot of skin and something dark up his arms and legs.
With both eyes closed, he chanted in a low voice, and swept the palm frond to and fro. He shuffled his bare feet rhythmically. He moved faster. Spoke louder. Shriller.
I shivered and looked down. Goosebumps covered my arms. Maybe I don’t really want to have any visions. At the same time, I had to admit I was excited and more than a little curious. This was so out-of-character for me. I kept waiting but nothing out of the ordinary happened.
In time, I grew restless and my mind wandered. The room seemed pretty dim. Aside from the people in my party and the near proximity, everything else looked cloudy. I must not be getting enough sleep. What’s causing me to fall so much? And why is everything so blurry now? Maybe it IS this nasty brew. Maybe this is a bad vision. If it were a good one, I’d be able to see everything and everybody perfectly. With my luck, I won’t have either a good vision or bad vision. I will have no vision.
As I sat in the circle tucked between Joe and Mark, the thought of ‘no vision’ stopped me cold. I clasped my hands together and gasped. Where did that idea come from? I quickly corrected myself. I mean…spiritual vision, not physical vision. These guys have me so self-conscious, I don’t know what I’m thinking. Confused, my eyes darted to the others…not sure why. Perhaps I needed some kind of reassurance? Distraction?
Mark complained, “This is a big tourist rip-off. You know that, don’t you?”
Joe mumbled, “I dunno mann. I think I’m startin’ to feel somethin’.”
Marie put her arm around his back, as if to brace him. “Like what? Are you having a good or bad vision?”
Mark changed positions. “How can he know when you’re yakking up a storm?”
The frenzied shuffling slowed, little by little. The brujo’s shrill voice quieted as the current from the palm branches let up. The brujo fell to his knees. He brought his head to the floor in an act of submission. With the palm frond still in his hands, it lay still. He remained in that position for a minute then stretched his arms out and waved his fingers into the open space. The palm frond whooshed back and forth, this time, as if to clear the air. Slowly the wafting from the palm fronds ceased all together.
“What? It’s over? What a let-down!” Mark grumbled. He picked up a sandal and tossed it at the side of the hut in disgust.
“Yeah, ach.” Marie agreed.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. How many of your friends have ever had this experience?”
Marie whipped her head around. Her eyes grew round. She put her hand on my arm. “Amy, you had a vision, didn’t you? You didn’t even say anything.”
“No, no. I didn’t.”
Marie put a hand on my arm as she studied me. “Are you sure? No angels? No harps?”
The door opened and Antonio entered. He turned on a couple of oil lanterns.
Now I could see better. I turned and found the brujo next to me. I was struck by the feathers in his head gear and his necklaces. There were tall, colorful feathers standing straight up in the back on some leather or something. I squinted in the dark light. Could these be toucan feathers? The rest of his head gear fanned out, like a crown. The headband consisted of several short yellow feathers. He wore several what looked to be like short beaded necklaces around his neck, and a few longer ones with—were those animal teeth?
As I was staring, he removed a turquoise scarf from around his neck and patted his face dry, then wiped his skin down with a long red cloth. He didn’t wear any shirt. From his waist to his thighs, he wore a small scrap of fabric.
The brujo caught me staring. I flushed. But he put his thumb and forefinger together. “You want picture?
“He means, ‘For a few quetzales, I’ll pose for as many photos as you want,” Marie said knowingly.
I had no idea where my bag was. “Sorry.”
The brujo and Antonio drew to the other side of the hut.. Antonio took out something—maybe money—I craned my neck to see better. After he gave it to him, the brujo left.
Mark crossed his arms and lifted an eyebrow. “Antonio, my man, did you just turn over our hard-earned quetzales? ‘Cause I’ll have you know, I didn’t have a single vision.”
“No vision? You pretty lucky. Usually they come bad vision.” Then in a sly voice, he added, “But maybe for Joe and Amy and Marie, come very good vision.” Antonio winked.
Just then Hector and Grietje came into the hut, holding hands and looking very lovey-dovey. They looked like they had eyes for no one else but each other.
Shortly after that, Antonio sad we had a treat waiting for us. He motioned for us to get together, his voice eager. “Almost finish. We have final tour. Now we go night navigation. We see caimans in Napo River. Everyone want, yes?”
He didn’t need to say more. I was sold.
Antonio shook a warning finger at us. “Mucho cuidado no fall. This river have piranha and electric eel. This best place for caiman in all South America.” He gave us two thumbs up.
This is so cool.
Marie. “What are caimans?”
Mark jumped in. “They’re a cross between an alligator and a crocodile but only get up to six or seven feet long. They’re nocturnal and look like long, bug-eyed lizards.” He grinned. “I read up on them before coming.”
Antonio looked surprised, as if Mark took some wind out of his sails. As the guide, he probably wanted to dole out those details . “Si, si, aquí in the Amazon.” He slipped an arm into his raincoat. “We are ready?” He shook his finger at us. “Maybe we have problem after drink el bebido del brujo. Listen me. Uno. You no move in boat. Danger. Dos. Nooo vomita if you bad sto-mach. This no is nice for nobody.” He comically stuck out his tongue in pretended disgust. Tres. You no make boat unbalance. Because piranhas they feel very happy fish and eat you.” He opened his hands as if they were piranha, and pretended to rip off Marie’s arm with ferocious teeth.
“Aaaaah. The piranha is eating me. Joe save me.” She threw herself in Joe’s arms as we laughed. Antonio had the perfect personality for tour guide—knowledge and personality.
Mark made a face at me. “Amy, you stay here. You’ll tip the boat over and we’ll all get eaten by piranha or electrocuted by eel.”
I gasped. “No way I’m missin’out on this.”
Mark threw himself on his hands and knees, and folded his hands, pleading. “Antonio, please tell her she can’t come. I hate to say this but…she’s a jinx.”
I felt like a clumsy, eight-year-old kid with oversized glasses being told by the most popular kid in class that I couldn’t come to his party because I’d break something, and besides that, nobody wanted to be around me. I wondered why Mark always chose me as the butt of his jokes. I played with the frayed sleeve of my sweatshirt and wet my lips, trying to think of a clever comeback—but nothing came to mind.
Antonio looked from Mark to me. He furrowed his brows for a second. Then he grinned and crossed his arms. “American way is vote. Who want that Amy no come, vote now.”
That was his solution? Real diplomatic, jefe. He should be sticking up for me! Not giving them a vote on a ridiculous whim of Mark’s. I looked around, shaking my head in surprise.
Everyone raised their hands. They tried to look serious. Marie covered her mouth with her hand and giggled. Clearly, they were only playing along with Mark’s joke.
Antonio patted my shoulder. He covered his eyes as if to hold back the tears. “Bye-bye translator.” When he peeked again, he said, “No so good. You no miss much.” In an elaborate display of comraderie to the rest of the group, Antonio winked and whispered, but loud enough for me to hear, “Come. We see famous caiman.” He turned back to see my reaction.
I couldn’t tell if he was trying to interest me or make me jealous. He seemed to play into the little joke and vie for the group’s approval – at my expense. That that just seemed, well, mean, to me. I didn’t expect that from Antonio, of all people. “Oh get out of here with your croc—”and that’s when the perfect rebuttal came to mind. “…caiman…tears.”
“Good one,” Joe sputtered, laughing. The others joined in.
Antonio didn’t get my joke, and for once, I didn’t feel like translating.
In fact, all of a sudden, I had a change of heart about going. Besides, I had a quick flash of what it’d be like with the onslaught of more of the torrential rain and palpable darkness. And right after drinking the mushroom drink. What if it affected me? I’m sure I’d stumble and fall. What if I did tip over the boat? Or, what if I couldn’t see the caiman but the caiman could see me? There would go my hand. I recalled how miserable I felt when I had to hang onto the outside of the hut the night before. I bit my lip. “You know what? I’m not sure this tour is my kind of thing I think I’ll just stay here.”
Grietje placed her hand on my arm. “Really? Come. Don’t be angry. We just try to make fun. In the hut, it’s blah.”
“Nah, I’m not mad. It’s all right. You all go.” I tried to smile, hoping to convince them I’d be fine.
She covered her mouth and stared at Hector, like willing him to intervene. When he didn’t, she begged me to reconsider. “Oh, Amy, please…”
She reluctantly started to get ready when she realized I made up my mind. She slipped on a green rubber boot. Hector leaned over and snapped it closed. He motioned for her to speed up so he could snap the second one as well. In excited voices, the group called back and forth to each other, and gathered their drying rain gear from around the inside of the hut.
Antonio waved casually.“Adíos. We return with full report for you.” A couple minutes later, silence surrounded me.
I sighed and stretched out on my bamboo cot. Did I make the right decision in staying behind? Grietje was right. It would be more exciting to get attacked by the piranha than to stay alone in the hut and miss out on the fun.
The heat was stifling. I began to feel nauseous, probably from the drink, since that was one of the side effects Antonio warned us about. Great. I tried to lie still since my body still ached from the fall. But along with my bruises, I now nursed a bruised ego. I could take a joke, too, but they carried it a too far. Or did I? Was I being too stubborn or overly-sensitive?
In the darkness of the room, I admitted to a vain pride in my Spanish skills in the group, starting from when I bargained—and received—a fare only the locals could get from the taxista all the way from Quito to Misahualli. Even Mark had been impressed. Deep down, I loved it when Antonio relied on me to translate. No one questioned my language skills. So how had I fallen so low? By literally falling?
I frowned. When did this whole thing begin? Did I trip so much back in Colombia? Nothing to the degree I experienced here. But what was causing it? Well, the heavy foliage chokes out the light. And it’s all unfamiliar terrain with giant-sized leaves…
But why was I starting to second-guess myself and my abilities? I recalled how just days earlier the Colombian teachers at my school had admired my spunk for traveling to Ecuador alone. What was happening to that fearless woman?
I had no answers. Just the beginning of self-doubt that, once started, kept creeping closer to me, like one of the many creepy-crawlies around me.
When everyone finally returned, I propped myself up on an elbow from my cot and watched them through the mosquito netting.
Mark lunged at Joe and put him in a playful headlock. “Dude, you are insane. You’re lucky you didn’t end up as piranha food.”
Joe smirked as he unzipped his heavy-duty raincoat and peeled off his boots. “No, dude, you’re lucky. You wouldn’t have had anyone to travel with around Ecuador.”
“Oh, you’re back,” I said as if I just noticed. “How was it?”
Hector let out a long, satisfied sigh. “Great. The caimans had orange phos…um, how you say, see-in-the-dark eyes.”
“Glow-in-the-dark,” Grietje corrected. She punctuated her words with a kiss on the lips.
That was the extent of my report as they settled down in the dim light. I recognized a cold, hard lump in the pit of my stomach. I’m the odd man out.
The next morning, my mood improved. We received a plate of frijoles along with a thick, course gruel of platano, and tortillas before we headed out for the day. I rode in the first canoe—with the indigenous guide, whose name I never learned, and the two Californians. Our guide silently steered from the front. Joe sat in the first “seat.” Then, came Mark. I, the lightweight, clutched onto the last board—against my better judgment. Antonio’s late-night warning came to mind, “No make boat unbalance.” Should I offer to switch seats with one of the guys? As I thought it over, we began to glide through the water. I lost the moment to act.
We were nearing land, slowly making our way through an area where mangroves—special trees that grow in the water with an elaborate root system—made it difficult to navigate. Then the unthinkable happened—the boat became unbalanced. It seemed like the canoe tipped over in slow-mo before we lurched into the mighty Napo, which somewhere fed into the even more frightening Amazon, second in size only to the Nile.
The chaos that followed those next couple of minutes passed like a blur.
“We’ve gone overboard!” Mark shouted.
Antonio! My voice trembled as I automatically kicked into Spanish, “¡Estamos por dentro el agua! ¡Ayudanos!”
I heard more shouts, to and from the other boat and before I knew it, Antonio had rowed over to us and jumped into the water. In the fall, we’d scattered in different directions. At first I tried to get back to the boat but the current and all the many roots of the tall mangroves was against me. So I doggy-paddled in place and waited for Antonio. Oh Lord, help us get back into the boat safely. All the while, I made jerky wide circles in the water in hopes that would scare away the deadly piranha Antonio warned us against. My hands moved like out-of-control windshield wipers in a downpour, and thumped against clumps of something big and knobby—couldn’t see what. I felt something slimy around my legs and kicked. Who knew where the piranha hid? Did they like mangroves?
Only Joe kept his cool. Knee-deep in roots, Joe pushed himself up with one hand and rubbed the new growth on his face with the other. He cursed good-naturedly and as he plunged his large hands around in the water. “Get outta here, ya hear me, all ya piranhas.”
I don’t know how Antonio arrived so quickly. “No! Must silent. Danger.” He barked an order in what I guessed was an Indian dialect to our guide, who swiftly righted the boat.
My breath came quickly as Antonio grabbed my hand and pulled me to the side of the canoe. He threw my right leg over. Our local guide pulled me the rest of the way. Mark tumbled in right behind me. Just my luck. Joe made up the rear, like a sheepish kid, made aware of the peril by Antonio’s terse speech.
I knew the weight wasn’t distributed correctly in the boat. This was my fault. Did Mark blame me for this mishap? Or Joe? Or even Antonio? I fixed my eyes on the water, afraid if I looked at them, they’d accuse me of sabotage.
I couldn’t believe Antonio was laughing. He clapped Joe on the back and imitated him shouting at the piranhas, except it sounded hilarious in Antonio’s heavily accented English. Next, it was my turn to be made fun of. Antonio wiped away tears of laugher as he mimicked my wild arms. “Mark, you ve-ry calm man,” he declared. “You move rápido.”
Surrounded by relief and laughter, I began to wonder if Antonio had exaggerated our danger the night before—or if he simply had that magical quality of bouncing back after near disaster. As I observed the little group around me, it struck me how we’d all faced the danger together. Not me—but us. We were all in the same boat, to borrow a euphemism. All the loneliness I’d started feeling washed away with that dunk in the Napo.
I couldn’t believe something so potentially life-threatening—or at least limb-threatening—gave me such a thrilling lift.
Joe pushed down my wet and muddy hat. “What are you sitting there grinning about?”
“I’m thinking what an incredible experience this all is. Wow.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners and he patted me on the shoulder. “It sure is. And we have you to thank. What I mean is–you did an outstanding job of convincing us to tackle the Amazon back at the mercado in Quito. ”
From both canoes, I heard words to the effect of “We couldn’t have done it without you.”
I looked down as I felt my face grow red with embarrassment—but a good kind. The unexpected praise made my heart spill over with joy.
Thank you, God, for keeping us safe—and thank you for these travel companions.
Early that afternoon we learned how to shoot a blow gun. Our indigenous guide extracted it out of our canoe. Hector, being Ecuadorian, knew more of how and why it was used. “This is primitive weapon from the Amazon. Even now is used by local tribesman to shoot small game using pellet of clay or sometime poison dart. Especially, monkey,” he added.
Joe lifted the long, narrow bamboo tube. It was as long as he was tall, about six foot. He, Mark, Hector, Marie and even Grietje passed it around and discussed it at length. I really didn’t have much interest in it once I heard monkey and birds served as prey. Finally the guide walked several yards away in a field and set up a wooden pole as a target. Then he demonstrated by blowing into the gun hard. No one was surprised to hear the thud of the clay pellet hit its intended mark.
The shuffling began, jokes about who had the most hot air, and runs back and forth to the target ensued. I wished my brothers were there to enjoy it because I didn’t do it justice but no one expected much from me. I could hardly lift it let alone keep it stable. Surprisingly, Marie did quite well. She and Joe came closest to hitting the target, chiding each other over if they’d cheated by keeping their feet “behind the line” our guide set in the ground.
We regrouped later that afternoon at the hut and gathered up our bags.. “We can’t forget to say goodbye to our monkey.”
It looked forlorn, as if it knew it would be alone again at the hut. I held it for a moment and reluctantly handed it off to Marie, who cooed at it in French. Grietje ran over to Antonio, “Can you take a group photo?”
We stood in front of the hut, the monkey still in Marie’s arms. We all beamed into the camera. Hector had an arm around Grietje. I recall the other, triumphantly pumped into the air, as if saying, ‘We survived the jungle.”
“Antonio, what will become of the monkey?” I asked.
“Tranquila. Monkey happy. We bring new group to the hut almost every day. When we don’t, the local kids come to feed her and play.”
At last came the moment we had to leave our adventure behind and ride the canoe back to “civilization.”
Joe’s voice rang out, “Adíos, jungle hut.”
Marie echoed his sentiment, “Au revoir!”
The sun—what beautiful sun—the Equatorial sun, I reminded myself, created actual waves in the air—or so it seemed to me as I took my last look at the hut. Four days in the jungle. In the heart of the Amazon. I looked down at my tanned hands. What I knew about this place could fit in my palm. With a deep sigh, I touched my heart and let my fingers spread open. I raised my hands. Heavenly Father, what a wonderful world You’ve created. Thank you for enabling me to experience this corner of it.
Finally, sunburned and tired, we piled into the canoes and headed for the mainland.
The sun began to slide behind the horizon as the oars rhythmically cut through the curvy river that separated us from Misahualli. Something didn’t seem right as the darkness descended slowly on us. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but I felt a gnawing unease gather in my belly. My discomfort…or maybe the growing darkness itself…blurred the conversations we had on the boat. I stopped talking. Suddenly it hit me.
Our canoe was heading into…darkness. I didn’t see any lights. Nothing.
The group didn’t seem to notice, or at least be bothered by it. They laughed and gestured from one canoe to the other. Didn’t it concern them that Misahualli didn’t have any lights at all in the port? How big a town was it? What was the population? It was developed, wasn’t it? I strained to remember. Yes, it had the tourist agency and a strip of shops just off the water.
The talk centered on the blow gun experience–things like who missed which target and, of course, who made the best shot. I couldn’t hold back any longer. My Spanish eluded me—quite telling in itself—“Wh–where are the lights…of…Misahuallí?”
Suddenly, I didn’t even trust Antonio. Where had we wandered? What danger did we face? What did we really know of Ecuador or our guides? But an even bigger fright left me knock-kneed and sweaty–in a bad way. I couldn’t see anything.
“I was wondering the same thing,” Mart admitted.
Antonio’s matter-of-fact voice cut through my thoughts, our talk. “Generator no working. I can park canoe with my eyes closed.” He added reassuringly, “Nooo problemo.”
“Ohhhh.” The group laughed and chatted about this new development.
I let out a series of quick breaths and inhaled slowly to calm myself. Relief flooded through me. Oh my. It’s not me. It’s not me. I didn’t suddenly stop seeing everything. There isn’t any light to see. And no one can see. Not just me.
As I stepped off the canoe, someone lent and arm to me and helped me onto the deck, where I shuffled until I felt packed dirt beneath my feet.
I wore a seeded necklace on a brown leather strap around my neck. Strung up on either side lay different colored seeds. In the center of it lay a lion’s tooth, or so Antonio told me—more likely a wild boar’s tooth—which I kept touching, like a talisman. I wonder now if I were I trying to reassure myself that I remained in control. Because in the darkness, I wasn’t seeing anything. I was afraid to take a step.
The lump in my throat kept growing. Still, I said nothing, nothing since my question about the lights in Misahualli. I could barely breathe.
Our group was breaking up. I heard a chorus of good-byes, see-you-laters, and we’re-oughtta-heres. This is not the way I pictured our expedition ending. At least their addresses are safely tucked away inside my bag so we could exchange photographs when we got them developed. The silence told me that Joe, Mark and Marie must have taken off. That left Hector and Grietje. And Antonio.
Grietje’s voice came to me somewhere in the disconnect. “Amy, where are you headed?”
My voice cracked. “Um…you know…uh…” I tried again. “I’m not sure I can see to get anywhere.” It’s like I’m…” I wet my lips and cleared my throat as the full realization of what I sensed happened in the absence of the welcoming lights of Misahualli “…night blind.”
There. I’d finally said it.
The still night air seemed to mock me when I heard no response.
Have they, too, gone?
I planned to find a room and stay overnight in town. My eyes are so tired from the strain of this jungle darkness. I would be glad to reach the lights of real civilization again.
Think, Amy. Where can you go and how can you get there? Did Antonio leave?” Am I without a guide? The same unease I felt when we made the small traps returned. Only it felt real now. I had no plan in place. My breath deepened and I exhaled slowly to calm myself.
“Amy. Amy. Amy.” Grietje’s voice penetrated my thoughts. “Hector and I …we discussed your problem. You can stay with us until the generator works again. Even into the night. No problem.” She linked arms with me. “I’m hungry. Let’s find something to eat.”
“Thank you!” I gripped her arm, probably too tightly. “Sounds good, if you don’t mind.”
In the span of four days I’d gone from a confident, multi-lingual leader to a hesitant follower who didn’t dare a move without the arm of a near stranger.