Wild fish ripped my flesh.
Let me qualify that. A wild fish ripped my flesh. If there is one point that Ney Olortegui, our Amazon guide, would like to make clear ("When I had an agent," says Ney, "I was going to swim in a 20,000-gallon tank with thousands of piranha at Circus Circus in Las Vegas. The guy who had contact with my agent say, 'You commit suicide' ") it is that people go overboard when they talk about man-eating fish.
When I look back on those stretches of the Amazon Basin that we traveled, the various tributaries and patches of jungle, it is not man-eating fish that spring to mind. It is mud. Strange gray-green-blue-brown mud. One small man-eating fish ripped my flesh. "You tell about that, nobody gonna want to come," said Ney.
Traditionally, stories told by explorers back from the Amazon are hard to swallow. Those fierce women warriors for whom the Amazon is named? Fabricated by a 16th-century Spaniard. Those 300-pound catfish that can drag children to the bottom of the river and gulp them whole? Well, those do exist. We ate part of one. And we decided that the Amazon is where Hollywood finds models for imaginary beasts: the wookie in Star Wars and the gremlins in Gremlins, for instance. We owned a gremlin and kept it on our raft. And we could have picked up a wookie, but we didn't. We left it in the muddy village of Santa Maria, moaning.
The mud is what sticks with me. Two episodes in the mud. Ney, my son, John, and I in the mud, twice—once wallowing like little kids, and once when I thought, Someone could die like this.
The thing is, you probably want to hear about the man-eating fish. O.K. But I refuse to sensationalize it.
There I was, dog-paddling in the Huallaga, an Amazonian tributary in northern Peru. Our raft, the Yacu-Mama (named by Ney for a legendary Amazonian monster), was at anchor. Several of us explorers were in swimming. Ney had assured us that we needn't worry about what he referred to as "my piranha."
As long as we kept moving, he said. The kind of piranha that frequented this stretch of the river would rather eat something dead: "People come here, they make a documentary out of the piranha. They take a cow, they shoot pictures till they drown the cow. They use special pipes from the United States to blow bubbles. They buy one of the stuffed piranha, put it in the water and make its jaws move. They strip the cow, so it look beautiful, to the bone. That's false. That's why my piranha have gained so much fame."
Then another explorer asked about something even worse: the candiru, a toothpick-sized fish that introduces itself (strange phrase) into one or another of a swimmer's orifices and cannot be removed except by surgery. Was it true, in fact, that the candiru was capable of swimming up the stream of a person urinating into the river?
"Oh, yeaahhh," said Ney. "They do that. Can...dee...ru. But thass just if you not wearing a bathing suit."
So there we were last July, treading water energetically in the brown-green, pleasantly warm, unhurriedly inexorable current of the Huallaga. And I felt a nibbling on my thigh.
I had been pecked at by fish before. I grew up being pecked at by fish in waters of northern Georgia that were about this same color and temperature. I swam a few feet away.
I felt a sharper nibbling, in the same spot on my leg. I thought to myself, This is just a hysterical piranha attack. I won't give in to it.
Then the nibbling got fierce. And I hydroplaned back to the raft, yelling, "Fish! Fish!"
Nobody else had been attacked by fish. The others were still bobbing around, and now they were laughing.
I sat on the side of the raft. I pulled up the leg of my bathing suit. And behold: 10 or 12 spots of blood.
People saw these spots! Heinz Kluetmeier, my fellow explorer, took pictures! Did anybody take pictures of the warrior maidens? No. But pictures exist of my bites.
"Sabalo," said Ney. A sabalo is not a man-eating fish. It is more or less what I would call a shiner. "This time of the year, the dry season, those fish are starving," Ney said. "That is why. One hungry fish!"
I took his word for it. I had been attacked by a bait fish. What kind of river was this, where you weren't safe from the bait? At any rate this boyhood rule applied: Get back on that horse. I stood, semivindicated, and prepared to dive in again.
And something moved on my person. A cooler explorer would have said, "Heinz, get the camera." I said, "AUUGHHH!"
And it jumped out of my pocket! People witnessed this! It glistened red, blue and voracious in the Amazonian sun! Finally Ney admitted that the fish was a small piranha. Flip, floop! It bounced off the side of the raft and disappeared back into the murk of the Great Brown God.
I had a live Amazonian piranha in my bathing-suit pocket for five solid minutes and lived to tell about it!
We were the Emerald Forest expedition. Seven hundred miles in 10 days along the Peruvian headwaters of the Amazon, through the rain forest, from Chazuta to Iquitos and the Amazon proper, on a raft made of balsa logs, cane poles, wood poles, chain-sawed planks and palm fronds.
Eight Peruvians: Ney, his brother Aldo, three crewwomen, three boatmen.
Nine gringos: Fred Bonati, former Marine pilot, now a northern California contractor and sailboat man; Hannah Carlin, British fashion consultant living in Houston; David Flint, graduation-picture photographer from Cincinnati; Fred's boyhood friend, the ominously named (for those who have read Heart of Darkness) Jim Kurtz, now in investments in Arizona; Stephen and Carol Tatsumi, a cheerful young Southern California couple; Heinz, a photographer who taught innocent Amazonian children to point at me and say, "ooogly"; my son and I, at the time 17 and 44, respectively—awkward ages. I figured John and I needed an adventure together before he left the nest. He didn't seem to be so sure.
Most of us gringos had booked the trip through Sobek Expeditions, a California outfit that specializes in adventure vacations, but this particular tour was owned and operated by Ney, 47, who grew up along the Amazon, lives in Florida and is stocky but nimble. Dressed in a pith helmet and a khaki shorts-and-shirt ensemble, and moving through the jungle with an odd preoccupied scuttle, Ney invited comparison with Tattoo of Fantasy Island. But he was a larger man than that, and his face suggested a rounder, browner, vaguer Vince Edwards. Not an easy person to figure.
When our plane landed in Lima, it was after the 1 a.m. curfew, and the streets were empty except for soldiers with rifles and machine guns. Meeting us, Ney said we would be taken to a different hotel from the scheduled one because of a bomb threat nearby. The next day we flew to Tarapoto, where we banqueted on excellent fish and hearts of palm and danced to pisco sours and the music of an eerie drum-and-whistle combo. "Now we a family," Ney said with satisfaction. On the third day, we took minibuses to the district of Chazuta, where the paved road ended and the river became the highway.
Ney fielded the inevitable gringo question: Would we be able to acquire any authentic shrunken heads?
"Indians won't shrink your head anymore. Missionaries told them it was illegal. Now they wait till you die and then shrink your head," he said. "You go to the tourist hotel in Iquitos, white-man trader come to the hotel, says, 'I been in the jungle, got a shrunken head for $500'—it made in Japan! Says TAIWAN on the bottom!
"But if you tell the witch doctor why you need a head.... If you're patient with 'em.... If you don't be mean with 'em.... And give 'em silver dollars, 'cause they think paper money rot in the jungle....
"But if you come into the jungle and—bambambam—shoot them, they prob'ly shrink your head."
I wrote that down, thinking it would be clearer later. We never met any witch doctors on our trip. Bad mechanics, yes; and John had the experience of bribing a policeman. But such headhunters as may be left in the Amazon have evidently retreated deep into the jungle.
Native dress in Chazuta was pretty much the standard for villagers along the river: jogging shorts, patched T-shirts and either holey sneakers or flip-flops. I'm not saying we saw no primitivity—many of the villagers could not be dissuaded from vigorously shaking newly snapped Polaroid pictures, which hasn't been necessary for years.
Villagers were predominantly old or middle-aged, or young mothers, or prime candidates for young motherhood, or little kids. Most of Peru's young men are drafted by the army and taken into the big cities, where they discover motorcycles and ice cream and lose their taste for the simple life. The villages dwindle, the big cities swell, and the vast majority of people are poor.
But in the country, fruit is handy, and jute, maize, rice, sugarcane and yucca grow quickly with little tending. People go out in canoes and return soon with 10-pound zebra-striped catfish. And piles of brilliant feathers next to charred spots mark snacks of opportunity.
Very appealing people. Clear, handsome faces with smiles for us everywhere. Some Chazutans led us to swim in the pool below a 50-foot waterfall, and on the way back to the village, as evening fell, one of them, named Mary Lou, got us lost in the jungle. Every now and then she would stop and chuckle. Kurtz, the Arizona investment man, knew some Spanish, and he asked Mary Lou where we were.
"Yo no se," she said. That meant she didn't know. It didn't seem to bother her as much as it did us.
My first impression of the jungle that evening was bananas and houseplants—though way too big to fit in a house or even a cathedral. A monster philodendron, a 40-foot ficus tree and something that seemed to touch Fred: pothos. Pothos on an enormous scale. I didn't know there was such a plant as pothos, but among us gringos, Fred, the ex-Marine, was the most into nature.
He was also the only one of us with experience of the jungle. He had bombed it during the Vietnam War. "The Southeast Asian jungle puts this to shame," he said. "Vegetation 100 feet high. Beautiful country. We destroyed a lot of it. I loved the flying. I didn't even mind bombing people. I just hated the dirty trick the system played on us. My father was in World War II. The president then, the system then, was pretty much ideal. That's not what I saw when I was in Vietnam. And then, after that, came Watergate."
So there we were, the houseplants closing in, darkness approaching and, personally, I would have been glad to see Richard Nixon, if he knew the way to Chazuta. The path would peter out, Mary Lou would seem amused, and we would shout and not hear any animal sounds, even. Two hours later we made it to Chazutan civilization. Mary Lou's mother was waiting with a machete, but I, at least, was so obviously grateful to see her—because she was standing next to a man-made structure—that her suspicions were allayed. I had the feeling this was not going to be one of those overpackaged tours.
"My father left me with an Indian tribe when I was 13," Ney said the next day as we jounced through rapids in a 13-meter-long dugout canoe. There were 20 people on the boat, including a nursing mother, plus three chickens and a dog. We were headed to where the raft awaited us.
Ney went on, "My father had cheated the chief of the tribe, didn't give him the merchandise he promised. 'If you don't trust me,' my father said, 'I'll leave my son here, and I'll be back.'
"I waited six months. I was one of 48 kids my father had with different women. He was 64 when he kidnap my mother, who was 16. He came over to Brazil from Spain in a small boat in 1922. He came to get the gold. He put the gold in beer bottles under the house, and every two years he sell his gold and go to Spain and buy the most beautiful things. We lived at our gold mine on the headwaters of the Pachitea River, 30 days upriver from here.
"My father travel the whole jungle here cheating people. He name me for Marshal Ney, the French general at Waterloo. He was a fanatic about Waterloo. He could care less about another son. I got scared with the Indians because of this witch doctor. A lady came with colic—-she ate a lot of sugarcane and bar sugar—and he tell that lady, 'Lay down, you got bad spirit in your stomach,' and he cut a hole in her for that bad spirit to come out. With that, the lady died. I escape on a two-log raft, back home. My father wasn't there. My mother took all the gold and my brothers, and we head to the big cities. We never saw lights, we never saw bicycles, never saw white people before. I said, 'I want to go back.' I crossed the Andes by foot, came back, but it wasn't the same anymore. I missed my father, missed my mother. I didn't have capital. So I started to a-benture.
"A missionary took me to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in his boat. I worked till my contract was over, then he sent me back to Peru. I stow away in a merchant ship, three times. One time I wind up in Italy. In America I turn myself in to Immigration, hoping they'd be nice people. Finally a man said, Do your service in your army, and if your intentions are honorable, you'll get into America. So I went to be a parachute, and I got 17 jumps, and in 1967 the letter came from Washington that I been forgiven for stowing away. In 19801 became a citizen. I know it is not impossible to get anywhere a man want to."
Before we reached the raft we met some men who were, alas, getting ahead in what is currently the most cost-effective way in Peru. Nominally they were salt miners, idling on the riverbank. They shared with us their aguardiente, which means water with teeth and is homemade sugarcane rum, an intensely agreeable drink. Then they offered to sell us 24 kilos of cocaine, presumably unrefined coca paste, for nine million soles, about $500.
"These men offer this drink to people on a small raft going by," Ney said after we declined their offer. "The man on the raft got cocaine. They get him to talking, they take his cocaine and send him on or kill him."
By 1968, Ney says, he was a-benturing in the U.S. In an aluminum canoe he started out on the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont., and three months and five days later he was in New Orleans. He says he took a raft from Belèm across the ocean to Trinidad by himself. Now, he says, "there are no more a-bentures. People gone everywhere. People gone to the moon! People go across the Atlantic in a bathtub!"
But there must be something nobody's done in the Amazon before?
"In the Amazon?" he says. "You commercialize."
So Ney has his work cut out for him, making a go of about eight tours a year along the Huallaga to the Mara‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±ón to the Ucayali to the Amazon proper, traveling in Peru and sometimes on into Brazil. The economics of this operation are a mystery to me, especially after discussing them with Ney. All I know is that our expedition, whose East Coast price was $1,995, including airfare, was undercapitalized. Ney borrowed more than $400 from us gringos in the course of the trip. When Ney's Coleman lantern broke down, Heinz and I bought a used one (which also broke down) for about $60. And we kept running out of flashlight batteries, which meant that sometimes we were traveling on the river at night without navigation lights, because those lights were rigged up from flashlights appropriated from us explorers at unwary moments.
But none of us got sick—thanks to scrupulously prepared food and Ney's insistence that we take two Pepto-Bismol tablets a day. We hadn't even started feeling mutinous as we approached the place where the raft awaited.
"¬¨¬®‚àö‚àèDónde està la balsa grande?" we cried to everyone we passed along the river as darkness fell, and then, at a place called Pellejo Island, we came upon her, the Yacu-Mama.
We clambered aboard. Eight meters wide by 15 meters long, she floated on huge balsa logs with a cabin that had walls made of ca‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬±a brava cane and a thatched roof of yarina palm fronds. There were two 15-foot-long oars for steering. There was a kitchen area with a handmade cookstove, and even a privy, with a real toilet seat and a tablecloth for a door. Most of the raft was lashed together with bark, though there were some nails.
Inside the cabin were two semiprivate bedrooms, a big open area and a dining room with a tabletop that showed the marks of the chain saw. Up top, reachable by ladder, was a bridge. Ney kept saying the Yacu-Mama was modeled after the Kon-Tiki raft, but what it looked like was an ark, a houseboat, a shaggy tree house. "This is the best raft I had!" said Ney.
It floated on the four-miles-per-hour dry-season current, with intermittent push and positioning provided by a peque-peque, which is what Ney called the 16-hp, rope-cranked Briggs & Stratton motor. Ney kept saying, "I want to hear the peque-peque."
Sometimes the peque-peque would fall silent so we could actually hear bird sounds. But not for long. But then, it wouldn't work for long either. Nor would the supplementary 40-horse Yamaha outboard that finally arrived from somewhere. "Ha-ha-ha!" Ney would say when both motors were going at once, but that was seldom, because they kept breaking down and it is hard to get things fixed in Amazonia.
It was never clear what our schedule was. "In Peru," Ney said, "you tell a guy you going to meet him at seven, he show up at nine, you have a fight. From that fight is born 10 fights, everybody want to help. Now each of those guys is late to meet somebody else."
Here are some things I remember about our life on the water:
Our five chickens, clucking and scratching on the roof. We acquired these for the equivalent of $9 each in the market at Yurimaguas. One by one we ate them. We didn't eat the rooster until the last day. Before that, he crowed early every morning—unless Heinz grabbed him and threw him in a sack first. Ney identified with the rooster and pouted when Heinz sacked him.
It wasn't just chicken we ate. Huge fillets from horrible-looking catfish of various kinds, some fresh and some dried. Potatoes and potato-like yucca, mangoes with lime juice, beans, rice, a vivid beets-and-peas-and-potato salad, various hearty soups and some red meat that our cook, when asked, said was "bief."
"It monkey meat," said Ney. "They always change the name to protect the innocent."
It wasn't just chickens we kept. I bought a monkey named Blanca for 200,000 soles (about $10), a turtle who never got named for 50,000, a little green parrot named Rosita for 100,000, a puppy named Tipico for 60,000, a marmoset for 100,000.
The marmoset needed no name. He was a pistol. His face looked exactly like that of a movie gremlin. He would jump down onto the dinner table, wade right through somebody's beans and go headfirst into the lemonade. So during meals we kept him in a bag, where he expostulated like an arrested diplomat. One night he sat on the rafter above Kurtz's hammock and screamed until Kurtz stuck up his hand and the marmoset ran down his arm to his armpit, where he spent the night. The marmoset and the little green parrot were about the same size. Finding themselves on the same rafter, they fought toe-to-toe like King Kong and the dinosaur.
There were two macaws that kept to themselves on the roof. Their wings were clipped, but they kept escaping into the river, where they would be on the verge of drowning when John or Heinz or one of the boatmen would save them. One night there was a cold windstorm, and the macaws were brought in and placed under my hammock. I didn't mind a marmoset in my underarm, but macaws under my hammock gave me nightmares. I woke up completely disoriented, thinking I'd been shanghaied: I was wild, prepared to fight. It was pitch dark, I stumbled to the side of the raft, and there was Ney.
"Where are we?" I asked him.
"The Amazon," he said. The boatmen who were supposed to keep us going all night had gone to sleep. The wind had slowed us down. We had run aground. We had only four more hours of gas, and Ney needed to borrow 380,000 soles to buy two barrels of gas.
There were long slow periods when we drifted along on the wide, brown-green, scum-flecked waters of the Huallaga, catching sight of freshwater dolphins, looking at mud banks brightened by lime-green strips of young rice plants, waiting for Ney to give us a straight answer as to what we were going to do next.
During one of those periods Ney was lying on the bridge in the midday sun. A moment later he was up pacing, worrying about not going fast enough, making general business-administration statements: "I used to work for pleasure, but I learned not to do that. Got to have capital." Then all of a sudden he was down the ladder and off the boat.
And wading to the riverbank. John and Heinz went off with him. By the time I changed into my bathing suit to join them, the raft was a hundred yards from the shore. I swam in, and pretty soon Ney, John and I were in mud up to our rib cages.
This was great mud. Like modeling clay only thinner, like cake icing only thicker. There was firm footing underneath, so we could squooch in and out at will. We daubed each other, we turned ourselves into mudmen, we pretended to be descending into and then emerging from the primeval ooze.
"Now this is fun," John said. "What other guide...?"
We never knew what to expect. "What other guide...?" remained the essential question during our trip, but it acquired less approving connotations.
To us gringos, with our support systems, the river itself wasn't maddening. Repellent kept mosquitoes from being a problem. The heat wasn't punishing. There were card games and plenty of opportunities to stop and acquire beer and rum and Inca Kola. At night we could sing Vaya Con Dios and Cielito Undo with the crew. To us, it was Ney who was maddening.
Ney, Kurtz, Fred and I are hiking through a stretch of jungle. We pass a thorn tree with an orange impaled on it.
"What's that tree?" Fred says.
"Orange tree," says Ney, who seems to be in a hurry.
"With thorns? What's that, over there? That looks like an orange tree."
"Thass an orange tree," says Ney.
"But the fruit is yellow," says Kurtz.
"Yes, grapefruit," says Ney.
"Oh," says Fred, picking one of the grapefruit-sized fruit. "But it smells like lemon."
"Yes, lemon," says Ney. (We learned later that there is a lemon-orange cross, with fruit often the size of a grapefruit.)
Another time everyone is grumbling. I talk to Ney on the bridge and ask him to brief us more often. Granted, it's difficult, because we explorers have various thresholds of a-benture. I ask, "What are we going to do next?"
"Three days off the raft, spend in the jungle."
"Yeah. I never did it before."
"I'm not sure everybody...."
"We try it. If somebody don't like it, it's only an hour walk back to the raft."
"Well, you ought to tell them all that, then."
"Only thing, won't be any food on the raft."
"Well, then, how...?"
"It's a 'spermint."
We got off the raft at a village called Esperanza and walked two hours into the jungle. Vegetation closing over our heads. A cypress as big around as any California redwood. We couldn't see its top, and its roots grew above the ground for great distances because the soil was too shallow for them to grow downward.
Then we took dugout cedar canoes down the Yanayaquillo. Along the way some of us caught piranha on cheap rods and reels and hooks so flimsy the piranha bit through them. Ney caught a strapping piranha on a hook that had no barb or point and hardly any crook left on it. I'll say this: Ney could fish. I'll also say this: Thanks to Ney, I am the only person I know who has caught and eaten, and been partially eaten by piranha.
But we were out into some rough country now, and we had no idea how long we were going to be there, or under what circumstances. Suddenly Ney pulled the canoes up onto a bank, we scrambled up it through sucking mud, and a whole new group of Peruvians materialized. In half an hour, with machetes, they had cleared a camping space and built a shelter for us. While the shelter was being built we spotted a bunch of army ants, each of them a good inch long, running up a tree. Ney said, "Less burn 'em up," and poured kerosene on them and tried to light it. I jumped in with a cigarette lighter, and the ants got on me, biting me on each knee, through my rain pants, and on every knuckle of the left hand except one.
"Nothing in the jungle will bother you unless you bother it," Ney chose that moment to advise me.
I forgot about the ant bites temporarily because it was time to go into the darkness to hunt caiman, a kind of alligator. Five of us got into two dugouts with one paddle among us. I was in the first, holding on to the second, so that it was pulled by the strokes of a Peruvian in our prow. He had a flashlight in his teeth, trying to catch the glint of caiman eyes, and a shotgun in his lap. And it was beginning to rain so hard that soon the dugouts were within an inch of being filled with rainwater inside, and the river water was within an inch of the gunwales outside. I bailed with one hand, holding the second dugout with the other, my boots and my rain pants full of water. We didn't see any caiman. Nor did any of them see us, thank God.
We went back to camp in the deluge. Now the army-ant venom was beginning to kick in. Each of my bites felt like I had been hit on that spot by a small ball peen hammer. There were nowhere enough mosquito nets to go around, let alone hammocks. "If there's a hammock for everybody," says Ney, "where's de 'benture?"
He had a hammock. He tied it to our shelter and got in. The whole side of the shelter caved in.
I don't want to discuss that night's sleep any further. Sharing one single-sized mosquito net with John, wet, lying on palm-frond stems, mosquitoes getting in, ant bites throbbing.... I have slept in a foxhole with a moth in my middle ear, I have slept in an English Ford with angry dogs jumping up at the windows, I have slept under a desk on industrial carpet in a tweed suit and tie, but I think that night's sleep in the rain forest was the worst I have ever had.
The next morning, Ney says if we keep going farther up the Yanayaquillo we could see capybara, the world's largest rodent, big as a boxer dog only short-legged and portly. We are into country that approximates the Rousseau painting and what I'd always imagined the Amazon to be: the waterway narrowing down to a lurky closeness; the vegetation arching over; the awful ratcheting noise of uncaptured macaws; a sound like wind or distant traffic that Ney says is monkeys; huge blue butterflies flashing artificially vivid, like the animated bluebirds painted onto the film in Song of the South.
In our dugouts, we limbo under limbs that lie a foot above the water. We keep floating forward, all the while catching the odd piranha. Ney keeps saying that farther on, maybe an hour further, there could be anaconda, there could be pure Indian villages where they don't wear shorts....
But gradually our enthusiasm leaks away, and after three hours of deepening jungle and Ney's unkept promises, it is clear, if anything is clear, that we are not going to spend three days in this jungle, we are going back to the Yacu-Mama. Fred summarized the situation later, "I think we wienied out a little bit on the jungle."
Not that wienieing out, in itself, is a piece of cake. We canoe back to where we have to walk seven miles through mud, carrying packs, along a trail on which we can't get lost because Ney has marked it on the way in. Right.
My feeling is, let's all stick together. My son John's feeling is, he wants to go full tilt on his own. The trail, after the rain, is like the inside of an exotic alimentary canal—dank, dully glistening, sloshy, contracting, ingestive.
John and I have hung out with the Steelers together. We have been to spring training together, swum in Georgia waters together, and one night when he was a little kid we walked on the tops of cars together after seeing Singin' in the Rain. Walking on cars together is when you are out with your loved ones and feeling so good the sidewalk won't hold you. But 44 and 17 are awkward ages for father and son. And I was damned if I was going to let him get lost in the jungle, on the one hand, or out-walk me, on the other.
"We're in Peru!" I reminded John at the top of my voice. "Wait up!"—breaking my neck to keep him in sight or at least in hearing, sprinting through foot-deep puddles and over thigh-level logs. At one point, when he was hurtling into a wrong turn, there was an altercation, loud on my part. Semivindicated, and pumped, I threw what might well be my last effective paternal tantrum. I say "effective" because I led the rest of the way, at almost the same breakneck pace. Sometimes I'd think I was as crazy as Ney's father.
Or at least that's one way of looking at it: I went wild because my son, whom I have proudly watched tackling people half again his size, was not afraid enough of the jungle to suit me. Not as afraid of it as I was, in other words.
Or you could look at it this way: Had I not been so obnoxiously paternal, my son might have been swallowed by that wrong turn. To my way of thinking, this view was supported, inadvertently, by Ney: He got lost on the way back. If only a father could stay in touch and a son could be on his own. Life is muddy.
For the next two days John and I weren't on speaking terms, except when I commended him on saving one of the macaws from drowning. He and Heinz would swim alongside the moving raft and do photography together, and in the villages John petted all the scurvy-looking dogs and ran through the streets with flocks of little kids.
Ney had one more trek in mind—to walk a couple of hours across a neck of land and meet the raft, which would be sailed around the peninsula under his brother Aldo's command, at the town of Nauta. We disembarked from the raft and moved easily over a mud flat to high ground, where it struck Ney that we had gotten off in the wrong place. He ran away hollering, Aldo!" Aldo eventually heard, and brought the raft back to the bank half a mile downriver.
So we crossed toward the Yacu-Mama, shaking our heads: Ney had done it again. John, Fred, Kurtz and I were ahead of the others.
The ground through here was much softer. The mud pulled our shoes off, so we had to carry them. The raft was still a couple of hundred yards ahead, and the going was slower and slower. This stuff was less supportive than the fun mud, and it didn't seem to have the solid layer underneath. Pretty soon we were up nearly to our knees, pulling ourselves along with our hands. "You know," I said, "I could see how an animal could get caught in this, and flounder, and never get out...."
We had to push down hard to get any traction, but when we pushed down hard we got in deeper. Nobody spoke. The more we strained, the more mired we got, and the more we tried to be casual and take it slow, the more time the mud had to draw us down.
Crawling now, I thought of the animals we had been offered in the village of Santa Maria a couple of days before. Everywhere we went, kids tried to sell us pets—a monkey with a cord around its stomach that looked like it had been there all its life, an unfledged baby bird, whose rudimentary wings the kids made flapping motions with. In Santa Maria, it was some strange animal that 10 or 12 kids were gathered around. They were smiling those fresh smiles, laughing innocently. The group spread at my approach and held this animal up toward me—and pulled something out of its stomach.
It was nightmarish. Whatever the thing from the stomach was, the kids were playing roughly with it, tucking it in, pulling it out. The thing was a fetus, still connected umbilically to its evidently marsupial mother's pouch.
"What is that? I said.
"It's a monkey," said Ney.
"No, it's some kind of marsupial."
"Rat," said Ney. "No, Indian rabbit."
"It's got short ears" I said.
"Squirrel. Indian squirrel."
I think it was a South American possum. Whatever it was, it was stuck where it didn't want to be. And so was the second animal we were offered in Santa Maria, the one that looked like a wookie. It was a baby sloth. It seemed inconsolable. Set on the ground it would reach...out...its...arm...in...an...agonizingly...slow...and...hopeless...sort...of...move...toward...advancement, while emitting an unearthly noise, a long, slow, high-pitched "eeeeeee."
We thought of adopting this sloth until Ney said, "The two things in the jungle that got the most diseases: the sloth and the turtle." Of course we had just bought a turtle that morning at Ney's urging. But nobody wanted to hear that "eeeeeee" on the raft at night.
I'm not saying we were in as much trouble as that sloth, when we were in the bad mud, but we were proceeding with great difficulty. It came to me that I might not make it to the raft. I had reached the point where I was progressing about three inches every time I reached forward—still 10 yards from the raft and the mud getting softer.
John and the boatmen slithered right on out and came back with a rope to tow the rest of us out. My rain pants were full of mud, and I felt disgusted with myself. When I was 11, some of the other Boy Scouts had to hang back toward the end of our 50-mile bike trip and walk with me up the steepest hills, and I'd been determined ever since not to let that happen again. Heinz would probably have made it without a tow if he hadn't been carrying two cameras.
I would have made it if I'd had two weeks. Or if I'd noticed that the flashlight I was carrying in the waistband of my rain pants was sticking straight down into the mud like an inverted mast. Or if I hadn't taken an experimental interest in what it would be like to die in the mud. Or....
I sat on the side of the raft getting 10 pounds of mud off myself and thinking, what do I have to do in this jungle? I swam with piranha, I drank home brew cassava beer fermented with spit (Ney, of course, didn't tell me about the spit until after I drank it), I played with fire ants and army ants. But this mud.... Let's face it. Our childhoods stick with us. Once a bad Boy Scout, always a bad Boy Scout.
The others took their tows serenely. Ney was last. John hooked him up to the towrope and then pushed his face down into the mud. Ney laughed, everybody laughed. After all was said and done, "What other guide...?"
When we reached excursion's end in Iquitos—a city of 200,000, the largest city in the jungle and one of the 10 largest in Peru—we ascended the mud slope from the river to the town by means of 20 precipitous feet of metal stairway, which was secured, if that is the word, only on one side at the top. "They can't build a pier here," Ney said. "Rainy season, the river comes right up into town. It going to carry the best hotel away. Thass right. The river come up and turn the town to mud."
Man-eating fish are one thing. But if anybody tries to get you to go into a 20,000-gallon tank full of Peruvian mud at Circus Circus, say no. And don't go a-benturing in the Amazon without a good rope and a son who's a mudder.