For a moment, I stop swatting at my legs to stare at him in wonder.”
I’m standing on some godforsaken piece of land in the Amazon Rainforest, slapping at the myriad mosquitos humming around my ankles. I’m hot and sweaty and more than a little pissed off that I’m outside. The rainforest is beautiful—no doubt about it—but it’s also the most devilishly buggy place on earth. And dangerous, too: despite the picturesque Planet Earth DVDs in which David Attenborough’s soothing British voice guides viewers through the wonders of the Amazon, the jungle is hot, wet, and filled with life that wants to stay alive at any cost. On this very trip, our guide Andy pointed out a nest of paraponera clavata, aka bullet ants, so named because their bite famously feels like a gunshot wound. Andy’s friend Javier said that he’d once been bitten on the hand, and the pain was so intense that he couldn’t sleep for two days. Then there are green anacondas, which can grow to over thirty feet and weigh over 500 pounds, and black caiman, a freshwater river monster that falls somewhere between an alligator, a crocodile, and a dinosaur. In our very lodge, a wood-and-mesh complex built on stilts in the middle of the jungle, an Amazon tree boa and a pinktoe tarantula hang out in the rafters near my room, not two feet from one another. Granted, neither the tree boa nor the tarantula are particularly dangerous to humans, unless you account for the fact that it’s possible to die of a heart attack.
Claudio, our other guide and Andy’s right hand man, doesn’t seem to mind. He stands nearby in shorts and a t-shirt, ignoring the mosquitos as he tries to coax a poison dart frog from a bromeliad, a spiky, green and pink plant related to the pineapple. I catch a glimpse of the frog inside the plant: it’s red and yellow, supposedly a rare color combination. Natives used to rub the tips of their arrows across the frogs’ backs, because their skin contains a poison that, if not neutralized, can cause paralysis. Claudio doesn’t even flinch when the frog jumps onto the back of his hand and starts hopping up his arm. For a moment, I stop swatting at my legs to stare at him in wonder. How does he maintain such a sense of calm?
I’d come to Peru with my MFA program, renowned for Words Without Walls—an innovative social justice program that places student teachers in the Allegheny County Jail, among other places—as well as its Maymester trips, which take students all around the globe. The year before, students got a choice between South Africa and the Netherlands; this year, it was Chile and Peru. I’d chosen Peru because I’d wanted adventure: I’d backpacked through Israel and Laos, and not long before that I’d been a staffer at Gear Patrol, a men’s adventure magazine. But now, as I watch Claudio, I find myself questioning my decision. I feel like Mark Adams, the former managing editor of Outside magazine who quit his job to write about a trail in South America; he quickly discovers that writing about adventure and actually experiencing it are two different things. Throughout the course of his book, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Mark Adams deals with nasty bugs, nasty weather, nasty terrain, and an unwieldily machete, trying to reconcile his comfortable life in the US with the journey he’d decided to undertake; I’m similarly finding it difficult to reconcile my life with this journey. As a child, my parents ran a children’s camp in Upstate New York, and each summer we took more and more drastic measures against a mosquito populace that seemed to regard me with a vendetta. We tried sprays, wipes, and wristbands, zappers and electronic repellers. One summer, after I returned from a camping trip with over two hundred bites, my mom made me take garlic pills, which I received twice per day with the campers getting their morning and evening medications. They didn’t do anything but make me smell like garlic, and the bites on my ankles and forearms still swelled to massive, cherry-red proportions.
And here I was in Peru, bug capital of the world, where an estimated thirty percent of the Amazonian biomass was comprised of ants. That morning, before we’d gone out on our hike to look for poison dart frogs, a friendly couple at the rustic lodge where we were staying had told me to pack extra bug spray, because they’d done the same hike the day before.
“I had my entire body covered up, until just my cheeks and eyes were sticking out,” said Amber, an avocado farmer from California. She’d tightened the drawstring on her hooded sweatshirt to show me exactly how little of her skin remained exposed. “They kept biting my cheeks.”
I just want to be somewhere sterile, where nothing is trying to stalk or bite or eat me.”
I don’t mind bats, at least not theoretically.”
I hesitate to use DEET, but that morning I’d slathered lotion on the back of my hands, neck, and cheeks, to no avail. Still, the mosquitoes bit, even catching me through my pants and shirt. For a reprieve, I put on my poncho, though the humid air quickly turned me into a walking steam room. The poncho was clear, and I saw humidity building up inside. I didn’t dare take off my hood. It wasn’t comfortable, but I’d rather be sweating than bitten to shit by Satan’s own creation.
Claudio replaces the frog and leads us deeper into the jungle. I’m glad to be moving again: anytime we stop for more than a few seconds, the mosquitos begin to swarm. To my chagrin, we stop again nearby, and then again: Claudio wants to show us another black and yellow poison dart frog, and another of the rare red and yellows. I don’t care. I just want to be somewhere sterile, where nothing is trying to stalk or bite or eat me. I decide that a buttered croissant or something other than catfish would also be nice. In Pittsburgh, where I spend most of my time, I live in a nice apartment, with air conditioning and a refrigerator. I have a record player and a coffee table. There isn’t much air conditioning in Peru. My coffee table and record player remained in the United States. So what am I doing in the Amazon?
I’m still wondering when Andy stops beside a fallen tree that lies horizontally beside the path. He doesn’t know what kind it is, but it’s huge and hollow, almost tall enough at the exposed base for me to walk through without crouching. Andy shines a flashlight into the darkness and I freeze. Hanging along the ceiling of the entry are half a dozen short tail fruit bats, and deeper in I see hundreds if not thousands of long-nosed and fishing bats.
“Who is going inside?” Andy asks, and I think he’s joking until my program director raises her hand. “Okay,” Andy says. “You follow Claudio.”
Wait, I think. Is he actually about to climb inside that tree?
Claudio bends over, and with the bats only a few inches above his head, begins walking into the tree. I watch in stunned silence as my program director follows. I think, what the hell. When else am I going to get the chance to crawl through a hollow tree filled with hundreds of bats? So I follow, too. And before I know it, I’m deep inside the tree.
I don’t mind bats, at least not theoretically. I remember going to see them as a child at the Pittsburgh Zoo. They eat mosquitoes, perhaps my least favorite creature on the planet. On a more personal level, they remind me of myself, in that they’re a bit eccentric, though not by any fault of their own. Bats rival the platypus for peculiarity. They’re mammals, but they fly. Furry, but leathery. They sleep upside down, during the day, and are one of the few animals that navigate using echolocation.
But with several hundred of them screeching in my ears and beating against the hood of my plastic poncho, I begin to think, Oh man, you’ve really done it this time. These things are dirty and loud and you’re probably going to get rabies and oh my god that’s a big spider and oh my god that bat is right in your face and if you don’t get rabies from the bats you’re probably going to get yellow fever or Zika or at the very least malaria and—
Something inside me shifts. One minute, I’m revolted by the squish of mud and guano beneath my boots, the nutty, fecund smell of decaying earth, the furiously beating leather wings that caress the top of my head and neck; the next, being inside that tree feels perfectly natural. It strikes me that upon birth, we tumble out of the womb and—for most urban Americans—into a pristine environment, sterilized against anything organic. We grow up with parents who coddle us, in communities that encourage us to pursue working lives in sterile environments, often as sterilizers. Getting out into the jungle, into forests and streams, we realize that our cleanliness is an act, often taking place at the expense of our wildness. We remember that we come from dirt and muck, and will eventually return. This explains Claudio’s calm amidst a maelstrom of venomous snakes, man-eating alligators, and furiously swarming mosquitos. Because he’d never had the chance to be coddled, he’d never forgotten what it was like to be home in the first place.
I wondered if they could hear me, these odd creatures. Did they smell my sunscreen? Sense my hot, pulsing blood?”
I revel in the dance of insects that play in the thin beam of my Walmart flashlight, nearly shout in delight at the thumb-sized cockroach that skitters over the front of her boot.”
Now I understand him. I understand myself. I squelch after my program director, waddling to keep my head from crushing the bats that fly inches overhead. I revel in the dance of insects that play in the thin beam of my Walmart flashlight, nearly shout in delight at the thumb-sized cockroach that skitters over the front of her boot. Perhaps twenty yards ahead, the bats stream out of a hole in the ceiling of the tree cave like a column of black smoke. It feels like one of the most natural things I’ve ever seen.
That night, for the first time since we’d arrived in the jungle, I don’t wear my plastic poncho as we head out on an evening excursion. We’re looking for caiman, the largest predator by weight in the Amazon ecosystem. Earlier in the day, the prospect may have seemed daunting. Now it seems like fun. Because caimans make themselves scarce at the sound of boats, we only take the motorboat a half hour upriver before we set it adrift, continuing in nearly silent dugout canoes that we’d pulled behind us.
It’s a beautiful evening. Cicadas whir in the surrounding jungle, their monotone hum punctured by the chirps of crickets and the bellows of bullfrogs, as well as the occasional scream or squeal from some nocturnal bird or monkey. As Nixon, another one of our guides, rows the canoe, the cloud cover lifts like it’s a blanket being pulled away, revealing one of the most incredible skyscapes I’ve ever seen. A myriad stars twinkle behind a wisp of Milky Way gas. Red Mars hangs on the horizon. As we move through some weeds, Nixon plunges his hand into the water, threatening to overturn the boat. I question his sudden movement until I see that he holds a caiman, perhaps half a meter long, with a cream stomach of banded muscle and a sinuous reptilian back. Beady eyes stand out from its head, as beautiful and glassy as those of any jungle cat, though this thing is much more reminiscent of Godzilla.
“Javier!” Nixon yells, trying to get the attention of another guide, who’d taken a canoe with two women in another direction. There’s no response. “Javier!” Nixon calls again, but still, nothing. Holding the caiman in his right hand, Nixon hooks the oar into the armpit of his left and begins to row in the direction that we’d last seen his partner.
“Do you want me to row?” I ask. Nixon turns around.
“Do you want me to row? Row the boat?”
“Oh, yes!” Nixon climbs back toward me, again threatening to overturn the boat. When he reaches me, he hands me the caiman, guiding my fingers around its muscular neck, just under its jaw. “Do not hold too tight,” he says, and then goes back to the front of the boat and begins to row toward Javier.
The caiman, to my surprise, remains calm as a tired puppy, either too content or too confused to put up much of a fuss. It stares out of gum-ball eyes at the horizon, its tiny arms hanging at its sides. Perhaps it feels my energy, cool and collected. Perhaps it understands that I no longer wish to crusade in the name of cleanliness and order. A shiver passes up my arm as I look over its banded muscles and needle-sharp teeth, the swaying reeds in which it’d hidden and the water in which it’d swam, and I feel connected to the caiman, as if we shared one mind and body. Then the moment is gone. I simply find myself in the middle of the flooded Amazon, holding a carnivorous reptile. But as our canoe glides through the water, I can’t think of any other place that I’d rather be.