Saturday, March 1, 2008

Jungle Fever

I have been laid up with a fever, as they say.  I could stand to do nothing but lie on the couch and come in and out of consciousness.  Strange memories, strange dreams--seemingly forgotten things--came back vividly.  After two days, though, I felt in need of something, some company, as I had been "quarantined" by family and friends, and so I decided to download an audio book from iTunes.  I knew better than to try anything complex, and so I bought "King Solomon's Mines" by H. Rider Haggard, the 19th century adventure tale that resounds with colonialism and empire.  How awful, I thought, to endure illness in the wild, sick with fever, without comfort or luxury, and I tried to imagine what horrors one could face.  And then I remembered I had.  And so, here I jump ahead in my Peru Tale to somewhere near the end.  Jungle Fever.  

I had been with Brando and his two groups of travelers for a month, and when they were all ready to return to the states, I took a plane to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon for one last week of adventure.  There I was to be met by a guide arranged for me by the guiding group in Cuzco.  He would see me into the jungle.  But when I arrived at the airport, it was another man who met me, a Juan Maldonado, who said that my original guide could not come but that he would take me wherever I wished to go.  A fellow on the plane, an ornithologist from a prominent  New York zoo, told me he had used Juan many times and that he was very reliable, that with Juan I would have no worries.  And so, deal arranged, Juan took me to his house so that he could pack.  We would begin right away.  

Juan lived in a village of loosely jointed huts joined by a vast dirt courtyard.  When we arrived, a young boy with a rifle was shooting at a hawk that was circling in the patch of sky above.  Juan's children came out shyly to meet me as Juan quickly packed some wet laundry from the clothesline into an old canvas bag.  Juan spoke to his wife, telling her, I supposed, what we were up to, and then we were gone. 

Puerto Maldonado is, or was then, a mining town reminiscent of the old American "Wild West" (for a vivid depiction of it, read Peter Matthiessen's "At Play in the Fields of the Lords" or watch the film made from the novel).  From all over the jungle, people came to sell their gold and everyone was armed.  Through the dirt streets, men walked with holsters past saloons and general stores and restaurants.  Here Juan bought provisions for the trip and we sat down to lunch in a ramshackled cafe.  Juan said we would hitch a ride to another town, Laberinto, where we would catch a boat.  I told Juan that I had read that in the tourist areas, there were really no animals to be seen and that I wanted to go where the animals were.  "Yes," he said, "we will go wild."  I should have known better.  

We caught our ride on a logging truck, standing up in the big bed holding onto the truck's roof for a long, rough ride through the forest.  The heat and the lack of altitude (yes, there is a reverse altitude sickness and after being in the cool mountain air for a month, I was feeling the effects of too much heat and oxygen) were getting to me, so I was glad when the ride finally ended.  Laberinto was a supply town for miners going up river.  Lean-to buildings held supplies and canned goods and cheap Cuzquena beer.  And, of course, there was an unwholesome supply of local prostitutes.  Juan left me to watch our supplies while he went to barter for a ride.  It didn't take long for me to see that I was the oddity in town.  When Juan returned, he said, "C'mon, I we have a boat."  "Juan," I asked, "Why are people staring at me."  "Oh, don't worry," he said, "they don't see many white people here."  And so, feeling like the poster boy for Banana Republic, I picked up my bag and hurried down to the river.  

We loaded our gear into a peque-peque, a long, narrow, dug-out canoe with an outboard motor mounted on the back.  Passengers sat facing one another along the sides of the dug-out.  Juan went to the front and I to the back where I sat across from two fierce looking tribal fellows who were dead drunk and still trying to drink the last of their quart of Cuzquena.  Thus we road through the waters of the Madre de Dios river, a wide tributary of the Amazon.  The heat and humidity seemed terrible after the mountains, there exposed in the open boat mid-day, creeping slowly along, endlessly, up river.  

Juan had taken up a conversation in the front of the boat with a large woman and called back to say that she had a gold mine deep in the jungle and she had agreed to let us stay at her camp.  Meanwhile, the two fellows across from me had taken me into account and were deep in discussion about something or other when suddenly one of them held out to me their bottle of beer.  Without thinking, I smiled and waved my hand indicating no and in that millisecond knew how wrong the motion had been.  Suddenly my new friends did not seem quite as drunk.  I had insulted them, I knew, and regretted it completely.  They spoke to one another in low tones, and then one of them began drawing his hands at me in the motion of firing a bow and arrow.  I have known many bad people in my life, strong men, fighting men, murderers, but I had never seen any like these.  Their entire lives had been lived in the jungle where they killed to survive.  Their hands, feet, shoulders and thighs all spoke to it.  Suddenly Juan called out to me, "What's going on back there?"  "Oh, nothing," I replied.  "What are these two saying?"  He looked at me funny and said, "I don't know, I don't speak that language.  They're just telling you that they are great hunters.  Do you know how to swim?"  "Sure," I said, "why?"  "Oh, nothing.  Just unlace your boots."  "What for?" I asked, nervously.  "Just in case the boat turns over.  Don't worry about anything.  Whatever happens, I'm with you."  


But in a very short while, the peque-peque pulled up to a mud island in the middle of the river.  "C'mon," said Juan.  "We are getting out."  "Why?"  "We are going with these people to their camp.  We will wait here with them for their boat to come."  Quickly I threw my bag onto the bank and jumped out of the boat, watching as our new host and her crew unpacked their boxes of supplies.  And then we were alone, standing on a pile of dark sand, hundreds of yards from the closest shore, my new friends happily departed.  

Soon, another, smaller boat came out from shore and we loaded up once again.  My new hostess told me to sit next to her and gave me a great smile.  We spoke as well as we could, me with only a broken Spanish, Juan translating when needed.  She was the leader of the group and it was her camp.  She was a miner, she said.  At one time, they used to mine the river, but their was not so much gold there anymore.  Now they lived in the jungle where they dug down to where the river used to run, down to it's old river bottom, and then they sluiced that for a better yield.  As I would see, it was terrible work, but she had a crew who made a dollar a day six days a week which they got to spend on Sunday's in Laberinto on beer and prostitutes.  As we talked, I noticed tremendous scars running the inside length of her forearms.  She saw me looking.  "El tigre," she said.  I nodded, "Si, un tigre domestica, eh?"  She laughed at this.  Yes, these scars were from fighting.  She had been a prostitute for the oil companies, she said, when she was young.  They would fly her from camp to camp in a helicopter throughout the jungle.  It was a terrible thing, she said, but she was able to save enough money to set up her own mines.  Now, she was tough enough to keep things in line, I thought.  

We turned up a small feeder to the river, a jungle tributary like something out of one of the adventure movies I had watched when I was young, trees forming a canopy from the close banks, animal tracks on the mud embankments where they had come for water.  It was the dry season and the river had fallen, and eventually the boat got hung up on a submerged log.  The men, including Juan, all went over the side to pull the boat free.  Uncertain, I was the last to my feet, but my hostess told me no, sit, and so the two of us stayed dry in the boat while the others pulled us free.  I did not want to get into the water, but somehow I felt this would cost me more, sitting like the great white bwana as the others looked up submerged to their necks.  
We travelled up this tributary for quite some time until we came to a magnificent thatched house built over the water.  I thought this a wonderful place, but it was not where we were to stay.  Late in the afternoon, we began our journey away from the river into the jungle's interior.  As we walked, Juan was a flurry of instructions.  "Don't step there, don't touch that, don't lean against that tree, ants will cover you in seconds."  The sun was going down and birds filled the empty patches of sky between the canopy, thousands of them, millions.  Suddenly, I thought how vulnerable I was.  I had no idea where we were.  If everyone just ran away, I would be dead.  I was certain the men from camp were whispering to one another, "Should we kill him now or wait until later."  No one would ever know.  There was no law here.  "Wild," Juan had said.  Yes.  

Just before dark, we reached a clearing that was their camp.  Men came out to help carry the supplies; the women came out to stare at me and eventually they overcame a small shyness and came close enough to touch me.  They pulled on my earrings and giggled.  I wasn't sure that this was good.  Then everyone set about to making a meal.  Meanwhile, I was shown my place, a rough wood platform with a blanket and a mosquito net.  As they were not set up to entertain visitors, I was given one of the miners beds.  He would sleep on the ground underneath me.  Oh, no, I thought, no, I can't do this, but the only alternative was for me to sleep below and my hostess would not hear of that.  Juan came to me and said, "This is a good place.  They are miners and do not hunt for food, so there are animals all around.  Tomorrow they will take us to a lagoon where there are snakes so large you cannot put your arms around them.  Tonight there will be cats around the camp and there are many vipers.  No matter what, do not leave your bed tonight.  Tomorrow you will see wonders."  

It had been a long day and I was more than tired.  I did not feel well at all, and so I excused myself from dinner and went straight to bed. As I lay there, I could feel some illness coming on, even as I listened to the cats that screamed to one another across the camp.  And during the night, it came with a vengeance.  I was consumed with fever and diarrhea and needed to vomit.  Although I had been told not to leave my bunk, I had to considering its true resident slept directly below me, and so with a resignation that I might be eaten by cats or bitten by vipers, I struggled up to do my business.  But I was not alone.  As I got up, so did the camp, and they surrounded me in a circle, backs toward me, hands gripping machetes, as I howled and puked and made vile evacuations.  And when I was finished, we all went back to bed. . . for about ten minutes, for I was about this all night long.  Yes, these were the people who I thought would kill me and take my stuff earlier in the day.  Rather, only by their vigilance was I kept safe.  

In the morning, Juan brought me some anisette which was the only medicine they had for bad stomachs.  As we had brought no bottled water, I drank a Cuzquena trying to re-hydrate.  I was in no condition to go to the lagoon that morning and told Juan so.  He was disappointed and I think a bit tired of me.  He told me that there were no boats traveling back to Puerto Maldonado for a week, but with some effort, he found someone willing to make a special trip.  When we got back to town, Juan dropped me at a cement bunker of a hotel. I did not see him again.  For several days, I lay inside a concrete room and sweat out my fever.  

This is what I remembered lying on my couch listening to "King Solomon's Mines."  

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