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drink the water II

Jesus and I left Iquitos on the Eduardo VI, a posh(er) version of the Jeisawell, more crowded, less quaint. We weren’t the only tourists this time, though we were the only two sleeping in hammocks in the economy class. The two Dutch had mattresses on the upper deck, and the Belgians slept in a private cabin. There were rubbish bins, which I made happy use of; until I watched the same bins being emptied behind the boat. How silly of me. Of course that’s where the trash goes. Where did I think I was?

The Eduardo VI dropped us at the pier in Lagunas, the town that serves as the entry point for the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria. Here we organized a canoe and two guides and embarked for a four-day canoeing/camping trip into the jungle. During the days, we paddled. Javier and María, our guide and cook, talked over our heads in heavily accented jungle Spanish – a disjointed melody with stops and uplifted notes in an exotic patois. Their voices stayed in my head like a song, working, knocking around until the tune was familiar, pleasant, and I could almost sing along. In moments, our paddles struck the water in perfect unison, propelling us through the quiet, dark water, between narrow river banks overhung with dense greenery. Papagayos (macaws) and parrots exploded from the canopy, feathered fireworks of red, green, blue, yellow. Small yellow butterflies landed on Jesus’ bare back, tasting his sweat. Our guides’ sharp eyes picked out monkeys in the trees and spotted the markings of crocodiles and turtles on the sandy banks. The first day, it rained – poured. I sat in the canoe and tilted my head up, drinking the warm rain, letting it drench me, feeling wild and real and alive. At night, we searched for caimans and hunted the fish that jumped in the shallows, spearing them with a three-pronged lance. We slept on spongy palm branches under tarps and mosquito nets. After dark, we went to the bathroom in pairs, checking the ground and branches carefully for spiders and snakes before squatting. I fell asleep every night listening to the whooping of the frogs and counting the flashes of the lightning bugs flickering through the dark trees. This is the Amazon, the real deal: there are trees that walk, and other trees that kill, clinging with their roots to a healthy trunk like a giant squid wraps its tentacles around a ship, squeezing, strangling, subsuming.

There’s a potent magic in the jungle. Primitive, elemental, it stirs something deep in our bodies, something we already know but have forgotten the words for. Jesus and I returned to Lagunas enchanted. Time passed differently. I caught myself drifting, waking after minutes, hours; four more days slipped through our fingers. We spent hours at “the beach”, and more hours in the town’s only bar, drinking cold beer and watching the heat shimmer on the packed dirt of the main street. There was lots of walking barefoot and playing volleyball in the street with the same group of kids, every afternoon at four. There was nothing to do and so much time to do it in, but no one ever seemed bored. Different to the culture of the States: Do MORE in LESS time – IMMEDIATELY!! Life is simple: simple foods, rice, eggs, fish, bananas, and yucca, simple homes with dirt floors that still need to be swept, hammocks instead of beds. And yet, in the month I spent in the jungle, I saw more people laughing, more smiling and joking, more families at ease: more enjoyment.

I took a lot of pictures. The town of Lagunas is incredibly photogenic, the grass and trees are tall and bright green-yellow against the blue and green houses and the dirt streets that look golden in the baking midday sun. A girl moves through the grass with a bucket of water on her head, a toddler walking at her side. Women use machetes to chop at the grass in front of their houses. Half-naked boys stand on the gunwales of their canoes, leaf-shaped paddles in hand. A fisherman hauls his nets across the river, shouting and stamping his feet to scare off the pink river dolphins that circle his catch. The realization that came to me was simple, but powerful. These images, these faces and scenes in front of me are real. Not from the pages of magazines, romantic, exotic, staged, or contrived. This is life. These people don’t know that they’re beautiful, that what they’re doing is special or photogenic. It’s just life. It’s just the jungle.


15 July – 6 August

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