It sounded like a good idea on paper. Enchanting color photos and italic script graced the substantial, captivating travel brochure:
"Extend your visit to Peru. After seeing the cultural and historic treasures at Cusco and Machu Picchu, explore the country’s wild side and see nature at its most pure in the Peruvian Amazon region. Your Amazon adventure begins at the equatorial river port of Iquitos, where you will travel by boat to your deep jungle lodge and experience life in the Amazon first-hand."
Peru had been a dream of mine, and the Amazon was certainly on my list of places to see. I planned to visit when I was old, and "old" meant thirty. Besides, a trip to the Amazon affords a traveler a certain level of bragging rights. The dream included my husband, Walter. But he had no interest in this particular trip.
I was disappointed, but would not let it get in the way of my trip.
So I booked a tour that included just a few other travelers and off I went to Lima, then Cusco high in the stark Altiplano (high plains) of the Andes, then to lush Machu Picchu, and finally to Iquitos, the Amazon river port.
At Iquitos, the humidity averaged 115 percent.
It sounded like a good idea on paper.
The morning after our arrival at Iquitos, my tour group boarded a metal dugout-style boat, about thirty feet long. There was a palm-thatched canopy shading part of the boat, and as the engine started, the movement generated a welcome breeze.
The river twisted and turned and seemed to get lost among its own peninsulas and islands, eventually finding its main channel once again. It reminded me of an endless pretzel, a hopeless landscape. No mountains, no sense of direction, as close to lost as I had ever been, and that was with a guide. I wondered if I would ever be able to find my way out of here, if I had to.
Laughing mocha-colored children cavorted on the riverbanks; playing, screaming, teasing us as we went, as children do everywhere. Some of them swam, others tried fishing. Mothers washed clothing from colorful plastic buckets.
Walter, why aren't you here to see this? I whined to myself.
Our lodge, over an hour downriver, would not have electricity and I felt game for the adventure.
Finally, we alit on a dark, wet beach. Our shoes sunk to the laces in thick, spongy mush, causing a sucking vacuum sound with each step we took to walk up to the lodge, a few hundred feet inland. It sat on stilts on a low rise above the water.
As my shoes dried to a gritty matte brown, I recalled it had sounded like a good idea to visit the Amazon.
Immediately, I recognized Iquitos seemed less humid than here at the lodge. I didn't think that was possible.
Also, I was completely lost. I knew I was on the planet and on the continent of South America, but I knew little else, and recalled a line from the brochure:
"...travel by boat to your unique, secluded deep jungle lodge...”
It was deep, alright.
The lodge itself was fascinating, but our first order of business was to visit a village to barter with the locals.
Apparently, I had failed to read the part of the brochure about trading and was woefully unprepared for any exchange. But the crafts the children made were too good to pass up and I scrounged in my satchel for anything I thought they might like to have. Taking a gamble, I emptied a blue Estée Lauder waterproof makeup case and, holding it high in the air, demonstrated how the zipper worked. Immediately, seven arms went up, each offering something to trade. I selected a ceremonial (non-functional) blow gun, wrapped in ocelot fur and bearing long pointed darts with needle-sharp tips.
The rest of the afternoon was spent in my hand woven hammock, safely suspended from some posts under a thatched pavilion at our lodge. I tried to sleep, but I quickly learned a body resting on a hammock attracted beetles. And apparently, they laughed at DEET. What I didn't yet know was that those beetles were the just the small ones. I reminded myself that this trip had sounded like a good idea.
Sunset comes early near the equator, and before long we were called to supper in the dining area. We sat four to a table and enjoyed a simple, fresh meal of fish, vegetables, and fruit.
As the light waned, beetles crawled over our dining table, up our legs, clinging to our skin or slacks. Flying insects whacked our necks. I had to guard my food so they wouldn't crawl into it. But I had lost my appetite since so many creatures were interested in the food on my plate.
"... you will travel by boat to your deep jungle lodge and experience life in the Amazon first-hand..."
It had sounded like a good idea on paper.
That night, eerie shadows cast by my kerosene light danced on the dark wooden slats serving as walls in my cabin. I quickly sponge-bathed with a washcloth and some bottled water and attempted to dry myself with a towel. The towels were wet from the humid air. After lathering myself in insecticide, I shook out my nightgown to be sure there was nothing alive inside. As I reclined on the bed it occurred to me a mattress is a foolish thing in the tropics. It is hot, sticky, and wet, and only heaven knows what was living in it. I lay sweating on the bed, covered in insecticide, furious, and almost panicked.
Why are you making me do this alone, Walter?
It was too hot. I couldn't sleep. There wasn't enough air. It was noisy. Every creature that could make noise was making it. After lying in bed, sweating still, I heard a new noise.
I was too afraid to get up and walk to one of the screened windows to find out; too timid to pull back the curtain and discover something grotesque; too anxious to even touch the curtain; too wary to put my foot on the floor.
Walter, I'll never forgive you for this!
That was enough. I jumped into my shoes, horrified I didn't check them for insects first, and gingerly pulled aside the curtain. There at eye level was the underbelly of a huge bat, munching on a hapless critter it caught.
I opened another curtain. Another bat. Munch, munch, enjoying its midnight snack.
It had sounded like a good idea.
“...Why not explore the wild side and see nature at its most pure..."
I had experienced about all I could stand of nature for one night.
The next morning we hiked to a black water lake about two acres wide and boarded a small hand-made wooden dugout. There wasn't a breath of air. It was the definition of "stagnant." Hot. Humid. Pungent. Still. Each of us was handed a small wooden fishing line with a tiny nub of some kind of bait at the end. We were told to see what we could catch.
I gamely did as I was told and was the first to catch a fish. At about six inches across and eight inches long it wasn't too large and was somewhat translucent with tinges of orange. Its teeth were big and needle sharp.
My first piranha.
Do you mean we are sitting in a tiny, tippy wooden canoe in a lake filled with piranhas?
A young boy in his own canoe glided toward us. He helped me remove the fish from the pole, and I let him keep the piranha. We were told the locals skewer and roast them until crunchy.
He re-baited my line. Ten seconds later, I had nailed another piranha. So had everyone else in my boat.
The heat must have been getting to me. I sat there in the boat, stupefied. I may as well have been drugged. What if I stick my finger in the water? Really, suppose I do that? Walter, watch this.
When we left the lake I dallied a bit, preferring to remain at the tail end of our group with one of the guides as the rest of the group headed back toward the river. I walked only slightly ahead of the guide.
"Miss, will you please stay still for a moment?" he asked.
I stopped and turned my head.
"Do not be alarmed. There is a snake coming from your right. It won't bother you, I think. It's large. Just let it pass."
I froze. I like snakes, but don't know them, so I am cautious around them.
The snake came and slithered about five feet in front of me. It stopped for a moment and raised its head and flicked its tongue, as though to check me out, and continued past me. And then it continued to pass me some more.
"What is it?" I asked the guide.
“A constrictor. A big one. Maybe fifteen feet."
It had sounded like a good idea.
Walter, you won't believe what just happened.
My bragging rights continued to expand.
When I retired for the evening, the same animal-kingdom ruckus as the previous night accompanied me as I tried to sleep. I was not as anxious, though, until I had to get up, put my shoes on, and head to the bathroom in my cabin to urinate.
There, on the dark wood wall behind the toilet was a beetle about two inches long, pointed uphill. I shined my flashlight on it. It was pale brown, with iridescent blue and green stripes. Pretty, actually. But I couldn't take the chance of having it fall—or worse—fly into me when my back was to it.
I went back to bed.
But I had to pee!
I got up again and gently swatted it with a towel. It fell on the floor. Now I couldn't find it and that was far worse than just having it on the wall behind me. Now I REALLY couldn't pee.
Back to bed.
It didn't work. I returned to the bathroom and engaged in what could only be described as speed-peeing.
It had sounded like a good idea.
I was awakened in the middle of the night by rain. It silenced all the screaming creatures. I turned over in bed, pulled aside a curtain and saw rainfall straighter than I had ever seen rain fall before, illuminated by the waning light of each cabin's lantern. Then it stopped. And to my amazement, it became more humid.
What if I never get out of here?
I sat up and started to sob. Why did I ever come here? I am so glad Walter isn't here! He would never forgive me for this if he was here right now.
* * *
With the passage of almost twenty years since my Amazon visit, I can see the experience more objectively. Or maybe, it just isn't raw any longer.
My brief encounter with a climate and terrain so unfamiliar to me shattered my smugness and shoved me light-years beyond my comfort zone.
But isn't that what travel is sometimes supposed to do?
Yet, if I return to the Amazon, it will be on an air-conditioned boat. After all, I've already earned my bragging rights.
And yes, it was a good idea.
Cover Photo by John Salzarulo
Ms. Walkow is an award winning author whose work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, online journals, and anthologies. Her full-length biography of a World War II teenage slave laborer, The War Within, the Story of Josef, won first place in biography in the 2017 New Mexico Press Women Communications contest, first place for historical biography in the 2017 National Indie Excellence Awards contest, and has been selected as a recommended read by the Military Writers Society of America. A collection of her new short stories has just been published in Passages, an anthology. She has also received awards for individual short stories from the Military Writers Society of America, New Mexico Press Women, and the 2016 William Faulkner International Literary Competition. She is a member of the Corrales Writing Group.