Hometown Boy In The Amazon
By Bo Bryan
The Amazon is the color of coffee with cream. From twenty thousand feet in the air it looks about four inches wide. The jungle around it seems to go on forever, green, flat, and textured like a shag carpet, as far as the eye can see, out to where the Earth curves, maybe two hundred miles north, looking into Ecuador.
The Andes Mountains are behind us, jagged and white. The snow has not yet begun to melt in earnest. It's only November, the dry season. The Amazon will rise forty feet when the rains come. Enough fresh water will leave the river at its mouth, during each minute of the day, to supply New York City for twelve years. I wonder if I should swim in it? Robert says, the man-eating fish are no problem.
My thoughts travel back to a movie I saw as a kid, some flick of a Hollywood hero in the Amazon being stripped to the bone by a froth of hungry Piranha. I wonder more about tiny parasites that supposedly swim upstream as you go to the bathroom and lodge in your private part. I think the parasite must be a wife's tale, but I was wrong about a lot of things in the Amazon.
Robert says, the man-eating fish
are no problem
"Can you see the river yet?" Roberts asks, sitting across the isle of the airplane, watching me with something like love in his eyes, but is only the amusement of a hunter looking into your heart for signs of what's going on in your gut.
I wonder again, if we should have brought guns with us.
"If you need a gun," Robert had told me, "we'll get you one in Peru, that's no problem."
Nothing is a problem that can't be solved for Robert. He came to Amazon sixteen years ago with thirteen other guys to trek through the jungle for fun. Now we're going back for my benefit, for me to see the things Robert has told me about. He has been to the jungle many times. I trust him, or I wouldn't be here.
"You know a-course, I'm missing the rut," he says, talking about deer hunting back home. "All the way to Peru, I'm a babysitter," he needles. "Can you see the river?"
I nod, but it's the jungle that scares me.
The river is only four inches wide. Twenty-thousand feet down, the Amazon snakes through a carpet of bug-infested vegetation. There is no smoke or sign of human life, at all. But I think, the savages are down there, painted and hunting heads, somewhere.
The river is coffee, the way I like it, with lots of cream and two sugars. The Spaniards, who discovered the Amazon, called it "The Sweet Sea" in the beginning. The conquistadors tasted the brown water, and it was sweet, still fresh, where the river met the Atlantic, a hundred miles offshore.
The savages are painted,
And hunting heads, somewhere
The name "Amazon" accrued after a battle between a conquistador and the Tapuyas Indians, whose women fought alongside the men in a naked condition. The conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, reported that his troops had engaged in hand to hand combat with "Amazons," warrior women of the general sort described in Greek mythology. Whether the Tapuyas females had had one breast removed was not reported, at least not by the source I consulted.
The river, to me, looks friendly. I feel at home in boats. Back home, Robert and I grew up between the ocean and a slash-pine forest. Robert goes for the woods more than the water. To call him an "avid" deer hunter is a mighty understatement. During the "rut," breeding season for deer, he hunts morning and afternoon. In rut, the bucks are less cautious, most vulnerable. Robert's a dead shot.
He whines when anything gets in the way of his passion, and then he gets aggressive in removing whatever obstacle stands in his way. It's the same where money is concerned, either making it back home or giving it away in the jungle. Except about money he never whines.
Robert Shelley is a complex, contradictory, unique and fascinating character.
He grew up on a working farm on the opposite side of town from the country club where I learned to play golf, while Robert was learning to butcher a deer, pluck a chicken, lay brick, finish concrete and cut lumber with a hand saw. His daddy worked for my daddy, building a hotel that was one source of the silver spoon I suckled as a youth.
Robert now enjoys as many silver spoons as he has teeth in his head, the product of decades in the trenches as a general contractor. He possesses the luxury of time to baby-sit me in the Amazon, but he whines about the rut: "Yes sir, I'm sittin' here with ruminations on all them deer walking around with no Robert Shelley to provide no meat."
You might wonder sometimes if he learned English from a dictionary scrambled or encoded for military use in a hostile environment. For his own convenience and probably to disarm smart-alec lawyers and competitive millionaires, Robert chooses to communicate as though he never left the bare dirt backyard he grew up in, nor took off the burlap shirt, made from a fertilizer sack, that he wore to school in the first grade.
Robert grew up tough, happy and well loved.
His daddy, Woodrow, was a lay preacher, "washed in the blood of the cross," as is Robert. He has never tasted alcohol. He smokes cigarettes as if the high-speed engine of his mind were running on flew-cured tobacco.
His daddy taught him to build whatever he put his mind to, which turned out to be a sizeable fortune.
How sizeable is not a question you would think to ask, for looking into his eyes, you are struck by the confluence of child-like joy, and war-like intensity. To ask how much money he has would be tantamount to enquiring how many men he left in the dust, who got in the way of his organizing principal, which is do it now, get it done, be on budget and on time.
When he was in full stride as a contractor, he built forty-two miniature golf courses, thirty-seven beach-ware shops, assorted warehouses, restaurants, hotels, government buildings, assisted living facilities and too many marble mausoleums to count. For decades, he lived in his truck, commuting between job sites in three to five states.
"The world I knew was black and white," he told me once. "I got so I couldn't tell colors anymore . . . kind of a thing, however you say it . . . That ain't no way to live."
"My only regret is, I never had children."
Maybe that is why a lot of kids in the Amazon, after sixteen years of Robert Shelley's involvement, no longer suffer from helminth intestinal parasites.
The humanitarian adventure
of Project Amazonas
"We took medical supplies into the jungle because the children were dying . . . The worms were eating out the lining of their intestines . . . All the kids were bloated, like they'd swallowed cantaloupes, and they were running around having a big time, happy as they could be, like it was normal . . .
"None of those people had ever seen a doctor other than the medicine man, but he was all right. He could take the cataracts off your eyes using the sap from a certain tree, boiled down with river mud . . . The medicine man was just a little fella too, not much bigger than a child. But he was very much respected. He could heal a knife wound almost overnight, from using leaves of some kind that he got from the jungle. He was about forty years old, but he looked sixty-five. Any man that lived forty years in the Amazon, at that time, was old."
In 1992, Robert was 43. In a picture taken during his first adventure in the jungle, he appears to have aged very little since high school. He was still boyish, blonde, almost pretty, if hyper-alert now, a self-made multi-millionaire, currently surrounded by a vast, unfamiliar and threatening terrain, a jungle, albeit one that did not conceal lawyers or insolvent real estate developers, only snakes that could swallow a man.
"The Amazon, is a place as big as all the world."
Robert spread his hands apart as far as he could.
We were sitting in the kitchen of his house, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, months before we flew the jungle, me listening to the story of "Project Amazonas, him difficult to interview.
He answered his cell phone constantly and would not turn it off, communicating simultaneously with me and with contacts in the Amazon. That day, Devon Graham, the biologist, who oversees medical and research expeditions for Project Amazonas, reported that a new species of pine tree had been discovered at one of the project's field stations.
While tapping out an e-mail to the biologist, Robert answered his cell phone again, forgetting the Amazon, speaking then to a local politician, strategizing for the next election.
Then he broke away from politics, tapping again at a laptop keyboard, going ahead verbally, for my edification, describing Albert Slugocki, the former Green Beret career soldier, who guided Robert and his friends on their maiden voyage up the Amazon.
"We went down there, just to do something different . . . fourteen of us, mostly contractors, thinking we were tough. We took a couple of doctors with us just in case something happened."
"That first night in the jungle
I'd of give ten thousand [dollars]
to be back in my own kitchen . . ."
They hired Albert Slugocki to train them for survival and arrange for them to experience the jungle. Albert had survived multiple tours in Vietnam, had been a Korean war hero and escaped the Nazi occupation of Poland as a boy. He operated Margarita Tours out of Iquitos, Peru, teaching civilians such as Robert and his friends to enter the jungle for fun.
"Albert taken us upriver and gave us lessons. None of us cared for him. He was real rude and demanding. If you didn't pay attention, he'd just about throw you off the boat. Then he left us in the jungle in the pitch dark.
"That first night, there wasn't one of us who didn't think we'd made a big mistake. I'd of give ten thousand to be back in my own kitchen.
"I mean the noise was unbelievable, the insects. The big ones were eating the little ones all around us, and you talk about small? Son, in that jungle, you felt small, so small you wanted your mama bad . . .
"Fourteen grown men, all of us thinking we were tough guys, and were tough, where we came from, most of us contractors, lawyers and accountants. I'm not saying anybody broke down and cried, but I didn't miss it much.
"It was so humid you almost couldn't breath. You just laid there and sweated."
Albert had told them to strip naked and lie still for twenty minutes, by which time the sweat would begin to evaporate, cooling the skin. At first, nobody took the advice, because to strip bare in the jungle increased the feeling of vulnerability.
"With it so dark, you were like in a cave. You couldn't see your hand this close to your face. And the scariest part was every now and then, the noise stopped . . . Not a sound, nowhere. You could hear your own heart beat like a thunderhead.
For the next five days, Robert's party trekked across a finger of jungle between two tributaries of the Amazon. They ate berries and vegetable matter, roasted rodents and a wild rooster; they drank sweet water from the limbs of a "water tree."
They reached the second tributary, and according to plan, Albert was not there to meet them. The final challenge was to build a raft from trees they cut down and lashed together with vines and cord made from vegetable fiber.
"Building that raft liked to killed us.
"We floated downstream for what seemed like years. And then there was Albert, with the riverboat; he was our savior. He was like that, a true warrior. He'd pull your head off and spit down your neck if you crossed him. A rare charisma. He'd taught us everything we needed to know, and here we were, still kicking, safe and sound . . . After that, we were Albert's boys. We would have followed him anywhere. That was when he took us to the Indian village, and showed us the sick children . . .
"You have to understand about Albert, he loved those Indians and they loved him. He was like a god to them, for the fact that he was living practically in the jungle for twenty years, or whatever and used to carry medicine to them whenever he could . . . But taking doctors and all up the river was Albert's dream. The rest of us were just along for the ride, and for putting up the money . . .
"But the first time, we did like Albert and gave the Indians all the medicine we had with us. Then went home. I kind of forgot about it."
The next year, Robert and the same group of men were in Australia, having decided to embark annually on some sort of adventure, preferably in an exotic location.
"We were camping out at the big red rock in the desert, near Alice Springs. [Ayers Rock] We could see so many stars; we could see galaxies way out there; lots different from the jungle . . . We were talking about the Indians, reminiscing, and that's when we decided to go back. It was like a vision."
Robert and seven of the original fourteen jungle survivors returned to the Peruvian Amazon, this time with three large footlockers of medical supplies. Albert Slugocki guided them upriver. Two American doctors hired for the mission, set about introducing the suspicious Indians to hypodermic needles.
To put the adults at ease and win the confidence of the children, "We took colored balloons and blowed'em up and tied pieces of candy to'em, and threw'em in the river. Those kids peeled off the bank, chasing candy balloons. Just ordinary balloons. Those kids had never tasted candy.
"That's what we did, going from one village to another until all the medicine was gone. And before we left, we gave the people all of our clothes - who wants to carry dirty laundry all the way back to the United States - course the Indians didn't wear clothes, they took ours apart, thread by thread, to make fish nets and snares that they would string up in the trees to catch birds. They were geniuses . . . They don't preserve anything. It's all about right now. They catch and kill what they need to eat that day. And they won't take charity. The ones we gave medicine to came back with piles of food. We would wake up in the morning and there would be food everywhere. They wouldn't take a hand-out. That impressed me. Not like it is back here, for the fact that some people expect to have care took of'em for nothin', and do nothin' for it. [The Amazon Indians] don't ask. They won't take it. It's for their honor, they have to give something back.
"The next year, we built a health clinic, not much of one. The dining room table was where the doctors laid people out to operate on'em. That was all the jungle would let us do.
"The Peruvian government didn't much want us to do that. They were afraid of charities, on account of the cocaine business. The drug lords had been down there cloakin' themselves in the shadow of the cross, so to speak, pretending to be religious organizations desiring to help the Indians, when all they were up to in the jungle was making cocaine.
"It was tough to get any cooperation from the government officials, plus we were Americans and could have been C.I.A. or what-have-you. The officials wouldn't even talk to us.
"That was where Albert came in big time. He'd lived in the Amazon all those years and knew how to get things done.
"Without Albert, Project Amazonas never would have happened."
"You wouldn't like Albert face to face, not before the chips were down, and you needed somebody to stand up and take the first blow. That's Albert. All you have to do is follow orders, and everything will be all right."
They returned to build a health clinic the following year, arriving in Iquitos, Peru, the largest city in the world with no road leading to it. You reach Iquitos by air or come upriver, the city is completely encompassed by the jungle.
"Me and ten guys went down, all of us geared up for the bush, wearing camouflage, on a mission to make some more of Albert's dream come true, and the soldiers were waiting for us, government troops, not one or two guys in uniform, I mean a whole company, locked and loaded, like we were there to take over the country . . .
"It was no joke . . ."
Their arrival coincided, more or less, with the attempt of General Jaime Salinas to seize power from President Alberto Fujimori. Fujimori, a dictatorial reformer, had shut down the Peruvian Congress and suspended the constitution. His "Fuji-shock" economic policies had fostered human rights abuses. Governments around world opposed him. In addition, the Shining Path terrorist organization, though much reduced in leadership and operational effectiveness were still in the jungle. Albert Slugocki had led his troop of humanitarian adventurers into a beehive of political paranoia.
"They made us lay face down on the runway. The whole airport came to a standstill. I thought we were dead.
"I guess we looked like mercenaries from the outside. They kept us face down with guns to our heads.
"And then Albert showed up, our savior again.
"Albert knew what to say. I don't know what he told them, but finally the soldiers let us get up and go on.
"Except that legally, there was no place to go. We didn't have sanction of any kind from the officials in Lima. Albert didn't really explain it to us. We just followed him again, into the rainforest.
"You have to understand about the Amazon, now, it's huge, kind of like Albert's personality. A few little guys with axes and a chainsaw, clearing a spot of ground where we were, it wasn't like building a high-rise condo without a permit. Nobody paid the least bit of attention to us . . ."
Albert Slugocki was more difficult to interview than Robert , not because Albert didn't like to talk on the phone; he was seemingly deaf to questions, especially those related to his early career as a soldier.
He spoke with a slight Polish accent, "I will not answer about personal things . . . About Project Amazonas, I will answer, if not for your profit," and on he went with stories of print journalists and film makers who had wasted his time and contributed little to his dream. He left an impression of irresistible determination, undiluted by the need for anyone's approval. In some ways, he reminded me of Robert.
I met Albert one weekend at a party Robert and I gave to benefit Project Amazonas. He had driven twelve hours, from south Florida, hadn't slept, didn't seem much fatigued and was surrounded at the party by women of all ages.
His charisma was that of a veteran warrior, supremely confident, calm at the core, lively in conversation. The women circled him like butterflies.
"Will Albert be with us in the jungle?" I asked Robert that night, pretending mild curiosity, not really anxious, but wondering.
"No," Robert said. "Albert's too old."
I wondered if I was, at sixty, a year older than Robert.
We landed in Iquitos, the city in the jungle. As soon as the plane touched down, the pilot threw on the brakes. The fuselage vibrated and rattled all the way to the end of the asphalt. The pilot wheeled around and taxied to the terminal. There were two wrecked jets in an overgrown field, casualties of a too-short runway, failed brakes or a combination of the two.
The young filmmaker we had brought with us, Will Bryan, hustled to ready his video equipment and take footage of the ruined airplanes. They had been left to rot within a stone's throw of the terminal. This seemed to say something about the value technology in the jungle, somehow related to the value of human life in northern Peru. Everything was immediately strange.
The baggage-claim area was open-air, with only a shade-roof over it. The rays of the sun were not quite hot, nonetheless, seemed to penetrate my hair, scalp and scull right through to the cortex. I noticed a clutch of Peruvians standing under the shade of a srawny tree just outside the fence surrounding the airfield. Others carried umbrellas. I wished I had thought to bring one. Probably, they were easier to buy than guns.
Around the airfield in three directions stood the jungle. At ground level, all I could see was the first rank of vegetation. The edge of a jungle beaten back with steel is not a pretty thing.
Above, the sky was clear and blue, with a white sun, beating down, strangely not as hot I had expected. The humidity was not insufferable. Robert waited for the luggage. Will Bryan walked from the rear of the baggage claim into the parking lot, videoing the crowd of local hustlers waiting to fleece the tourists. The auto-car drivers, hustlers with motorized, three wheeled rikshaws for hire, rushed Will, offering to take him for a ride. In Iquitos, I expected thieves.
With Robert, we were met by a chauffer in a mini-van. It was kind of a let-down. I wondered what it was to ride in a three-wheeled rikshaw, the transportation of choice for Peruvians.
The edge of a jungle beaten back
with steel is not a pretty thing.
The closer we get to the center of the city the more rikshaws crowd the minivan and each other, traffic all in a tangle, racing from one stoplight to the next. The road goes straight, rarely curving; along both sides, tumble-down concrete buildings are painted brilliant colors, teaming with human industry.
A make-shift restaurant with an oil drum for a cook fire leaking spicy smoke and meat on a stick, one customer at a table sitting cockeyed on bare ground. A blue umbrella shading the fire, patched green and hot pink.
A woman bathing children in a bucket. A man with a torch and a welder's hood, burning a square of rusted steel. Sparks bouncing off black rubber boots.
Rikshaws swerving to miss each other in the middle of the road.
My eyes have been open for thirty-six hours. I'm vividly awake. I look down side streets of dusty hard clay, lined with thatched roof domiciles void of walls. The smoke of the cook fires makes me hungry. I'm greedy for the river. I want to see it, touch it and taste the Amazon.
Hometown Boy In The Amazon, Part II
In the early morning haze, the jungle across the river looks like the other side of paradise. So beautiful, it doesn't appear real. The fingers of low-hanging mist are not quite fog, drifting above the Amazon like the shroud of an old cadaver brought back to life by the sun. As if none of it were alive yesterday, it appears that new and unblemished.
I stand at the granite banister along the waterfront of Iquitos, Peru, weeping for the beauty of the jungle. I can't help it. It's the same feeling I had the first time I saw my son, twenty years ago. It's been that long since I've witnessed anything so completely new, strange and beautiful. I'm staring across the river, and the tears leap out of my eyes like young girls at a football game.
I cover my mouth, as though yawning. It might be the first time I've ever truly gaped at anything. I gazed at my son and wept, for I'd been expecting him. This is something wholly different, not newborn. The jungle has been there for fifty-five million years, for as long as the Amazon has been a river that was once an inland sea. The flat plain of the rain forest used to be the bottom of a greater lake than all the lakes of North America put together, a landlocked ocean.
Something so old in me I remember it slowly, wakes up to the smell of the river. I try to see through the haze, concentrating all of my fiber on the act. The tears dry up. Above the shroud of almost fog, the tallest trees form a ragged horizon. The longer I stand here, the less heroic I feel, more like a hairless monkey sensing threat.
The other side of paradise is a jungle. I manage to laugh at myself, but the sound is hollow. For some reason, I yawn when I'm scared. Again I cover my mouth, though politely and self-consciously this time, as I was trained to do.
In the foreground is a weird skeleton standing five or six stories tall. At the near bank of the river is a pyramid built of sticks, kind of crooked; nonetheless a pyramid, the frame of one about to collapse, as if the jungle has eaten away the rocks of Egypt, very strange, obviously abandoned.
It turns out to be the boondoggle of an Englishman. The pyramid was to have been a floating bed and breakfast hotel, which is today a dream gone aground in Iquitos. The strangest thing, I learned later, is that the Englishman built it without a permit. Stranger than that, he didn't need one. In Iquitos, it is possible to dream big without permission, and if things work out, obtain a permit later.
Iquitos, Peru, per captia, was the richest town on Earth in 1910. From a village of 81 Indians in 1808, a sweatshop metropolis of twenty thousand metastasized by 1880. I walk along the riverfront trying to picture it. The old office buildings of the rubber barons, overlooking the Amazon, are stone and steel, ornately carved, with gargoyles and ceramic tile painted in gaudy, close detail, testaments to the excesses of new money, rendered classic by the virtues of age.
These palaces of commerce are now the barracks of male and female Peruvian soldiers. Each morning, they run in formation.
A detachment of women comes up behind me. The male sergeants seem to have no eye for the gender of their troops, actual Amazons in uniform: white t-shirts and camouflage britches. They double-time in step, looking good, singing cadence and clapping their hands. Their voices send a chill up my spine.
The rubber barons more or less enslaved the ancestors of these people, forced them to collect latex, raw rubber, from Jebe trees.
The barons of rubber would cut off the Indians' hands when quotas were not met. Sometimes a worker had to travel miles through the jungle between wild growing Jebes. Twenty-seven thousand tons of latex in a year came out of Peru at the height of the boom.
The good times didn't last long, about thirty years. Then an Englishman stole rubber seeds in Brazil and smuggled them into Malaysia. Orderly rubber plantations killed the boom in South America.
The barons abandoned Iquitos to the Indians, who doubtless celebrated and surely procreated. Five-hundred thousand people live here now.
There's a saying in Iquitos, that if you're not in love when you get here, you will be by the time you leave.
Peruvian women have skin the color of the river, coffee and cream, smooth as the Amazon on a windless morning. Last night, I saw couples entwined on the streets, making out, holding hands, strolling arm in arm. Nobody stays indoors. There's very little air-conditioning. Catholicism, with its negative stance on pleasure, never really took hold in the jungle.
I am not here to fall in love but I could be.
I'm traveling with an outfit that runs medical expeditions leaving Iquitos for regions of the Amazon far from room service. My girlfriend chickened out. She wasn't sure the food would be edible, nor the toilet paper up to standards. There is a definite possibility that a lot of toilet paper will be required.
Nothing about the medical expedition seems secure. We're headed upriver in a couple of days to look for sick wild Indians. There's no guarantee the mosquito nets will not have holes. Even super-duper bug repellent might not render the insects endurable.
The jungle covers forty percent of the total land area of South America. The extent of it reaches into nine sovereign nations. It completely surrounds Iquitos, Peru.
The vegetation creeps up in the gutters. The environment eats away at everything. In the early morning as soon as the sun comes up, the people go to work, constantly repairing, painting over, re-conditioning; I've never seen a city, or a population, so industrious.
Violent crime, I've been told, is virtually unknown. People smile at me whenever I smile first. A gringo with a pocketful of money is something to smile at. They're friendly, not guileless. There's a small-time hustler on every corner, but friendly, there to rob me if I'm in the market, and most of them will give you something in return, a beaded necklace, or a painted Brazil nut. You don't necessarily get your money's worth, but then everyone has to make a living. Fleecing tourists is an art form all over the world, even in my hometown. I've fleeced one or two myself.
My friend, Robert Shelley has an interesting technique for dealing with the language barrier, the primary tool of fleecing.
Robert has simply refused to learn Spanish. After sixteen years of traveling back forth to Iquitos, he won't speak a word of the native tongue, walks tall, takes big steps and pays the asking price. I've picked up on his technique early. My Spanish is bad anyway. I know I'm being constantly robbed, but I relax into it, order a glass of fresh mango juice at Ari's Restaurant.
Being gradually, gently robbed is not so bad. In Iquitos, lodging and food are cheap anyway. So are cigarettes and booze. Robert smokes but he never drinks, I do both. I'm a happy camper.
On the street, people smile at me a lot. I like that. It makes me feel at home.
Iquitos has me mesmerized. I wander in seedy neighborhoods, where I would not walk without heavy armor if lost in Atlanta or Los Angeles, I feel no sense of threat. There are plenty of cops, dressed in brown and gold uniforms, with baseball caps and billyclubs, no pistols, a lot of police, all hours of the day and night. Doubtless, the law of the jungle would immediately ensue without their presence. The government seems to have gone into each neighborhood, chosen the toughest kids on the block and put them into uniform, educating them along the way in the fine art of fleecing tourists. A friendly cop, after all, causes one to relax.
Today, this morning, my first in Peru, I'm up early. I left the hotel before daylight. I wonder if Robert and Will are awake yet. I find Robert working at his lap top in the atrium of the Hotel Victoria. I stop for a cup of coffee in the poolside café and join him.
"Where's Will?" he says.
"Still sleeping, I guess."
He looks at his watch, "It's eight-fifteen . . ."
"I know it, just give him time."
"Time for what?"
Will is my cousin, the son of a man no longer living, who helped me to become a writer. Will is a filmmaker, just nineteen years old. His daddy was my best friend for a lot of years, and then he wasn't anymore. I've brought Will to Peru for reasons that have nothing to do with family ties. He's very talented, won a couple of awards and interned for pros in New York, a film school student from Washington. I hardly know him. Until we boarded the airplane, I hadn't spent more than a few hours with him since he was ten years old. He might be a cheap avenue to a good documentary film of the medical expedition.
Will seems to sleep a lot. Yesterday his nap after the airplane ride lasted most of the afternoon. After dinner he had gone back to the hotel.
I go up to the room and check on him. He's still sleeping. The kid looks so much like his daddy. His old man committed suicide.
I glance around the room at Will's scattered clothing. He's left the camera equipment lying without order on the desk. It doesn't look good. Robert won't stand for this, and I shouldn't. My instincts tell me to leave him alone. He's thin and frail looking. His head seems too large for his shoulders. His sharp eyes are closed.
Robert and I walk to breakfast, back to Ari's Restaurant in the main square of the town.
The waitress knows Robert well, brings him a menu in English.
Before long, Juan Maldanado, shows up, a diminutive Peruvian "fixer" Robert has employed for sixteen years. Juan speaks English. I give him two hundred dollar bills, crisp and faultless. The money changers will not take blemished notes. They have to be crisp. Juan inspects the hundreds. He leaves and in a while returns with "soles" the Peruvian currency, three for a dollar. I give him ten soles for the errand.
He waits at the table for Robert to offer him breakfast. Yesterday, we fed him our leftovers after a late lunch. It was his wife's birthday. Robert sent him home with a birthday cake purchased from Ari's bakery.
This morning, Juan waits in vain for sustenance.
Juan's teeth are bad.
Yesterday Robert went with him to see the dentist and finalize the price for a set of dentures. The total cost will be five hundred American dollars. Juan has to come up with a hundred and fifty.
This morning, Robert doesn't feel like feeding him. Juan's teeth are very bad. He makes a living hustling tourists. Robert is an old customer, easily fleeced. Juan is patient with him.
"Go on," Robert says. "Do somethin.' Go make some money. You ain't gettin' anymore of mine right now."
Juan starts to leave. Robert stops him. "How did you save yesterday?"
Juan thinks for a minute. Whether he's actually counting or calculating what to say to please Robert would be impossible ever to know. Juan is a trickster, shrewd enough to keep Robert Shelley coming back.
"Twenty dollars," he says.
"That's good," Robert taps him on the shoulder enthusiastically. "Save twenty more today and you won't need but a hundred and ten for new teeth."
Juan's expression changes, "Today is different."
"What's different about it?"
Juan begins a tale. He doesn't get far. Robert stops him. "That's not my business. You take care of that, all I want to know is a hundred and fifty dollars from you."
"I will get it," Juan says.
"Well go on," Robert says. "You're not getting any closer to it standing there," he dispenses with Juan, "which brings me to the subject," he turns to me. "How much money have you got tied up in them cameras?"
"Will's all right," I say. "Don't worry about it."
"That ain't the point."
"What is the point, Robert?"
"Well if you don't know it, you're not doing him any favors letting him sleep."
"He's nineteen years old."
"That's a man in my book . . ."
"I'll do it, right after breakfast."
Robert rolls his eyes.
We order American bacon and eggs. Robert has mango juice. I've already had mine.
All the while, Indian curio sellers try to get our attention, meandering on the sidewalk, holding necklaces, woven goods brightly colored Peruvian junk. The slightest eye contact invigorates their hope. More of them gather. I'm learning quickly to wave them off, tell them no. All of them tug at your heartstrings.
The curio sellers have no effect on Robert. In the jungle are children who need medical attention. Robert has a meeting with the head of river operations for Project Amazonas. He is waiting for Caesar, the jungle guide, another long-time employee, who is late, supposed to take Robert to the other side of town. Robert is not happy, "Caesar's a thief. He's stealing my time."
Caesar arrives and Robert dresses him down, does not listen to Ceasar's explanation, which is halting, does sound flimsy, and wouldn't if it didn't. The kids in the jungle come first.
We agree to meet back at Ari's for lunch. I walk to the hotel, hoping I'll run into Will, that he won't be in bed when I get there. But he is. I lose my temper a little bit. I want him to sleep as long as he needs to - I wrongly believe this will help his filmmaking - however, in Robert's eyes, he's losing ground, causing me to look weak, and reducing our chances of cutting a film deal with Project Amazonas. I tell him, in so many words, letting my tone of voice do the rest.
"This won't work, son."
"I know what you're saying . . ."
"You've got one shot down here."
"That's enough," the boy tells me.
"All right," I say.
Will hustles to get dressed for lunch. He leaves the bathroom floor soaking wet. I don't feel sorry for him suddenly. It feels like he's testing my patience.
We meet Robert for lunch, who teases Will brutally for sleeping in. I let him do it. The kid turns rosy red. The video camera with the heavy lens adapter hangs by a tether around his neck. He has yet to put the new equipment to much use.
As we're finishing lunch, Jonathan Shanin and Mike Bergen, stride into Ari's. Jonathan's head is shaved, pebbled with sweat. He shakes hands, smiling brilliantly. Mike says nothing, glances at me with casual disdain, then at Will. He notices the lens adapter, without the slightest show of interest. Mike carries a digital camera that weighs about seven pounds, cost about the same amount money as a 1990 Cadillac and is convertible with the touch of his thumb to either a hand-held rocket launcher, or a self-propelling rocket. His camera looks dangerous and so does Mike. He has his game face on.
Jonathan's brilliant smile belies the genetic code of his ancestors. A few generations back, his family immigrated from Russia, directly from the court of the last tsar, Nicolas II. If the monarchy had survived the Bolshevik Revolution, Jonathan's line would still be hereditary palace guards. He is tall, lean, shaved completely bald, with large, alert eyes. Somehow, the t-shirt and blue jeans he wears contrive to pass for a tsarist uniform. His shaved head could be a helmet. The brilliant smile seems as if it would not disappear in the thick of a sword fight.
Jonathan is one of the top thirty Internet marketers in the world. He is here to help Robert Shelley and Project Amazonas raise the money to build a new boat, a hospital ship.
Jonathan and Mike have formed a new company, Aid Joy, that is, aidjoy.org. Their first mission on the Internet will be to raise money for Project Amazonas.
They will travel upriver with us, and I am not sure Mike Bergen and me are going to get along. He is twenty-eight years old, a veteran of many travels in the Third World. He's tough. You would not want to be a thief and try to take his camera, unless you could take Mike.
And what's more, he has a fine-tuned smart mouth to go along with his nose, which has been broken probably twice. He's a raw nut. You can't crack him with charm, and I stop trying.
I ask Jonathan, if he and his sidekick would be good enough to grant Will and I a video interview for our documentary.
Jonathan doesn't hesitate, he pauses, trying to soften the blow, "I don't really see the point," he says, looking away at the curio sellers on the street.
I zero in on him, knocking his leg a little bit to surprise him, "We're down here to get a story," I say, "not to slow you down." Mike Bergen looks down his nose as though that possibility does not exist. I watch him without looking at him directly. Jonathan and I lock eyes, and he listens to me: "The only thing we're after is to raise the money. That's all it is. If you don't have time, we'll work around you." Mike Bergen smirks. Jonathan senses my checkbook. He glances at Robert, whose checkbook he has some knowledge up, and adds it up: I'm with Robert, and that equals possibilities.
"Play it by ear," he says. ". . . If there's time."
"Sure, that's all I'm saying."
Jonathan and Mike take off to do an interview with Dr. Salazar, the Peruvian Minister of Health.
"Tell Salazar, I said hello," Robert shakes hands with Jonathan.
Mike Bergen is already on the street, climbing into a rickshaw.
I say to Robert, "I don't like that guy."
The next morning at three o'clock, about the time I usually wake up, I'm already looking for a cup of coffee, trying to raise the hotel's desk clerk. No luck.
There's a rickshaw parked outside, a driver sitting there as if waiting for me. I'm out of cigarettes, would like a coffee, and ask the rickshaw pilot if he knows a place.
"Que bien," he says.
"Es seguro?" I ask, is it safe?
He nods and tells me in halting English, "No problem."
The motorized rickshaw speeds along empty streets. The only people we see are cops and most of them are sleeping, sitting upright in folding metal chairs. The driver, Jose, takes us through the main square, and out the other side, into neighborhoods I haven't seen before. It's a cool night. I have on a windbreaker.
I sense no threat, but the streets are poor. The farther we go from the hotel, the less secure I should feel and don't. the driver sits in front of me, straddling the front end of a motorcycle. The rickshaws are modified dirt bikes with three wheels and a rear seat that can hold three passengers. This one is fast. Jose dodges the potholes. The rickshaws are kick to ride in, just scary enough. I hold on and wonder where we're going.
Jose and I shout back and forth, me using broken Spanish, him broken English; we've made a deal to practice on each other.
The all-night café is a concrete block building with no front window. Outside are a number of rickshaws. On the sidewalk near the door, several young guys are squatted over a dice game. It looks like craps. The money is in the middle, and the shooter is talking to the dice.
Jose parks the rickshaw, and I invite him to a cup of coffee. The heavy door of the joint swings open and inside are tables and chairs sparsely populated with night owls, painted young women and pimps, a dozen or so. The girls smile at each other and me. The pimps go on drinking coffee. The novelty of a gringo quickly wears off.
The waitress brings coffee and a pack of cigarettes. Jose has a lighter. We smoke and show each other pictures of our children.
Jose drives a rickshaw twelve hours a day, earning just enough to feed a wife and four kids. After coffee and several cigarettes, we're the only people left in the bar. It's five o'clock in the morning.
I'd like to watch the sun come up on the Amazon. Yesterday, I was late for the dawning. Jose knows a man with a boat.
I take a ride in a water taxi six or eight miles upstream. It's an overcast morning, the sky filmy gray. The sun is obscured. The river is a minefield of dead-head snags, big stumps and logs drifting half-submerged. Floating islands look solid. Vegetation in the water wraps the prop. We have to stop, raise the engine and put it in reverse to unwrap the propeller. The captain is a thirteen-year-old boy. He handles the boat perfectly, slowing to weave his way through the dead-heads, boat killers.
He sits up straight, one hand on the wheel, one on the throttle, scanning the river, side to side, ahead and behind us. I put the camera on him and watch him smile.
We run thirty or forty-five minutes upriver, coming to a village of thatched roof huts, some concrete buildings and one paved street, a suburb of Iquitos. Jose and I walk around a market bustling with vendors and customers at 7:00 in the morning.
I'm back at the hotel before Robert and Will have had breakfast.
I keep to myself that I'm ecstatic with having beaten Mike Bergen onto the river. Robert thinks I've lost my mind, leaving the hotel in the middle of the night, drinking coffee with pimps and prostitutes, letting myself be carried up the Amazon with people I know nothing about.
I make it sound good, because I know it'll get back to Jonathan and Mike.
At breakfast, Robert brags on me.
Jonathan says, "Good for you . . ."
Mike scowls as though I've pulled a fast one.
I tell Will, "I started to wake you up and take you with me."
"I wish you had."
"Oh no," Robert says, "he needs his beauty sleep. Its just about time for a nap . . ." Robert checks his watch.
"What's the story on the boat?" says Mike.
"Which one?" Robert says. "I'm leaving on the big boat with Bo Bryan, and Sleeping Beauty over here. Yall are coming in the skiff with the doctors. Isn't that what you said?"
Jonathan smiles brilliantly.
"I don't care which boat," Mike says, "We'd like to get it done sometime this year."
Hometown Boy In The Amazon, Part III
All you can see are the walls of the jungle and a brief dome of the sky. The river narrows, turns, switches back, forks and bends till you don't believe the compass anymore. You are lost.
Directly overhead, the sun seems to hesitate for hours, as if deciding which direction to take when it leaves you in darkness.
Mile upon mile the jungle closes in. You feel the seeds of claustrophobia sprout. The wall of vegetation rises directly from the edge of the river. The dome of the sky presses down, close enough to touch, definitely, differently bluer than any sky known to me. So is the jungle greener than green, the hues of the flowers more vivid, the transparent wings of the insects reflect hotter spectrums of rainbow light. It is as if a veil has been pulled back from the pallet of creation.
We travel for hours seeing no sign of human life. The Napo tributary is about the same width as the Waccamaw River back home, dark brown too, for the same reason, tanic acid, which is a purifying agent, the chemical that causes red wine to taste bitter until the bottle has had a chance to breath.
We have the big riverboat to ourselves, Robert Shelley, Will Bryan and me, attended by the Indian crew.
Will roams the decks with a video camera, gathering footage. By the time he heads back to film school, he'll have twenty-seven hours of digital tape, a raw documentary of our humanitarian adventure with Project Amazonas.
. . . you don't believe
the compass anymore
. . . You are lost.
Tomorrow, we'll rendezvous with a Peruvian medical team and continue upriver, two hundred miles from the nearest light bulb.
Robert and I relax on the fantail, watching the jungle go by.
"Still think you wanta spend the night out there?" he says.
"Sure," I say. I have a picture in my mind's eye, of a clearing in the forest, with hammocks strung at the perimeter of a blazing campfire.
Back in Iquitos, Peru, the city in the jungle, many miles behind us, street hustlers had surrounded me one evening, trying to sell me a jaguar skin. I had passed on the yellow pelt of a cat that had weighed maybe eighty pounds.
I had haggled for the skins of two Anaconda, one seventeen feet long and twenty inches wide in the middle, the other a mere twelve footer.
I wondered how many live Anacondas we had passed in the fifteen hours we had been underway?
The snakes' skins still had the heads on. How would you neutralize a seventeen foot snake without cutting its head off? It is a mystery that occupies my thoughts.
It's late afternoon. The lower sun descends, the bluer the sky gets. Streaks of cloud cover in the west turn pink. Venus, the evening "star" is as big and bright as a silver baseball.
"Still think you wanta spend
the night out here?"
When I was a boy, I was afraid of the dark. To get over it, I had gone to sea on ocean-going sailboats. Out of
sight of land, on stormy nights, when no stars were out, the world had been black as a cave. I had stayed in sailboats until I got used to the fear, but I'd never got over it.
I stand in the engine room of the old river cruiser, watching the diesel with a flashlight, visually checking the motor mounts; the prop shaft spins true, but the stuffing box leaks like a siv.
The automatic bilge pump runs fifteen minutes out of every hour. The seams between the wooden planks below the waterline weep incessantly. If the pump fails, the Tucunare would sink like an old sponge. Overland, it would take weeks, perhaps longer, to return to the city.
The jungle is now a ragged black ribbon, separating the moonlit river and sky. I have brought my own signal flares and searchlight. The forest admits three-million candle power to a depth of perhaps ten feet. I wonder where the guns are. Robert has said the boat is armed if we get into trouble.
We continue upriver. The captain steers by moonlight. There are no channel markers, none, not a single aid to navigation. The river is deep all the way to trees. In the dark, we can't see the dead-head snags until close upon them. The captain seems to have them on radar, adjusting course well ahead of visible evidence of near submerged stumps.
When I was a boy, I was
afraid of the dark.
Ahead, suddenly. are two points of light, then five, then three, then six, then none.
What are they? "Que es esto?" I ask the pilot. His name is Ignacio, a blocky, square faced Indian with squinted eyes and the distant manner of command.
He says nothing, concentrating on the river.
Caesar, the jungle guide, tells me in English, the lights are kerosene candles, burning in the villages. The number of lights fluctuates as our point of view changes. They are not low-flying UFO's.
I keep listening to the boat, the pattern of diesel vibration that permeates the wooden hull, alert to any change in the rhythm.
The captain eases her into the shadow of the jungle, puts her nose to the bank. Caesar and Edwin go overboard, up tree roots, into the forest, pulling a line from the bow. We tie off to a tree. The captain shuts the engine down.
I come up the lower companionway, thinking to scramble into the forest and hang my hammock, build a fire and see what it feels like. The upper hatch of the companionway is closed, so that I knock my head sharply.
And the night closes in.
The jungle is now a ragged
black ribbon . . .
And the night closes in.
Suddenly something airborne, a dragonfly with the wingspan of a seagull, buzzes me, brushing its wingtips across my chest.
I listen, expecting any moment, a cacophony of bug noises such as Robert has described. Only a few bullfrogs and a wild rooster interrupt the silence, which is more troubling.
"Are you going to sleep in the jungle?" Robert says. "There it is. You wanted to get in it . . . go on."
"I'll get around to it. Soon as we land somewhere with enough light to make camp."
Robert has the irritating habit of constantly pushing people to "do it now," which is only redeemed by the force of his example. If he had opened his big mouth back in South Carolina, declaring that he was going to sleep in the jungle, he would already be building a fire.
But he's done that, been back and forth to the Amazon any number of times and has nothing to prove to himself or anybody else, he's an old hand.
On the Tucunare, he's the kingfish, an impresario, one of the founders of Project Amazonas. When he says, "cook," we eat.
The food is out of this world, quite unprecedented in my experience. Practically all of it comes from the wild, either gathered by the crew during brief stops or purchased from Indians living along the rivers. Daniello, the cook, is the only genius onboard.
I wonder how many live
Anacondas we've passed . . .
I settle in to the best night's sleep I've had in years. Maybe it's the distance we've traveled from home, the responsibilities I've left behind. I haven't spent the night on a boat in twenty years. The gentle motion of the hull rocks me like a newborn.
I'm up several hours before dawn.
The moon is down. When I come on deck, I see the stars.
At first I think the farthest of them are clouds, a sort of mist in the purple sky. But the clouds remain fixed. I realize slowly, I'm looking a portion of a spiral arm of the Milky Way, whole other galaxies perhaps, mammoth suns, red giants, white dwarfs, so far away, they look like brilliant particles of dust.
A moment later, a meteor streaks close overhead, burning out above the river. I clearly see the bulk of an unlit shooting star.
A rock from outer space will strike the jungle, not all that far away, maybe fifty miles to the east. I take it for a sign, that I'm in the right place, even a good spot to burn out completely.
Gravity holds me. I'm rooted in time, to a leaky riverboat tied off to a tree in the jungle. Sounds of bullfrogs and wild roosters are familiar enough. My fears seem rheumatoid, for the moment, unable to reach me.
I move between sleeping Indians cocooned inside mosquito nets and woven hammocks. One of them snores. The river slips along the waterline of the old boat. I'm startled by the exhalation of a pink dolphin, a sudden blow of air from the surface of the river. I turn toward the sound, hoping to see again one of these strange creatures. To the Amazon Indians, the pink dolphins are mythical, come ashore at night to seduce young girls in their dreams.
My fears seem rheumatoid,
for the moment,
unable to reach me.
I light a cigarette and stare at the Milky Way.
The crew begins to move as soon as the jungle turns gray, the light coming up, individual trees slowly becoming definite. Edwin brings coffee; Daniello serves cheese omelets. The Indian crew watches over us not with servile deference but sharp eyes for any wrong move on our part, that would jeopardize Robert's confidence in their ability to keep us uninjured and well fed.
We run up the Napo River into the Mazon. The channel narrows. The green canyon of the forest and the black water of the Mazon unwind ahead of us, mile after mile.
We come to a broad reach of the channel and find a village with a steel and concrete pier, the sort of dock that can handle big freight. The first gathering of permanent structures we've seen since leaving Iquitos rises from the top of the bluff. Loud speakers attached to electric poles blare Peruvian radio.
The town of Mazon is reachable from Iquitos through back-channels too shallow for the big boat. Mazon revolves around the lumber and timber business. The loudspeakers on the electric poles might be there to drown the scream of the sawmills.
Jonathan Shanin, Mike Bergen, Devon Graham, the Peruvian doctors and nurses and all their gear are waiting for us, having come from Iquitos in a water taxi, in forty-five minutes, while we've been underway for a total of nineteen hours.
We load the big boat quickly, fetching ice and last minute junk food from the dollhouse village. All the buildings are small, the Indians are small in stature. It's a charming place, Mazon. For people over six feet tall, the dollhouse proportions seem magical; the streets only wide enough for golf carts except there aren't any, only motorcycles and rickshaws and not many of those. Most of the inhabitants walk.
Robert and Will go for a quick exploration of neighborhoods, come back, Will sort of giddy, holding the video camera at port arms. "We just saw a guy skinning a jaguar," he says.
"Did you get it on tape?"
"Reckon they eat the meat?" I ask Robert.
"These people don't throw anything away."
No doubt the jaguar's skin is headed for market elsewhere; nobody in the Amazon wears a fur coat.
"We just saw a guy
skinning a jaguar . . ."
Heading upriver again, after lunch, the doctors and nurses repair to the dining table below deck and make cotton balls. I sit down beside Jonathan Shanin, hoping to make some sort of connection with him. He's a former member of the U.S. kayak team, Olympic class, a graduated naval architect come Internet entrepreneur. He shows me how to twist an inch-wide strip of gauzy cotton around my little finger. He slips a cotton cylinder from his pinky and tucks in the edges at both ends. The result is a handmade cotton ball.
"What are these for?" I wonder.
One of the nurses gets it across to me in Spanish, that cotton balls are used with alcohol to wipe the skin before a hypodermic needle is used. But, of course, I knew that.
"Do they not have ready-made cotton balls?" I ask Jonathan.
He shrugs and smiles, twisting another length of cotton around his pinky.
After I've twisted and tucked six or eight, I say, "This is my kind of job."
Jonathan nods, "Mine too."
He and Mike Bergen will photograph and record the medical expedition for aidjoy.org. Their company raises money for causes they're attracted to. Both are young, Jonathan 35, Mike 28 and talented, utterly focused on the mission: building a website for Project Amazonas that will generate funds for a new hospital ship.
Jonathan and I go on twisting and tucking strips of white fiber, making our own cotton balls.
Later, on deck, we empty bottles of vitamins, packaging ten each in small Ziplocs. Devon Graham, chief of operations for the project, counts vitamins, Mike Bergen and I slip the pills into Ziplocs.
Devon is a tall, rangy fellow with sandy blond hair and quick eyes. He oversees medical expeditions covering a circle two hundred river miles in diameter from Iquitos.
Of course, the reach of the project would be greater with more money, more doctors and a steel-hulled ship to penetrate the jungle.
Conversation invariably comes round to the new boat and the subject of money. I broach the idea of marketing humanitarian adventure to the travel-tour industry, selling the thrill of saving lives to people looking for a motive more compelling than golf and cocktails.
[We need] more money
more doctors and a steel-hulled ship
to penetrate the jungle.
It's tough to find donors in this economy, I point out, we might have more luck selling something than seeking donations. Jonathan and Mike assure me that the money is still out there. But I like that phrase, "humanitarian adventure." It describes what I'm up to. It defines the investment of time and money Robert Shelley has made in Project Amazonas.
A lot of people our age, late fifties, early sixties, seem to long for a mission, even a short term purpose that supercedes the dread of old age. To work and travel for a couple weeks with warlike energy, facing my fears, dreaming of hospital ships and saving the rainforest connects me with youth and the hotwire of revolution. We baby boomers stopped a war in Vietnam, reinvented America, for a while, and then joined the long, pinstriped line to the bank. We're a generation suddenly removed, or about to be removed, from harness. Where will the energy and drive left in us be directed? Humanitarian adventure is a way back to the romance of living life in the moment, the way we did when love was all we needed and the dream of peace was real, even worth dying for. The music was ours, and we didn't care if nobody understood it. We were soldiers too and young.
Two hundred miles upriver, the people come out to meet us as though we're the Easter Bunny. The arrival of Project Amazonas constitutes a holiday, even a glamorous event. Families arrive in dugout canoes. Young women dressed in their finest, comfort balling toddlers pricked with hypodermic syringes. Inoculated kids suck peppermints and play with colored balloons. Old people come with aching backs, chronic pain, vitamin deficiencies. The dentist pulls teeth from grateful patients numbed by the miracle of Novocain.
A lot of people our age,
late fifties, early sixties,
seem to long for a mission.
A visit from modern medicine men is a signal to these isolated people that tumultuous prosperity has not bypassed them.
The Indians have no electricity, no plumbing, no refrigeration. They hunt, fish and gather, living just above the Stone Age level. Most have steel weapons and tools. Some are equipped with modern, monofilament fishing gear.
As we depart in our computer laden, camera-ready, diesel-powered riverboat, the Indians wave goodbye to us across a technological distance of eons.
We descend the river quickly, stopping at prearranged rendezvous. The villages, like the jungle, all look the same, small gatherings of thatched roof domiciles built on stilts, for the rivers rise. The houses have no walls, no need of windows. On the Equator, the temperature is mild year-round, not nearly as hot as it is twenty degrees of latitude north or south, in Panama, for instance. The nights are cool and dewy. Daytime temperatures hardly rise above eighty-five. Only the humidity becomes uncomfortable, not insufferable, even during the rainy season.
The villages are temporary, constructed from local timber and vegetation, and will dissolve back into the jungle quickly if left unoccupied.
There are more villages than I imagined. The Peruvian government estimates three-thousand in Loreto Province, an area about the size of Texas. Several tens of thousands of Indians populate the villages. Exactly how many villages and Indians there are nobody knows precisely, and will probably never know.
The people move when the food runs low in a given territory. They hunt and gather what they need to eat daily. Up close, their faces appear untroubled, stress-free, though in a practical sense, they live in the Valley of the Shadow. Animal attack, bacterial and viral infection, sickness and death are as close as one missed sign in the jungle.
These people radiate calm implacable self-reliance. They are strangely iridescent with the glamour of the wild.
They are not naked, tattooed and painted as I imagined, most wear clothing that looks like it came from the Wal-Mart bargain table. Which is mildly disappointing.
Villages along the Mazon that were dirty and disease ridden before the advent of Project Amazonas are now vibrant, orderly, mainly unfettered by chronic malaria and intestinal parasites. After sixteen years of unrelenting effort, the project realizes dividends of hope. The Indians are no longer suspicious, don't run away when the riverboat approaches.
The Indians are iridescent
with the glamour of the wild.
The only pictures available are of smiling adults and children who are not bloated and wormy.
Jonathan Shanin and Mike Bergen are more than disappointed.
To market a hospital ship, attract donors via the Internet, they need pictures to show and truth to tell of conditions such as Robert Shelley encountered in the early 1990's before the founding of Project Amazonas.
Jonathan flatly refuses to "spin" the story. He will not make conditions seem worse than they are. He and Mike have come to record critical needs. They demand to go outside the circle of current operations, where the new hospital ship will venture.
Devon Graham strongly advises against it. The big riverboat is too slow and hasn't the fuel capacity to take them. They will have to separate from the expedition.
Robert Shelley weighs in with all the muscle of a founding impresario, "These boys have come three thousand miles to get it right, where do we have to go?"
The circle of operations, it turns out, is more properly described as a blob, irregular in shape and always changing, depending on the rise and fall of the Amazon.
Devon Graham knows of primitive tribes twelve days journey from Iquitos. "The Cat People" he describes tattoo their faces with whiskers. Dr. Graham spreads his fingers and holds them against his cheeks.
Jonathan Shanin and Mike Bergen
are more than disappointed.
Closer to Iquitos, he recommends traveling east along the Amazon. The Indian crew boss and boat captain, Fernando, disagrees; the nearest territory outside the circle is up the Nanay maybe even the Italia River.
Mike and Jonathan talk it over and decide to consult with Doctor Salazar, the Peruvian Minister of Health back in Iquitos.
The expedition has three days of work left on the Mazon. Dr. Graham cannot leave the expedition. He doesn't particularly want to okay the transport of Jonathan and Mike, but Robert Shelley insists.
As soon as possible, the outboard skiff rafted to the big boat will load with the Internet entrepreneurs. Fernando will ferry them down to Mazon, thence by water taxi to Iquitos. Caesar, the jungle guide, and Edwin, a young river pilot, will accompany Mike and Jonathan. Where they will travel eventually is undecided.
I ask Jonathan if he has room in the boat for me.
"Let Mike and I talk it over."
"Sure," I say, but I don't feel very optimistic.
Mike and Jonathan are young, hard chargers. Back in Iquitos, Mike and I had had several close calls, when our oversized egos had neared the flash point. Since the expedition began, we have rarely spoken to each other above passing comments. I have taken some care in not attempting to charm either Mike or Jonathan.
where there's something
to write about."
I need interviews, and they have been unavailable, focused entirely on their mission, too busy to answer questions. About all I have going for me is the respect Will Bryan has gained as a filmmaker, in Mike's eyes, which reflects on me, because Will and I are working together. That, and several times during the past few days, odds and ends of gear not found on the boat happened to be cargo in my backpack, a hundred feet of parachute cord, for instance, as well as a thick Spanish to English dictionary, which Jonathan needed for translating his interviews with Peruvian doctors.
I go below decks to give them room to talk.
I feel old. I'm a "senior citizen." I hate that term, a euphemism for near sighted and slow, in the eyes of the young; I remember all too well my sarcastic attitude toward gray hair.
Back in Iquitos, I had avoided Mike. His warlike intensity had seemed unnecessary. His will to banish possible impediments to his mission had caused me to wonder if my own commitment was up to the mark. Will and I had come to the Amazon without a plan, no preconceived strategy for capturing a story. To Mike and Jonathan we seemed as dilettantes on a holiday, pretending to have mission. My only connection to serious intent had been my friendship with Robert Shelley. I had been counted as a tag-along, and at times I had wondered if that was all I counted for; what was I really worth to the expedition?
I am sitting at the dining table, writing in the journal, hiding behind my work, not looking forward to Jonathan's answer, determined not to be disappointed, not to show it.
He comes down the companionway smoothly, the way a guy does who has spent a lot of time on boats.
"Do you want to go?" he says quietly, maybe thinking I've reconsidered, had a chance to be honest with myself.
"Its why I came," I say.
"All right, we leave in an hour."
Jonathan goes aft to pack his gear.
Mike Bergen swings down the companionway, agile as a two hundred pound monkey. "Let's get off this cruise ship," he grins, turning to pack his cameras.
I know it was his decision to take me on.
"You like to write, don't you?" Mike says.
"Let's go where there's something to write about."
I did not a single hungry human in the jungle, that is, in the villages, which were all constructed on open ground. The jungle was kept at a comfortable remove, constantly pruned by the village dwellers. Around the open, thatched roof houses, it seemed to be a matter of pride that no vegetation whatever grew beneath, or close by the structure, not even a blade of grass. A woman with a machete would comb the ground removing offending weeds.
The Amazon has a different aura than any other geologic expanse on Earth. Hollywood created it for me, with B-grade movies. The celluloid heroes and villains wrestled with giant snakes, swimming for life from man-eating fish and alligator-like aquatic lizards called white or black caimans. There were the short stories, in semi-nasty pulp magazines that I would sneak and read as an adolescent, tales of gold seekers lost, captured, eaten alive, turned into love slaves.
The dangers here are unfamiliar, therefore larger in mind and more threatening than traveling eighty miles an hour on the Interstate. Being swallowed by an anaconda seems somehow more frightening than being dismembered by a diesel transfer truck, which is surely more likely to happen to a traveler in South Carolina. The Valley of the Shadow is everywhere. We grow familiar with particular dangers and compensate with special skills, or none of us would drive automobiles.
Hometown Boy In The Amazon, Part IV
The Amazon is a sensual river, fecund with mystery, like a woman you haven't slept with yet. She has a different aura than any other body of water, unique in size, dangerous to navigate; you can only ever know a small part of her, and that part is mesmerizing.
Hollywood introduced her to me, in B-grade movies. Celluloid heroes and villains wrestled with giant snakes, swimming for life from man-eating fish. Pulp magazines I read as a child, told tales of El Dorado, the city of gold lost in the jungle. Men seeking treasure were captured and turned into love slaves by warrior women with hair as thick as rope.
Before I traveled to the Amazon, a primitive tribe, never before encountered, fired arrows at a helicopter; I heard it on CNN, so it must have been true.
I wondered what the Indians thought? Maybe that the whirlybird was a heretofore unknown insect. Many things grow bigger in the jungle. Nobody really knows for sure what is out there.
The dangers of the Amazon are unfamiliar, therefore seem more threatening than traveling eighty miles an hour, surrounded by eighteen wheel monsters on an Interstate highway, for instance. The thought of being swallowed by an anaconda is more frightening, though of course less likely to happen.
Familiar dangers numb you. Jaguars, giant snakes and Indians with poison darts, on the other hand, grow less familiar, more threatening to imagine, the more you try not to.
On the Mazon River, one afternoon, six or eight of us hiked a mile through the jungle, from one village to another, following a cleared path fourteen wide. The heavy steel treads of a bulldozer had left contusions in the ages old muck of fallen leaves, trees and decayed plant life.
Through low areas, we sank to the tops of our boots.
Nobody knew for sure
what was really out there.
I was told, that if I followed trails into the jungle far enough, I would come to intersections, where the trails divided and went on, growing narrower less distinct, until the trails ended and there were no signs of passage but the snapped off twigs and bent limbs left by the Indians who hunted there.
Walking back to the river, Robert Shelley and I ventured off the track of the bulldozer, the superhighway, so to speak, onto a frontage road, and wound up in a cornfield.
Doubtless, to be lost in the jungle would be terrifying. People who have had the experience, and lived to tell about it, reportedly blather and drool through the fog of insanity.
It all looks the same, the jungle, and difficult to grasp, that forty percent of the total land area of South America is taken up with the Amazon Basin.
Getting lost would be no effort. Lose the trail and you would surely lose faith in your sense of direction. Forget the sun. You could hardly see it. Forget walking in a straight line, it couldn't be done without a compass, and forget the compass too, I wore one around my neck and soon took it off, unable to believe what the magnetic needle insisted on telling me.
Never mind that, nothing went wrong. Our medical expedition had sustained one injury. Robert picked up a thorn in his thumb, which festered overnight, and had to be cut out by one of the Peruvian doctors.
Robert numbed himself with coffee and cigarettes, looked the other way and whined unconvincingly. The audience paid little attention.
None of the Indians attacked us. The medicine men we brought into the jungle treated over five hundred, mostly women and children.
They were shy, not uncvilized human beings, who survived more easily in the forest than we do in super-civilized North American cities, and with less stress, more to smile about evidently and very little to be suspicious of.
The dangers to them were familiar. They moved as easily on the rivers and through the forest as we do to the grocery store and home. The jungle sustains them, and well it should; they're the caretakers and gatekeepers of the world's most prolific production facility for oxygen that is itself the jungle. Twenty-percent of the fresh water on Earth comes out of the Amazon Basin.
Healthy, contented Indians, living in the wild, motivate governments to protect their habitat, at least to some degree.
Many more Indians, still afflicted with worms and malaria, inspire do-gooders like Robert Shelley, and now me, to open avenues for battle with unfamiliar danger, as well as enemies too well known, gigantic corporate serpents intent on swallowing the rainforest.
To be lost in the jungle
would be terrifying
We gave the Indians medical attention.
Their gratitude is hard to describe, it didn't intrude or overshadow their extraordinary humility. Only the most demonstrative were bold enough to shake hands and verbally express themselves. The rest smiled, but faintly, while the warmth in their eyes broke your heart.
Which was all well and good, but not what we were looking for.
Robert Shelley had brought us here to witness critical needs, sick and dying children, adults with exploding guts from early infestation of intestinal parasite.
He is untroubled by Amazon Indians who have practically nothing in the way of modern conveniences. Robert grew up poor. Mere poverty, which does not include chronic ill health, tugs at neither his heart nor the strings his pocketbook.
The sick Indians are somewhere else, outside the circle of Project Amazonas' current operations.
Jonathan Shanin, Mike Bergen and I were to find conditions such as Robert encountered back in 1992, before Project Amazonas was founded. Such conditions were plentiful enough outside the circle. It would take days to get there.
Robert does everything at top speed. The Peruvian mentality, a "philosophy of tomorrow," wherein things happen as they will, confuses my friend, exasperates him, inspires him to step on the accelerator.
Otherwise, Project Amazonas might never have gotten off the ground. A lot of Amazon Indians who were children sixteen years ago, might not have become mothers and fathers in their turn, with healthy children today.
Robert had business irons in the fire back home that couldn't wait. Will Bryan had all the video footage we needed for a rather polite documentary. Will was due back at film school. I would have to video the sick Indians, hopefully give our documentary the edge it wanted.
Will was reassuring, I could not make a mistake, except to drop the camera overboard.
Robert Shelley was looking for
critical needs to remedy.
The medical expedition continued with Devon Graham. He would guide the Peruvian doctors and nurses downstream, visiting villages, treating Indians, maintaining the level of care established by the project over the preceding decade and a half.
Robert, Will and I, Jonathan and Mike took a outboard boat ride down to Mazon, the dollhouse village. After several changes of conveyance, we arrived back in Iquitos, finally, in an open boat seventy feet long, pushed by a forty horsepower engine, a very strange craft indeed. A "panga," capable of hauling perhaps twenty-five, fifty-five gallon barrels of fuel oil or gasoline, a freight boat. Our passage was hurriedly contracted by Robert, with a cash offer of one-hundred bucks, U.S, an expensive ride; more efficient than sitting all day in the village of Mazon, waiting for a water taxi that might not run.
Robert does whatever, without delay, sometimes without mercy. His compassion has a brutal side. Try standing in the way of where a soft heart leads him and you will find yourself bulldozed.
Thus I was abandoned in the jungle, left in the clutches of Jonathan and Mike, young turks no less driven by a bleeding heart than Robert, with more juice for the mission and less care of physical danger.
The map we carried told almost nothing, showed a curling, twisting thread of blue, the Nanay River, another tributary of the Amazon, surrounded on the map by innocuous pale green territory, the jungle, all the way to Equador.
The Peruvian Minister of Health in Iquitos, Doctor Salazar, suggested several other possible destinations, all farther away.
Now was the dry season. Shallow water prevented travel to villages with critical needs closer to the city. Five, maybe six days, we would be up the Nanay, if nothing went wrong.
Robert does . . . everything without delay, sometimes without mercy.
Jonathan's comment, regarding the distinct possibility of our encountering less civilized Indians was as follows: "What's the worst that could happen?"
Jonathan paused for me to consider, then said what I was thinking, "[The worst would be] we get strung up for meat."
I was glad Jonathan said it, now the air in my head was clear and complete, we were actually going . . .
In a small boat with one engine and two sixty-gallon barrels of gasoline, all of which we would need to get upriver and back. In other words, our aluminum conveyance amounted to a potential bomb of equal power to an eighth of a ton of TNT. One spark in the wrong location and we would look like a special effect in a Hollywood adventure.
Our Indian guides, Caesar and Edwin, loaded both barrels of gas in the very stern of the boat, as if to distance the bomb. The hull would not plane. We lugged upriver like a washtub, with too little speed and burning too much gas.
We mutinied early on, made the captain, Edwin, halt the boat, as we adjusted the load, moving the sixty-gallon barrels forward for trim and centered for balance. If the bomb went off, we would rather not be merely wounded. Then up the Nanay we started, all the way to the first fork in the channel, where Edwin throttled back and circled.
He and the jungle guide, Caesar, conferred in muffled Spanish, obviously unsure of direction, if not lost yet, barely out of sight of Iquitos.
The map we carried
told us almost nothing . . .
Jonathan, Mike and I looked at each other. No one said a word.
Edwin throttled up, into the starboard channel.
I immediately began taking notes, keeping a ship's log of turns and compass readings. hoping it might help us find a way out.
In a suburb of Iquitos, two hours into the journey, we stopped to register with the Peruvian military, in case we did not come back.
Jonathan and Mike interviewed the local "health coordinator" and were told of a closer destination where rampant disease could be observed. The boys decided to take a chance on a short-cut, and all I could think of to say was, "Cool."
We back-tracked the Nanay, and turned south, into what could only described as a labyrinth, a maze of waterways, seemingly never-ending.
In places, the channels were hardly wide enough for the boat; some were completely overgrown, such that we idled through tunnels in the forest.
And it was beautiful.
Edwin drove the boat with solemn concentration, which I took to be nothing but bluff, a captain's attempt to reassure passengers and crew even as the vessel approached the edge of the world, where we would drop off, into regions the old maps predicted and the ancient mapmakers had defined thus: "Here There Be Dragons."
We . . . register with police
in case we don't come back.
Six hours into the labyrinth, I might as well have thrown the ship's log overboard.
For stretches of time, Edwin was lost indeed, so far out of bounds, we were purely exploring, relieved of a destination.
It was one of the most liberating experiences of my life. Finding a way in or out was beside the point. I let go of the need for certitude. Desire for security left me. The jungle was the only reality. Right now was the only time. Mike Bergen made us sandwiches of cold hot-dogs and processed cheese, pigs in a blanket, and they were delicious.
Three hours later, out of the maze, we ran upriver in the pitch black dark, no searchlight because I'd forgotten mine, two barrels of gasoline and deadhead snags we couldn't see. I completely lost it, yelling for Edwin to slow down, and lecturing Jonathan on the ratio of risk to gain, running without a light that I had forgotten. Desire for security, like a spark, transformed me into a regular fireball.
Mike and Jonathan said nothing.
My little spate of panic burned itself out.
We landed on a white sand beach at an amazingly rich village, one with paved walkways and electric generators. Jonathan was right, all we to do was let go and keep running.
As soon as we landed, he and Mike climbed fifty or sixty feet up a steep bluff to the open ground of the village. I stayed behind with Edwin, not feeling good about myself; more to repair my courage than out of curiosity, I followed Caesar and the boys to the top of the bluff.
The jungle was
the only reality.
They were easy to find. A large crowd was gathered at the doorway of the headman's lodge.
Inside, the crowd was just as thick. I knelt on one knee on the hard packed earthen floor; the chief and his family were at their evening meal. All sat at an oblong table against the wall of a one-room concrete block structure. A kerosene candle burned in a tin cup. Yellow and soft light played in the raven hair of the chief's daughter. Caesar translated for Jonathan.
The questions were the same posed to leaders in villages up the tame Mazon River, the answers equally familiar. These people were fairly healthy. They had access to modern medicine, two days paddle downstream through the maze of waterways we had just traversed, in Santa Maria de Nanay, the village where soldiers took the names of travelers headed for the deeper jungle.
Our ultimate destination was so isolated, that at the height of the dry season, a month or two ago, sick Indians could not even paddle out.
I let go of the need for certitude.
Desire for security left me.
There were not always doctors in Santa Maria, but usually boats with engines to quickly reach the hospital of Iquitos. In short, if you were not dying quickly you might make it.
The chief spoke with serene detachment from the shadow of death. The presence of glamorous foreigners amused him slightly. He was around thirty years old, handsome, barefooted, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, only removed from the paint and feathers of a primitive warrior by a generation or two. Neither warm nor cold, or even circumspect, his eyes were not the windows of his soul; you could see no deeper than a surface glaze reflecting the kerosene candle. His calm was impressive.
His daughter kept glancing from me to Mike to Jonathan, and back to Mike, a girl of maybe sixteen, mature enough to choose a mate. She did not flirt, she appraised, a princess with the power to make her choice stick. Her daddy, I'm sure, loved her very much.
While Jonathan and Mike slept, I lay on the white sand beach at the foot of the rich village, staring at a full moon. The sky was slightly overcast. Through the moonlight, clouds moved in an atmosphere of lurking menace.
To make camp in the jungle for fun seemed a silly boy's notion to me now.
All of my fears were justified. To fight them only made them stronger. Courage was always conditional. Look deep enough and you would find the coward in any chieftain. Jonathan and Mike were no braver than me, just more committed.
Romantic as it sounds, theatrical as it made them seem at times, they lived by the creed, "do or die." Their decisions, for themselves, were final. These boys were living it all the way up.
I wondered how to live with myself for the rest of my life. There wasn't much time for doubt. I was sixty, less afraid of dying, than waiting for it to happen in an old folk's home; that much I was sure of.
My body screamed for sleep, extensive bed rest, more like it.
All of my fears
I eased into a sort of trance that comes with insomnia. A dream, vision, maybe an hallucination came of an ornate wooden chair inlaid with mother-of-pearl. No one was sitting in it.
After a while, I let go of thinking that the chair was a throne of some grandiose kingdom and I should claim it. All I had to do was write what I saw. I rolled over in the sand and slept like a rock until daylight.
All morning, we cruised up the Pintayaccu, a tributary of the Nanay. The waters of the "yaccu" felt thick under the hull, a light brown color, coffee and cream, same as the Amazon.
The more gasoline we burned the more speed we made.
The Tamberra River opened through a notch in the jungle, just wide enough for the boat to pass. Out of the notch, wedged in a partial dam of fallen trees, the river gushed, running ten knots, maybe more.
Edwin punched the boat across the standing wave of the current, into the calm water beyond. Half a mile on we found what we were looking for.
I eased into a sort of trance . . .
I did not have to make up any
more stories . . .
The village at the top of the cliff was not unlike the others, same thatched roofs, bordering a square of grassy, treeless, open ground, but there was something in the air altogether wasted, tired, diluted. The atmosphere seemed gray somehow, unclean, in the glaring, noontime sun. The children were dirty, probably worm infested. The schoolteacher was down with malaria, ferverish and achy, still on her feet.
A month ago, we were told, sixty of a hundred and twenty-five inhabitants were laid low with fever. And it was not yet the season of rain, when malaria burns hottest.
We'd found the El Dorado we had sought, sickness in variety, a dead baby parade waiting to start. One snake-bitten man was too sick to ogle foreigners. Another was covered in running sores, chicken pox. At first I took him for a leper.
There was only one old person in the village. On shallow Tamberra, you did not have to worry about the indignities of senior citizenship. You died before your teeth fell out.
So this was what had hooked Robert Shelley, these sweet, dignified and enduring people, who suffered in silence.
The children sang for us. The chief's wife fed us canned spaghetti, a poor gift from us to the village. We had also brought rum, which the chief helped consume. We drank in ironic celebration. Our Eldorado was their infirmity.
As soon as we left the Tamberra, a gap opened: on one side were the sick Indians, quite helpless to cure themselves; and on the other side was me, us, quite helpless to experience anything like their reality.
. . . it was not yet the rainy season
when [the fever] malaria burns hottest
To relieve their suffering is somehow not my first motive, perhaps not Robert Shelley's either, maybe never will be.
For me, it is strange, shameful even, to realize that out of sight, the Amazon Indians become abstract, their plight easily escapes my mind, but not the Amazon's seduction of me.
Getting home in one piece was a breeze. Not so easy has been the adventure of raising the money to build a new hospital ship. The nose diving economy has impoverished many a humanitarian effort. Charities are experiencing the toughest financial environment in fifty years. People are scared, even rich people. Portfolios worth billions have been transformed into goose eggs overnight. The thrill of philanthropy is a tough sell.
I'm all in with Project Amazonas not because the Indians need help, I could find needy children within a mile or two of my house, homeless high school kids, for instance. I do all I can to invigorate their hopes for a prosperous future as well. But somehow their plight is abstract too, less so perhaps, if only because they attend the same high school Robert Shelley and I graduated from.
I can't imagine what it is to be an Indian with chicken pox and no way to get help. Or a young woman with a sick child, waiting to paddle a canoe into town, dreading the baby will die before the rains come.
Getting home in one piece
was a breeze.
It's none that, but the adventure I'm hooked on:
For half a million dollars, Project Amazonas can buy an old boat, welded of naval steel, finest kind, turn it into a hospital ship and go boldly upon the Amazon, where medical services have never been extended, sort of like the Star Ship Enterprise.
I can't explain why humans feel the need to venture out, forego certitude and the illusion of security. Much less do I pretend to understand the thrill of philanthropy. But I am beginning to feel it.
Forty-six thousand in cash is all we need to start, buy the steel shell of a river cruiser, documented: "The Amazon Explorer."
Even now, for a couple of hundred bucks a day, you can sail with the crew of Project Amazonas; the boat might be leaky and might not sink. You will eat like a king, possibly sleep like a baby, maybe save a life, even risk yours, there's always the chance of being mortally seduced by a pink dolphin.
Returning downriver, through the maze of the Nanay tributaries, Jonathan, Mike and I camped in San Antonio, a thatched roof village with even a satellite dish, and one tv.
Mike and I drank sugar cane liquor and talked late into the night, of women and art and the near science of out-maneuvering the dragons of ordinary life.
All you needed was joy and a peanut butter sandwich, we decided, or something like that.
The next morning, I wandered out of the village, across a footbridge stretching through a swamp.
The bridge was longer than a football field, covered with a tin roof. You would have thought, that at the other end, you would find something important, substantial, some structure, shrine or temple that meant something to the Indians.
There was only the jungle.
I followed a path that soon divided into narrow trails leading into the forest. Human thoroughfares, three or four inches wide, disappeared into the gloom and mystery of a world I had yet to truly enter.
I found myself staring at a column of red ants moving across the wide path, just inches from the toe of my boot. The ants took no notice of me, marching in single file, quickly, inexorably, across the open ground.
The jungle loomed on all sides. There was no sound, but something, not quite audible, that might have been breathing.
The early morning ground fog had dissipated. The air was cool. I imagined following a four-inch trail. Where would it lead? How far could I wander before prudence, or fear, turned me around . . .
I decided not to take the first step.
I would save the jungle for next time.
I was sure the time would come.
I would slay the dragons of ordinary life and venture back to the Amazon.