The first time I went to the Amazon, I was afraid to set foot in the jungle. Mainly I felt the absence of a pistol to carry. I didn’t realize that most of the danger for humans in the Amazon is microscopic, and not a whole lot of that, but enough that a good jungle guide, if you trust one, keeps you feeling more courageous than a pistol.
Then you have the snakes, spiders, man-eating fish, all that to invigorate your imagination. But all you have to do is follow the jungle guide, step here, not there, count your fingers and toes at both ends of the journey.
I met Cesar Peña in the city, in downtown Iquitos, Peru, which like the jungle, looks dangerous due the urban zoo-like atmosphere of a town that is mostly populated with people who are not far removed, only several generations advanced, from the Stone Age.
Cesar was riding a motorcycle, a dirt bike jacked up on the front end. He wore blue jeans and a golf shirt, the uniform of college fraternity boys. His bearing was that of a college student. By that I mean he bore the posture of entitlement. His confidence had authority behind it. He knew something about himself, and the environment he moved in, that would lead a stranger to ask questions.
Jonathan Shanin, the founder of AidJoy, was then a newcomer to the Amazon, as I was. Cesar had been assigned to interpret for Jonathan. We were headed out with Project Amazonas on a medical expedition up the Mazán River, planning to travel by boat some two hundred river miles out of Iquitos, into territory where I then imagined we might encounter head hunters.
When the opportunity came, I asked Cesar where I could get hold of a firearm. His English was not perfect. He missed some verb tenses and didn’t have all the syntax memorized, but aside from that, you could tell that he was thinking in English, and that nothing you asked, or that he said, had to be translated mentally. He told me I could probably buy a shotgun without much trouble. I gathered from what he said, it would likely be a worn out double barrel antique that some hunter had carried till he was scared to shoot it, and ammunition was hard come by.
In the end, I went up the river unarmed, or thought I was. I was not sure what Cesar’s job was on the expedition. Riding the boat for days on end, up a narrow tributary of the Amazon, most of the crew worked non-stop, feeding and seeing to the comfort of the medical team and volunteers. Cesar seemed to have few duties, almost nothing to do with the ship’s routine. He parked in a plastic chair under the wheel house and had his nose in a book most of the time.
He was reading a Peterson’s Guide particular to amphibians and reptiles in the rainforest, written in English. Finally I asked Devon Graham, the expedition leader, what Cesar was hired to do besides study the Latin names of lizards.
Cesar, he said, was the jungle guide, which surprised me, for he had seemed much at home in the city, urbanized as though from birth. He turned out to be the son of a Yagua tribal shaman, grown up in the bush. He was more at home out there, behind the wall of the jungle that rose either side of the Mazán River.
Now I grew up on boats. I was content to walk the deck as the crew moved the ship. I knew where to lend a hand. I was not baggage. The boat made a level field of experience for me to draw on in connecting with the baggage handlers.
Cesar was different. As the days went by, traveling farther from the city, he seemed more isolated in his manner. He always had a book in his hand. That alone separated him from the rest of the crew. He had the bearing of young captain riding on another man’s boat, responsible to observe and offer no opinion. He was quiet, always reading from the Peterson’s Guide, unless Jonathan needed him to interpret.
They were working together, doing interviews with indigenous people, compiling basic research that Jonathan would use in launching AidJoy, which at that time did not have name, but was only a concept still in liquid form. Jonathan and Cesar were thick in the business of hunting and gathering information.
We were looking for sick people. Ironically, instead of head hunters, we found hordes of children with anxious mothers, the young needing immunization and vitamins, the mothers and men needing dental work, pain relief, and antibiotics to counter infections.
There was no time on the medical expedition for trekking in the jungle. Cesar assisted Jonathan in filming and recording interviews with willing, and some not so willing, tribal people, who aside from a few steel tools and monofilament fishing line, were indeed still living in the Stone Age, hunting and gathering as the hunger of the day dictated.
They lived in thatched roof structures without walls, or much of any place soft sit down. They slept in hammocks, and much of the day, they lazed from one small job to another, washing clothes, bathing babies, cooking on open fires. The men, and children too, went fishing for the meat they would eat that day. There were fruits and vegetables to gather from the forest and meager gardens they tended that had been hard won with machetes and single-bitted axes from the overwhelming forest.
It was another year before I went into the jungle with Cesar, and it was just me and him a long way form the city. His method of watching over me was that of a parent letting a child discover new terrain. He waited for me as I would pause on the trail, gazing at something in the air, a blue butterfly, a humming bird four times the size of any humming bird I ever saw.
And then I would see something crawling and point to it. Likely Cesar would have it on file in the cabinets in memory from childhood, and if it wasn’t there, he would check the mental pages of a Peterson’s Guide, and struggle to pronounce the Latin name.
We were unarmed, Cesar rarely carried a machete, or any kind of knife. He went free handed like a hunter on an off day, when the object is to find how the game is moving, see what tracks were here today that hadn’t been the last time he walked this section of trail.
I had spent some time in the woods of North America, but nothing back there resembled the Amazon forest. The feeling in the jungle was that everything was created yesterday, exploded out of the ground all at once, and all looked the same to an eye unfamiliar.
At first I only saw the generalities, the color green and the tangle of it. It took a while for the curtain to rise.
The company of an experienced guide actually retarded the opening up of my senses. Everything was too strange and otherworldly. My internal mechanism was striving to shut out so much of the unknown.
The more time I spent in the forest, the more mesmerizing the small things were. Colors, other than green, flowers hidden, insects crawling as tiny rainbows out from under one dead leaf and under the next in a fleeting moment of maximum exposure to everything natural to swallow it.
Being in the jungle was like being underwater in the ocean, where the food chain includes you, and you are not at the top, but only somewhere near the top, a competitor like all the rest. You see and hear and smell and feel like one of the boys, just another player in the contest. Only it ain’t a game regardless of how casual Cesar made the outings seem.
Once in a place called Sabalillo, where the topography was oddly steep, of a mountainous quality almost, Cesar was head of me, where he always walked, me keeping two or three paces behind, when under the foot I was about to let down, there was movement. Cesar had stepped over it and not seen it, plain as a snake.
I recoiled and stood still, watching it slither away as Cesar turned, and I pointed at it. His casual manner disappeared. The snake likewise, a ribbon of green, black and yellowish stripes ebbed down a hole.
It was a Corral snake, Cesar said, very rare. I thought Corral snakes were red, but not these. I asked if they were as poisonous. Lethal, he said, and we looked at each other, with the tension gone out of air, and laughed at ourselves. Cesar was a little embarrassed that he had missed seeing it. I had nearly stepped on it. He told me if you were bitten, you would have about twenty minutes to get your affairs in order, and find a good place to go brain dead before you died.
And then he squatted down and looked into the hole where the snake had gone. He reached the mouth of the hole and lifted a drooping leaf. What was he doing that for?
The boat handler, river guide, who had delivered us to Sabalillo, was waiting back at the head of the trail. Cesar called out to him in some excitement, shouting in Spanish to Edwin, who was also the designated snake handler. According to Cesar, Edwin had only seen a green corral snake once, and years ago; he would surely want to capture this one if he could. I vetoed that.
Cesar wondered if I would go on up the trail behind him, or turn around now, with snakes in
my head. I was under surveillance. Capturing the snake did not interest me, neither did losing respect. So up the trail I followed Cesar, much as before, though I found myself feeling protective toward him too, returning the service, I kept better watch.
Later Edwin did capture the snake. I was not there to see it. He and Cesar left me by the boat, with a picnic lunch, saying they were going for a walk.
About an hour went by. Then Edwin and Cesar came out of the jungle.
Edwin carried a short length of P.V.C. pipe in one hand. Both ends were capped with pieces of cloth tied around the pipe. Inside was the snake.
He took it out and played with it, holding it by the tail, swinging it for the camera as Cesar took pictures. Cesar waved his hand near enough the snake’s head that it stretched open its mouth to strike.
After the photo opportunity, Edwin let the snake go free. I watched it slither under the dead leaves, and then the jungle was clear to me, the curtain drawn back, and I was wide awake.
Cesar and Edwin brought me back to Iquitos. I left them there at the edge of the jungle. I came home to South Carolina, and the next thing I heard of Cesar, he had been injured in a traffic accident in the city. He was crippled in his hand. I thought of him waving the same hand in front of the snake, it wanting to strike.
I thought of Cesar reading the Peterson’s Guide, and the time he stopped me from grabbing the trunk of a spiny palm tree. The spines were sharp as porcupine quills. They caused bad infection if one broke off in your finger, and wasn’t taken out immediately.
I thought of him in blue jeans and a golf shirt riding his motorcycle. And then I remembered Cesar in tall rubber boots and old clothes, walking in the jungle just ahead of me, casual and loose moving, a hunter, and gatherer of knowledge from books, the brightest man in the bush.
Jonathan called and told me about the accident. Said Cesar needed money to have an operation and physical therapy to get his hand back.
Knowing how things are down there, if money doesn’t get to him, his hand will go to waste. What a loss it would be if Cesar were kept out of the jungle, relegated to the city doing one-handed jobs for the rest of his life.