Fidel was about as ordinary of a guy as you’d expect to find in any tourism agency. When I stumbled into his shop, it was just a stop I was making amongst other inquiries into jungle adventures. Despite a price quote above the others, I ended up choosing his business because his company had access to a deeper part of the jungle reserve than the others did. The reason he had this access, I came to learn, is because Fidel was born in the jungle in one of its many indigenous communities.
Allow me to take a step back. There is a lot of jungle in South America, but in Peru, one of the best ways to jungle is by visiting Manu National Park, a reserve that the government has set aside as a pristine, sacred space that will not be touched. Here is the park: http://www.rundomundo.com/img/puerto_maldonado/manu/manu_map.jpg). The orange is the cultural zone (tourist-accessible part), the yellow is a place reserved for biological expeditions that require at least a week and a hefty price tag, and the rest is forbidden to everyone. When I say forbidden, I mean that entering this area subjects you to the mercies of the many indigenous tribes who run around speaking in unknown tongues, brandishing their bare feet and blow-darts, having isolated themselves from modern society in the interest of preserving their culture. When I say mercy, I mean that they are legally allowed to kill you without fear of repercussion, whereas you can receive jail time for attempting to photograph or interact with them. These groups are protected by the government in a way visitors are not in the interest of discouraging inter-group mingling. Yet of these indigenous communities, some have chosen to open themselves up to modern society. Fidel was born in a native community that now resides in the cultural (tourist) zone.
In his teenage years, Fidel would leave his community with a machete and a fishing line and venture off into the wildness to live for a week or two by himself. And as we stepped into his element, the mild-mannered guy I met at the tourist agency disappeared and he became something else. Walking single-file in silence through the paths that he was carving with his machete, we followed faithfully behind as he taught as about all the local plants and their uses: this one is good for indigestion, this one for arthritis, this one for impotency (and is shaped like a penis); these you can eat when they’re green, and these one’s look like tangerines, but they’re poisonous; if you dig in these spots you can find worms for fishing, and if you open up one of these nests, you can find termites, which are a good source of protein and taste like menthol (verified by yours truly). And then we’d stop because he’d hear a rustle and spin around and spot a camouflaged gecko-thing a dozen meters away that I wouldn’t have seen if it was this hiding on this computer screen, or a bird lurking in the canopy, or because he could “smell a snake coming” (apparently these have the odor of blood). The guy was another species. His senses were so much sharper than I was it was like I was wandering through the jungle deaf, blind, and wearing three pairs of mittens.
On our second day, we reached one of the local “modernized” communities and took a boat down a river three hours deeper into the jungle. This was awesome: beautiful weather, water, and scenery. Along the way, there were all sorts of animals to take pictures of. Pokemon Snap prepared me very well for this: you’d throw an apple into a bush, out would run a wild pig, and you’d have two seconds before the photo-op was gone. And eventually the wilderness reached a new level of wild, and this was like, jungle-jungle. Hot and humid are two words that come to mind. We disembarked and walked to a spot where Fidel and his family had cleared out a small area and built an enclosed area for cooking and sleeping, etc. Even deeper in the jungle was a tree-house that they had constructed, and between these two places we would spend our second and third nights camping and exploring.
In in the jungle, everything is wilder: the animals, the bugs, and especially the vegetation. From the ground to several hundred feet above, every single cubic centimeter of space has been claimed by life. The soil (filled with bugs) is embedded with roots of bushes and trees, and up the trees run other trees that are battling to claim the most nutrients from the soil or sucking the life out of the other (these are called strangler trees), and from the canopies hang vines and homes of birds, wasps, and monkeys. And when you look closer, you see that along the giant leaves of these bushes, mushrooms and fungi are making their homes, and in a single file line that spans from the ground up the vine to the canopy run a colony of ants carrying pieces of leaves from a special bush a hundred feet away. And through this all, puny man tries struggles to carve walk-able paths through the vegetation, which get overgrown in months if they fall out of maintenance. Okay. Nature: you win. We give up.
Yet larger animals are very hard to find. The little guys aren’t threatened by the humans stumbling along, but the survival strategy for the bigger guys is not to be seen. We came across a lot of fresh tracks, including some made by jaguars and pumas, but never met any. There were plenty of monkeys, however, and before heading out on the river, we stopped at an animal preserve where there were some of the cutest guys ever. The streams that cut through the trees are filled with fish, and Fidel showed us how to use thread, a hook, and worms. After squatting in the mud for a few hours we had all caught a few, and it was great.
The second night, after Fidel taught us how to make a shelter out of bamboo, a tarp, banana leaves, and vines, we settled into our sleeping bags and covered ourselves under mosquito nets. The day had been tough: despite my attempts to fend off a never-ending swarm of winged-assailants with a constant mist of 40% Deet, I was losing. But that night, I was the lucky recipient of a net with a hole in it. I lay helpless under an onslaught of bugs I couldn’t see as they feasted on my virgin, gringo flesh. The choice was claw frantically at my skin or seek shelter under the sleeping bag, put on clothes, and melt. Eventually I opted for the latter, putting on a long sleeve shirt and covering all of my face but my mouth with a jacket. And for the next 8 or so hours, I struggled to keep my sanity as I waited with desperate patience for dawn to come. It was the worst night of attempted sleep of my life. When the sun arose mercifully, I was shaken and residing on a whole new planet of scratchy. But I had survived.
The third night, we went on a walk through the jungle. The full moon was just big and bright enough to spill through the canopy, but not enough to light our way. At night, the place is transformed: everything is masked in a thick darkness that hides amongst the vegetation, and the sounds of the day have been replaced by the calls of the nocturnal species. When we got to the tree-house, Fidel told us the following story:
When he was fifteen, he took his machete, his fishing line, and ventured into the heart of the wild, like many times before. After a few days, he was feeling confident and ventured a bit further than normal, and when night fell, he climbed up a vine and into a tree to make himself a bed. Before he had settled in, however, a group of indigenous savages made their way into his view and made their camp directly beneath his tree. Of all the animals in the jungle, it is the savages that scared him the most: unlike the animals, they aren’t predictable, speak in tongue of their own, and tend to hunt man. So as Fidel lay motionless in the tree, knowing if he moved he’d catch the sharpened senses of the savages and probably be killed, he watched as they built a fire and then from a ceremonial bag gorged themselves on uncooked meat. There he stayed, motionless, listening to their babies cry, somehow the merciful sun rose and scattered them from that spot, and he slunk back towards his home, weary of adventure.
Fucking jungle, eh?