Our little boat moored one hour upriver from Leticia. The opposite bank of the river is Peru, and that’s where we climbed ashore. From the boat, we had to climb a muddy series of ladders to get up the bank. Alain (the Goblin) told us this was because the river, in its eternal ebbs and flows, was currently eroding this bank and depositing the silt on the other side; one collapses, the other widens into a new sandbar. With heavy rains recently, each day new great chunks of the bank were crumbling into the river, taking with them entire trees, and eventually, people’s homes.
Standing at the top of the bank, 10 metres above the river, Alain welcomed us to our abode for the next three days. An area of jungle about a hundred metres square had been cleared, and in the centre of it was a wooden hut on stilts. The hut was mostly open to the elements – it had a roof but no walls around the central dining area, where there were two long wooden tables. There were hammocks slung across an open section of the platform, and at the back were three dormitories (which thankfully had walls) with bunkbeds.
There was no mobile reception, and Alain told us that the power was only switched on from 6pm until 8am, so we could charge anything we needed overnight. I’d told my family I was going into the jungle, but hadn’t thought about the fact I might not be able to contact them after. With a wince, I imagined my mum seeing my ‘Last Online Three Days Ago’ on Whatsapp. Crap.
After a short rest, it was time for our first jungle excursion. Alain told us to wear long trousers and long sleeves, and of course, our wellies. I’d been loathe to purchase new clothes for such a short trip, so I made do with what I had. Unfortunately, what I had was ridiculous. I emerged from the dorm and the younger Israeli (I’ve forgotten all their names, sorry guys) looked at me and smiled.
“You’re dressed for a party, no?”
Well, yes. All I had that was even vaguely suitable was a pair of skinny black jeans and a green denim shirt. With my wellies on I looked like Kate Moss at Glastonbury.
Armed with a machete he’d slung in a scabbard across his back, Alain rallied us and marched us off into the jungle – into that great solid wall of dripping leaves and chirping bugs. We’d only walked 20 metres in, all chatting excitedly, when he stopped us.
“Amigos, many of the animals in the jungle that we might see will run away if they hear us talking. So we have to be quiet, okay?”
We nodded, feeling guilty.
“Okay. So now, for the forest, there are some rules you have to follow. One: don’t touch anything without looking at it first. If you’re going to fall or you lose your balance, don’t just grab something to hold onto. Many trees in the forest have big spines, and you can hurt yourself.”
To demonstrate this, he walked us to a nearby tree. The trunk of the thing was covered in dense wooden spikes, one inch long and sturdy. If you tripped and fell face-first into that, you’d lose your whole face.
“When the colonisers came here, they used to tie local people to these trees,” said Alain. “They would tie a few of them around the trunk, and if any one of them tried to pull and escape, all the others would be pressed onto the spikes. Very, very horrible. And when they eventually got tired of standing and collapsed, it would take the skin of their body and they would bleed to death. Horrible.”
I exhaled, appalled but not remotely surprised.
“Another thing about this tree,” said Alain, tapping the spiny trunk, “is that the sap is very dangerous. It burns you if you touch it. If you try to cut this tree down and you get it in your eyes, it blinds you. If you get any in your mouth and swallow it, you die.
“Now, rule two: if you see any insects or a snake, don’t pick them up. If you want to touch something, ask me first and I’ll tell you if it’s okay.”
I initially thought this rule seemed very patronising and unnecessary, however over the next three days I would witness the Israeli boys pick up almost every insect they came across without a word.
“Number three: if anyone gets left behind, we wait for them. If you’re falling behind and can’t keep up, shout. We don’t want anybody getting lost in here.
“And rule four: don’t go off the path. Even just a few metres, don’t do it. Okay amigos? Don’t leave the trail.”
With the rules explained, we trudged into the jungle. I say trudged not because I was tired – although I probably was; I’m always tired – but because the ground was thick mud. It was the sort of mud you see in war films, that tries to suck the boots off your feet and makes you wobble like an inflatable tube man in a car dealership. We wobbled a lot, all of us cursing except Alain, who walked slowly and steadily without a care in the world. Many times I went to steady myself against a branch and thought better of it, looking at the last second to see spiny needles the length of your whole hand sticking out at every angle.
Alain turned at one point and saw me holding a branch that I’d deemed safe. My hand had clasped it for all of two seconds when our guide saw me.
“Don’t touch that branch,” said Alain. “Fire ants.”
“What are fire-OW!”
I now know what fire ants are.
I’ve been in a lot of dangerous human environments. Everyone has, at some point or other. The wrong side of the tracks, a dodgy part of town, a pub where the old men with thick hands and thick necks look at you like they want to throttle you.
However, I’d never before been in a natural environment that so desperately wanted to kill me. Everything in the jungle wants to kill you: the mud tries to trip you up, or else swallow you completely. The trees want to stab you and burn your eyes out. The insects want to burrow into your skin and live there and hatch a lot of babies to eat you from the inside out. There was no doubt in my mind that I would not survive one night alone in there. You couldn’t stand comfortably anywhere, let alone lie down. Something would crawl into your ear while you were asleep and that would be the end of it.
Deeper in the jungle things got very ‘Crash Bandicoot’ all of a sudden: crossing reedy marshes, balancing on floating bamboo logs that looked like anacondas half-submerged. The overweight Israeli guy was immediately in front of me in our procession, and I was annoyed at him because he was very clumsy and he kept falling over and ruining every photo I tried to take. It’s hard to get a cool, dangerous, atmospheric photograph of the world’s most infamous rainforest when there’s a portly man in glasses hurtling through every frame, mouth open in a panicked yelp as he plunges arse-first into yet another beehive.
Alain told us a lot about life in the Amazon, about the people who have lived there for millennia and their deep knowledge of the forest. He knew about every tree, every plant and bug, and he gave us lectures on each of them and what they could be used for. There was one tree that he stopped in front of – a medical fig tree, he called it – and thwacked with his machete. White sap bubbled out.
“This sap, the locals make it into a drink that they take once a month. It protects against parasites, and kills anything that might be in your stomach. You have to fast for two days before, then you take it and it clears you out completely. But of course, we now have access to pills that do this.
“Once, in the forest, there was a French girl who died. Did you hear about her? She got a parasite in her stomach, and she didn’t know, and months after she got back home, it ate through the lining of her stomach and she died. But you don’t have to worry. This is a very rare and strange case.”
Fucking hell Alain.
There were a hundred billion mosquitos in the jungle, but thankfully they never bite me. Maybe they can taste the ADHD in my blood and it’s like drinking a very potent coffee for them – sends them into an anxious tizz.
We had lunch back at the hut, and I spent an hour in the hammocks with Nataly, talking about our lives. She didn’t get along with the Israeli boys, but I liked everyone. The guys just wanted to look at cool bugs and smoke a lot of weed. Conversely I think Nataly and I saw the trip as more of a perilous mission, a chance to be bold explorers and prove our bravery. It’s understandable she didn’t like them: when you’re trying to feel all adventurous, creeping through a deadly forest, you don’t really want a bunch of guys walking alongside you smoking doobies and farting and giggling at millipedes. Spoils the illusion.
After lunch (rice, pasta, chicken, salad), we got back onto the boat and chugged away in search of river dolphins. It took an hour, but we found them: a family of little grey dolphins, only a metre or so in length, cresting the surface of the muddy waters.
“Why do dolphins go to the surface like that?” I asked Alain.
He looked at me with amusement. “To breathe, amigo.”
“Ah yes, right. Of course.”
We searched for pink dolphins, but were unsuccessful. Alain told us they might have migrated to another part of the river because of all the rain.
“The river dolphins don’t like humans. We don’t know why, because we don’t hunt them, but they always stay away from our boats. But the locals here, they don’t like dolphins either. They fear them. Do you know why?”
I said no, scared of guessing wrong and looking like a dipshit again.
“There is a legend. A long time ago, there was a man. A very beautiful man. Blue eyes, blonde hair” – hehey! I thought, I’m hot! – “and tall.” Fuck. “And this man, he had many lovers in the village, and he cheated on them all, and impregnated them. And so he was cursed.
“He was turned into a river dolphin forever, except for one dark night a year, when he becomes a human once again. And he walks on land, and he wears a hat to hide the blowhole on his head. He walks through the forest, and when he meets a girl, he seduces her and impregnates her. And then he returns to the river, as a dolphin.
“And you know what is even more strange? There was one woman I met, years ago, and she told me her sister had given birth to a dolphin. I saw a photo.”
“Do you have the photo?” asked the outdoorsy Israeli.
“Of course not, amigo. The baby didn’t survive.”
I don’t know why, but this story gave me the willies.