Destiny Vs. Wild – Las Amazonas

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The damp humid air and musky leafy scents coated with smells of sunscreen and mosquito repellent, constant chatter of animals and birds surrounding you from all directions, the sounds changing from day into night, trees bend and sway as animals scurry through them, always moving with speed and shying away from human presence. Wooden oars scraping against the hollowed out canoe, the swirl of water gushing beside it, big black wellington boots squishing through muddy tracks, always alert, always checking your surroundings high and low. A game of hide and seek as you search for creatures camouflaged in their natural environment. Flash lights, mosquito nets, hundreds of bites.. unexpected visitors in the night.. croc spotting by flash light, nocturnal hikes through the jungle, eating fruits off the trees, fluttering blue butterflies larger than the palm of your hand, making animal traps out of shrub, toucans flying off as you approach them, playful monkeys swinging through tree branches, pink dolphins shying away, sloths curled up high in the canopies..

It is really difficult to capture the Amazon in words and photos. They don’t come close to serving justice to the breath and depth of the experience, from the smallest intricacies to the gargantuan scale of magnificence, you’re constantly pulled between the mirco and macro worlds .. but here’s a glimpse of my experience.

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We travelled on a tedious, bumpy, humid 3 hours bus ride through the Amazon Jungle. Pulled up 3 times by machine-gun bearing Ecuadorian soldiers as we crossed deeper into the jungle. They were checking for drugs as we were close to the Ecuadorian/Colombian border, and asked us to step out the bus with our documents as they rummaged through our bags.

Eventually arriving at the river in the afternoon, a long canoe was awaiting us. They packed in our bags, water, and food supplies, then we boarded the rocky vessel, sitting in single file behind eachother. The boat chugged along.

The breeze generated from the boat’s speed helped to cool me down from the humidity. The river stood wide with the jungle bordering the river banks with luscious tangled mazes of greenery, bursting up to great heights. Over 95% of the Amazon jungle canopies are undiscovered, observing the scale and density from the outskirts I could understand why.

We made a few stops along the way, waved down by locals standing on the river banks. Here we made postal deliveries and exchanged empty gas canisters for full ones. These Amazonian villages ran in isolation. Their only contact for modern day supplies was this boat. The rest was catered for by the jungle and traditional practices.

Birds sounded constantly, the noise loud and echoing. There was rummaging in the trees and a constant sense of peering eyes staring out from the the camouflaged vantage points. We past locals on rafts made of tied logs, transporting piping, and a couple big mining ships that upset me stealing from the intimacy and rawness of the experience.

After some time the river forked and narrowed. Suddenly feeling closed-in and connected, I was no longer spectating from a distance. My thoughts drifted with the boat and I gazed out taking it all in. After 2 hours we turned into a hidden cove, docked at a small wooden jetty. Here we were welcomed into our new homes, huts which stood on timber boardwalks a few meter above the dense jungle growth beneath.

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After settling in we had time to relax. “Jump in! Cool off!” The hosts suggested, speaking in Spanish. We were guided to the far end of our jungle home, on the opposite side from where we had boarded. “Care for a life jacket?” one asked..”No, I’m fine I can swim” I replied, excited to strip down into my swimmers and cool off from the long journey.

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I jumped in! They threw me a life jacket anyway which I didn’t bother to put on. The river current lazily took me down stream. “Amazing! I’m swimming in the Amazon River!!” I thought, feeling on top of the world as I floated on my back observing the canopies. Breathtaking. The current eventually guided me down to the jetty where we had boarded earlier. I climbed up and jumped off the jetty a few times, enjoying the experience as the day slowly shifted into twilight.

Eventually I got out. Feeling refreshed I relaxed in a hammock, then joined the group in the main area for dinner. “You’re brave to have jumped in without a life jacket” one guide exclaimed, “with the electric eels and all.” … Eeek!, I was stunned! …though thankfully only figuratively. “Thanks for the heads up!” I thought.

That night we split into groups and were assigned guides. I spoke little Spanish but opted to go with the native Spanish speakers as I enjoyed learning through immersion and my Mexican travel friend, Brenda, who’d I’d met in Colombia could act as a translator when needed . As we were keen to explore our habitat with our guide we put our hands up for a nocturnal walk. Each holding torches we trekked in file form through the dense jungle, our guide paving the way with her machete. Keeping quite so as not to scare the animals, we explored the nocturnal wild life, spiders, bugs, owls, monkeys, and other strange Amazonian critters with their unique shapes and colours. The jungle was alive at night with an entirely different sound and eeriness. With adrenaline pumping, we kept close to one another as we explored.

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After, we returned to our huts and were invited to sit on the wooden jetty. Our guide, Rita, hushed us, then reached into a plastic bucket and threw chicken meat into the waters. Plonk! …there was silence. We huddled in close as she scanned the waters with her flash light, stillness.. blackness.. as my sight adjusted to the darkness. Then, a glisten, as light reflected back off of two beady eyes..  and suddenly I realised those logs floating gently down stream, weren’t logs.. they were crocs honing in closer to us.. little by little, with barely a ripple they floated in silence. SPLASH! In a fast sporadic movement one lashed out, attacked, and devoured the meat all in a single swoop. Then silence once more.

A thousand thoughts raced in my mind as my heart raced and a childlike exhilaration swept over me. I dug my nails into my friend Brenda as we clung tightly to one another as though we were teenagers watching a horror film. “OMG I was swimming in that water earlier!.. OMG those crocs are pretty freaking close!!… OMG these guides aren’t really across the whole safety of your customer.. EEK!” Outwardly I stood still, silent, much like the crocs, evading attention of my presence. ..It was enlivening!

The next day we paddled out in a wooden canoe, stopping across the opposite bank to our huts where a friendly local, howler monkey, Liana, climbed out across the overhanging branches which bowed down over our canoe, allowing him to land and walk across greeting us. (yes, for some strange reason Liana was a he).

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Hesitant to encourage contact with the monkey, remembering what my travel doctor had said about contracting rabies from monkey bites, I ignored his presence (well, pretended to) and thought.. “yeah you’re cute monkey, but don’t even think about coming near me.” Which of course in monkey talk actually translated to “Hey out of the 5 people on this canoe, pick me! Come sit all day curled up on my lap, wrap your tail around my wrist and your paws around my fingers and make yourself at home” .. and well, after his decision was made how was I to resist.. I didn’t want to annoy Liana and end up with a bite, and yeah.. he was kind of cute.

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The next few days saw him repeating this routine of resting on my lap for our travels, even in the rains he actually climbed up into my raincoat and peered out from the dry safety and warmth of it. I saw him looking out, observing the trees, his eyes darting with the sounds of the birds and the calls of the howler monkeys in the canopies. I wondered what he was thinking.. He was content just sitting put and even grabbed the wooden sticks we used as fishing rods as we fished for piranha.

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The wooden canoe swayed with the river waves as we sat there with our rods close to the river bank which was less than a meter away. I turned my sights from the water to the bank and realised in that moment I was staring straight at a burrow.. I turned to my guide and said “ahh.. umm.. excuse me if I’m wrong, but I kinda spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory in Australia.. and I’m pretty sure that’s a croc den.”.. “yeah, probably” said Rita, completely un-phased. ..I sat their helplessly, ..truly pondering my choice of guide as I watched my piece of meat dangling from my fishing line meters beside this croc den.

“Oh look!” Rita mumbled something in Cechua, the indigenous language here. She pointed at the tree branches hanging 10 meters ahead.. I didnt understand what she was saying but I saw it… a giant red boa constrictor slithering across the branch and dangling down over the water… Rita paddled closer… “errrr, umm thats ok!! I see it!! Lets keep a distance shall we”

.. there was no point in talking between our broken tongues of Spanish.

She pulled up by the branch but the snake had disappeared.. “oh well” she exclaimed as she anchored there, continuing to fish for piranha. At this stage I definitely was not looking out to the water, nor getting my “Yay, I’m in the Amazon” on.. My eyes scanned the branches overhead.”

“Come here little monkey.. if a snake attacks I’m using you as my shield!!”

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After a short time of heart racing cursing inside my head for not learning Spanish before arriving to South America and not being more thorough with my Amazon travel selection.. Rita decided it was time and paddled on.

“Dios Mio… Muchas Gracias.”

As she paddled, Rita pointed to the canopies pointing out birds, monkeys, and apparently a sloth which no one saw but her. “If you can’t see it thats your fault!” she frustratedly exclaimed and paddled on quickly instead of trying to clearly point it out.

…Yeeeah, I’m pretty sure she was making this up in hope to claim to have shown us all Amazon creatures during this tour.

Aside from that she was good, an indigenous lady from the area who invited us to her sisters home where we learnt to make yucca bread (a potato that grows there), and picked fresh juicy mangos off the trees, drank coconuts she chopped up with a machete, and sucked on sugar cane she pulled from the jungle.

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We walked through areas where we licked ants that tasted like lemon drops and she encouraged us to try a thick white juicy maggot looking creature that I respectful declined. She pointed out tiny frogs the size of a finger nail, and plants for healing, and showed us how to build traps, pointing to protected animals we’d spot along the way ..expressing how tasty they were. :/

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We then boarded the canoe and she paddled us along once more.

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We stopped in a narrow section of river where we saw pink dolphins 200m ahead. They weren’t playful or jumping like the grey ones I was used to. In fact they were very shy, barely peaking up on the surface for air. Rita suggested we swim out to them. YAY! I was keen!!.. I’d wear a life jacket this time.. and try not to think about piranha and crocs.

I jumped in and looked back at the boat.. everyone else was sitting and staring at me hesitantly.. “err was this a sign of sensibility, or did they just lack the spirit of adventure?”.. I looked towards the dolphins.. “this could be my only chance!” I decided to ask Rita to come in too. She said she would and proceeded to strip into her underwear. “Ok if she was coming this has got to be safe” I thought. The others on the canoe grew more confident and stripped into swimmers, jumping into the water too. “Great! We have numbers.” I thought. “Don’t touch the bottom of the water…” Rita warned us all in Spanish. I didn’t quite catch it all. Brenda translated from the boat, “Don’t touch the bottom because there are sting rays hidden in the sand.” “Argh!.. why did this info always have to come out AFTER I put myself in these positions!!!… fine,.. breathe.. be brave, your in the Amazon river, yay!.. enjoy.”  :/

 I proceeded to swim to the dolphins cautiously, assured by Rita’s presence. I looked back to her, only to find she had just climbed back into the boat and so did the others after her lead… “Go ahead” she smiled.. “ARGH!, is she for real! Why wont she come out and now no one else is. Here here I am, swimming bait.” I freaked out at the overwhelming thoughts of all that could potentially be lurking below me and swam full pelt back to the canoe. “Sorry pink dolphins I’ll have to observe from afar.”

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We pulled up beside a water based plant and picked the nuts that grew from it. Rita explained that she would use this juice to make henna tattoos for us later that night. As she paddled us back home she went quite and stopped for a moment, looking around, again muttering something in Cechua. She looked at us smiling she asked us all to paddle with her. Everyone merrily joined in. …Except for me. I’d cottoned on to this Amazonian’s cunning facial expressions, and instead paddled with great urgency and concern and what spurred her request for this merry group activity.

Later that night we went to sit for supper, to hear that one of the groups that went out on a day excursion hadn’t arrived back. The guides tried searching for them and after 2 hours they eventually made it to camp. Their guide had gotten lost… Reassuring. The group arrived very frustrated by their experience but happy to dig into some food.

We sat there exchanging stories of what we had seen and done, comparing the number of mosquito bites we all had, and were visited by a few large toads that jumped onto a few guests. The some went to fish for trout off the wooden jetty.. an activity I was deterred from participating in after the previous night’s croc feeding, and my fading assurance of our safety.

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Instead I sat with Rita as she painted our henna and chatted.

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She laughed and said in Spanish “Today when I asked you guys to paddle, I thought I felt an anaconda knock our boat from underneath and was scared it would tip us out” she smiled. I gritted my teeth smiling back “heh”.. ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!.. What on earth was I doing jumping into that water EVER!

As of that night this little Austral-inga (aka not an american Gringa) had learnt a valuable lesson- These guides had no first aide training and didn’t really understand our safety concerns, and really why should they? See for them it’s all common sense. No biggy! They grew up with this education and know what to be cautious of and how to survive. ..But for us ignorant travellers, unfamiliar with the territory, with no induction on what’s out there.. we put ourselves in huge danger with the blind faith we place in our guides, with no real awareness of what’s going on. And I thought I was a well travelled wanderer, tuned into these needs for cultural awareness and precaution.. especially after growing up in the Australian desert full of some of the world’s deadliest snakes.. But this was a reminder that I still had a lot to learn. I was completely out of my depth in this jungle and river life and I needed to consciously aware of that. As with tourists in outback Australia, it was up to us to look out for ourselves.

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That night I bathed myself in mosquito repellent, starring down the 20cm spider perched on the straw weavings of my hut roof. I was in his territory, and I respected that. I tucked my mosquito net tightly under my mattress, then drifted off to sleep to the symphony sounds of the jungle.

I woke early the next morning, searching for my torch as the sun still stood low. Raising my mosquito net, I stepped out of bed to go to the bathroom when something caught my eye. I blinked, trying to rub the sleepiness from my eyes, starring at the floor a metre in front of me, beside the bed I could have chosen to rest in.

A big frog hopped towards me. HUH? Still trying to compute what was going on, I watched.  ..What was that attached? It jumped once more…and I realised clinging to its stomach, with its jaws clenched tight, was a black cobra, moving with each of the frog’s jumps, refusing to relinquish its hold.. OMG! The frog looked at me, its eyes staring with bright psychedelic patterns of green and blue.. . Then it stood still.. OMG!!! I softly, calmly, called out to Brenda who was asleep in a bed beside me, “Umm, amiga… Buenos dias… ehhh.. stay in your bed.. there’s a serpiente attached to a rana. I nearly stepped on it..ewww!! I would have stepped on it if I chose the spare bed!! And if it wasn’t for the frog! ..Basically that frog just saved my life. “Ummm what do we do?” The cobra stood their still clasping, blocking our access to the entrance, as it tried to down this frog 6 times its size! We immediately stood up on our beds, under the mosquito netting. I climbed over to hers as we calmly called out to the people in the hut next door to get the guide.. trying not to make too much noise as to encourage the cobra to detach from the frog and attack us! A guide came out, woken from his sleep, he burst through the door in his tighty whities like some sort of Amazonian super hero, except he was actually wearing tighty greenies that nestled below his beer belly. Regardless, mostly naked, in a heroic swoop he picked up the cobra by the head and detached its jaw from the frog, which he kindly left there on our entrance floor, dead, its eyes completely blitzed out on the poisonous high. Our Amazonian hero then took the snake out a few hundred meters from our cabins and released it into the wild.. EEEKKK!!! This place could really do with a clear and concise induction process on the millions of ways you could possibly DIE!

But hey, it’s all an adventure right, ..till someone loses an eye, ..or is poisoned by a deadly venomous snake, ..bitten by rabies infested monkeys ..stung by electric eels ..or sting rays, ..capsized and asphyxiated by giant anacondas ..eaten by piranha, ..or crocs whilst fishing for piranha!  :p

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After a week in the Amazon I certainly got a taste of the truly wild. It was a magnificent, crazy, ridiculously dangerous experience.. but absolutely awe-inspiring and filled with great insights and lessons. Much recommended.. just travel safely.

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