Welcome to the Jungle
Iquitos was bustling. The streets were already filled to overflowing when our taxi pushed its way into the traffic stream, next to a motorcycle ridden by a mother and father with their toddler sandwiched between them. A little boy with alert, dark eyes sat on his knees in a carriage, head and shoulders sticking out the back listlessly. The carriage was harnessed to a motorcycle, and like vehicles carried their passengers through the grey streets.
At the end of the Jungle city, we met the water. It was muddy, thicker than any I had seen or been in, with life teeming above and below its impenetrable surface. The houses around the entry point were built on stilts, straight into the water, and balding chickens pecked listlessly about, quick to flee before raised shoes. The people looked at us without curiosity as they shook out their laundry and went about their business.
It was here that I first met Flavio—Master of the Amazon—a charismatic, handsome young man with smooth skin and a brilliant smile, who would be our tour guide while I was in the jungle. He offered his hand, and I stepped into the powered canoe for the first time. It rocked side-to-side as the other passengers boarded, and I gripped the seatback tightly and shrugged into an over-sized lifevest. The motor roared to life, and we slid deep into the river, passing other canoes with Amazonian men bent in tired C’s over their rudders after a long night of checking their nets.
On my side of the river were trees with smooth, light trunks that grew directly in the water. Their branches draped and spread, like skirts of vines into the water. The mirrored surface of the river remained strangely undisturbed by our passing, completing the shapes that dipped below their surface in symmetry otherworldly in perfection—patterns that shifted and twisted in the brown glass as we passed, like a kaleidoscope of perspective.
Little did I know how much of the next three days would be spent exploring the contours and life along this river. My memories of the jungle would all sway like the palm-shaded canoe on the water, and be filled with the sights I saw from her prow and the melodies of strange birds intermingled with Flavio's coaxing whistle that drew them near.
A few days in, Flavio announced that he was taking us to see the pink dolphins, which I thought was a joke. We were halfway there, and he was in the middle of explaining to me yet again, that no, it was not a joke and we really were going to see pink dolphins, when something huge and flesh-colored crossed the path of our canoe. I yelled, and pointed, and he laughed, and motioned to our captain, to kill the motor. We floated a moment, and the dolphin surfaced again, enormous and bright against the brown water, like new skin. When it passed, he grinned at me, and shrugged, and the boat took off again.
A few minutes later, we reached the point where the Momon meets the Amazon, and the colors of the water changed abruptly from dark brown to the lighter clay hue of the greater river—the line where one flowed into the other was as distinct as the line where freshwater flows into the sea.
As I gazed across the expanse of the Amazon, our canoe was surrounded by dolphins on all sides who scared up fish as they wove through the waters—small grey dolphins with sharp dark fins, and the blunt dorsal fins of enormous pink dolphins, who moved more slowly, sunning their sides luxuriously as they rose. They were magical creatures, and unafraid, able to blush with excitment, like you and I.
Flacio whistled, and more surfaced on the sides of our canoe, dancing through the water. As we watched them play, he told us it was widely believed in the jungle, that these pink dolphins became blonde-haired blue-eyed men, who went into the village to exchange large bills for supplies—bills that turned into seaweed at days end. Because of this myth, he said, men from the Netherlands had difficulty getting supplies in the Jungle. These dolphins took the most beautiful women from the village, and then returned, transforming back into their pink forms when they reached the river’s edge.
It was an hour or so, perhaps longer, that I sat at the front of the boat at the meeting of the waters, watching the dolphins bob amidst the canoes that dotted the horizon, as they fished leisurely alongside fishermen who were busily pulling in white tangles of net. I felt an unexpected kinship with these mystical creatures whose existence I’d doubted hours earlier and was lost in the wonder of a world with rivers that held pink dolphins.
But the rains were coming. The water flashed dark—from brown to a slate grey, to black—and Flavio spoke quickly to the Captain. Our canoe sped away, with the dark clouds rolling in just behind us. We were alone in the great passage, the last to flee before the coming storm, and sped twenty minutes before it exhausted of chasing us, and our craft escaped.
I was in this canoe the first time I felt the force of the Amazon rain. It was well over a hundred that day, and the earth was steaming when we returned to the canoe. As the captain navigated us through the inlet, the rains swept in all around us with the force of a monsoon. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as the skies flashed and formed walls of water that pelted through the top and sides of the boat in a sideways fury, pooling at the bottom. We couldn’t see five feet out the canoe, and were helpless, rocking in its wake.
The other two passengers refused ponchos. The dark-haired girl on the bench across tipped her face defiantly towards the rain, eyes pinched shut, laughing as the cooled water ran in streams down her cheeks. And then, as quickly as the storm had come, it was gone, and the waters were placid again. I emerged cautiously from my poncho and saw a group of swimmers in the middle of the river, also waiting out the storm. They adjusted their swim caps, emptied their goggles, and resumed their strokes calmly, down the center of the river.
When the rains returned that night, I laid there in my bed, listening to the drums and songs of the indigenous tribe nearby, as their singing echoed across the jungle. Their voices rose above the sounds of the swirling rain as they welcomed the waters and the life it would bring. It stormed all night and permeated my dreams—I imagined the river climbing up the steep cliffs, and flowing into my room, swirling with piranhas that snapped vengefully at my toes, all to the rhythms of the drums. Yet, in the morning, I woke to find that all was well, and the world was sparkling and saturated with the most vibrant blues and greens I’d ever seen.
And what else to tell? There were baby anacondas at the animal refuge, and spider monkeys rescued from the black market that would jump on your shoulders and pick your pockets. I walked through an enclosure with hundreds of butterflies feeding on plantains, their irridesent blue wings flashing opened and closed—eyes upon eyes. We fished for orange-bellied piranhas with willow sticks and raw chicken, and then held them—jagged-toothed and glaring—in our bare hands. I danced with a jungle tribe, and glided over the river before the dawn to find Tucans and Kingfishers and funny birds with neon yellow wings that built hive-like nests and cackled like witches at a cauldron.
And one night, the skies were clear and full of diamonds—mysterious constellations I hadn’t seen since Africa. There were ten of us in the boat, yet we were reverently quiet as we drifted beneath the cathedral of the heavens, gliding silently into the night. Flavio called, and the songs of the jungle echoed from shoreline to shoreline in response, and night birds sang and flew low above our heads. As we pulled round and round the river, and further into the night, the stars grew so bright that the waters caught up their reflection, and the two heavens were separated only by the dark silhouette of trees.
We whispered instinctively when we had to speak. Speech seemed a hindrance, a breaking into a greater melody. Instead, we settled deeper into ourselves, where there existed a resonance within and without. Finally, we pulled to the center of the river, and the boat stopped.
Flavio sat cross-legged at the prow, completely at ease. When all heads were turned to him, he began quietly. “Friends, we are going to take three to four minutes now in complete silence.” He gestured to the shoreline. “Listen—the song you hear is the Jungle offering her life and energy to you. Listen, and feel it swell within you."
The flashlights clicked off, and we swayed on the water, in the thick dark. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the lights above danced brighter and brighter and the songs around me throbbed—the calls of the birds, insects, and frogs to one another, and animals I would never know the names of, all connected in a beautiful, balanced dance, by breath, by life, by the Universe. We shared a bond, with unfathomable energy surging between, as we were rocked slowly by the river.
Flavio whistled low.
The Jungle answered back.