I Swam the Am(azon)!
Kind of an incredible day…and yet RIGHT NOW I’m trying to figure out why others have three bars on their phones and I have nothing. It’s GOOD for me to be isolated from the digital world; I just wish I’d been EMOTIONALLY PREPARED for the cutting of my internet umbilical.
We were awakened by our wake-up knock (which is really very discrete; they say they wait for a response, but whoever does the knocking is terribly circumspect) and were eating breakfast by 7. (Breakfast is buffet style unless you want a poached or fried egg, or an omelette, which any of the darling waiters will secure for you.
Hang on. Got to move to the other side of the verandah; the sun’s coming in on my side. I take my camu-camu juice and my cassava chips and seek shade—knowing the blissful breeze will come with me.
At breakfast, Alberto stood to review the day with us. “Good morning, everyone, I hope you’re enjoying your—river dolphins! Right there! Look!” And there they were arcing neatly across the still river in the light of the rising sun. I say, Ministry of Tourism: Well done!
(Don't bother squinting; I never got a photo of a river dolphin. Most of the animal photos I'll post here will make you utter contemptuous snorts; how unladylike of you. I just don't have the right camera, and soon stopped trying. You'll have to see it through the words!)
The fact that we were tied to a rock (literally) a few feet away from a petroleum processing plant was less scenic—but Alberto explained that downriver was the Ucayilli River (sometimes I remember the name; whenever I sit down to write, it goes out of my head), upriver was the start of the Ucayilli-Pacara Nature Reserve, which is HUGE. That was our destination.
We took off in our skiffs. (Rusty didn’t make it into ours and when we caught up with the second skiff, he wasn’t there either, so I spent a small amount of time being concerned; did he make the third skiff? Or was he back on the Delfin II, annoyed that no one had made a “now boarding” announcement? He’d been at breakfast, so I knew he was up and had begun The Sunblock Procedure. But I had both our hats (that is, I had both my hats, including the lovely, lightweight Tilley hat that Rusty will grudgingly wear if he’s SURE no one is looking), so if he was on the third skiff, he was roasting his big old cranium.
(Spoiler alert: He was on the third skiff, and immediately jumped ship to join ours. Not, as you might have thought, out of filial love—but instead out of love for Jorge and Eddy (who really ARE wizards). Rusty didn’t remember the name of the guy who was in his skiff and he arrived with a TON of information about what he’d seen, so I’m not sure why he was fussing, but I was delighted to have him with us…as was Jorge, who likes Rusty.)
Eddy and Jorge did NOT disappoint. Their spotting abilities were extra-ordinary. (Not just extraordinary, but EXTRA ordinary.) I began to be able to identify quite a few of the more common birds on sight, and not need to point them out to ask if that was “something.” I’d just smile and think to myself, “brown-collared hawk; very nice.”
It seemed to me that sections of the river had their own dominant birds. The beginning part had black cormorants everywhere—and black cormorants are (I decided) both nervous and somewhat dim. Cormorants are fishing birds. Their wings are NOT waterproof, so they can dive down after fish. As a result, they paddle through the water with their bodies fully submerged. Only their heads on long necks stick up—like submarine periscopes or oh-shit-is-that-a-snake. So when they’re startled by an approaching skiff full of Lindblad passengers, every one wearing a necklace of high-priced binoculars, they start motor-boating with their feet to rise up out of the water. Once the wings are clear, they start flapping, too. For a few yards, the feet are running desperately across the water and the wings are slapping at the surface until some impossible escape velocity is reached and the bird becomes airborne at last.
But once aloft, their instinct is to flee the intruder BY GOING IN THE SAME DIRECTION. So after going through the gargantuan effort to haul it out of the water and into the air, the inky-black birds fly parallel to the boat filled with grinning ape descendants. One imagines the bird is going “Oh, shit—oh, shit—oh, shit!” the whole way. Fellow traveller David said “It’s a pity they never learned to turn right or left.” Up would have done, too—but no. They stay about three feet off the water (about the height of our fascinated eyes) and fly as fast as they can until they wear out. At which point the skiff pulls ahead and the bird finds a landing place.
When we were the first skiff of three through the Pacaya River, the cormorants would freak out. They became an over-excited escort, journeying with us farther into the wild. If we were the third skiff, the birds were so tired from “escaping” the first two boats that they perched on logs and turned their backs, pretending they couldn’t see us as we buzzed past.
The next section of river was ruled by the Amazonian kingfisher. (I don’t actually know if that’s it’s name, and YOU’RE hardly going to look it up, are you?) The kingfisher is now one of the birds I can identify, because it’s extremely attractive. It’s dressed in cadet blue (like midshipmen at the Naval Academy). They have a freshly washed and pressed collar of white, and a black hood, plus a long beak like a sabre. And THEY are not frightened by the likes of YOU…
…but you’re not coming into this territory without being vetted. The kingfisher flies with neat precision parallel to the boat. They’re higher—maybe ten feet over the water for their first observation. Then they swing up and in, arching over the top of the boat at about twenty or thirty feet. This is the shot over the bow; I know you’re there and you know I’m here. Let’s not let this turn into something we’re both going to regret. Then the final pass down the other side of the boat. All right; you don’t seem like a danger I can’t handle. You may proceed.
And this section of river had dozens of them. They are, perhaps, my favorite bird.
Not the most exotic, though. That would go to what we all thought Jorge was calling “Watson’s bird,” until he brought his bird book around on his phone; the actual name was something like Houatzim’s bird. It was sort of a goth peacock. Huge gaudy crest on its head, body pieced together of different colors and patterns, and a tail that showed a startlingly cream hem on a field of cinnamon when in flight. They group together, these show-offs, and they don’t fly very well…but they sure look good.
We stopped at a ranger station which featured latrines. I didn’t require a pitstop and was waiting in the skiff with Rusty and Eddy. We were telling Eddy that we were hoping to see an anaconda and river otters. He nodded casually. Sure. Then we heard the shout. Anaconda! Anaconda under the ranger station!
That Eddy is GOOD! The kid and I were off like a shot. The snake was peaceful and only distantly interested in us. It was maybe four feet long (I couldn’t see the whole thing) and a beautiful olive green with a black pattern. I shuddered in delight. Ew—snakes. The rangers told us they’d seen Mama a few days before—she was four or five meters long (which I take to mean ten to twelve feet—and I think that’s an underestimate, mathematically). Twig and I looked nervously at the rafters of the stilt house we were standing beneath and made our way back to the skiff.
Incidentally: These “rangers” aren’t paid by the government. Their job is to help restore river turtles to the rest of the Amazon (the Peruvian Amazon, anyway), where they’re mostly gone. Pacaya has a strong and stable population; we saw lots of turtles sunning on logs. Small and medium turtles plop into the water as a skiff approaches; the big guys can’t be bothered. Look all you want, you foolish mammals, and get out of my kingdom.
Anyway—the rangers. They find where the turtles have laid eggs on the banks. They dig them up and carefully transplant them to the nine ranger stations. Most of the eggs get reintroduced at hatching, but a percentage of the eggs they save can be sold to collectors and the pet trade. And THAT’S how they get paid. They have to be self-sustaining. So… damn. The life they were living wasn’t easy…although the Lindblad guides took on the rangers in an impromptu soccer game, in the blazing Amazonian heat, and won.
We were given a small boxed lunch and a LOT of beverages, which was exactly the right ratio.
Back on the skiffs, we delighted in how common the pink river dolphins were (sometimes VERY close to the boat) and when something else rolled through the water, Jorge explained that it was a paiche—a fish that got to be eight or nine feet long. They breathe air and come up occasionally for a breath. “That was a fish?” I said, astonished. It looked SO much like a sea monster. “Well,” Jorge said with a smile, “That was a pair of them.” Whaaaa?? So cool. That was the only sighting we had.
Then someone spotted giant Amazonian river otters (I mean, really?? We should have asked to see Channing Tatum, or something; it was an Ask And Ye Shall Receive kind of day), and we all whipped out our binoculars. They were easier to see with the naked eye and THEN hone in with the optics—but by that time, the otters would have gone under again anyway. Still, we found enough otters that everyone got a good, long look. As Rusty said—a giant Amazonian river otter is like a North American otter on crack. They’re HUGE—can be up to six feet long. They have big fangs, and talon-like claws. These are predators—and apex predators. They look like mutant pit bulls, and I was THRILLED to see them. Absolutely otherworldly.
We stopped to watch common [something] monkeys, and saw red howler monkeys. (Later we heard them; it sounded like something Very Large was growling.) And we gasped to several colonies of blue and yellow macaws, which are astonishingly large. Those yellow chests are VERY yellow; that tail is extremely long. They mate for life so they’re almost always seen in pairs—and the ones we saw today must have been on group dates, because once we saw A macaw, we saw LOTS of macaws. A tree full of those birds is nothing but an astonished grin.
See what I mean? A totally inept photo. There are five macaws in this photo, but you'd hardly know it. Trust me.
We also saw a tree so covered in cormorants that Jorge called it an Amazonian Christmas tree, which charmed me. I took a photo, even though with my little iPhone, those pictures will serve more as a reminder of what I COULD have seen if I’d had better photographic equipment… Mostly I took it in and didn’t worry about getting a picture. (But if there’s a photo swap at the end of this, I AM IN!!)
At last—AT LAST!—it was time to swim. Despite pulling seemingly hundreds of piranha out of the river the night before—before ogling just how big spectacle caimans can get—the boats took us to the middle of the Pacaya and said “Go ahead. Jump in.”
Rusty was the first one from our boat in (jumping boldly from the side), and he was almost the only one who got the heebies from fish nibbling on him. I never felt a thing, although I did push past what I assumed were fishes a few times with my hands. The water was bliss after being so sweaty; it closed over my head and stripped away all the heat from my scalp. Jorge and the other guides passed out swim noodles so we didn’t even have to swim that much, and they put a cooler of drinks on a float and pushed it into the water as a floating bar. Someone saw river dolphins nearby. (I swim without my glasses, so I took their word for it.)
The water had odd pockets. Sometimes warm, sometimes deliciously cool. And too many pockets to be our fellow passengers peeing in the water! But when it was cool—and I could always reach my toes down into coolness—it was perfectly refreshing. I lay back on my pool noodle and floated for a while with my eyes closed.
On the Amazon.
(Well—a tributary of the Amazon, but I’m saying that counts!)
There was much giggling and delight in the waters of the Amazon. We teased people who were absolute strangers a week ago. We found we had inside jokes. We knew the relationships. We’d become—just briefly, and at a very surface level—a sort of expanded family. It was as fun and as remarkable as seeing a pink river dolphin suddenly surface just a few feet away. Startling and most welcome.
By common accord (what unidentified signal sent us back?) we headed to our respective skiffs. There were a few people who didn’t swim, and they were sitting there in the heat. (A stationary skiff is a heat trap; a speeding skiff is better than any air conditioner.) I was worried about how I was going to get back into the boat, but trust Lindblad. The boat ladder hung over the side was long enough for me to get my feet under me. I pulled myself up and bob’s your uncle; I was in the boat without the slightest loss of dignity. Towels were handed out and the Amazon dripped off us.
The speeding skiff dried us faster, and after applying new sunblock, I slowly dressed in the wind of our passing. Then our skiff developed engine trouble in one engine. Jorge and Eddy banged away and got us limping along, but eventually one of the other skiffs reappeared and we offloaded Rusty, Leigh and David. I’m not sure why; lighten the load, I guess, although if they were serious, Leigh should have stayed behind and I should have gone. Never mind; I do what I’m told. When I want to!
So we limped along, and I actually enjoyed the lower speed and lower engine noise. Primo, Eddy, and Jorge have taught me what I’m supposed to look for, and it’s a LOT. At the water line: Any otters popping their heads out from the tangles of a deadfall? On the bank—caimans sleeping under the overhang of bushes? In all vegetation: Birds? Or monkeys? In the forks of trees—sloths? Logs (carried by the far greater waters of the wet season) that lie partially in the water—is there sun shining on them? If so, is there an anaconda sunning there? How about the surface of the water? Any pink dolphins or paiche? On the highest branches of dense trees; macaw colony? Dead limbs overhanging the water—birds of prey? On logs lower down: Kingfishers? And always cormorants, often standing with their wings outstretched. Eric says it’s to cool themselves off, but I question that. If they were hot, they’d get in the water. I say it’s to dry off and make flight easier. It seems ill-advised to go against the naturalists, so I didn’t venture my opinion out loud…just here in the naturalist-free environs of my blog!
Twig is washing the Amazon from her in our cabin (the shower has an unusual rig in that you have to turn on the water, THEN turn on the water heater; turn it off in the reverse order, please!). When she’s done, I’ll go get clean in my turn…but at the moment, it’s pretty blissful up here on the bar deck. And here’s Rusty to chat!