One Gorgeous Morning
The word goes out; the whisper spreads. Three-G! I’ve got a three-G signal! Me, too! Texts! Emails! We’re all looking pleased with ourselves and just a little guilty. It was startling to be denied internet access…but on the other hand, doesn’t that make our jungle adventure a little more…real? A little less like a really, really good Disney animatronic experience? I mean REALLY, my dear—no internet!
But now that we’ve got a signal, we’re all scurrying. Ooh! Upload it! Download it! Send it! Whee!!
The morning began, once again, at the Very Early Hour. The knock came at 5:30. Yet once again it was worth it; we were off for a kayaking experience. And isn’t Lindblad clever? They must have sent off a skiff much earlier, with the four two-person kayaks stretched in a cross-beam across the boat. Not quite Christ in a prom dress, but the cross effect was similar. A driver took a crew member (we’ll call him José for the sake of better storytelling) and the four kayaks up the Ucayalli to a tributary stream. The sun was probably up as they went, but not VERY up, and the mist must have been exotic as hell (since it was pretty spectacular when we came by half an hour, 45 minutes later).
They found a likely spot on the bank. How did they choose it? I’m assuming no anacondas draped from the overhanging trees, no caiman sleeping under the bushes, no street punk river otters patrolling territory and “kee-kee-kee-ing” their anger at any approaching infidel. They off-loaded the kayaks and put José in one of them. Then they left him, in the mist, to the mercies of the wilderness. “Bye,” he said mournfully as the skiff driver chortled his way back down the “stream.” (Or so I imagine it.)
So when we arrived, eight people in a skiff with the astonishing Edinson at the wheel and Jorge as our guide, José looked quite grumpy with us. He pushed one kayak, empty, into the river, and Eddy manoevered the skiff neatly up alongside. (Jorge wasn’t satisfied. He had José launch the other two to float aimlessly in the stream, where they looked like the indifferent aftermath of some horrible natural disaster). Twig and I got into the second kayak, so I didn’t actually witness José gratefully clambering into the skiff (perhaps he lost badly at poker last night and that’s why he had the duty), but he remained there ever after, silent and very, very stable.
We did our debarking (or our embarkation, depending on whether your POV was the skiff or the kayak) in midstream. Strong crew members were more than used to oversized American women clambering gracelessly into a kayak, and I feel I managed the situation without too great a loss of dignity. Vivica, not yet loaded into her kayak with her son Jackson, was grinning as she watched me center and seat myself. “Look at her face,” she said delightedly. I’m sure I was grinning like a fool. It was just so UNUSUAL—so unlike my usual day.
(Kind Andrew took a photo of us; that's the one at the top of the post. I didn't bring my camera. The probability was too great that I would take an involuntary swim while transferring to and from the skiff.)
Twig, of course, was grace in motion getting in behind me. Orange Theory and cardio-tennis did not desert her. And then we were off!
Wait—that’s not the right grammatical punctuation for paddling ineptly but happily down an Amazon tributary in the morning mist. No exclamation points. It was QUIET. No motor. (Eddy, Jorge, and José came along behind us, but I think they were mostly drifting with the current; we were traveling without the sound of motors. And it was delicious!)
I’m not a great kayaker; I shift my weight so the boat hews from side to side, and from the back, Twig had to steer to keep us even partially straight. Our course down the river was a long, looping series of curves, the curves coming even more sharply when and if we neared the bank and there were overhanging trees since both of us envisioned boa constrictors dropping onto us from above—a boa boa—and killing us from the “ew!” shrieks long before killing us in reality.
So we swooped back and forth, following the far-more efficient pairs in front of us (Scott and his son Brad left us all far in their wake, Vivica and Jackson, and Andrew and Katlyn) Eddy—eagle-eyed Eddy—had spotted a colony of otters on our way to the kayaks and I’m sure we paddled past that same spot on our way back downstream, but we were far too busy looping to notice. I DID spot an alert little bird—white with a bright red hat and a black coat—that Jorge later identified as a red-headed cardinal. Or something like that; naturally I don’t remember.
Look: Amazing Leisa took a great picture of a river otter, which she shared with me. Tell me this guy is a cuddly, friendly Disney otter. It's not--that's a You Lookin' At Me kind of otter. First, her full photo:
And now my blown-up screen grab of the otter itself, hiding amid the deadfall there:
Not a character you want to stumble across in a dark alley one night, huh?? Magnificent bastards!
After about half an hour, we saw the next skiff coming up the stream toward us; here were the six other people who wanted to kayak. Once again, the transfer took place in midstream, which was so cool…so efficient. Viveca and Jackson got out first, and Jorge just pushed their kayak away from our skiff. Twig and I went next. Getting out was even more fraught than getting in because ALL of my weight came off-center in the unstable kayak, but Jorge and (I think) José were prepped and ready because they kept telling me to slow down—take my time (all the while holding the kayak steady against my shifting mass; wow!), and I climbed back into the skiff with a sense of triumph.
By that time, the Beautiful Family was already transferring into the empty skiffs floating in midstream. (The Beautiful Family: Courtney and Shelby, sisters, are kind and funny and (as Twig said) “absolutely a class act.” Each has one daughter with them—Skyler and Sierra—who are smart and funny. The four of them weigh about 200 pounds all together; they’re so beautiful. They’re traveling with their parents/grandparents, Michael and Erica. I haven’t spoken to Michael much, but Erica is where her daughters get their great sense of humor; she’s a delight.)
So with no floating platform, no attendant fuss, just the powerfully strong hands of a few guides, everyone who wanted to kayak got to kayak. Down a slow-moving river/stream. Past red-headed cardinals and invisible (but angry) otters. And no boa boas!
On the skiff ride back, Eddy spotted bats roosting on the trunk of a tree, and Jorge saw or maybe heard woolly monkeys and found them for us, which were MUCH more fun to see than the bats…although I remain loyal to Edinson as the wizard of the wildlife. The monkeys were the biggest we’ve seen, and pretty active, clambering around and stopping to scratch. Jorge made wooly monkey noises at them, and the monkeys could NOT have cared less. They didn’t even look. Begone, larger primates. This is my kingdom and you will not last.
And they were right, of course. Eddy had brought the skiff to shore hard up against the canoe of a young guy who happened to be sitting in it when we puttered past; he’d helped us find the view to the monkeys…and there we sat, eight gringos, staring into the trees and grinning, while he just sat there. I “Hola’ed” him and he grinned back; we exchanged a little moment of “yes, this is crazy but you’re being very patient, thank you” and “you’re not bothering me, although you’re marveling at something very ordinary” until I suggested to Jorge that we get out of this guy’s way, and on we went.
It made me think. (Which is what traveling is supposed to do, right?) I come into that guy’s world and goggle at monkeys, If he came into my world (and who’s to say he hasn’t?), would it be the pay HOV lanes that astonished him? The lack of attention paid to the rivers and waterways in my world? Would it be the INTERNET ACCESS?? What am I not seeing in my own world? If I had a Jorge and an Edinson with me as I went through my regular day, would they say “Stop! (e)Stop! Do you hear that? That’s a crow! And then I’d marvel at what they’d seen about my world that I never had.
After breakfast, most of the boat has emptied out to tour a village called Amazonias, where Nat Geo is supporting a women’s empowerment radio broadcast. They have hand crafted goods to sell to us. Twig and I both felt hinky about going to look at a village like it was an exhibit in a zoo, and we’re sitting in the cool and breezy open-air lounge on the top deck, roofed by palm trees. Even Rusty got into the skiffs and took off to experience Amazonias, which made me happy because he’ll give me the bitterly sarcastic view of what I’m missing by sitting here updating my blog as the Delphin II slowly follows the skiffs up the Maracon River to Amazonias.
We were sitting on the rail, facing out, but as the river turns, the sun kept finding me. I have finally made a nest on one of the ultra-low sofas in the center (to get up, it’s easier to put your hand on the ground and push off than to try to get up the regular way). It’s so peaceful. Everyone else has gone away. The crew is doing it’s crew-ish business. They’re speaking in the liquid, slippery sound of colloquial, very fast Spanish, so there’s no value in even trying to eavesdrop. From up here, amidships, the motors are just a distant purr. And scenery slips past.
Here are my Big River observations: Everywhere is proof that we’re at low water. The wet season leave its mark astonishingly high on tree trunks. The river banks are steeply shelved in many places, and terraced in others where loose soil has fallen in as the waters recede. Some of the banks are so flat and smooth that my eye (accustomed to a developed world) tries to see them as retaining walls…but they’re not. That’ not concrete. That’s mud. Or clay. Or whatever.
Maybe because the rainy season completely re-landscapes everything, the view from here (the over-civilized view) is of a manicured landscape. There are tall trees (some of them very tall, indeed), and there are fields of low grasses. Very green. Plants that can’t root quickly enough will be ripped out in a few months when the rain starts again, so the growth is remarkable. It looks like gardeners have been through on large mowers, creating a view that I’ve thought of as a Turner landscape (but mostly because I know so little about British landscape art; there’s probably a more famous painter of landscapes. So pardon me.).
The water is muddy, and perpetually full of floating logs. Everywhere there are logs drifting along. It looks untidy. Disney wouldn’t allow it. But every time the rains come, anything that fell over below the high water mark gets lifted up and floated into the open. And then downriver. It looks untidy because no one feels any compulsion to clean it up…and why should they? That’s just what happens. And when a tree falls down the bank to lay with its head in the water, that just makes a good base camp for river otters, and a perch for kingfishers and a broad trunk in the sun on which anacondas can bask. Or so we’re told; we’ve still only seen the one “small” snake under the ranger station yesterday. Which is good enough!
The afternoon’s expedition is to a part of the jungle above the water line. Rusty and Twig are going; I’m just too tired. That is—I’m not actually tired…but that jungle walk was sweaty. I don’t want to add a climb to that level of sweat. I think I’m done for the day, and we leave tomorrow—which means the wooly monkeys were my last Amazon sighting. And I’m good with that, too!
Tomorrow is going to be another day of travel, which—guh. Followed by the flights from Lima to Miami and Miami back to DC. I’m ready to go home. Although sitting here?? That’s pretty nice, too!
PS: It’s 9:30 in the morning. Typically, I wouldn’t even be awake yet.
Rusty, now aware of why my hat is so useful, came back from the village. He said it was interesting; he bought a bowl carved from a gourd with macaws carved into it, and a four-inch-long version of a paiche fish, which is very appealing and feels good in the hand.
Here's the other photo kind Andrew shared with me, from when I was drinking down the cancer preventative from the jungle vine from...was it yesterday?? Seems like MONTHS ago!