Ten hours or a 40-minute flight, east of Cusco brings me to the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado. Mosquitoes wait for the fresh meat to arrive and begin biting almost instantly leaving the plane. The Amazon River is 1353 km from here yet as lush as the jungle fed by the historical river itself. The road we will take is only five years old, fraternal twins to the increased tourism in the area. Here in the southern part of Peru, rain showers this close to the end of the rainy season is considered sprinkles by the locals. Still, the mozzies are opportunists and attack day or night.
Howler and squirrel monkeys can be spotted in the canopy above. The fur shades of black or orange silhouettes against the contrast of the white clouds. Hawks, macaws, vultures all share the branches. Eagles hunt the monkeys and sloths as they play or sleep high in the canopy. They hover then dive in pursuit of their prey as I watch from the comfort of this riverboat.
We drift along the Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian Amazon. The jungle itself, its dangers and natural remedies, are the major arteries for the pulsating veins of this beautiful country. There are over three hundred species of trees in this section of the Amazon with roughly three thousand trees in one square mile. The trees hold my attention more than the murky waters. I’ve been entranced by the density and life of these trees. The frightening stories they would tell if they could talk. They stretch, arch, and grow around each other; untouched nature.
Watching the thick clay that comprises the river’s edge reveals the reality of the rise and fall of the rushing waters. Rainy season behind us by less than a month, the water levels have dropped significantly. Those with weaker trunks and poor real estate now swim in the river having succumbed to the muddy water’s edge. It’s new job description creating food, shelter, and navigation, but never to be upright again. Some only stumps peeking just above the surface, casting the rapid current in splintered directions. Heading South-East and into the wind, I gaze at the Thundercloud formations in the distance threatening our dry approach.
Immigration is a hot topic even here with hundreds from neighboring towns (even cities) flocked to the ‘buffer zone’, the non-protected section of the forest’s edge, to mine for gold. An action legally “prohibited” for close to six years now. Our guide has known and loved these forests for close to twenty years. On more than one occasion I catch him in quiet contemplation. I wonder how the realities of deforestation affect him, his family that still depend on the forests gifts for life. I recall previous conversations with locals of the concerns of farmers in Cusco. They explain the prolonged and unexpected cold months and the impact on their ability to farm.
The water rushes by, reddish-brown and full of sediments; run-off from the Andes. It is in these sediments that gold dust can be found. Locals and foreigners alike roll the dice on life working in the mining trenches. There is no training, no OSHA and definitely no health insurance at these sites. People risk everything for an opportunity for wealth. If they survive, the amount of money is substantial. No financial education and human vices take over, bankrupting or killing them in a matter of months.
The Tambopata eco-lodge that I’m privileged to call home the next two and a half days, is just the break my soul needs. There’s limited electricity, no wifi, and new faces from around the world for great conversation. The combination of nature calls surrounding my bungalow and the welcomed lukewarm shower to rinse the repellent, grime, and sweat off my body should set me up for an amazing nights sleep. A night walk around the facility reveals owls, deadly spiders, colorful, nocturnal birds, geckos, and sleeping butterflies.
Even the oldest and strongest of trees are hollowed by an infestation; destroyed by a creature as small as a beetle in a handful of years. It’s the circle of life, as they say. There’s a daily battle for light on the ground as the canopy completely hogs the sunlight. Bird, bat, and monkey droppings create multiple species of vines, that are technically roots called Liana. These roots grow downward from the top of the tree planting them firmly in the soil, steadying the tree. Palms, banana, coca, and even bamboo, all evolve to chase or stretch upward for light to survive.
Everything here has a purpose. Termites build nests bigger than basketballs on tree trunks, nourishing the roots when the nest falls then decomposes filling the tree with nutrients. Mammals and reptiles have developed symbiotic style relationships, living harmoniously below ground. The mammal, offering warmth and shelter, the reptile offers protection for the mammal from prey seeking to do harm. Ants break down leaves and insect carcasses to build and stock their nests.
A visit to a local family of farmers replenishes my ideologies of village life. There are fruit trees, chickens, pigs, cats, and a small pack of dogs all living together. We sample unique citrus and feed the chicken stale corn, the pigs some banana leaves. I listen as life hacks the jungle can provide are shared; remedies for upset stomach, accidental burns, and colicky babies. The paint our guide made from crushed leaves and a little water along the trail now a dried, deep red on my skin. We pick and play with the flowers of the ginger root, taking turns making the family laugh at our strange foreigner behavior.
The wonder of the forest keeps hold of me only as long as I’m in it. The boat and bus ride back to the airport reiterate the reality of life here. My eyes are tired and dry, but I force myself to keep them open, to take in this environment. Homes teeter on the unstable edge of the river bank. Those on land made of concrete blocks, scrap metal, abandoned pieces of wood, and bed sheets for walls. Our guides closing speech slaps the group-open handed-with reality as he points out that we see only the surface as visitors. That we can never truly imagine the struggles of day-to-day life the people of Peru overcome, the resourcefulness mandatory for survival. I thank him for his passion, experience, and vast knowledge and for keeping us all safe from the many threats of the jungle. I may never get the chance to see him or this jungle again.