Swimming with my fears

Swimming with JJ (left) and VishalaI’m grateful that it is only on the third day that Paul tells me that the Las Piedras River, where we have been boating, floating and swimming, my clothes perpetually wet from the afternoon plunges, is swimming with Piranhas. I knew about the Caiman, Spectacled and Yellow, that I’ve seen lounging on the banks, and scoot off whenever the boat comes near. I’ve tamed my response to snakes—an embarrassing nerve jangling recoil—by understanding that every snake is more afraid of me than I am of it. But Piranhas, that’s news. I laugh and say: cool.





Whip Snake found by Gowri and in Paul's handsThis is the jungle me response, one that I never could have anticipated as I planned for this trip to the Amazon. I prepared for this trip as I always do: I read (Oh, and I also fretted over yellow fever shots and hep A and typhoid vaccines). I read books like Tree of Rivers and The Lost City of Z. Both of these wonderful works fed the images I had of the jungle: a dangerous place. If the Bot Flies didn’t take up residence in my flesh, then for sure a Candiru fish was going to swim up my vagina. And then I read Paul’s book Mother of God.

Paul is a smart, passionate man who needs room to move, think, be. He walks barefoot through the jungle, eats with his hands, and enjoys his bug bites. He runs towards snakes and caimans with the love of a teenage boy and the intelligence of a man who wants nothing more than for all of us to love these creatures as he does. Underneath his muscled jungle-man bravado is someone who is wounded every time a tree is cut in the jungle. To protect this world he loves he has formed an ecotourism company with his wife Gowri (one of my former students at Bard College) and others called Tamandua. And he has also formed a nonprofit to protect land in the jungle: Junglekeepers. Before spending intense time in the jungle with him I am already in admiration of the work he’s done and am worried he’s also sort of an asshole, like most focused, driven men who are confident they are right.

Roy serving me more coffee!The more you know about a place, the safer it becomes. At Paul’s side is JJ, a man who knows the jungle because he grew up there. The two walk with machetes in hand as they take us—a group of eleven family and friends—on walks near the station where we sleep and are fed delicious meals prepared by Roy, who greets me every morning with excellent coffee and a warm hug. Having such comforts in such a remote place feels like a forbidden pleasure. I drink way too much coffee.

Giant Kapok TreeKnowing the jungle as he does—fourteen years of spending months here since he was eighteen—Paul makes the jungle not a play ground, but a place where we can play. I climb a massive Kapok tree, hugging the vines that strangle up the tree and pressing my bare feet against the solid smooth bark. My feet are cut, my legs bruised, but is that not a small price to pay to sit in the crown of an ancient tree, to see the world as the birds do and to feel from a different vantage the massive power and fragility of this ecosystem?

And, I swim in the ever-silty Las Piedras River that carves around the station and leads downstream to Puerto Maldonado, eventually joining the Madre de Dios and much further on the Amazon. Almost every day heat, sweat, sore muscles are washed away by jumping into the water and floating downstream. With Piranhas.

Caiman!Everyone on this trip was challenged in one way or another and I think about how rare that is, especially as we get older.  I watched as Paul took his mother-in-law by the hand and offered her the caiman he caught, asks her to bundle up her recoil and touch the beautiful creature. One by one he explicitly or implicitly pushed us to take one step more than we thought we were capable of to walk or swim into this rich, amazing land. I smile through it all, allowing that Paul is right. 

I didn’t swim into my fears; I’ve swum with them. And how intoxicating that is, a kind of freedom found in few places, in few moments. By the end of the trip I am covered in bug bites—sand flies, ticks, mosquitoes, I’ve succumbed to jungle fever, my legs are bruised. This, of course, is Paul’s goal. Not that I get sick but rather that I get sick and not really care. Nothing matters—not politics, work, or the line of bites that march up my groin. What mattered was being there, seeing the Trogon, the Sunbittern, the Tapir swimming toward shore; what mattered was being overwhelmed by green. While my body is marked, my spirit is soaring higher than it has in a long time.




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