In part two of this series, "Into The Amazon," Laurel wakes up to a boat ride, meets a baby sloth and learns to shoot a blowgun.
It's a merciless 5:32 a.m. and I'm late, pounding down the lodge's raised walkways in pursuit of two boats already pulling away from the dock. In my periphery, more shades of green than I knew existed are rioting for top billing, a brilliant organic blur punctuated by tiny, suspicious monkey-faces. I want to stop and look — saw almost nothing last night outside the two-foot diameter of a kerosene lamp — but I didn't extract myself from bed this early to miss my first Amazonian sunrise. Dismay turns to fierce triumph: a third, 15-person wooden motorboat sits empty, and two guides are waving me on.
We're so much lighter and faster than the boats loaded with people that it's almost inevitable, no matter what language you speak: We gotta go. After a brief exchange in Spanish that needs no translation, the motor gets wicked up and we pass everyone else on the inside before blasting out onto open water.
What's waiting for us is so beautiful it hurts, the sunrise igniting water as far as you can see in every direction and laying a ribbon of silver in front of us that feels like an invitation to just keep going. And we do, for a while, leaving the others far behind before diving into a small, still river-alley. As the motor goes quiet, other sounds rise to fill the hush: Flocks of parrots charge overhead with jagged, insistent squawks. A husband-and-wife fishing team slides by in a low, carved-out canoe, their pointed paddles slicking through heavy water.
Blankets of water lettuce part on either side, scraping the boat like a whisper. From the treetops all around us, the mist is starting to lift, pulling thickly from nested branches.
Back at the lodge, Yagua men and women — the area's indigenous people — are demonstrating traditional skills, and though I'm genuinely interested in how their tough palm roofs are made and what plants their rich dyes come from, there's sadly just one thing on my mind. See, there are lots of stories about the Yagua; according to legend, the men's grass skirts made early European explorers mistake them for women, hence "Amazon" (after the ancient Greek myth about a country of warrior women). But I know something else the Yagua are famous for, and right now I feel like whatever the junkie version of a blowgun aficionado is.
There are lots of disappointments in life — the nearly 7-foot pucuna isn't one of them. With a Yagua elder and a guide looking on, I get two shots and don't embarrass myself.
It doesn't earn me an additional turn (which is freaking heartbreaking), but it does give me an immense amount of respect for the power of this spindly, rather delicate-looking weapon. Not knowing what to expect, I used a pretty minimal puff of air; the speed and solidity with which the dart left the chamber and thwacked the target gave me chills — of the "you and I belong together" variety.
The darts are thin, plain, elegant, about 10 inches long. A twist of kapok cotton gets wrapped around one end (to catch your breath and propel the dart), and dull darts are sharpened on piranha teeth, which peel off tiny curls of palm wood as well as any knife could. I ask the guide to find out what kind of range a really good hunter can get with a blowgun like this. Fifty yards, comes the answer — 150 feet. The darts probably won't lodge in the bird or mammal you'd be targeting at that distance, he says, but it's enough to get the curare poison into the bloodstream, making prey easy to retrieve.
From blowgun to quiver to kapok bag to fish jaw, there's nothing about this setup I'm ready to say goodbye to. So now I've got a problem, because I'm not going home alone.
Later we hike through the forest to a replica of a Yagua village, where semi-traditional crafts and dances are on display, demonstrated in part by adorably surly Yagua teenagers oozing the universal body-language for "over it." The blowguns here are tourist models that I can't bear to look at, but there's at least some comfort: I fall so disturbingly in love with a baby sloth (despite concerns about what happened to its mom) that it looks — in photos I'll see later — like I'm planning to eat it.
The next day we visit the Yanamono Medical Clinic, a sobering jungle-reality check. If — like most people in the area — all you have is a dugout canoe, this is the only place within 18 hours to see a doctor. That doctor is Linnea Smith, a determined, pragmatic, ruthlessly straightforward Wisconsinite who gave up her medical practice to move here in 1990 after visiting as a tourist. Today, she and her minimal staff treat close to 3,000 people a year for everything from machete accidents (there are a ton) to cancer. "Needless to say," she points out, "there's no ambulance service and definitely no helicopter evacuations." And there's often nothing she can do.
Is it coincidence that our guides steer us straight from the hard truths of Smith's clinic to the cloyingly sweet smells of a nearby rum factory? Not a chance, but also, get out of my way.
This distillery has three really appealing features: It's powered by a horse-drawn sugarcane press, it provides hammocks to patrons who stay too late to boat home, and it makes cloudy, molasses-flavored rum that's heady with weird. Sneak-attack strong, kind of skunky, intensely sweet, and with an aroma best described as "pleasantly alarming." I buy three bottles.
The sun's dropping quickly out of the sky as we trek past a pond of five-foot wide water lilies and back to the lodge, where lamps are already flickering. It's taken just three days, I realize, for outrageous to become the new norm: outrageously big, difficult, dangerous, beautiful, fast.
These are the new rules of falling darkness: Grab 1) whatever you need to avoid leaving your mosquito net before dawn, and 2) whatever it takes to avoid putting on pants full of spiders, ever. Before tucking the filmy white cloth back around me, I pull in a water bottle, flashlights, knife, shoes, the clothes I intend to wear the next day, and a fat little Go Bag, piling everything up around my head and feet. It's enough stuff to start a frontier mercantile, and it's my kind of cozy.
I breathe slow and dream fast: about bad ideas, good medicine, old ghosts, and anacondas that come when you call them. It's all shaman territory — coming up in part three.
Look for Part Three on Friday.
Photos: Rob Nelson
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.