In part three of this series, Laurel actually gets into the Amazon, taking a swim after a reported lack of caiman sightings. That was after finding dozens of the world's most venomous spiders and prior to a close encounter with ayahuasca.
The spider above my head is as big as my hand, squatting on an enormous white egg sac, and has chelicerae the size of marbles. And here's the one and only thing I know about chelicerae: they hide fangs.
But maybe it's a front, friendly tarantula-style — and maybe I should get into the spirit of this trip, act more like a scientist, start trying to get a better look instead of just standing here shuddering. "Ew," says entomologist Michelle Trautwein, stepping up to peer over my shoulder. "That thing's crazy venomous."
"I am not collecting that," adds Keith Bayless pointedly, her up-until-this-point obedient PhD student.
I want to look/run away, but it's also critical to know exactly where this thing is at all times, because it's blending in magnificently with the underside of the thatched roof and is incredibly fast. And then I see another. And another. And then one blasts into a glove right beside me. And then — as our eyes continue to adjust to dim light — a few dozen exoskeletons take shape, all hanging from the rafters like a Tim Burton Christmas.
Rising hysteria aside, this isn't the lair of every Brazilian wandering spider on Earth (aka the 2010 Guinness World Records-holder for most venomous); it's just someone's home in a small, 17-family village on the Napo river, a tributary of the Amazon. The woman who's being nice enough to let Trautwein — a curator at the California Academy of Sciences — survey the insects in her house says she only really worries about one biting the kids.
We're here for a "service day," painting signs, houses, bleachers, school desks — anything the people who live here have asked for help with through CONAPAC. Trautwein's been running ant experiments with local kids; mixed visitor/villager soccer games rage on the green; and all activities get periodically interrupted for these cardio-intense, skipping-type dances ruled by tiny school-house dictators who yard your arm off and frown at you whenever you slow down. We've been made welcome in a way that feels both humbling and genuine, and waving goodbye is actually a little tough.
But we're headed for a second lodge deeper in the interior, and because I have sweated in ways and places and volumes that are totally foreign to me, I'm all-in when a friend wonders out loud if we can swim there. I feel like the question merits slightly more research than just asking the Explornapo bartender once we arrive, but within minutes of his answer we're sliding down a mud bank toward the water, even though what he actually said was less "Yes" and more "We haven't seen a caiman here in several years."
You get into the Amazon fast if you're swimming, not necessarily because you want to, but because it takes a rare kind of courage to keep your feet buried in the layers and layers of dead, decaying vegetation that line the bottom. The water's cool and thick, strange streams of bubbles trickle up all around you, and the current's so strong that small pieces of who-knows-what are constantly pinging off various parts of your body as you swim against it. It's not a relaxing sensation, but it's one that eventually settles into a powerful and profound happiness.
When the sun goes down we grab our headlamps and make for the boats, drifting into the night to putt quietly through narrow channels, the blackness so absolute that it makes the air feel almost difficult to breathe. Frogs scold and cry and moan, sounding eerily human (or worse). Submerged branches scrape the bottom of the boat, scattering lamp beams as people jump. Thin vines come out of nowhere to drag across our faces and shoulders, dripping down from trees so tall they exist wholly in the darkness above. The outline of a sloth is caught in a flashlight beam, green eyes swiveling slowly toward us far overhead.
I'll see one more mammal before I sleep tonight: As I lean forward to flip the lid on an outhouse toilet, a bat shoots up out of the poop-box and right past my face. Which has a lot to do with why I'm the first volunteer to get "purified" when we visit a local shaman the next morning.
Guillermo comes from a long, long line of shamans, a role that's highly respected in this area since it requires incredible expertise in traditional medicines — roots, berries, bark, vines, and gourds that can treat everything from bug bites to excessive bleeding, stomach ailments, and asthma. Meg's interested in the same flora he is because what's medicine for humans is usually a defense-against-being-eaten for the plant, and herbivory — who's eating what leaves and how much — is one of the factors of forest health that she monitors.
Meg and Guillermo have known each other for years, but she's surprised that his grasp of English is suddenly so good. As it turns out, that's down to the other important role a shaman fills: Guide to the Spirit World. And Americans are signing up for a whole lot of guidance these days.
So let's just get this out of the way: I like a bad idea as much as the next person, but I did not trip my face off on ayahuasca while spewing fluids out of every orifice. I don't want to know more about my subconscious than I already do, and to be honest, Guillermo didn't really sell me on a "soul vine" journey — it was described as a few blissful hours of seeing jewel-like birds and interesting geometric designs, bracketed by days and days of abject terror during which panthers and demons try to kill you with evil while he keeps them at bay. (If that sounds good to you, Guillermo apparently has a Facebook page.)
I did get some guidance from the shaman, though; he told me I was hunting something and gave me a tri-marks tattoo, traditional for hunters heading into the forest who want the spirits to give them luck. The tattoo ink comes from the huito fruit and goes on clear. Five hours later, the huito juice oxidizes and you take your selfie by kerosene light.
Meg, meanwhile, didn't give me anything; she just citizen-scienced my non-subconscious into sampling 50 ayahuasca leaves and spending the rest of the night A) drinking pisco sours, and B) tracing each and every one of them onto graph paper before calculating surface area and percent eaten.
But as we find out the next morning — when Guillermo appears at the lodge carrying a heavy, writhing sack — Meg was even busier than I was. She and Guillermo spent part of the night praying for him to find a certain very special, very powerful animal. Which he did, just downriver from where we'd been swimming.
I ask Guillermo how exactly a person goes about finding an anaconda. He smiles and says, "You just look for the bubbles."
Coming up in Part 4 — the final Amazon dispatch — ropes, ladders, and bullet ants, ten stories above.
Photos by Rob Nelson/Untamed Science.
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