It was too long.
Salt Lake City to San Francisco to Tokyo to Hong Kong to China to Tokyo to Los Angeles to Bogota in one three-week trip is too long.Manuel is an internationally famous immunologist who leads the malaria research at his Instituto de Inmunologia in Bogota. And, Manuel had offered to take my husband, David, and me to the Amazon.
By the time we had flown the Tokyo to Bogota leg, we had passed through 14 time zones and taken off and landed 28 times. From Bogota we flew 1,000 miles south to Leticia, a village on the banks of the Amazon.
The hotel had a pool but there were things living in it, so I didn't swim. An abandoned building behind the hotel was once used to export animals from the Amazon. Now, Manuel kept about 100 owl monkeys there for his malaria research in addition to jaguars, tapirs and an anacondas.
Wearing swim suits, we walked down to the river around 3 p.m. I was given my own can of Black Flag to be used as "anti-mosquito." The mosquitos that hit me weren't going to be poisoned. They were going to drown. I used it all.
Manuel said that we must drink plenty of liquids to replace the minerals that we would lose in perspiration and that Coke was the best choice. That was great with me. I love Coke. A wooden case of Coke was loaded. The Coke lids were rusty. There hadn't been fizz in those Cokes for years.
Six of us got into the 14-foot fiberglass outboard: Manuel, his assistant, Henry, David, and the native guide, Crispin. We were heading 100 miles up the Amazon to the village of Atacuari to spend the night.
The river is three miles wide even here, 2,000 miles from the ocean. Everything smells ripe. The river is dark brown and moving with great power. As we head up river, huge trees, debris and small islands race down toward us. Crispin never varies the boat speed, but swerves around obstacles as they rush toward us. By 6 p.m. it is dark. Really dark. We blast on up river. Except now we can't see the things floating toward us.
Suddenly the boat jars to a halt. Henry goes off the front into muddy blackness. With the motor stopped and only the sound of the rushing river, we hear Henry laughing somewhere in the darkness behind us. He is standing waist deep. We are grounded on a sand bar, a mile from either shore. They are concerned over the propeller. I am concerned about alligators, mosquitos and piranhas. Finally we push off and continue. There is no moon. I cannot see my own hand in front of me.
We have been traveling about six hours when suddenly we slow down.
"What is it?" I query. "The Atacuari. Crispin is looking for the right outline of the trees to show him the location of the tributary." I squint. I look behind me. I look far to the side. I cannot see trees although I know we are only a hundred yards or so from the bank. Finally, as sure as turning into his own driveway, Crispin heels the boat over, picks up speed and turns into a tributary about 100 yards wide.
Ahead, I see the glow of two or three huts and we nose into a bank. Immediately as we stop, three native dugouts come alongside. These hollowed-out logs have barely two inches of freeboard. Copper skinned natives with reddish- brown hair and expressionless faces all sat motionless in the canoes. They don't smile. Their eyes don't even move. I am paralyzed with interest.
Manuel says, "We each will have our own guide. We will get into a canoe and go into the jungle swamps to club caiman for dinner." Caiman are the South American form of alligator.
"Not me, Manuel. Not me. I will be staying here guarding the rusty Coke."
Even I have limits. Henry steps gingerly onto the front of a waiting dugout. The dugout sinks quickly as the motionless Indian remains stoned faced.
Now that the boat motor has stopped, I hear the sounds of the jungle. It is deafening! Unknown screeching, screaming, whining, buzzing, whirring, slapping, plopping sounds totally surround me.
At 9 p.m. the canoes leave and Crispin and I head to the small settlement of Atacuari to arrange for sleeping. As we land, a man comes out of the darkness with a flashlight. He says his name is Charlie and he is the sheriff. We walk a few yards from the river to a raised walkway made of wood. After knocking many times at the wooden building, the door is finally opened by a young couple with a baby. Words are spoken. They turn on a generator. A single light bulb begins to glow faintly.
We are invited into what is the government medical dispensary. It is a small building on stilts with screen windows. Crispin, the young couple, Charlie and I stand smiling in the tiny hall of this building. I smile and nod. They all smile and nod. They talk quietly to each other. They look at me and smile. I smile again.
This is going to be a long two hours. The door is open and with the only light bulb in 5,000 square miles, insects are rushing into the building. Lots of insects. Many of these insects flop around and fall to the floor. Some are six inches long. Some fall on me. I try to remain calm and smiling as I casually brush off one of these huge bugs. A tiny kitten catches and eats it.
The young woman steps into a back room and comes out with a steaming mug of coffee for me. I don't drink coffee and I was already so hot and so awake, the thought of coffee horrified me. They all said something about the virtues of Colombian coffee and watched anxiously while I took a sip. There were two dead bugs floating on the top. I took a tiny sip hoping I wouldn't get either one and incinerated my tongue. Living in the dispensary, she had learned to properly boil water.
Crispin and I returned to the village to await the arrival of the caiman hunters. Jungle sounds crashed all around me. The first canoe returned with a five-foot caiman lashed to the bottom. They tied it to the tree next to me. The caiman, which I could not see, thrashed wildly back and forth somewhere very close to me. I was terrified to move.
Soon all the canoes had returned but David's. There was quiet conversation. Finally Manuel came to me and said, "Don't be alarmed that David is not back. His guide is this guide's brother-in-law and he is very good." The information being tremendously comforting, I considered that it was now 11:30 p.m., that I was 100 miles from the nearest settlement in the middle of the Amazon, I spoke no Spanish and was accompanied by five men I barely knew. Much later, when David returned, I asked how it had gone. No answer. As I shined the flashlight on him, I saw that he was sound asleep. Obviously going into the jungle in the dark with a native in a dugout to club caiman was not as exciting to some as it might be to me.
At Atacuari, David and I had the preferential accommodations at the dispensary. They included a 10-foot fabric hammock that rolled around us like a tube. When the generator was turned off, above the jungle noise we heard Mexico City on the short wave radio next door. Charlie and the boys had tuned in mariachi music at ear-damaging levels.
It was after midnight. There was some yelling to Charlie and the boys. Charlie responded with more decibels. It continued through the night. I remained motionless for hours listening to all the mariachi music ever recorded. Years passed before a pale light came through the screens announcing dawn. The sleeping jungle awoke. Across the tin roof raced hoards of screeching monkeys, flocks of parrots screamed, and two wild pigs rooted under the floor boards.
We were anxious to get up and walk outside. It was 4 a.m. We found children bathing in the river, men spear fishing, and women washing clothes. This was morning. These people wake and sleep with the sun, unencumbered by clocks.
Not clearly remembering when we had last eaten, we implored Manuel to take us back down the river. He said there was a village that was not too far where we could get breakfast. The early morning trip down the river was unforgettable. As we entered the main river a dense wall of fog hung just above the water. The sky above was pale blue, the river looked like melted milk chocolate. There were birds and fantastic vines. Tall trees bordered the banks. The unfamiliar vegetation was dark shiny green with many strange flowers. Periodically we saw natives in dugouts, or old launches that looked like props from "The African Queen."
At Puerto Narina, the sign on a flooded wooden building declared it to be the hotel. We negotiated breakfast with the owner: a couple of eggs, three pieces of toast, a few slices of bread, hot chocolate made with canned milk. It was delicious beyond words. Further down river at Monkey Island, a long wooden building serves as a tourist accommodation where Manuel tells me there is a regular bathroom. I am delighted. As I attempt to flush the toilet, I notice that the handle is loose. No problem, the chain must have fallen off. I can fix that. I remove the tank lid and reach in the repair the chain. Living inside is a huge, fat, fluorescent green frog. I replace the lid. Forget the toilet.
We returned to Leticia, to Bogota and eventually to Salt Lake City. I can tell you how to get to the Amazon, and where to stay and how much things cost. But first I suggest you get a bag of popcorn and rent the video "Romancing the Stone." I am the lady with the ripped shirt who screams a lot in the jungle.