2: Riding shotgun
There were about seventeen of us, including Bill’s girlfriend, Linda. No one really dealt with Linda until later in the Andes. She was like a mirage– we could see her but she didn’t exist. Apparently, Linda’s father was a doctor, which qualified Linda to be the medic for the group. She had a large black bag which contained some first-aid items that wouldn’t be found in Peru. The plan was to buy all the needed medications in Peru, such as antibiotics and narcotics, where, as in most of South America, drugs which require a prescription in the States, can be purchased over-the-counter.
Linda also took on the role of mother of the group. Bill was “Dad” and she was the unwanted step-mom. I could understand her obvious attraction to Bill. He was youngish and attractive— a bit cocky. I had met his type before. There are a few in every anthropology department– particularly in archaeology. My personal favorites are the ones who dress like “Indiana Jones”, minus the whip, usually. There’s something about being out in the “field” that turns anthropologists and field scientists into the characterization of lascivious sailors on shore leave, or having a “girl in every port”.
After our boat trip on the African Queen, Bill informed us we would be going on a little “survival” trip into the jungle, beginning the next morning. On that morning he dragged us off to another eating establishment for breakfast– our last real meal for a while. The two vegetarians and I held out little hope for finding something both edible and without feet or heads on our plates. Just as we were preparing to dart out the door, we smelled eggs frying. The three of us discussed the possibility that the eggs might belong to a turtle, or even more offensive was the thought of eating fertilized eggs. We got the acceptable responses to our concerns from the owner and ate our eggs scrambled. We wore sunglasses to obstruct visual acuity, just in case.
After breakfast we went to the river to find the Guide. The restaurant owner had fixed up baskets of food to take with us– enough to get us through the day. Mom and Dad were chatting with the Guide and we milled around a bit, adjusting our backpacks; applying insect repellent– our eyes searching the shore for the guide’s boat. How pleased I was to find we were going in dugout canoes . It took awhile for the Guide and the Indians who would be manning the helms, so to speak, to balance all our gear and estimate each of our weights. Once we were assigned our dugouts we were hesitant to pile in because they looked so flimsy and we were all a bit nervous about sinking. In addition to the threat of piranha, caiman, the Southern Hemisphere’s smaller version of an alligator, were a distinct threat, particularly to low-riding dugout canoes.
We did not sink but, as I said, dugouts sit low in the water (depending on the weight they’re carrying). The tops of the dugouts were nearly flush with the surface of the water. Don’t count on staying dry in one of them. The first day no one drowned and no one was carried off by giant mosquitoes. We did see caiman but each dugout had a shotgun and the Natives had their bows and arrows. I was prepared with Cutter’s for the Volkswagen– sized mosquitoes which worked the best of the brands brought along. I didn’t share. I was bombarded with begging and complaints about my selfishness but I would not relent, it was every man/woman for him/herself– “it was a jungle out there!”
There was only one incident that day. A rather large one– about 4 feet (1.2 m). I was casually eating a ham sandwich, and, seeing a stork, used that hand with the sandwich to point to it– waving my hand over the water. Up jumped several piranha from the water and before those dreadful teeth took my hand, I dropped the sandwich into the water. They’re not a big fish but the teeth are prehistoric looking. That wasn’t the end of it. Our Native helmsman shouted as a caiman slid part way into the bow of the dugout while we were laughing over the piranha and my outburst that it was the last of the ham. Since I was sitting in the bow, the student sitting behind me yelled to me as he pumped the shotgun and then unexpectedly thrust the thing into my hands. Everyone was yelling and the caiman was obtaining a foothold in the dugout. It all happened in moments but it seemed longer– as though I had plenty of time to weigh all the options. In a flash, time sped up and I turned the shotgun towards the caiman and fired. The same student who had forced the gun on me, grabbed me and pulled me back into his lap, barely an instant after I fired. The caiman didn’t move. The bow, the shotgun and myself were covered in the stinking, bloody, blow back.
A lot was going on around me and I barely realized that we were heading towards shore until someone pulled me out of the dugout and onto dry land. It was the Guide. The Natives were laughing and talking as they cleaned up the aftermath of the caiman blowup. Luckily I hadn’t blown a hole in the canoe. All the while my ears were ringing and I could barely hear anyone talking to me. Mom cleaned me up as I protested like a child and we decided to call it a day and find a campsite. The night came and went without further incidents. That was my first time firing a shotgun. It was my first time killing anything more than a bug. That upset me more than anything else. From that point on, I held onto the extra paddle in the dugout to use as an alternative to blowing the head off another caiman. And one other thing– I was wearing my father’s leather belt, against jungle protocol. It ripped in two while I was adjusting it, the once rich, thick leather having the texture of wet cardboard, after only one day in the jungle.
Morning came too soon. Breakfast was an interesting blend of fresh fruit picked by the Natives, and trail mix, crackers– whatever people had stashed in their backpacks. Mom and the Natives worked well together serving us and cleaning up the campsite. I had to admit, she was pretty useful. Sun was just rising as we slid the dugouts into the water and sleepily glided up river. Soon we would be on the Amazon River. Everyone was itching to get there. Actually, the itching was from the mosquito bites and some unknown irritant. Bill and Linda rode in the dugout with me. All morning Bill was annoyingly scratching what he misidentified as bites on his legs. In late morning we stopped for lunch on shore which consisted of leftovers from breakfast. The day was uneventful, however, the night in the jungle was not. The Natives found signs of a “cat”, a panther, and we all huddled close to each other. That must have been when most of us caught it– Bill’s rash, not “bites” was obviously caused by a plant with which he must have made contact. By morning we were all in agony (except for the Guide and his guys). We had few options. We went into the river.
Piranha have been given a bad rap by the media, particularly the film industry. Piranha group together as protection from predators. Unless they’re starving or seriously provoked, a human can be in waters inhabited by piranha without incident. At least that is what the Guide told us. We reluctantly entered the river in pairs and only up to the tops of our thighs, most of us having at least a bar of soap or a cleanser to scrub the irritant from our legs. None of us remained in the water long, even though it felt so good. Once back on shore, the Guide had the stems of a plant whose sap was the consistency of aloe vera which, when applied, was very soothing. I found it particularly interesting that the rash affected our legs and went no further. It always amazes me that many plants can defend themselves. I can imagine a maple tree being tapped for the sap and the tree giving off toxic gases, neutralizing the threat– the human out cold on the ground. So much for lessons learned from nature.