Musings

Shadow and The Strangler Fig: The Story of My Trip to the Amazon

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
“I keep losing and regaining my equilibrium, which is the basic plot of all popular fiction. And I myself am a work of fiction.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma, & Granfalloons

I jump from the embankment and wonder mid-air – What else lives in the water? I know of caiman, piranha, electric eels, and stingrays, to name a few, but the water is kicked with mud. How can anyone be sure, at least entirely? Something larger than we thought, or maybe something sharper? Water fills my ears and I experience a shadowy fear, like a kid in the pool who sees sharks where there are none. It’s a familiar feeling, but by the time the current carries me to where the riverbank inclines, I’m strangely content and the shadow is gone. I sluice water from my hair and make the climb to jump again.

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The jungle has a reputation for stealing away in the corners of the mind. Through the years, explorers have led expeditions, infamous for mutiny, missing-persons, and death, all in the hope of discovery, unearthing some new science, or stumbling upon magic. In South America, jungle covers 2.1 million square miles of land, a lot of which is still untouched, meaning the possibility of new plants and animals, as well as uncontacted people and the general unknown. The unknown has always driven us forward. I genuinely believe we need food, water, shelter, and adventure. We love to poke the sleeping beast, journey into the dark, and jump without looking.

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Back at the station, a short hike from the river, I settle into a hammock. The building is up off the ground, and includes a common-area, kitchen, and two extensions with private rooms. Our walls are open, so we sleep with mosquito nets and a symphony. The jungle sings and you can pick out the performers – AM sopranos, afternoon altos, midnight mystery guests. There’s no electricity so we keep a headlamp on hand, but it’s still hours away from dark, though dark comes early here. Everyone breaks into groups and as usual, I catch bits and pieces of conversations. I’m reminded of Jaws – Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss comparing scars. For perhaps the millionth time, I smile to myself.

“Getting ideas for your book?” asks another traveler.

“Too many.”

I’m a writer, and about a year ago I decided to look for my first book in the Amazon. At 24 years old, I’ve written short stories, poems, articles, essays, technical manuals, memos, proposals, grocery lists, and random thoughts. I wrote in my planner, under July 17, fly to Peru. But I haven’t even attempted a book. When I finalized my plans, I thought about what I wanted the book to be – adventurous, but literary, and hopefully triumphant, though I couldn’t be sure until I wrote it. At best, my notes were disconnected sentences. But I researched and was constantly amazed. Boiling rivers found in the Amazon, lost civilizations, and new species. I was sure my book was there, between trees and leaves, maybe even disintegrating with plant debris, getting picked apart by ants.

Just a few days before jumping into the river for the first time, we landed in Puerto Maldonado. I’m certain all the bugs within a hundred square miles lifted their heads in unison and buzzed for fresh meat. A bright yellow sign announced The Royal Inn, among other loud signs and small shops. Motorbikes streamed past, most carrying multiple passengers – small children wedged between adults, holding even smaller dogs. Horns never stopped honking. In the hotel courtyard, two green birds perched above a dried-up fountain, squawking and preening. We met a man in his 90s, Don Johnson, who actively searches for the ancient gold of El Dorado. He isn’t the first to try and find lost gold, or an ancient city, but he may be the oldest. Settled in our room, I spied a dead bug on the ceiling, and felt a sort of grit between the sheets. Noise leaked in from outside. That’s when the smiling began.

I woke up to the courtyard birds pretending to be roosters, and soon we were on our way to the jungle. The back of the van meant more bounce (three feet or so), but I got a window seat and watched the green go by. At the river, my lungs expanded further than ever before, my pupils dilated, and even in the heat, a chill ran down my arms. Finally, I’d reached the vein of so many adventures. We climbed into a long boat and listened to the motor sputter before it woke up. I dipped my fingers in the river as we started to move.

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“You could write a book about one of these guys,” someone says, pulling me from my first memory of the river. He gestures around the common area. The people I’m with have climbed mountains, caught and released anacondas, and studied with aborigines. I know each of them will inevitably creep into my work – voices and anecdotes scattered between my characters.

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J.J. with an anaconda

The week is other-worldly. Home slips from my mind completely most days. We hike, fish, swim under waterfalls, and eat dinner by candle light. Any nerves I might have had are gone.

“Why do you read?” another traveler asks while we fish.

Lamely, I tell them I don’t know, as if it’s a stupid question.

They nod and think a moment, perhaps about their own life. “To escape?”

I wade into the water, shuffling my feet to deter stingrays. I realize the driving force of my personality, everything I am, every story I write, stems from a hope for escape.

“Yeah,” I answer. I’m up to my hips in water now and feel something nibble on my toe. I get the urge to submerge myself completely. “I suppose it is.”

When I was little, my Nanny and Pappa lived in a house with the most perfect tree planted in the yard. The branches hung low enough for me to pull myself up and climb until I was above the roof. The trunk branched out in four directions at the top and formed a sort of nest. Hidden, I could lean against the bark and read. Even then I had a shadow in my mind like the shadow that followed me into the river. The term depression seems too simplistic, too clinical, to describe the relationship I built with it. Up in the tree, reading Tolkien’s The Return of The King, I could almost disappear completely, escape the shadow and not miss its touch, for it posed, sometimes, as a friend. When I finished the trilogy, I cried. I could never read it for the first time again. How sad that I had to climb down out of the tree. It was the first time I felt the urge to escape my own mind.

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In the Amazon, we spend an afternoon climbing a 70-foot tree, but it doesn’t have the comforting low-hanging branches that my grandparents’ tree did. It’s being consumed by a Strangler Fig, a species that overtakes the original tree, spreading tentacle-like vines, stealing nutrients and sunlight. I struggle to climb. I’ve always been small, and while I can usually find footholds where others can’t, my hands shake. When I finally emerge from the canopy, I see the jungle unfold beneath me like Alice’s chessboard in Through the Looking Glass. Only 2-5% of sunlight ever reaches the forest floor so up above it all I’m struck by a simple truth that seems to hold now and always – the day is brighter than I ever thought it could be. There is a Y-shaped perch and I fold into it, trying to catch my breath. If I could build a home here, I would – me, my shadow, and the Strangler Fig.

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On our last night in the jungle, we boat to a riverside community to drink a few beers and take turns parading around with a red macaw on our shoulder. Chickens run beneath raised houses. A skinny dog disappears when it turns sideways. As a joke, someone has set up three cans labelled, papel, plastico, and vaso (paper, plastic, glass) – no one here is really concerned with recycling. The river flows on, and I feel a pang beneath my ribs. My smile falters. Too often, fiction is more vibrant than my own life, but this place is very real and somewhere to escape to. A little boy hugs the back of my legs and giggles. He says something in Spanish I don’t understand, but I just pull him onto my lap, and my smile returns. Back in the boat, we travel by the light of a headlamp. I touch the water, the boat, and the shore when we reach it, leaving as many fingerprints as I can, proof that I was here.

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After dark, I shine my light on the grass and thousands of crystalline orbs sparkle back at me. I know they are spider eyes and I’m in awe that that knowledge doesn’t terrify me. This place makes me brave. I try to organize the experience in my head. While in Peru, I have pierced my ear with a porcupine quill, laid my hand next to a jaguar track, tested a biting ant as a makeshift suture, slept to the sound of howler monkeys and beneath a hunting tarantula. I have hiked the jungle in my bare feet. So many great details for a book, but instead of leaving with one idea, one book, all I can think is that I want to keep looking.

Back home, I sit on the edge of my seat and write. It’s labored and the words are unsure, but what matters is that I’ve jumped, and plan to keep jumping because what is in the water doesn’t want to hurt me. At least for a little while, I escape into the words and see through newfound jungle eyes. The river flows on, and two things remain – to travel the world, and write how I see it.

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