Written by: Liliana Mae
One day my friend Rosario who runs the front desk at a family-run hotel in Puerto told me that a couple of my crazy paisanos had arrived, and I should be their friend. This turned out to be the beginning of a grand adventure and how I fell in love with the forest of the Amazon. I ran into the trio as they prepared to raft a remote, uncharted section of the Rio Alto Madre de Dios. We chatted briefly, they showed me on Google Earth just how out into the jungle they were headed, and with a wave goodbye they asked me to alert the authorities if they didn´t show up back in Puerto within three weeks.
I came to find out that these are three young conservationists with an unbridled passion for the jungle and its flora and fauna. Paul Rosolie, who runs Tamandua Expeditions with his Peruvian business partner Juan Julio, has been coming to this region of the Peruvian Amazon since he was a teen. He tends to casually drop stories that make you shake your head or make your jaw drop. Picture the Crocodile Hunter with a New Jersey accent.
With Paul was Mohsin Kazmi, photographer, marketing and development manager, and eager naturalist who wears a suit and tie in the States, but was often called hombre lobo, or ¨werewolf¨, in Peru because of the wild effects of the forest on his facial hair.
I also had the pleasure of become friends with Gowri Varanashi, a brilliant young woman who met Paul in India, her home country, over a shared love for snakes and rainforest conservation. The two married and she has since worked with the team and conducted her own thesis project to document and analyze sightings of fauna along the Rio Las Piedras. The tales of their three weeks rafting through Manu and the far-off Rio Alto Madre de Dios, complete with a picture of a large fish Paul managed to catch with a callus he cut off his foot for bait, had me wondering ¨who the heck are these people?!¨ So, naturally when they invited me to their research station for a week with a warning that they were leaving in an hour´s time, I jumped at the chance.
I shoved my hammock, bug spray, and some clothes into my backpack and met them and their trusted taxi driver Peluca outside the hotel within the hour. Peluca gets his nickname, which literally means ¨wig,¨ from the luscious curls that fall past his shoulders, which, combined with a self-proclaimed talent for Salsa, has purportedly gotten him many ladies in his days. To his benefit, he did get us through several roadblocks with a knowing nod from the women with the keys to the gates. But really, I kind of fell for the guy after watching him drive straight-faced through mud up to my waist voicing a string of puta madre ¨whore mothers” .
We drove an hour or so to Alegría, a small town centered around the trade of castaña, or Brazil nuts. Here castañeros, those who collect the nuts from the forest floor, bring their harvest from concessions deep in the jungle to sell to intermediaries who buy at low prices and sell much higher to brokers who come seasonally to Puerto from Lima and elsewhere. From Alegría we headed into the jungle on a pocked dirt road that was financed a decade ago by a group of Brazil nut collects, but, I soon realized, has received little to no repair since, despite its frequent use. The motor bike behind us was loaded down with two heavy-set men who waited on the edge of each mud pool, watching Peluca try to maneuver through and gauging their own approach.
Several hours of orange clay and sand later, we came to a small community that was obviously struggling to scratch a living from a newly-cleared chunk of jungle along the rushing Rió Las Piedras. We threw our bags into the group’s longboat and Paul and Mohsin began the struggle of keeping the cracking and banging, ancient and oily peki-peki motor alive (a preoccupation that involved continuously pouring gas into the tank and often pushing off the shore with paddles as Paul hauled on the choke). This would take up most of the following hour-and-a-half trip up river. We arrived at an indescribable bank to the sound of Macaws passing overhead and the intoxicating scent of unrecognizable flowers, and though I was not done asking what I had gotten myself into, the magic of the place was already enfolding me.
Days in the jungle began with the loud and building guttural drone of howler monkeys as they marked their territory, followed by the sounds of playful spider monkeys and capuchins jumping through the jungle canopy surrounding the thatched roof of the research station. As this was time for the folks I was with to ¨relax¨ after their previous harrowing adventures, we of course spent the first night traipsing through a swamp. A jungle swamp at night is definitely the place to be for every amphibian, arachnid and insect around. The croaking of the frogs was nearly cacophonous. Millions of tree frogs, some as small as my fingernail and in many variations of greens and browns, coated the leaves and jumped from frond to frond as we disturbed the water with our huge human movements. Gelatinous sacks of eggs hung from nearly every surface, ready to drip into the water when the tadpoles were mature enough.
I cannot describe the multitude of creatures feeding, mating, and singing in the swamp that night, moreover I only saw or understood small pieces of the life at play. In my journal I wrote:
¨Life everywhere! Grasshoppers the size of my palm, huge neon caterpillars with orange tufts that scream DON’T TOUCH; geometric-patterned assassin beetles that stick their proboscis into their insect prey and suck out their innards!¨
In the light of our headlamps, we watched as a green spider, stretching nearly as large as my hand, stared at us with its red eyes glowing as it slowly shoveled big chunks of tree frog into its mouth. While I stood overwhelmed by the chorus of sounds and mosquitoes that I kept mistaking for moths, Paul, Mohsin, and Gowri were looking for a caiman. Soon they spotted the alligator´s eye shine glowing like red sparks above the water. Despite a fresh, bone-deep machete wound on his leg, Paul announced they were going to catch it. I watched and Gowri yelled at her husband to try to keep his bandage dry as he and Mohsin pounced on and proceeded to wrestle the surprised reptile. After we stood and admired the large female Paul gestured to the jaws in his hand and told me to grip firmly as he passed her into my and Gowri’s hands. After a few photos they released her back into the swamp.
Most of my journal entries from my time with the folks from Tamandua were about how exciting it was to be surrounded by young people who were following their passions and were devoted to influencing and changing conservation, tourism, and research. I felt welcomed into their love of the jungle by their eagerness to share their knowledge of the flora and fauna. Their excitement at the slightest sound was contagious, and I would find myself trailing after them into the dark following the moan of a Jaguar in heat. Engaging in animated conversations about the connections between struggling farmers migrating from impoverished mountain regions, encroaching gold mining in the Madre de Dios, and the efforts to preserve this stretch of jungle–I felt giddy with the encouraging knowledge that my passion is connected to the work of these inspiring peers.
In five days I saw monstrous trees with roots that snake like mountain ranges, watched bullet ants scurry across my path, hacked open and tasted the fresh meat of Brazil nut cocos, and got to know people who share the same energy and dedication as the adventurers and conservationists I idealized as a child. I left enchanted by the deep jungle, but also having recognized that I did not share quite the same level of passion with these young conservationists. Their commitment to protecting the diversity of the rainforest had me thinking of everything I love of my own temperate rainforest, and I felt more certainty than ever that the Pacific North West is where I want to devote myself. Most of all I felt a new sense of clarity to continue following my questions and threads of food and farming; strengthened by the support of my new friends to explore the connections between agriculture and conserving biodiversity.
As for the folks of Tamandua, they are launching all sorts of amazing new projects, most recently the exciting release of Paul’s new memoir Mother of God: An Extraordinary Journey into the Uncharted Tributaries of the Western Amazon. It has gotten rave reviews and will surely have you cringing, your heart beating, and your mind full of smells, sights, and sounds of the jungle. Paul is definitely the guy I would choose to show me how to save the Amazon, because he does it through thrilling story after story. There is a great article about Paul and his new book at news.mongabay.com.
If you have ever considered experiencing the Peruvian Amazon first-hand, I highly recommend Tamandua Expeditions. They conduct very interactive and skillfully guided trips to the Las Piedras and Madre de Dios region of the Amazon that focus on wildlife research, conservation, and responsible volunteer/adventure travel. Currently they are expanding to hosting everything from University research visits, to yoga retreats. Check out tamanduajungle.com for more. Watch out Western science staff, I will be trying to finagle a class trip in the near future.