See Part I here.
I must have been adjusting to the Amazon schedule, because on the second day of my Three Day Amazon Adventure at Heliconia Lodge I was awake at 6am. My excitement about the mornings’ excursions helped bolt me out of bed — we were going piranha fishin’ and pink dolphin spottin’!
The river boat we boarded was something out of a Tom Sawyer novel. The wooden vessel was strewn with rattan furniture, which I pulled right up to the starboard side so I could watch the Rio Amazonas go by with my feet up on the rails. When the motor stopped we embarked onto a small metal speed boat and headed down one of the Amazon tributaries — where the piranhas live.
My fishing experience has been limited to whimperingly accompanying my three nannying charges to the local pond where I was forced against my will to handle worms and remove hooks from fish eyeballs (at least I got payed extra on those days). Still, I was pretty thrilled to see piranhas up close and in the wild.
Turns out though, I’m not much of “patience” person. After a full seven minutes of casting reels off my wooden fishing rod and coming up empty, I was kind of over it. However, I busied myself with photographing others’ catches and shrieking appropriately whenever a fish of any kind flopped onboard.
After that excitement, we stopped along the riverbanks so we could swim in the Amazon. I’ve never been one to swim in water where I can’t see my feet below me, so I gave it a pass. I will say it was one of my most scenic nap locations ever.
Finally, we looked for pink river dolphins, which Freddy assured us were abundant in the waters around us. Indeed, when he stood on the bow of the boat and made what I otherwise would have assumed was a comical dolphin impression, they responded to his calls with brief breaches out of the water. They moved quickly, with flashes of their pink-grey skin breaking through the muddy surface of the water before I could focus my lens on them.
Earlier, I had asked why there were so many dolphins in the Amazon, whereas manatees had been hunted almost to extinction. He explained that the Amazon people have a legend in which dolphins are descendants of spiritual humans – thus, even the hungriest of tribes leave them be. Lucky dolphins. Unlucky photographer.
After lunch and free time at the lodge – which I used to take another dip in the pool – we head out for the afternoon excursion. Our first stop was a family run sugarcane distillery not far from Heliconia by boat. I had a hard time focusing on the sugarcane making process, but was fascinated by the archaic machinery and fluttered around taking photos. Again, there was an opportunity to buy souvenirs, but this time I passed — I can’t haul a bottle of liquid all over Peru for who knows how long.
The patriarch of the family regaled us with a fascinating story, translated for me by Freddy. In the Amazon, showers are… the Amazon. There is no plumbing, no electricity. So when this man traveled to Lima for the first time recently, he didn’t know how to work the shower in his room, and ended up giving himself severe burns. He relayed this slapstick tale with full body laughter it apparently deserved.
Next up was an unscheduled stop. Someone in the group had made passing reference to a long held desire to see a sloth. Freddy responded that his friends kept one, “as a pet.” I was intrigued – it made sense that the kind of animals kept as pets in the remote Peruvian Amazon would be different than those we keep in suburban America, right?
I can’t seem to find words to describe the sloth. Steven Spielberg was undoubtedly studying one when he created ET – they are twins in body shape, movement, and alien-ness. Her movements were slow and fluid but she never stopped moving. She was one of the most fascinating creatures I’ve ever seen up close.
Sadly the fun ended there. After the sloth came a parade of other Amazon animals, each handled more roughly than the next by their supposed human companion. The dog who hung around seemed timid and terrified of the man, and I watched in horror as he threw a rock at the beautiful pup. I realized that this was not a simple Amazon family showing off their beloved pet sloth as I had naively hoped but rather a low budget one-man zoo working for tips.
I watched as the owner dropped an exotic river turtle into a flower pot filled with dirty water and my heart sank. It’s a complicated issue – how can you expect someone to provide clean water and adequate housing for a turtle when they themselves have no plumbing? Still, I felt for the animals there.
Before dinner we rallied for one more excursion, a short nighttime jungle walk. I surprised myself by being calm and collected as we looked at tarantulas the size of human palms, though I did politely decline to allow it to crawl on my body. I was, however, extremely irritated by the bugs buzzing and whirring around me, attracted to our lights. I was so overwhelmed by frustration I couldn’t wait for the walk to be over. I realized that in the Amazon I would not die of lack of skills, or fear, or inability to effectively use resources. No, I would simply die of annoyance.
On the final day of the tour, my alarm went off at 5:45am for a sunrise boat trip, but I was already awake thanks to the deafening rain storm that had been raging for hours. Obviously, that trip was cancelled. Rain still pounding, we set off at 9am to view the giant lily pads. The expedition was kind of a wash for me, literally and figuratively. But while I wasn’t all that wowed by the lily pads I was once again fascinated by my conversations with our guide.
I asked him about the Mormons I had seen swirling around Iquitos. He laughed and revealed that he too had been given The Book of Mormon, but told them that “he was still thinking about it.” I asked why anyone in these tight knit, traditional communities would have reason to convert and he explained that many locals consider it an entry ticket to a more prosperous life in America, as missionaries often promise relocation assistance to converts.
Freddy revealed that twice, he too had tried to visit the US, but twice was denied a visa. “In Nuevo York, you have a very tall building, what is it?” Well, a few, I thought. “The Empire State Building?” I ventured. “Yes, so tall! So scary!” He giggled and shivered nervously. This was a man who, in the space of twenty four hours, I had watched catch a tarantula with his bare hands, wrestle a caiman and swim in the piranha infested Amazon. Okay, Freddy would want me to note that technically, piranhas live in the shallow tributaries and not the actual Amazon where people swim, but you get my drift.
All too soon, it was time to head back to civilization – or at least Iquitos. I really enjoyed my time at Heliconia. The plants and animals of the jungle were impressive, but mostly I loved having a first hand peek into life on the mighty Amazon.
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