Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Amazon, part 2

We're riding in a small boat down a creek off of the Napo River, one of the tributaries of the Amazon. The sun is hot and the humidity stifling, and the movement of air over us as the boat motors upstream is a relief. We're looking for a good spot for catching piranha, says our guide, Ricardo.  Doug and I attempted to fish for them on our visit 18 years prior, with no luck. I don't expect it to be different today; they're hard little buggers to catch. We pass houses, small platforms with thatched roofs and almost no furnishings. Small children swimming at the water's edge pause to wave as we pass. They're used to seeing tourists, but the sight of a child as young as Carter seems to surprise them.

Nearby a woman sits in a dugout canoe, washing clothes. She has a pan of soapy water sitting between her feet and she dips in a shirt scrubs the fabric together for a bit, then dips the shirt in the river to rinse it again. She nods in greeting as we pass.

"Mommy," Carter says, his gaze fixed not on the playing children, but on the woman washing clothes. "How can they get the clothes clean when they wash them in muddy water?"

"That," I reply, "is a very good question. I suppose they get them clean enough."

He frowns, and the skin at the bridge of his nose wrinkles slightly. "Why do they have to wash them in the river, though?"

This starts a long conversation about how the people here don't have washing machines, or even electricity. No television, no lights, no refrigerators – all of the things Carter is used to having in his life, none of that exists here. I can see the wheels turning in his head, can almost watch his worldview shifting. I sit back and watch him process it all, marveling at the fact that he gets to see this at the age of 5. I think I was an adult before I understood that people in many parts of the world live very differently than I do.  

We see children fishing as well, some sitting on the bank, others in dugout canoes, many as young as 7 or 8. Carter asks why they're fishing, and I explain that they aren't just doing it for fun, but they're getting food for the families. Whatever they catch will be dinner tonight. This is also a surprise to him, that children just a bit older than him could have such responsibilities. We've seen children of 7 or 8 paddling canoes, no adults in sight. One morning we saw a boy who could not have been ten operating a motor boat on the Amazon. The boat was laden with cargo and he was clearly making a delivery of some sort. It's summer vacation here now and the children are out of school until March, but it's clear that it isn't unusual for them to contribute to the family larder.

We go around a bend in the river, and it's my turn to be astonished: there is a young woman sitting in a dugout canoe, pulling a fishing net out of the water. Seated behind her is a baby of no more than eight or nine months. The baby is just sitting there, inches from the piranha-filled river, one hand clutching the side of the dugout. She watches us curiously as we pass, and her mother nods and smiles as she pulls her net from the water. I think about how American parents strap their babies into strollers and car seats, about the way we put up baby gates and clear everything breakable from a small child's reach when our children begin to crawl. I think of the family we visited a few days earlier in their thatched-roof home with little more than a railing around the edges of the platform that formed the floor. There was a little girl there who looked to be about 18 months old, and I now imagine her crawling on that wooden floor, with no real barrier between her and the 6-foot drop to the ground below.

We finally find a good fishing spot: shady in still, black water. The fishing poles are made from thin tree branches with fishing line tied on; no rods or reels here. The bait is small pieces of raw beef, which we work onto the hooks. We cast into the water and wait for the nibbles, which come quickly. Once you feel a nibble, you're supposed to give the line a jerk to hook the piranha. There's clearly a technique to it, one I'm not able to master. Our driver catches three fish in all and Ricardo catches one. They're orange-belly piranhas, about 6 inches long with fierce teeth.

In the meantime, I'm just feeding the fish. I feel nibbles, give my line a jerk, but the hook comes up empty over and over. Doug is working with Carter, and they're having similar luck.

Finally, Doug hooks one. It's small, so small that it has to be thrown back, but it's one more than we've caught before.  

And then finally, I get one, to my complete surprise.  

A few minutes later, Cater comes very close to hooking one all by himself. It comes out of the water partway before it escapes, leaving Carter with a look of astonishment on his face.

After that, there isn't much more action. The humidity is stifling, and Doug and I are covered with a layer of sweat. My white shirt is so wet it's nearly translucent. Carter, of course, looks totally fine. He's not even sweating.

We finally head back out to the Napo River, and the movement of air is welcome. Carter spins an idea about how to air condition a tent, and I listen. I point out that some of the houses have solar panels that probably provide enough electricity for lights. Ricardo tells us these were donated. Carter wonders again what it's like to live without electricity.

We're mostly living without it now. The Explornapo lodge was a camp when Doug and I were here in 1995, but now it's been upgraded a bit. The main dining area and bar are screened in now, providing a relatively mosquito-free place to hang out in the evenings. The open platform where we slept under mosquito nets has been converted to private rooms. These rooms don't have baths, though. We still use an outhouse and an outdoor shower. There is no hot water, but there is a generator that provides electricity to the main area in the form of lights, refrigeration, ceiling fans, and internet access. It's bizarre to be able to get online, but to have to use an outhouse.

There are less mosquitos this time. Thanks to the military-grade mosquito repellent we brought, I've only got a few bites, and Carter has maybe a dozen. Doug, of course, has more than he can count. They seem to brave the repellent to get to him, and his arms are covered with bites. He doesn't complain, though – neither of us do. It still feels like a privilege to be here, like we're getting a glimpse into an extraordinary world that few people do.

We have the lodge all to ourselves for the two nights we stay here. Most of the tourists come for the day from Ceiba Tops, visit the canopy walkway, and then return to the air-conditioned comfort of that camp. We enjoy the solitude of having a little slice of the rainforest all to ourselves for a brief period of time.

Carter enjoyed interacting with the animals that hang around camp, and gave them all names. He was a little uncertain about the parrots, though.

The piranha were tasty, by the way.

We hiked out to the canopy walkway on our first morning at Explornapo, a kilometer-long trek on a muddy trail through the rainforest. It had rained the night before, and so the humidity was even more stifling than usual. The mosquitos swarmed, but our repellent seemed to create a force field. Carter walked along carefully, finally following the rules of walking in the rainforest (1. Stay behind Ricardo; 2. Stay on the trail; 3. Walk), and didn't complain until nearly the end of the hike. We finally reached the first station and climbed the stairs, ascending into the canopy.

The canopy walkway was built in the early 90s, and was a joint project between Explorama and a research group. It's one of only a few in the world, and it's quite a feat of engineering. The walkways are strung between a dozen tree stations, and they swing precariously when you walk across. I'd forgotten how the sensation is both breathtaking and nervewracking. It was a bit cooler at the top, slightly less humid, and we paused to take some photos and enjoy the view.

After two nights at Explornapo, it was time to return to Ceiba Tops for our last night in the Amazon. We were ready, frankly. It's amazing how often you can put on the same dirty, sweaty, smelly clothes, but it's even more amazing to be able to take a hot shower and put on clean ones. Carter got to swim in the pool again, and we all got a good night's sleep without worrying about whether some body part was touching the mosquito net.

Here is Ceiba Tops' resident tapir. These animals are HUGE.

The next morning we went on one more outing, to La Isla de los Monos, an island where there is a monkey rehabilitation project going on. They take in orphaned and kidnapped young monkeys and try to help them learn to live in the rainforest again. Many were repurchased from people who'd bought them as pets, and so they're very familiar with humans. So familiar, in fact, that within a few minutes of being on the island I was wearing a few.

One wanted to climb into Carter's arms, but he did not like that one bit. By the end of our visit, he finally worked up the courage to pet a baby monkey, but for the most part he kept his distance and just watched them.

The project lives on donations, especially to formula feed the baby monkeys they bring in. If you'd like to make a donation, their web site is here:

And that's the end of our time in the Amazon. We flew back to Lima for a night and then to Cuzco, where we are now. Look for another update in a few days, and please feel free to comment here or on Facebook. As always, I have lots more photos queued up on our Tumblr page (link), so check those out as well.


  1. By the end of the trip you will be sick of my comments because all of them will be "wow!, amazing, unique, love the description, fun!
    I don't know what else to say, you are living my dream. Tell Carter that he is wise to keep his distance from the parrots. I had a parrot just like that one growing up and his bites were legend.

  2. When a friend of mine did the Peace Corps in the Philippines, he was amused to note that he frequently had electrical brownouts, and he had to get his water from a well in the courtyard, but he always (always!) had wi-fi and cell phone service.

    My sympathies to Doug regarding mosquitoes. They love me too. They will fly past other people to land on me. And I loathe the smell of DEET, and having to put it on the same sweaty skin and clothes every day, but the only thing worse than DEET is mosquito bites.

    (my google account says I'm "unknown," but this is April)