I'd Rather Be in the Amazon
Tama Janowitz finds bliss, bartering -- and perhaps her next novel -- in a Peruvian jungle retreat
It's a novelist's dream: I'm lying in a hammock at the Yacumama Lodge, 4 1/2 hours from the colonial city of Iquitos, in a remote section of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. The characters around me appear to have staggered off the pages of an amazing variety of books, from Heart of Darkness and A Handful of Dust to Lonesome Dove, along with a volume or two by escapees from Devil's Island.
Nearby is Norman Walters, the American co-owner of the lodge, a musician who gave up the tranquillity of Hawaii eight years ago to collaborate with his high school friend Lawrence Bishop on this project. It required training a crew of 60 local river people as carpenters (many of them are now on the resort's staff), and Walters seems to have gone slightly mad in the process. Our group of 12 includes a young doctor from Minneapolis, a naturalist from Idaho who plans to gather mushrooms, a California junior high school teacher, and my friend Paige Powell, an Oregon animal rights activist who lies beneath the mosquito netting in our cabin, unable to get out of bed (she has a terrible cold).
We all have ended up here for the week thanks to Steven Shephard's Salmon River Outfitters, a company best known for organizing rafting trips along the Salmon, a.k.a. the River of No Return, in Idaho. My own Idaho excursion had been such a perfect experience that I was ready to give the jungle a try. "No malaria pills needed," Steve had said. "No yellow fever shots."
"What if your feet get wet?Do hideous things swim under your skin and lay eggs?"
He assured me this was not going to happen.
The lodge is on the Yarapa River, a tributary of the Amazon. There are other lodges in the area, but this one lies at the center of its own 5,000 acres of virgin rain forest. We arrived here via Iquitos, which is accessible only by boat or plane (it's eight hours from Miami, with a change in Lima). The city is incredibly clean, and the people friendly, except for a bunch of boys outside our hotel who were trying to sell silver jewelry. At the sight of me they burst into laughter and began to point and dance around. I am somewhat accustomed to being mocked, but it irked me to be mocked and simultaneously implored to buy things. So from Lawrence Bishop, I acquired my only Spanish phrase: Propina, por favor. This means "A tip, please." I figured that if I was going to be viewed during my visit as something akin to a performing monkey, I should at least get paid for it.
After a night in Iquitos we all boarded a speedboat for the half-day voyage up the Amazon. We passed men paddling dugout canoes, a boat that resembled an old paddle wheeler, and, most amazingly, a floating box filled with Peruvians lying in hammocks. The box-the local mode of long-distance river transportation-was headed for a jungle city 12 days away. At the rate it was going, I could understand why it would take so long. I wished I were the kind of person who could travel like that, locally, toiletless and showerless. I felt I was catching a glimpse of the world Somerset Maugham wrote about, which I'd assumed had completely vanished.
In three hours we reached the Yarapa River, where a group of rare boto, or pink dolphins, began to leap and frolic. One was indeed a vivid pink, another was a purplish blue. We could see where the blackish tannic water of the Yarapa collided with the milky green Amazon. Nearing the lodge, we passed an astonishing variety of birds-toucans, parrots, parakeets, kingfishers. There were iridescent green, blue, and red birds; birds with pink heads; huge purple turkey-like creatures.
We arrived at a large thatched structure connected by raised wooden walkways to 32 cabins, a hammock room, and a screened hall with tables holding chess sets and magazines. Inside the main lodge, with dining tables and a bar constructed out of moena, the indigenous wood that resembles mahogany, we were each given a shot of Seven Roots, an elixir made from roots fermented in rum. It tasted slightly medicinal and only vaguely alcoholic. We stood around, sipping our drinks and letting the roar of the boat die down in our heads.
When it was time for the room assignments, Norman Walters made a speech. His waist was girded with chains, keys, and nuts and bolts, and he wore a small, faintly distinguished goatee. "Everything in this lodge is ecologically and environmentally sound," he said sharply. "We have solar panels to provide energy, and because this is the rain forest, we have a special flush toilet system. Never put anything down the toilets. There are men's toilets and showers, and women's toilets and showers. Toilets number three and four are for number two. Take your showers military-style."
"Um…question?" I raised my hand timidly.
"Yes." Norman paused for a breath.
"What's a military-style shower?"
"That means turn on the water, get wet, then turn it off, soap up, and turn on the water to rinse. Take as many showers as you like, but try not to waste water.
"Now," he said, "I'm going to show you how to light your kerosene lamps. There's a box of matches in your room; I advise you to seal it in a plastic bag because of the humidity." As Norman's speech continued, the rules of rain-forest living carried me farther away from my familiar comfort zone. I was in heaven. I might be able to write a whole novel based on Norman and the lodge. "If you find an insect or an animal in your room at night, don't scream, and don't kill it. Just yell. One of the staff will come to remove it. This is a preserve. The tarantulas and scorpions have a right to be here, too."
The cabins are charming: each has a thatched roof, a screened patio, and crisply made beds shrouded in netting. I climbed into mine and fell asleep listening to a bizarre array of chirps, grunts, moans, and shrieks. I couldn't tell what was making the sounds-perhaps birds, monkeys…or prisoners of Norman's, chained on top of fire-ant nests?
The food at Yacumama is simple and delicious-grilled fish, rice and beans, no red meat. Breakfast is served at 7:30. Ordinarily, this would be a hardship for me, but not with white-faced tamarin monkeys leaping in the palm trees, the smell of pancakes, and tons of hot coffee. The first morning, our guide Octavio Santana, a shaman of the local Yagua tribe based an eight-hour-hike away, told us about having been discovered by an English explorer. "I spoke only my language. The men in my tribe, they wear the grass skirt. So the man take me to Ari's bar in my grass skirt. I don't like. All the people! The lights! It too cold." I didn't know whether he meant it was too cold metaphorically, or that he got a chill from wearing a skirt in air-conditioning.
Octavio led us into the forest after warning us not to touch anything. Apparently it's easy to be pierced, stung, or bitten. He knows all the plants and their medicinal uses. There are vines that, if dried, boiled, and prepared a certain way, keep one's spouse at home, happily doing the dishes. There are trees whose bark cures tuberculosis, grasses that stop mosquitoes from biting babies. Octavio poked at a tree hole, and a giant tarantula crawled out and scuttled away.
In the afternoon we all piled into a little motorboat and went fishing-for piranha. Everyone got a handmade pole and a stack of raw, wet casharo fish for bait, but nobody caught anything-nobody except the guides, all of whom began pulling in piranha. Drifting in the boat, with the motor off and the occasional flash of dolphin flipper or kingfisher wing, I felt as if I had been transported to the most fantastic children's camp in the world.
The next day Octavio took small groups in a canoe to see the rare hoatzin bird. In some strange prehistoric-looking shrubbery, a few pheasant-size creatures with fabulous feathered headdresses jumped about, fluttering and calling. On the riverbank we had a tasty lunch of barbecued payara fish, rice, and cassava chips. Back in the canoe, someone yelled, "Look, there's a sloth in the tree." The animal was so far away, it looked like a lump. "Oh, yes." Octavio peered casually into the distance. "That's a three-toed mother sloth with its six-month-old baby."
At the mouth of the river everyone jumped off the boat for a swim. The day was sticky, the water bathtub-warm, and the dolphins circled, not tame but not unfriendly. Jokes were made about the fluke that swims up men's urethras if they happen to urinate while swimming in the Amazon. Legend has it that once inside, the fluke (in fact a minute catfish) sends out sharp barbs that can't be extracted. But either few men urinate while swimming in the Amazon or the creature doesn't exist-at least not in this area, because there have been no reported cases of lucky flukes.
One night we were taken to Puerto Miguel, a nearby village where about 100 people live in thatched houses on stilts. In addition to supplying many locals with jobs, the Yacumama Lodge built the village school and has helped revive indigenous crafts by introducing a steady supply of souvenir hunters. Paige and I had packed a lot of things we didn't need, and we decided the village trip was the perfect chance to dispose of this stuff.
"We'll hold our own sale!"
"Good thinking," I said. "Let's make a sign. How do you say 'sale' in Spanish?"
"Um…" said Paige. "Salida."
"Okay," I said. "Salida Nuevo York."
So on the muddy ground where the locals had set out blankets covered with things to buy, we installed our own trading post on a plastic sheet. A shock of disbelief rippled across the compound, followed by laughter. Apparently no tourist had come up with this plan before. Paige and I did a brisk business, trading magazines, nail polish, and swimming goggles for other things we didn't want, such as baskets and wooden flutes and seed bracelets. Meanwhile, the villagers were able to get rid of things they didn't want and to acquire things they didn't need. The whole arrangement was mutually satisfying.
We came away with so much stuff that back at the lodge we decided to sell the extra baskets to our group. This time our sign said, GOING OUT OF BUSINESS—ASK ABOUT OUR PRICES.
"Tell me," Norman said. "Why did you decide to call your stall Exit New York?"
"Oh." We dissolved in laughter.
Each day at dawn, groups of three or four guests are taken by boat to the lodge's viewing platform, atop a massive ficus tree high in the jungle canopy. This morning, our last, as I climbed five stories to this crazy Swiss Family Robinson perch, the dawn rose over the mist-covered trees. The jungle stretched for miles; the treetops looked like crowns of broccoli. Tamarin monkeys popped up with worried expressions. And birds, those extraordinary birds-brilliant daffodil yellow, tangerine, ice-blue, viridian, iridescent pink-screamed and sang, petulant, happy, as they greeted the morning, never knowing how lucky they are to be in one of the last unspoiled jungles.
Salmon River Outfitters (800/346-6204, or phone and fax 208/325-3400; www.salmonriveroutfitters.com) leads seven-day trips to the Yacumama Lodge year-round; $1,345 per person, including lodging, meals, ground travel, and guides. The same trip is offered by GreenTracks (800/966-6539, or phone and fax 970/884-6107; www.greentracks.com).