Internet access at Xixuau has been slow and intermittent, so this post is a few days late. Another timely post follows. Enjoy!
Heavy rain began to fall during the night, and continued well into the morning. I found myself thinking that this was not an auspicious beginning for an overnight camping trip, but quickly realized that this is an absurd notion. Besides being superstitious, there is no way of predicting the weather later in the day. What was no fun, though, was all the leaks in the roof of my maloca, which left many of my belongings wet, including some of the clothing I had planned on wearing. And my camera, which I had left out so I would remember the battery I left charging the previous night, had been dripped on for hours (fortunately it's weather-sealed, and was working perfectly). After breakfast, I just sat and waited on the porch of my maloca until the rain slowed and the guides decided to begin our trip.
I was not all that excited about a camping trip in the Amazon, especially given the wet conditions. The huts are plenty rustic and close to nature, so it seemed silly to go through the trouble of setting up a camp just a few miles up the river. But I followed the group consensus, hoping for a good time. One of the canoes was fitted with a small outboard motor, and we formed a train of four canoes for an unexpectedly long two-hour trip up the Rio Jauperi and off on a tributary to a remote bit of land. Within an hour of landing, the guides had set up camp. They found some large branches and cut down others, created a shelter using a tarp, and put a dozen pairs of large stakes in the ground to hold all of our hammocks. The cook built a grill out of wood and started a fire, and we soon had a lunch of rice with white piranha and pacu (a vegetarian relative of the piranha). Many tourists to the Amazon get very excited about going fishing for piranha. I don't quite understand the appeal and mystique of coming all this way to go fishing, but I must say that the piranha, as well as the pacu and rainbow bass we've had here, are absolutely delicious. Grilling the fishes whole with some salt rubbed into slits in the sides is all it takes.
Even at our camp by the river, the mosquitoes were torture, and they were even worse in the forest. But after waiting out the rain, being cramped up in the canoes for two hours, and sitting around the campsite, most of us were eager to walk around (Ed went fishing with one of the guides instead). We went as a big group, and spotted some monkeys and birds. I took a few scenic photos, though it's difficult in a large group that doesn't want to stop and wait for a photographer to set up a tripod and compose. And photographing wildlife is a big challenge because the forest is so dense and the animals tend to flee from people. I can understand just how difficult it is to study wildlife in the Amazon. It's hard enough to find, much less observe to learn about the animals' behavior. The forest itself looks very chaotic as well, making it difficult to find pleasing compositions. I had expected a thick canopy very high in the trees with open areas below. But there are no distinct levels here. I'm told that the vegetation grows and replaces itself very quickly. There are a few large trees scattered around, but most are fewer than 200 years old. Most are much younger, competing with each other and with smaller plants for space. So I've had to adjust my expectations and desires for our excursions in the forest. Getting hot and sweaty and steamy is part of the experience. Seeing wildlife and/or finding good photos is a bonus rather than a goal. Being bitten by mosquitoes and ants is . . . . still very annoying, but unavoidable.
After returning to camp, hot and bitten, we took an extremely refreshing dip in the river, and applied a fresh coat of insect repellent. Ed came back with more white piranha, and the chef supplemented it with some kielbasa and the ever-present rice. Delicious again. As evening fell, the mosquitoes seemed to retire for the night, and though the air was still moist and our clothing and hammocks damp and sticky, it was much more pleasant. The guides lit candles around the campsite (which looked like Shabbat candles) so we could see as we ate and got cleaned up. I had expected that we would sit around talking and maybe singing into the evening, but by 8:30 everyone decided that there was nothing to do there and went to bed. I found it odd that "nothing to do" was suddenly a problem. If we had been at the village, we would have sat around the dinner table with the same "nothing to do" and made something out of it. So I sat on the edge of my hammock, meditating and listening to the chorus of crickets and frogs. My doubts about the camping trip suddenly disappeared as the evening made it all worthwhile.
My body is not well suited to sleeping in a hammock, so I did not rest well at all. Breakfast was little more than milk and bread (and coffee, which I don't like). We took down camp and headed out in small groups for a morning in the forest. I went with Zezinio and Peter, as usual. We took the motor-driven canoe for about 20 minutes, following a kingfisher along the way (or so it seemed; we were probably just frightening and annoying him). We came to another remote forest area and took a longer than expected hike. More chaotic rainforest. Not much luck finding wildlife. I heard a hummingbird fly past, but couldn't see it. At a few other points, we found some large birds. We could often hear them quite well, but only caught a glimpse as they hit in the trees or flew off. Peter seemed very worn out and was moving slowly. I took some time to capture more scenics. When I go through the trouble of carrying a tripod and a backpack full of lenses, I like to use them. The highlight of the walk came near the end, when we found some wild pigs, which seemed to pound on the forest floor because of their size. They grunted, and made barking noises, sounding very much like dogs. Peter, who is a farmer by trade, grunted back. Seeing large mammals here is a thrill for its rarity. This afternoon, we'll be heading out in the canoe to try to find the giant otters. Another group that was visiting found them, so Chris believes that we know where they hang out in the evenings.
It's hard not to have mixed feelings about the camping trip, and these adventures in the Amazon in general. I find it easy to forget how special this place is, and how fortunate I am to be here. The conditions are often physically uncomfortable, making me wish for a cool, dry place with a good chair, my favorite foods and activities and schedule . . . the ideal world that I dream of. But the ideal doesn't exist, of course, and I'm in a place that's almost magical. I love the time off from work, the simplicity of the life, the beauty of the natural world, and the awareness that knows and experiences it all. Just as it does in every circumstance, the desire for bliss gets in the way of living in the wonders of the present moment.
The afternoon brought dark clouds, more rain (on and off), and thunder in the distance. We headed out in the canoe as planned. Photography would be difficult with so little light, but I wanted to try. I took the middle seat in the canoe, sitting quietly and peacefully as Zezinio and Peter paddled. Most of our outings have been quiet, as all three of us tend to say little. I've sometimes wished for more descriptions of the plants and animal's we're seeing, but the quiet time to be with the Amazon has been wonderful. As I sat there with nothing to do but look around and wait, it occurred to me what a paradise this place is for so many of the animals that live here, including the humans. That's not to say that life here is easy. The people of the reserve work hard to make a living. Most of the other plants and animals do as well, as there are almost always predators hiding nearby. But there is so much unspoiled space, clean air and water, and a balance that is hard to find elsewhere, especially in the human world. I again noticed how my mind tends to drift off into stories and thoughts of far off places because it gets bored with so little happening in the present. One wouldn't think that paradise could be boring, but the mind find it so. We so often think get caught up with things that are not present, even when what we're doing in the present is exactly what we thought we wanted to do.
Wildlife viewing got off to a slow start, as most of the expected birds seemed to be sheltering from the rain and gloomy sky. But as we entered an area of the flooded forest, we come across a huge group of capuchin monkeys--at least 40 in the family. They chirped like birds, talking and arguing and playing. They jumped through the trees, all headed in the same general direction. Zezinio followed them in the canoe as best he could, trying to get us a good view. Hopefully some of my photos will be something other than a tiny blur of cuteness. We then headed over to the otters' den, and found them getting in their last bit of play before turning in for the evening. The riverbank was especially dark today, and they stayed close to the shore. Giant otters really are giants compared to the river otters of the U.S. They have small heads, but grow to nearly six feet long (including the tail). We watched as they popped in and out of the vegetation, and one by one headed up the steep bank into their burrow. My inner perfectionist complained that I couldn't get great photos, and wished that I hadn't left the flash in my hut. But after the last otter disappeared into the den, Zezinio and I exchanged big smiles over the experience, and we headed back to the village.