Bleary-eyed and lethargic, we chug downstream through muddy brown waters as the cool morning air gradually lifts our heavy, squinting eyelids. The breeze is a refreshing change from the cloying heat we are used to and as our spirits are lifted by its tonic touch the boat becomes a chattier place, several languages mixing in a confused but enthusiastic hubbub over the thudding of the outboard motor.
After just over a month of trying to integrate with the people of Puerto Maldonado, a border town in the Peruvian Amazon; after mistakes and miner’s strikes, after panicked cats coming through collapsing roofs, after exotic pet shows and unkempt, city-wide parades; my girlfriend and I had decided to venture into the region’s Tambopata Reserve, and let nature clear our heads.
As it turned out, integrating with the natural world in our limited, excitable manner would not necessarily prove much easier, but it would be infinitely more inspiring. Armouring ourselves with enough nuclear bug-spray to irradiate our children’s children couldn’t save us from mosquito bites in the triple digits. Terrified baby opossums would endeavour to share our bed space with that fluid that babies always seem so ready to share. But whenever our sorry, tired bodies glided gently out onto the tranquil waters of Lake Sandoval, our minds forgot about their complaints.
Off-white butterflies dance gently around the faces of basking turtles. Stiff, formal wading birds stalk the banks, decked out in their tuxedos of blue. Giant otters dive synchronously under the water, and break the surface again, making barely a ripple. In sunshine the lake and its surrounding jungle is peaceful, meditative, still. Reclining in your canoe, dappling a hand in the water, seems like the natural thing to do. As the sun sets a gentle wash of mauve, orange and inky blue crawls across the water and we are sucked into darkness.
Night-time is close and eerie. Unprepared, we become completely reliant on a solitary beam of soft light that our guide, Jackson, flits around the suddenly flimsy seeming canoe. Our eyes strain into the darkness searching for gleaming, alien lights looking back at us. The shining eyes of ten metre caymans are all you see until they are almost upon you. “Coco!”, calls Jackson into the darkness, beckoning them closer. We decide Barney sounds friendlier. At least jaguars don’t swim. Do they?
Stumbling down the pitch-dark trails is equal parts forbidding and exhilarating. Jackson’s spot of light lingers on spiders the size of my hand. “Don’t disturb them!”, he calls out cheerily, before the light darts off in a different direction and we loose sight of them completely in the encompassing dark. By the time we return to camp our eyes are drooping but our grins are fixed as we swap stories of the day’s events over candle-light.
Our day begins and ends, essentially, with the light. Each morning’s 5am wake-up call gets us out on the lake just as the sun breaks slowly over the tree-line. Or finds us enveloped in a thick, smuggler’s fog. Torrential rain doesn’t dampen our spirits, nor does the sunburn that reddens our skin. We jump at any opportunity to explore this magical, interactive landscape. To scope the colourful macaws as they flocked to their clay-licks, to play with blundering beetles in the undergrowth.
The jungle has a magical ability to make the world much smaller. Your field of view draws in much closer, and you become intensely aware of smaller details – sounds, sights and smells. Cut off, even for a limited time, from the all-pervasive web, and with our trickle of electricity dedicated to essentials, we sought out the simpler magic I remember from childhood. Chasing each other recklessly down tangled pathways, ninja-fighting the ever-present mosquitoes, waltzing with clouds of butterflies. By day three even our cerveza pounding, chain smoking Italian compatriots were swinging from vines like giddy children.
I was inspired by Tambopata to let go of my misgivings about a place in the world I thought I had grown tired of. To wake with the morning, and sleep with the night. To take my eyes away from screens and turn them instead to the world around me. And to spend my time immersed in an environment entirely and unreservedly, taking advantage of all around me.
About the Author: Andrew Fowler is a wandering English teacher and gastronomical adventurer who has lived in South-East Asia and South America for the past four years. He was born and raised in London, UK, and is currently lugging an oversized backpack full of his worldly belongings through Bolivia.
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