Anacondas & Ayahuasca: Survival Training in the Amazon

The Amazon.  The largest river running through the largest rainforest in the world.  Covering only 6% of the world’s surface it is home to more than half of the world’s biodiversity.  This spectacle of nature was something that I wanted to experience but in a more traditional manner than simply hiking or going birdwatching.

The Andes on the flight from Lima to Iquitos.

The Andes on the flight from Lima to Iquitos.

So when I arrived in the jungle city of Iquitos (the largest city in the world inaccessible by road) in the northeast of Peru along the Amazon River, I began to search around for the available ways to discover the rainforest.  Walking around I made a few discoveries of my own about Iquitos.  It reminded me greatly of being back in Asia.  The vast majority of the vehicles are motorbikes and mototaxis are the main means of transportation.  There is a large Chinese influence in the region which makes the locals have slightly softer features than other parts of South America.  Shanty huts line the river bed and kids run barefoot through the street, past the multiple food vendors amidst the smells of local markets and questionable sewage.  Never one to pass up trying the local street food I dined on the bottom half of a small alligator, accompanied by yuca (similar to a potato) and jugo de aguaje.  The damage for a mountain of food: only 5 soles.  Definitely a lot like Asia.

Alligator actually does taste a lot like chicken.

Alligator actually does taste a lot like chicken.

Going out that night to a free concert in the convention center, a friend Justin from my hostel and I started dancing with two girls who wanted to teach us salsa.  After one song they propositioned to go home with us for 200 soles.  I take it back, exactly like Asia.  On the road back (without the fake salsa teachers) we passed by a dog with the biggest set of balls I’ve ever seen.  Shit, if the domesticated animals are like this I can only imagine what the jungle has in store.

Would hate to have to drag around those saggy balls everywhere.

Would hate to have to drag around those saggy balls everywhere.

I ultimately decided to go on a tour with the Green Mountain Expedition group because they were more focused on teaching than showing tourists a good time.  (The owner of the office deemed my Spanish sufficient to go alone with one of the local jungle guides who only speaks Spanish.  My Spanish has vastly improved over the past two months, but it was a bit daunting at times to converse at times, especially since they don’t teach you verbs about surivival or the names of exotic animals in your average Spanish class.)  The experience was to skip past the heavily touristic areas near Iquitos, referred to by locals as Gringolandia, and down one of the rivers branching off of the mighty Amazon.  Here I would spend a few days learning how to survive in the jungle according to traditional customs that are still used by locals in daily life.

On the first day I boarded a speed boat for an hour and a half until reaching the small river pueblo of Tamshiyacu.  Here I met my guide Manuel and his wife, both of whom are also shamans.  I transferred into their wooden canoe and we motored upriver for another half hour before arriving at Manuel’s house.  Chickens, cats, and a multicolored macaw named Julio have free reign of the house.  Julio is quite the little rascal, eating anything he can get his beak on and creating mischief at every chance.  He is trained not to fly inside the house so watching him climb down from a hammock face first can be quite comical, especially when he lands on his beak and shouts “Hola!”.

Julio the guacamaya.

Julio the guacamaya.

That day the rainforest lived up to the first half of its name, unleashing a steady torrent from above.  Manuel’s 12 year old son Darwino joined us in cruising up and down the riverbed in search of the grey and pink dolphins that frequent the area.  A whistling sound escaped from Manuel’s pursed lips, followed by his smacking the blunt edge of a machete on the water to simulate splashing.  The shrill sound grabs the attention of the dolphins and the splashing simulates fish jumping which captures their ever ravenous attention.  Dolphins are always graceful, playful animals but they appear even more so from a distance when they are a bright pink.  From up close the pink dolphins are not one of the pachamama’s most beautiful creatures.

One of the biggest challenges to surviving in the jungle is having a constant food source.  Being next to the river, the Amazonian people are innovative fisherman.  They don’t have the luxury of a rod and reel while sipping on a cold one, waiting for a fish to bite.  A trap is a much more effective, and more time efficient, way of catching breakfast, lunch, or dinner.  So in order to have something to cook for breakfast the next day we paddled into the wetlands, navigating around trees and through water colored green by vegetation.  After casting 34 meters of continuous net we paddled back to the hut before the end of sunlight and the beginning of the mosquito onslaught.

Searching for a good spot to cast our net.

Searching for a good spot to cast our net.

That night I learned that if you want to survive in the rainforest you had better hope to have a mosquito net and some strong mosquito repellant.  I came prepared with some natural repellant from India, not wanting to use the 50% Deet that many people smother themselves with.  It did little to fend off the bloodthirsty bastards and I retreated to the safe haven of my mosquito net to catch some much needed sleep.

We rose the next day with the sun, keen to see if we had caught ourselves some breakfast overnight.  Retrieving the trap revealed that we had captured 15 or so medium sized fish that had gotten themselves trapped in the netting.  After gutting the fish it was a hearty meal of smoked fish and fish soup.  All of the fish in that area of the river are edible.  We had set another trap by hooking a small fish onto a line hanging from the docking pole in an attempt to upgrade to a much larger fish but to no avail.

With food in our bellies we strapped on our knee high gumboots, grabbed our machetes, and headed into the deep jungle, once again accompanied by Darwino, the guide-in-training.  A symphony rang throughout the rainforest from the buzzing of insects, the rustling of rodents and snakes amongst the brush, the singing of birds, and cry of our machetes slicing through the air and vegetation to create a more accessible path.  I quickly learned the machete works best by keeping a loose wrist, like while drumming, to create a better fulcrum for more power.  It is also best to cut at a diagonal rather than straight vertical or horizontal.

Darwino is gonna make one sweet guide in a few years.

Darwino is gonna make one sweet guide in a few years.

After an hour of bush wacking our way deeper into the Amazon we were drenched in sweat and ready for a drink.  All that you need the rainforest provides if you know where to look, and we only had to look overhead.  By chopping a section of the liana vine and holding it upright, the water inside dripped down steadily into our greedy mouths.  Manuel also showed me how to use the leaves of the irapay and yarina palms to keep water out.  To start creating a waterproof roof we used a sturdy branch and three large leaves, similar to banana leafs.  Adding one leaf at a time and using the stem of the penultimate leaf to weave around the branch and hold the previously added leaf in place creates a tight overlap of the leaves.  A thinner variety of leaves are used for the very top of traditional jungle huts to provide even more condensed protection, though this takes more time.  The entire roof of Manuel’s family hut is designed in this fashion and the leaves will maintain their integrity and waterproof abilities for nearly 5 years.

Weaving a waterproof roof.

Weaving a waterproof roof.

After setting up base camp we had shelter taken care of, so food was next on the list of priorities.  Once again we relied on the cunning nature of traps to do our dirty work for us.  Our intended target were a variety of guinea pig called sachacuy.  The sachacuy love to eat yuca, which grows in abundance underneath the soil similar to a potato.  After digging up some yuca we had our bait, now we just needed some traps.  After a few hundred wacks of the machete I managed to fell a sturdy 25ft tree which we broke down into 4 log sections.  The weight of the heavy logs is the killing mechanism of the trap.  In order to ensure that the log falls straight down we cut smaller branches into stakes and lined them on both sides of the log.  The locals ingeniously use forked branches and vines to hold the log suspended in the air.  They then screw a thin stake through the yuca wheel with the outside edge of the stake attached to a string.  When the stake containing the bait is disturbed, the string releases, releasing the vine and dropping the log with crushing power.  We ultimately created three new traps of our own and armed 5 additional preexisting traps to increase our chances of a hearty breakfast.

Before and after of our sachacuy trap.

Before and after of our sachacuy trap.

And a hearty breakfast it was the next morning.  Only two of our traps were sprung, catching a small mouse (not worth the trouble of cooking since we weren’t currently starving) and a rather large sachacuy.  We took the huge rodent back to camp and constructed a fire, making a natural grill out of sticks to lay our meal across.  Placing the sachacuy directly onto the fire causes the hairs to burn, making them easy to scrape away with a knife for cleaning.  Manuel then split the carcass down the middle so that the meat would cook evenly on both sides.  The heart and testicles roasted seperate from the main course on slowly rotated skewers and tasted better than I expected.  After nearly 30 minutes of cooking, the sachacuy was smelling immaculate and ready to be tasted.  Suprisingly it was some of the tastier meat I’ve ever eaten.  The meat is slightly sweet, slightly gamey, and perfect without any sauces, just a light sprinkling of salt.

Revenge is a dish best served over an open fire.  (The rats who at my food in Chile).  In seriousness, the Amazonians only kill for food and give thanks for what they catch.

Revenge is a dish best served over an open fire. (The rats who at my food in Chile). In seriousness, the Amazonians only kill for food and give thanks for what they catch.

With satisfied bellies we broke down camp and made our way back in the direction of Manuel’s jungle hut.  Coming aross a clearing of barbasco trees we began to use our machetes to dig up the roots to aid us in fishing later.  Back at the hut we used rocks to smash the roots into thin fibers.  The barbasco roots are actually used to make soap as they contain many nutrients good for human skin.  But those same roots are toxins to fish as it clogs their respiratory systems.  Soaking the roots in water, then throwing the now milky water into the stream, caused small fish to surface when they could no longer obtain enough oxygen.  At this point they were easy to scoop up into a bucket, or spear with a five pronged lance.  This form of fishing is used when traps aren’t available and fortunately doesn’t have any lasting harmful effects on the water once the current dilutes the barbasco enough.  But it is a highly effective way of catching small to medium sized fish that would be otherwise hidden beneath the murky water.

Smashing the barbasco roots.

Smashing the barbasco roots.

There was something way more interesting than just fish lurking around the riverbed.  Here we discovered the animal most commonly associated with the Amazon…the anaconda.  A bulge a few feet down the snake revealed it has just feasted on one of Manuel’s baby chickens, and it’s bearing of teeth and loud hissing demonstrated its aggravation at being disturbed.

This anaconda just so happened to be around my height, a little over 6 feet long.

This anaconda just so happened to be around my height, a little over 6 feet long.

Manuel excitedly grabbed a branch with a fork in it, pinning the snake a few inches below it’s head.  Wary of the anaconda’s sharp teeth I quickly snatched it, applying pressure just below the head to prevent the snake’s jaws from functioning normally.

Me and Manuel make a good snake snatching team.

Me and Manuel make a good snake snatching team.

The snake immediately began to curl around my arm, constricting in self defense.  The power of the snake was astonishing as its 7 feet in length curled into a ball 8 inches in diameter.  Manuel’s daughter snapped a few photos for us with the snake around my waist and my neck.  Releasing the anaconda it quickly slithered to the safety of the jungle without a backward glance.

The anaconda cutting off my circulation.

The anaconda cutting off my circulation.

That night I participated in an ayahuasca ceremony lead by Manuel, his wife, and an older local shaman.  Ayahuasca is the spirit plant of the low jungle and revered by the people of the jungle.  It intuitively knows how to move through your system and provide what you need, such as the removing of toxins or creating visions that serve some purpose to the individual.  The ritual is sacred and I won’t go into detail about it here, but I was a bit disappointed not to feel the effects as much as many other people have.  During the ceremony I felt a bit dizzy but didn’t have any visions, although two days later my body felt great after having purged some lingering toxins.

But that’s alright because I didn’t need to have crazy visions to relish my time in the jungle.  Simple everyday living was rewarding enough, learning to survive in cohesion with nature.  Nature really does provide all that we need to live, something that the Amazonian people definitely acknowledge.  We can either have a symbiotic relationship with nature or an abusive relationship with nature.  Through symbiosis with the Amazon I certainly learned a lot of lessons in just a few days, and there’s no telling what untold lessons nature still has to teach us.

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