Life, Death and Rebirth on the Amazon

In the breathtaking jungle of Peru’s Land of Mirrors, Nina Burleigh confronts the unfiltered beauty—and danger—of nature and begins making peace with her own mortality

by Nina Burleigh
Photograph: All photographs by Adrian Gaut

I’ve spent a good part of my own life at war with Nature. Aside from a few childhood years cavorting in the wetlands of Michigan, I have avoided Nature’s course by artifice, medicine and good luck. No accidental pregnancies for me. No hairy armpits either. Now, in middle age, the inexorability of Nature is hitting home, and hard. After years of coasting along looking much younger than my age, I now see proof of my helpless submission to aging staring at me from the mirror. My dad has survived a diagnosis of prostate cancer, and we nearly lost Mom to heart disease. Friends from high school have already begun to die. There can no longer be any pretense that I will not succumb. I was lured to this place by its exoticism and beauty. But entering the jungle also meant tearing off the polite screens of modern existence and facing the cycle of life and death head-on. I was at once fascinated and repelled. What I didn’t expect was to find myself looking from the bird life in the utterly careless blue skies to the decay of the jungle floor and thinking about my own mortality.

Down the River of Obsession

We entered the mighty Amazon River at nightfall, from a muddy port town called Nauta, about an hour-and-a-half bus ride from the nearest airport. As we arrived at the dock, the bus wheels sank into red muck. Dogs scampered in and out of the shadows as families tucked into Sunday dinner at tables perched in mud outside their thatched huts.

After our first night aboard the Delfin II, we were awakened at 5:30 am by a knock on the door. Every morning for seven days we would hear the same knock, inviting us to rise and go out exploring on a smaller boat, called a skiff. By 6 we were heading out into one of the Amazon’s tributaries, the Marañón, the name an Indian word that means cashew. In the dawn light, the water was a sickly pinkish brown, reflecting the sky’s washed silver-blue streaked with rose. Black-collared hawks wheeled, the three-toned whistle of the colorful toucan rang across the water, and two pairs of red-and-blue macaws—which live 50 years and mate for life—soared overhead. We turned from the main waterway into one of the narrow, nameless tributaries, where black water (yanayacu), stained by the tannins of rotting vegetation, lapped halfway up the trunks of vine-choked trees. Squirrel monkeys, living in troops of up to 300, scampered in branches, their upturned tails silhouetted against the sky. I later spotted a few of them for sale at the market in Iquitos, the largest town in the region. Locals prize them as house pets because they eat roaches and other insects.

The banks were lined with towering, large-leaved Cecropia trees, so suited to the river basin environment that they grow some six feet annually. Vicious Azteca ants creep along the bark, feasting on nectar that oozes from the leaves. Colorful tanagers feed on the ants. A brown, motionless clump on a high branch, examined through binoculars, turned out to be a three-toed sloth. We would see a lot of these strange, sleepy creatures—which resemble small, faceless men—as they dangled from tree branches, having gorged on leaves and gotten drunk on leaf alkaloids. The early Amazonian explorers, spotting these homunculi, could easily have imagined them to be that mythical man of the forest.

The story of the exploration of the Amazon is a story of death, disease and greed. Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of Peru, obsessed over stories of El Dorado, a jungle town made of gold. His half brother Gonzalo set off in search of it, in 1541, with a legion of ironclad conquistadores and 4,000 enslaved Indians. From the Andes, they traveled eastward. Within a year, the expedition disintegrated, ravaged by disease, hunger and Indian attacks. More failed expeditions followed; meanwhile, the native population was decimated by European diseases to which it had no immunity and by genocidal brutality that continued into the early 20th century.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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