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

The mystery of the Amazon, which seduces, then kills, outsiders, remains as strong today as ever. David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon chronicles the enduring belief that a fabulous, sophisticated culture once existed deep in the jungle and its ruins might still be found. Grann describes the mind-boggling rigors of doomed early-20th-century explorer Percy Fawcett’s various expeditions and the dozens of later explorers who went looking for him, only to die themselves.

Searches for the jungle’s few remaining tribes haven’t fared much better. One, undertaken in 2002, was the subject of a book by Scott Wallace, The Unconquered. Even with satellite phones and GPS, the modern-day explorers got lost and faced hunger, subsisting on monkey meat. As upper-middle-class 21st-century “explorers,” we would face no such privations, but all of us were in search of our own jungle grail. For many of the passengers, it was the myriad bird and animal species. But after I’d seen a few toucans, monkeys and sloths, I found myself growing much more curious about the human inhabitants and their elemental struggles to endure.

Care and Aging in the Amazon
Once or twice a day, we’d pass a clearing, a river village with a few thatched huts on stilts, without walls, set on arise just above the muddy water’s edge. These fascinated me. If we got close enough, we could see people inside going about their business, much the way city dwellers can look into apartment 12D across the street. What was it like to live so close to Nature, with the absence of walls only the most visible sign of total subjugation to her whims?

Before I signed up for the jungle trip, when I was still just toying with the idea, I read an excerpt from Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? Diamond describes how some nomadic hunter-gatherers still routinely leave behind the sick and aged, without tears, seemingly unmoved by the lonely deaths their loved ones will face. Shedding the weak and dying is also what evolution is about. Nature rewards the strong. I wondered how my son, asthmatic as a boy, would have fared, or how long my mother would have lasted without the lifesaving heart surgery she underwent a few years ago. I doubt I could have walked away from either of them, even if they were a drag on the community. And yet when I think about my own last days, I can only imagine begging my children to go on their way, to remember me strong and not stand by to witness death up close.

At a village called Puerto Miguel, I met and talked with a river family. Eugenia, 56, and her husband, Manuel, 57, shared their wall-less house with her mother, Dominga, 84, and their youngest child, a teenage son. The one-room hut was divided into a kitchen and living area on one side and a sleeping area on the other (four small beds crammed together, each covered by a mosquito net). Both Eugenia and her mother had given birth to seven children at home without ever seeing a doctor, let alone an OB-GYN. Whether each child got vaccinated depended on whether the Peruvian government was investing in visiting nurses to pass through poor villages that year.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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