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

Though both women had missing teeth (no dentists), their skin was unlined and their hair jet black. When she was in her early thirties, Dominga, who is illiterate, was walking in the village and heard a woman crying out in pain. She went into the house and, seeing the woman was in labor, took control and delivered the baby. “It was a miracle,” she said—one that made her realize she had the skills to be a midwife.

Dominga’s vigor and natural talents notwithstanding, Amazonian women’s lives seem nasty and brutish, and their society is patriarchal. (An enduring forest myth is that menstruating or pregnant women will take away a hunter’s powers.) But Manuel sat meekly beside his wife and mother-in-law, cutting plastic two-liter Inca Kola bottles into long strips, which he planned to use to create fencing for his small patch of crops. Eugenia joked that Manuel had taken to drinking elixirs made of bark and honey (with, I would later learn at a medicinal market, the occasional monkey penis tossed in for extra effect) to retain his sexual prowess, whereas she hadn’t noticed any ill effects from her own aging.

In the absence of basic medical care, I had no idea how Dominga could live so long and look so alert and healthy for her age. Our guides credited the all-organic diet. The riverine people live from cradle to grave on fresh fish, subsistence crops they raise themselves and wild jungle fruits.

The porousness of Manuel and Eugenia’s house—no walls, let alone doors—suggested a comfort level with the human and natural communities that is completely alien to any city dweller or, for that matter, most Americans. When I asked what she worried about in the middle of the night, given that they slept in the open, in a jungle teeming with snakes and other predators, not to mention fellow villagers, and that the rains were often very hard, Eugenia looked perplexed. She shrugged. “Tranquilo,” she finally said, using the Spanish word for calm. For her, the hormone-induced insomnia that has been plaguing me for years was apparently a foreign concept.

Despite the appeal of organic foods and sound sleep, I could never go thoroughly Rousseau and start idealizing the lives of the jungle people. The defining characteristic of their existence is animal submission to Nature’s whims. In the jungle and on its edges, there is no denying the frailty, if not the futility, of human intervention in the face of disease and death. 

What Lurks Beneath
Days on the boat settled into a routine. Rise at dawn, ride in the skiff, return for breakfast, hike or skiff, lunch and nap. The midafternoon heat combined with the shush-shush-slap rhythm of the water against the hull was almost coma inducing. The eyelids drooped, even while the body remained upright. Even in my air-conditioned cabin, I felt pinned to the bed, rendered supine by heat and boredom.

With my head on the pillow, my eyelids fluttering open and shut, I watched the banks of the Amazon flicker by outside the window, as if in an old silent movie. In the land of mirrors, water becomes the sky and the sky waters. Sometimes we floated in rippling cumulus. The surreal landscape and heat spawned strange midday dreams. (Had that been New York City hovering on the river’s muddy shore?)

The Amazon is a thing alive and undulating: During the rainy winter months, when the water can rise an astounding 50 feet, piranhas and anacondas swim among the tree branches. Then, when the water recedes, there is mud, mud and more mud. But there is also transcendent beauty, elusive, rarely motionless long enough to be contemplated. The giant iridescent indigo wings of the blue morpho butterfly or the red head of a tanager snag the eye for just seconds, enticing the glance deeper into the darkening woods.

Late one afternoon, we set off on one of the black-water tributaries for some alligator hunting. A warm, light rain fell. Armed with flashlights, we headed out in the forest to the shallow flooded areas where the caimans lie in wait.

First published in the March 2014 issue

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