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

By my second day in the Amazon, I was getting cocky. The storied jungle had yet to produce a single peril: no colossal serpent or poison dart, no maggots embedded in flesh. We were hiking inside a viny moss-green shroud, a day’s journey by boat from the nearest town with motorized vehicles. The chattering treetops blotted out the sun, and we sweated in the claustrophobic stillness below, all of us soaked in the high-octane repellent DEET to ward off malaria- and dengue fever–carrying insects.

“I’ve seen more mosquitoes in upstate New York than I’ve seen on this walk,” I cracked. Within seconds of my utterance, a cloud of them materialized around the head of our guide, a shamanically trained Indian, then fanned out to attack the hikers’ exposed flesh. Slapping, scratching and spraying on more repellent, the group had just finished cursing me for conjuring the swarm when a villager with a machete on his belt stepped out of the tangled shadows to show us a yard-long anaconda neatly coiled around the end of a large stick. The serpent was utterly still, apparently sleeping, and I decided to venture behind it for a photo op. But the instant I stepped forward, its golden eye looked up and met mine, and I knew what would happen next. The creature darted to strike, missing me by inches.

My drawers stayed dry, but just barely. It does not take long for the jungle spirits to humiliate society’s day-trippers. Chastened, we resumed walking along the muddy path in our -synthetic quick-dry clothes. It was easy after that to envision the forest goblin the Amazonians call the curupira—a gnome-like creature that sleeps in the great buttressed tree roots—smirking from a shady perch. Natives believe the curupira’s feet face backward, the better to leave misleading footprints to lure his prey, the disrespectful outsider, deeper into the woods.

Burleigh on a hike in the Pacaya-Samiria reserve, a "birder's paradise, air and trees filled with shrieking streaks of gold, indigo and crimson."The jungle is lovely, dark and deep. And oh, the greens. There are 16,000 tree species in the Amazon, some still unnamed and each with its own shade of verde and its own world of insects and fauna. The ground is alive with moving bits—leaf-cutter ants endlessly hauling chopped foliage to their nests where they will masticate, then spit, forming a fungus on which they feed themselves and their young.

For seven days, we—two dozen souls on a riverboat—would drift in a Lindblad–National Geographic Expeditions vessel called the Delfin II on mile-wide muddy waters, exploring often nameless tributaries and hiking in the rain forest of Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. The area is known as the land of mirrors because of its glassine floodwaters that reflect the sky, turning the world surreal hues of violet and pink at dawn and twilight. It is a birder’s paradise, air and trees filled with shrieking streaks of gold, indigo and crimson. Down below, the jungle produces numberless natural medicinals, from the shamanic spirit drug ayahuasca to cures for malaria, diarrhea and maybe even cancer.

The Amazon Basin is the largest tropical rain forest in the world that still exists mostly as Nature intended. Of course, Nature’s intentions are rarely, if ever, in sync with humanity’s. We love Nature’s gifts of gentle breezes, babbling brooks, flora and fauna. But we are also perpetually at war—with her storms and floods, her predators large and her microbes invisible.

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.

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.

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.

Twilight lasts but a few moments near the equator. Billions of insects hissed, buzzed, sawed, their sounds interrupted only by the last coos and twitters of birds headed to their perches. At full darkness, we turned on the flashlights and aimed them at roots and water lilies, seeking the telltale golden glint of the caimans’ eyes reflecting the light. We spotted a number of them, their heads utterly still as they waited for an unsuspecting fish or mammal to come within range of their jaws. Our flashlights also picked up a pair of golden dots watching from above—an owl standing sentinel atop a dead tree, its darting eyes reflecting our beam like a pair of tiny searchlights, scanning the ground for dinner. Beneath us, the black water whispered against the metal bottom of the skiff. We lowered our waterproof flashlights under the surface, illuminating the eerie night world of sighing grasses undulating around tree roots.

Suddenly a massive white orb appeared behind the scrim of green—the full moon. As we traveled onward, the moon flitted from one side to the other of the narrow waterway as the tributary meandered east and west. I was never more mystified at how the guides, all GPS free, found their way out of these green water mazes.

Completing the Cycle
The greeks spoke of the passage into death as a ride on a boat into an underworld where the dead would drink the waters of the river Lethe and forget their earthly life. I might wish that my own transition from life to death would feel like that ethereal moment on a tributary of the Amazon: painless, hallucinatory, ecstatic. Now home in New York, I know I only skirted the edge of that secret place. I saw enough to understand how muddy and forbidding it is, how man and beast alike submit to the rule that we are born and will die without leaving a trace. No dead animals last on the jungle floor, David Grann writes in The Lost City of Z. Insects and carrion birds transform the dead into something alive again within hours.

Birth, life, death, oblivion and birth again. That’s the jungle. What if I had gone in deeper or been born there? Would I have been one of the lucky thrivers, or would I have been left behind? Would I have been pregnant at 14, mother of seven and toothless by 40, then sleeping through the night at 50, utterly tranquilo? Perhaps, like Eugenia, I would dream peacefully in the hour of the wolf rather than spend it wrestling to accept the fact that I am from the earth and to the earth I will return. Because in the jungle, the sweeter part of submission is the solace of witnessing how every death feeds a new, green life.

I do know there is a deeper place in the forest than any I have yet seen. I don’t want to go there until I absolutely must. But it frightens me a little less now.

Nina Burleigh is an investigative journalist. Her most recent book is The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox.

Next: Putting the Past to Rest in Ireland

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First Published Thu, 2014-02-06 10:09

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