Chasing the rainforest

The tree ferns and lianas dangled on either side of the narrow trail that is regularly hacked out of the thick understudy. The tightly woven frenzy of vegetation on the sides of the trail fell away as Juan and I stepped into a small open area draped in the enormous shadow of several trees that ringed the clearing. Juan handed me a package of soda crackers as we stood in the space between the buttress roots of the trees. We ate in silence, peering into the canopy above us. Juan crumpled the empty packaging into a tight ball in his right hand as he scanned the edge of the clearing intently as if he might have glimpsed a Fer-De-Lance viper weaving through the brush around our perimeter. Juan stealthily walked over to a small nook between two roots that had been partially filled with fallen leaves. He examined the space, peeked around as if to make sure no one else was watching and then discretely slipped the shiny red ball of wrapping into a hole that he scooped out in the litter. He quickly stepped back to admire his handiwork. Satisfied, he strolled away casually. Walking behind Javier I glanced over my shoulder. A glossy red corner of the wrapper sparkled against the muted brown leaves. 

Myself leaning against the buttress root of a forest giant. Pacaya-Samiria Reserve

As we strode through the forest I was struck by the oddity of my visceral reaction to this brief episode. Why had such a simple, subtle, and non-malicious action disappointed me so?  As my guide, Juan’s enthusiasm, awareness and knowledge had impressed me as we had ventured for three days into the lowland rainforest of Peru’s immense Pacaya-Samiria reserve. Juan with reverence had explained the uses of plants that we had encountered such as Uña de Gato, repeating knowledge that had been passed down to him from his uncle, a shaman who had instructed him on values of medicinal teaching. I had no interest in criticizing his action or of patronizingly picking up his litter. I had observed trash thrown out of bus windows and strewn in creeks, fields and forests across Latin America. I had long pondered the contrasting attitudes between cultures towards litter, and in this telling moment I gained a new perspective. Juan’s action in no way changed my admiration or opinion of him. Rather, the red wrapper had illuminated a deep cultural divide between my perception and beliefs about environmentalism and Juan’s relationship to and understanding of the forest.

Since I first stepped into the woods I considered littering unacceptable, having unconsciously adopted my parent's environmental ethic. In college as a student Outing Club guide at the University of Vermont I was immersed in the politically correct culture of “Leave No Trace”, where even discarding food scraps in the woods is frowned upon. Needless to say I had slipped my own wrapper instinctively into my pocket without even a thought of leaving it behind. This is not to say that all American’s share my environmental ethic. Finding trash in the woods around my house in Vermont was common. The woods were full of generations of cans, trash, and other litter that had been left behind by Vermonters who were not normalized to compulsively carry their trash from the woods. Now, this moment with Juan yielded a contrast that allowed me to see that my beliefs concerning aesthetics, my conception of natural places, and my own environmental ethic were in no way culturally universal.

Juan with a fish pulled from the nets. Pacaya-Samiria Reserve

As Juan and I strode past huge tree ferns and mud pits fresh with signs of wallowing tapirs, I pondered what Juan had been thinking as he placed the wrapper in the leaves. Did the guide understand that most eco-tourists would have been dismayed to witness this littering? As an observant individual with years of experience guiding self described environmentalists and naturalists into the woods, I would have expected that Juan had learned that littering was taboo in many other cultures. Perhaps, though, he considered taboos against littering to be based upon aesthetic values rather than beliefs about preserving the inherent “naturalness of places”. Did he then think that leaving trash behind was acceptable as long as it was properly hidden?

A gut feeling lingered that I had gained Juan’s trust and that I had been allowed to witness something that he would not have normally done in the presence of tourists. Juan and I were of similar ages and displayed a mutual interest in hunting and fishing. As we walked along the path there was a newfound sense of camaraderie that often accompanies “conspirators”. I doubted that Juan felt any guilt about leaving trash in the woods, and I had a sense that Juan had begun to assume that I shared his views. Even a few minutes before I had found a wrapper that Juan had more subtly dropped in the trail as if by accident. Now he felt comfortable enacting the more deliberate ritual of placing the wrapper in the leaves in front of me. Nevertheless he understood that the wrapper should be hidden for the sake of other visitors. In this way I had observed in many other circumstances that locals often cater to the expectations of visitors but do not actually accept the values and behaviors of environmentalism.

Even as I continued to attempt to rationalize the presence of trash in beautiful places across Latin America through the lens of cultural relativism, I continued to feel that something significant was at stake. Eco-tourists and visitors to the rainforest construct impressions of the places as being pristine and untouched. They create a vision of a forest that has existed in antiquity without human disturbance. The thin veneer of this fantasy is eroded by signs of other visitors, whether it a passing party of tourists on a remote stream or sign that a human once ate a cracker wrapped in a glossy red wrapper while standing between the buttress roots of a massive tree. With the permanence of plastic or metal, the opinions of eco-tourists and the importance of the revenue generated from nature tourism, the consequences of littering in the rainforest are not to be taken lightly.

I had made my way to the lowland rainforest of northeastern Peru after spending my first week in the hilltop town of Lamas. During this time I had spent much of my days lounging in a hammock, meditating, and eating fruit while my mind wrapped itself around the reality of living on a different continent.  Most afternoons I would walk up the dusty road from the apartment where I had been staying, passing colorful one story cement houses as I climbed toward the center of Lamas. I would stroll past homes where adults and children spent their time sitting on the narrow sidewalk in front of their homes. Eventually I would turn onto a small side street that led to a grassy treeless knoll that rose above the neighborhood, with a 360 degree view known as the Mirador. From this spot I could look down to the center of Lamas where a fountain is located in the town’s main park. On top of the fountain stands a statue of a placid Indian, sporting a headdress who is cast in a perpetual hand shake with a smug conquistador in armor.

As the sunset and the clouds would begin to burn on the horizon, I could see the twinkle of lights of the neighborhood of Wayku. Positioned on a hill sloping away from the center of Lamas, Wayku is an indigenous Quechua community that retains a distinct culture and atmosphere. Turning, I could take in the more distant lights of the expanding city of Tarapoto, the valleys and fields mottled by agriculture, and the varying stages of succession that follow deforestation.  Masses of high cloud forest rose on the distant horizon. In fact, these high Cordilleras retain the last visible tracts of forest that can be seen from the Mirador.  This is land that either had been granted conservation status or was too steep to be cleared for agriculture. As I watched, these ranges of cloud forest blackened into silhouettes as the sun dropped below their peaks. The bright flames of distant burning forests and fields began to twinkle and glow, as great plumes of smoke fused with the masses of clouds that had formed over the steaming lowland rainforest that lay to the east.

A visit to the community of Sisa revealed the forces that have been exerted on the land and culture and underscored the contrast between my expectations and the reality of this place. I watched the tangled brush and open fields from the back of a truck as it descended from Lamas to the valley. In the front seat of the pickup, owned by the organization Sachamama, sat its two volunteers (with whom I had been living).  In the truck bed shaded by a canvas roof was Girvan, an employee of Sachamama, his young son, and myself. As we came around a bend in the road the loud roar of a fire rose as a blast of heat hit the back of my head. A great wall of flame licked at the side of the road as a dry field of brush blazed only feet away. The normalcy of the event stood ironically in contrast to a green sign that stood nearby. “No burning. Protect the forest”.

I had fantasized that after the two-hour drive we would arrive in a lush valley containing a quiet village. Instead, the landscape became gradually more defined by deforestation. The village, Girvan’s hometown, was cut in half by a busy road, upon either side of which there were low rows of houses only feet away from passing traffic. Conscious of my expectations, I felt somehow ashamed that I had developed my own idealized sense of what the community would be like. I felt guilty that I had desired that life here should match my mind’s eye.

Girvan’s family warmly ushered us into their home, offering us breakfast. It was Sunday and for much of the day I sat silently observing the tightly connected, extended family. They quietly passed the day in one room of the simple home. A young woman cooked over the fire, an old man napped on a bed, a young girl shooed pair of ducks from the house as she intently gnawed on a green mango. In the afternoon I visited a beautiful shaded stream that ran along a rock bed on the edge of the town. Surrounded by open fields on both sides, remaining rows of trees bent gently over the water. The stream that at one time flowed over the boulders of the river bed now wound in a shallow current around the rocks. Deforestation across the region means that rainfall evaporates before it makes its way into the watershed. The stream contained the odd bottle and plastic bag, but what I perceived as an aesthetic distraction in no way diminished the usefulness to locals who draw water, bathe, and wash their horses in the slow moving current.

I returned to Girvan’s home and sat outside with his grandmother as the sun was setting. She spoke of a quieter time before the paving of the road that now hummed with unrelenting activity day and night.  She spoke of a distant plot she used to farm with her family, and of the family for whom she had been the matriarch. As night fell, I left and on the drive back to Lamas, I learned more about the changes that had swept over the land in recent decades. Much of the deforestation had been driven by a wave of settlers who came down from the western highlands. Poor and transient, these settlers used natural resources in a way that markedly contrasted with the more sustainable traditional Quechua agricultural practices. Sachamama, the organization of which I had been a guest, is concerned with the cultural and environmental consequences of these changes in the use of resources. Of particular importance to the program is an anthropogenic soil called Terra Preta, that has been employed within the Amazon for thousands of years. Sachamama is currently developing and distributing Terra Preta, and teaching local youth about the value of this soil.In a region marked by poor sandy soils, the ability to develop and add fertility to exhausted plots of land through the application of Terra Preta could slow the destructive process of abandonment, clearing, and burning of new fields.

But I continued to crave my fantasy of venturing into the rainforest whether or not my preconceived idea of the “jungle” existed in reality. I began to grow restless in Lamas, and after throwing necessary gear in a backpack I began the two-day journey to the immense Pacaya–Samiria National Reserve. The reserve’s five million square acres make it the largest protected area in Peru and twice the size of Yellowstone Park. The reserve was established in 1982 to safeguard the habitat of more than 500 bird species, 100 species of mammals, 60 species of reptiles, 50 types of amphibians, 250 fish species, and 1000 varieties of wild and cultivated plants.

In the city of Tarapoto I purchased a seat in a colectivo that would take me over the Cordillera Escalera and down to the river city of Yurimaguas. As the taxi climbed up into the high cloud forest and the margins of Tarapoto faded away I was filled with the sensation of complete independence and exhilaration that has come to me only handful of times during my travels. I felt the pure, simple essence of existence sweep through me like a fresh breeze. A lightness and sense of energy coursed through me. This feeling picked me up, allowed my consciousness to expand beyond the confines of my body, and seemed to cleanse my mind.

Such joyous moments are rare and completely unpredictable. In some way, I know my spirit yearns for the release of these brief experiences. This communion with my environment might be the very reason I travel. As the taxi hurtled along the narrow road that had been cut into a cliff, I gazed out the window and down the two thousand foot wall of near-vertical cloud forest to the tiny snaking river of white water. The driver blared his horn as we swung over the median around the blind corner. We approached a gathering of homes built on stilts with palm-thatched roofs hidden high in the mountains. As we stopped to unload a passenger and several sacks of grain, I watched boys fishing under boulders in the pristine pool of a mountain stream. We carried on, winding our way precariously along the side of the mountain. All around us deep valleys cut between steep massifs of forest. Streams lined with enormous stones cut deep ravines down to the valley floor. This verdant, rugged place, inaccessible and largely untouched by the hand of development, simply filled me with elation as we wound our way down into the lowlands.

I took a room at a small hotel near where the colectivo had unlodaded me and my baggage.  I awoke to the commotion of Yurimaguas’s busy market, and at six in the morning I set out to explore it before making my trip down river to the town of Lagunas. The market had been up and alive for hours, the stalls had set up before the sun had risen. I purchased a hammock and some bananas from a woman who sat on the curb with her daughter, her fruit spread out in front of her on the street. I made my way to the docks where I bought space to sling my hammock on board a small, dilapidated river boat loaded with chickens, aluminum roofing, and sacks of grain. As the boat pulled out of port and began to chug its way up the wide brown river, a fellow gringo entered the cabin and claimed the hammock that had been sitting empty next to me.

Sandbars, small villages, and the mass of green forest slid by as I lazily swung in my hammock. After eight hours I decided to break the silence between my neighbor and myself. After a brief exchange in Spanish, the traveler introduced himself as Bedrich. He was in his mid-50’s, thin and dressed in zipoff khakis tucked into socks worn beneath teva sandals, a shirt reading Old Navy, and a boonie hat. Bedrich had the look of the classic “adventure tourist”. His accent revealed his Czech identity as he spoke of his travels and plans. For the last six months he had made his way north from Patagonia through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia and Peru. While he had originally planned to end his trip in Lima, he had decided to extend his travels for another six months after hearing from other travelers that Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia were not as dangerous as he had previously conceived. Bedrich rose from his hammock to shoot some photos of a group of villagers who had run to greet the boat as we stopped to unload a family. He then compulsively snapped a series of photos of the nearly uniform stretch of forest next to the boat, as he had been doing most of the day. He sat back down and began to tell me about his travels. Over the years he had visited Australia, New Zealand, the parks of the western United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Brazil, and a set of islands in the Pacific, spending several months in each location. Bedrich could be described as a “professional traveler” who supported himself by working for short stints as an accountant in Prague. He had a formal air, and seemed more conventional than most of the veteran wanderers who I had met in South America.

I asked whether his perspective on humanity had changed during his travels. He looked out into the darkening sky for a moment and said, “I travel for nature, not the people”. I was surprised by the directness of his reply. He continued, “For example I don’t want to visit to Africa to meet African people. I don’t want to go to India either, it is crowded and smelly. I prefer to travel in places with few people”. Bedrich did remark that he had enjoyed seeing indigenous communities near Huaraz, Peru. “They are living a better life - a traditional one because they are poor.” He seemed to conceive of nature as either being distinctly pure and free of humans or degraded by their presence. Sitting in his hammock next to me, he was generous and eager to share his advice, experiences and plans. Listening to Bedrich talk, though, I began to feel that he had seen the places he had visited more through the frame of guidebooks than through raw experience. Bedrich displayed a knowledge of geographic facts – a detailed understanding of the altitude, climate, and seasons of various locations. He shared advice on the best places to view condors in Colca Canyon, and a trail that while marked “closed” nonetheless led to a beautiful volcanic lake in Patagonia.  He addressed the merits of taking buses versus planes from Bolivia to Buenos Aires. But in all his discussion of logistics, I failed to hear the excitement in Bedrich that inevitably builds in me as I talk about my experiences on the road. He only became animated when describing an episode in a hostel where a noisy group of Peruvians had greatly irritated him in the middle of the night.

Like me, Bedrich was making his way to the reserve that he described as “the best place to see pristine rainforest”. As the boat slowly hugged into the dusk, great thunderclouds boiled over the dark canopy of the forest. The tops of the clouds illuminated by the last rays of the setting stun, stood out in stark contrast to the starry night that enveloped the sky beyond. From time to time, enormous clouds flashed silently as lightning coursed through their vapor. After twelve hours on the river, the lights of the town of Lagunas came into view around a bend in the river. Passengers clamored to get off the boat, and before I could step onto land I heard my name being called. With a grin the guide that I had hired while still in Lamas shook my hand. Juan led me into the town, a place lit up by lights that only ran for a few short hours in the morning and evening.

In the morning I awoke to the oddly remarkable sight of a kitten harassing a parrot. Soon after watching that confrontation, Juan and I tossed our gear into a kind of motorcycle tractor common in the rainforest towns of Peru and made our way past the small agricultural plots of locals and into the reserve. Eventually we came upon a solitary ranger station positioned by a stream. After signing my name on a ledger in the office we loaded our baggage into a dugout canoe that rested against the river bank.  This was the start of our travel down river, into the heart of the reserve. The green walls of the forest reached out and over the narrow channel of the stream. But soon the stream became wider as it was joined by another river flowing into it.

The forest and river began to come to life around me. The next few days passed in a blur of extraordinary scenes as we made our way down river deeper and deeper into the reserve.  From my notes:

Rain drops grow in number until they begin to pour down in driving sheets.

The storm subsides as we make a fire beneath an empty thatched hut built on stilts.

A sloth meditatively plucks a leaf from the canopy of a tree high above us.

Two river otters grunt a warning as they swim towards our boat before retreating and scrambling up the bank.

A family of small monkeys leaps from tree to tree as they peer at us skeptically.

The canoe passes under the overhanging branch of a tree. A moment later I notice that a slender green snake had hung there, inches from my head. 

The sun beats down with incredible strength and heat.

We glide into the shadow of a Renaco tree (ficus trigona) that drapes its thin branches into the river.

Everywhere there is beauty and the fierce competition of species locked in a timeless duel over a single ecological niche.

Two brightly colored songbirds, one yellow and one red, chase each other in the sky. Suddenly they are locked in each other's claws.  They tumble through the air releasing their grasp only a moment before striking the ground.

Kingfishers perched on logs protruding from the river swoop ahead of us, around every bend in the river, to announce our presence to the forest.

Piranhas churn the water around the disembodied head of a catfish still flexing its gills. Juan lifts the head into the boat to use as bait.

We stop for lunch. I am startled by what sounds like a jaguar disemboweling a tapir. We chase through the thick under story after what turns out to be a howler monkey. Hanging two hundred feet above, the large red monkey bellows down at us.

Juan brings his machete down with precision upon dense palm nut the size of a grapefruit. From one half he plucks a squirming grub that is passed to me. In my mouth the soft bug has the pungent flavor of goat cheese.

I drop into the water a piece of the catfish that I have hooked on a line tied to a stick. A moment later I learn that there is no such thing as “catch and release” piranha fishing.

Juan points out the three species of kingfisher that are flying past our boat. A moment later he gestures at a grey eagle with orange claws and matching beak perched above us. His excitement is obvious as he frantically tries to help me see all the activity that surrounds us. He displays the awareness of a man who has spent countless years in meditative observance of nature.

All around our canoe, fish splash as the large prey upon the slightly smaller.

Dusk falls upon the river. We arrive at simple ranger station carved out of the rainforest.

Fish and plantains are cooked over the hot coals of a fire. Mosquitoes swarm and electric eels intermittently splash in the river. I gaze out upon burning clouds rising above the silhouette of the canopy - a site reflected in the stillness of the dark river.

We paddled into the night, the beam of Juan’s flashlight illuminating caiman and fish motionless in the shallows. In deft movements Juan pecks a baby alligator from the water. A moment later he tosses a spear several feet into the side of a foot long carp.

Exhausted and sweaty I crawl under my mosquito net and fall asleep.

The park reserve exists as a rare vacuum of human inhabitance, populated only by the tourists who visit and the park rangers and guides who make their living within the reserve. The guides are required to spend ten days a month stationed at various shelters along the river. Their task is to prevent hunting and turn away locals who attempt to enter the park. Simple structures of palm trunks and thatched roots have been built on stilts at strategic confluences where locals might attempt to enter via smaller rivers.  The materials that the shelters are constructed of and the harshness of the environment mean that these traditional structures must be rebuilt every few years. For three nights I slept at a more permanent ranger station. Here, thousands of endangered turtles are hatched in captivity before being returned to the river. As a guest in the park I experienced a way of living that is deeply connected to the surrounding ecosystem. I ate fish speared at night and rice cooked in river water over an open fire. I bathed in the murky river with those who lived at the ranger station and sat with them as we gazed at the passing water beginning its 2000 mile journey along the Amazon and to the Atlantic Ocean.

The guides working in the park are employed by self-described eco-tourism companies. My time there led me to believe that the local conception of “eco” might differ from the mainstream North American and European environmental ethic. Fishing is completely unregulated, and the forest rangers and guides spent most of the day filling burlap sacks with fish that they gutted and salted at night. From Juan I learned how to start a campfire by burning a plastic bag, a skill that he exhibited each time we cooked. It did not take much work to perk Juan’s interest in illegally killing a crocodile to eat. When I inquired whether crocodile meat could be smoked like fish, Juan took the question to mean that I wanted to hunt one of the reptiles. He replied with excitement that we could wake at four in the morning the next day to kill one, but that no one must know. Later I decided against the hunt, but Juan’s willingness displayed that he had few qualms about breaking the park rules that he enforces ten days per month. 

My observations here are neither meant to belittle or criticize the important work of those who protect the wildlife within the park. They do however reflect the reality of conservation in a developing country. The reality of life in the rainforest dictates the use of the land. To protect their livelihoods, the rangers and guides must protect the wildlife. It is unrealistic to expect that people living outside our cultural world would value wild places for the very same reasons that we as visitors do. The Pacaya–Samiria Reserve is a success as a conservation effort. It teems with an enormous diversity of life. And although settlers encroach on the forest around the perimeters of the reserve, this vast tract of rainforest remains vibrant and, for the moment, secure.

After two days of paddling upstream, Juan and I made our way back to Lagunas along the small dirt road that connects the reserve to the town. The air was thick with the smoke of the burning rainforest as we passed by. Juan explained that after a few years of farming the soil becomes “cansado”, and to meet their needs the townspeople continue to clear new plots of forest, with this threatening growth slowly creeping ever-closer to the park. The Amazon now exists simultaneously as a frontier and as a home to the indigenous cultures that have coexisted within it for thousands of years.

These "untouched" indigenous communities have fascinated me my entire life, but I have yet to encounter evidence of their actual existence in my travels. Maybe these cultures only exist in my imagination and in the books I've read over the years. Perhaps I haven't yet journeyed far enough into the forest. I felt a sort of sadness that I had not encountered communities living in harmony with the natural world within Pacaya-Samiria. It is clear that I possess a hopeful, idealized conception of the rainforest’s traditional human inhabitants. Aware of this fact I remained saddened by what the present emptiness of the reserve must mean. Surely, this rich place was once filled with indigenous groups for whom it was home. These communities must have been driven from the forest and their homes to create a pristine park without people.  While the park is utterly pristine in the minds of many travelers, the absence of human civilization in this tract of the rain forest is in no way natural. Humans are just as integral a part of the rainforest ecosystem as the endangered birds and turtles I had seen, and as a tourist I felt somehow responsible for this separation of humans from the environment. On the bus back to Lamas a twinge of guilt pervaded the feelings of gratitude resonating within me.