Tuesday, September 15, 2009


We decide to go to Peru, but neither Rick nor I can speak Spanish. We have two months. Because this is a budget trip to Peru, I check out every Spanish program I can find at the library. We listen every free moment. At first I try to understand everything on the tape. It is futile. After “Hola!” and the ABC’s, I am lost. I thought Spanish was supposed to be an easy language. As soon as I hit the verbs, I know this is not true. Then I relax and let my brain work on it as it wishes. Still, as I leave for Peru two days ahead of Rick, I am not particularly well equipped.
For the first two days in Pucallpa, I have no daughter to help translate for me. I am SO GLAD that I studied Spanish. I can at least make some basic needs known. For a long time, I can understand nothing that anyone is saying. Then they slow down and talk baby talk to me. Present tense only, clear enunciation. V-E-R-Y S-L-O-W-L-Y.
The brain is miraculous. After nonsense sentences for hours and hours, it somehow kicks into gear. First a few words start to make sense. Then, here and there, whole sentences.
I plunge into speaking Spanish. I use every bit of vocabulary I have learned. I stumble through verb forms, self-correcting when I see glazed looks. When my vocabulary fails, I make up words out of English with vaguely Spanish endings. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. From somewhere in my foreign language storage cabinet, come bits of foreign language. Ooops. Some of them are French.
I say totally ridiculous things. Sometimes I don’t know what I’ve said until days later. Instead of refreshing, I think I called the shower a soft drink. And I meant to tell someone that she should talk to me like a child, but I’m told that what I really said, was, “talk to me like a guy.”
Now that we are back in a land where everyone speaks English, my Spanish ability is fading. But we go to a cafĂ© for an open mic and, hey, the people are from Peru! I pull out the Spanish (It’s just as wobbly as before) and have fun trying to decipher the sounds flying by. I can see that I need to keep studying this very important language.


Every day we swim in the river. To get in, you slap the water a lot, then once in, keep swimming vigorously. This is to discourage the little fish that bite. (They say they aren’t piranhas, but we can’t see them in the muddy water.) I’m not talking about the lippy nibbles that our local fish sometimes give. These are toothy bites, quite sharp and startling. You don’t dare stay still (and it’s not a bad idea to swim in your shirt.)

I wonder what all the teeth are to do with. Probably they’re about eating other fish with bones. The fish here are the boniest ever. You lift a fillet off the rib cage, and it still has three layers of branched bones in it, as if to say “you may bite me, but it won’t do you any good.”

We are served a fish with lots of bones, somehow getting most of them out. There are pockets of boneless muscle in the cheek near the head. Rick points out the fish’s teeth... large, with two fangs almost 3/8 inch long, and sharper than sharks’ teeth. I pull my fish’s jaw open to see if it has the same teeth. It does. The jaw springs shut and it bites me.

Nature, red in tooth and claw. The jungle is far from benign.

Thursday, September 10, 2009



Mosquitos are here all the time. Despite this being the dry season, I have bite marks all over my legs from mosquitos, bites on my thighs from little hard things something like fleas, and big welts from biting flies. I sat down in the grass to do some laundry, and now I have bites at my ankles like chiggers. And more mosquitos.

There are many kinds of mosquitos, some that you hear as a whine in the back of your head, some stealth fliers. There is even a large one with wide black stabilizers like x-wing fighters, decorated with white tips, which makes it especially easy to spot. What’s up with that adaptation?

The occasional mosquito in the day is tolerable, but at dusk they become a horde. At around 5 when the sun is low in the sky and about to set, we construct our nests and climb into our mosquito nets where we read or rest or journal, for at least two hours.

In our huts, bats live, hanging from the palm fronds during the day. At night, they fly around the room after mosquitos, fanning us with their wings. I feel safe inside my net, and enjoy knowing that they are out on patrol.



Our Shipibo folks come by boat every day bringing us food. We have one big meal a day which they cook over the fire. Then they leave us with a few things to eat later, so it’s like a two-meal day.

Fish, fish and more fish. And plantain. Here are ways we have eaten plantain, times two depending on whether it is young plaintain (platano) or ripe (maduro). Grilled on the fire in its peel, grilled on the fire without peel, boiled in peel, boiled out of peel, sliced and fried, whole and fried, boiled and mashed, boiled in much water and mashed into a sort of juice with sediment (chappo).

Fish is of many types, mostly small. On my first day, they cut the head off for me and told Maggie to show me how to eat it. They no longer bother cutting off the heads. Much of the time, the fish is grilled whole over the fire. One day they made a great fish meal of fillets, stuffed with tomato, peppers, and onions and cilantro, wrapped in a banana leaf and tied with palm-like strips. The result was exquisite.

Rice comes with most meals. Sometimes beans. It hasn’t been too much of a problem, but occasionally they feed me fish fried in flour. (I'm allergic to wheat.)

Fruits have been really varied. I’ve had at least 5 fruits that I’ve never seen before. My favorite looks superficially like a fig, but it has more sour notes, chambers inside, and large black seeds. There are tiny red apples that come from a desert area of Peru. And bananas of many colors. Another day they show up with oranges. How boring!


JUNGLE SOUNDS Tues 8/18/09

The rainforest at night is alive with sound. We are close enough to people that we hear people-related sounds, motorboats on the river, music blaring insistent rhythms, dogs barking, and the ever-vigilant roosters. But those sounds are distant and minor. All around our jungle clearing, the animals of the jungle call to one another. There’s a constant buzz of cricket-locust-cicada-like sound, with a variety of trills in it. There are songs that I take to be birds, one with a tong-like bell ringing, others that sound more like North-American birds, though none that I recognize. (That makes sense, this being summer in North America and the birds at their summer home.)

The bird calls change through the night, with the bulk of the chorus during mosquito time. Besides the animal sounds, there is constant dripping from the trees of I don’t know what. The big umbrella-like leaves of the tallest trees dry out through the weeks, turn brown, hang down, and eventually fall. They crash against things as they come down during the night, making it sound as if big-foot has taken 3 or 4 steps in our back yard. And something snuffles through camp several times in the night. It might be the local dogs, but if it isn’t, I’d rather not know. About 2 or 3 in the morning, it sprinkles.


THE DAY Tues 8/17/09

My husband and I have come to Amazonia to visit with our daughter and some Shipibo people. We are living in leaf-thatched huts on stilts in a small clearing in the jungle, a 10-minute walk from the Ucayali, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon, about an hour by boat from Pucallpa. Our day is very short. It begins at dawn (around 5-6) when we finally decide we’ve had enough rest and crawl out of our hut. We do our things, mostly eating, healing ceremonies, meditation, and sitting around talking. Then as it gets close to sunset, around 5 or 6, we clean up camp, retire into our huts and into our mosquito nets.

You want to be in your net when the mosquitos come. You can hear them come, an insistent whining from the jungle around us, a voracious presence rising from the damp forest floor. During the day there are mosquitos, but at night there are MOSQUITOS. After 2 or 3 hours, the mosquitos settle down a bit and you can climb out of bed if you don’t put on a light to attract them. If not, and you stay in your bed, you have 12 hours to read, sleep, journal, or meditate. It is an enforced retreat, and nothing like it for recovery from busy-ness.