Monday, May 23, 2011

The Journey- Poison blowdarts and More

The team was just landing on the dirt air strip having brushed the runway to clear any cattle off so that we and they didn't turn into hamburger. Already, Within the last 12 hours we had flown into this little known country and hopped onto a rusty box with wings to enter this remote region on the Northern border of the Amazon rain forest. Our journey was just beginning. We spent the night camped in a school building (if you could call it that).

The next morning we took jeeps further south for 4 rough bumpy hours. Little did I realize that was the smooth part of the trip. The semblance of what was termed a road gradually lost its meaning. The road ended at the next village. After stretching a bit and transferring our gear we headed off sitting in an old wagon which was pulled by an even older John Deer tractor. How they keep those things running so long, so far away from the nearest dealer or fuel station, I'll never know. For 4 more agonizing hours I was jostle back and forth trying not to keep slamming my back against the wagon rail. Finally the thick jungle was looming and even the tractor could forge on no more. We still had daylight left and decided to keep to the schedule and continue on, on foot, until we would make camp. It was refreshing to stretch my legs. Initially, the way was relatively open and avoiding tripping on the slippery roots was my main focus. Gradually the Jungle began closing in on us and the air became thick and musty. Now the obstacles were all around; including vines, bugs, and webs above. We finally stopped to set up camp. While the guides were clearing the deep jungle to allow for our tents they advised us to do a tick inventory. A what? I looked down at my legs and they were peppered with ticks! We were informed that it was easier removing them early before they really drove their heads into our flesh-not to mention healthier! It took me about 20 minutes to find and remove about 24 ticks with my knife. It got to be fun after the initial shock of it wore off. I ate and slumbered down into my tightly zipped tent. Alas it wasn't tight enough. I felt a severe burning and stinging in my right arm and saw an ant crawl off which was at least 3/4 of an inch long. My arm ached and throbbed incredibly until finally the Lortab and the cacophony of the jungle noises lead by the Howler monkeys lulled me to sleep.

As the green of the jungle began to lighten in the morning, I awoke refreshed, without pain and ready to go for more. We packed up the damp tents and continued the hike. By mid-morning I was out of water. We couldn't carry enough water for the whole journey so we planned to dip into the multitude of puddles, treat them with iodine tablets and go for broke. I was REALLY thirsty before I could stomach drinking the stuff knowing I may have gotten some of the tadpoles-at least that's what I think they were- into my bottle. For lunch the Amerindian guides "treated" us to turtle soup. Not too bad. Only later did I find out that it was an endangered species.  Finally, after about another hour we reached the river. It was a beautiful, wide, rapidly flowing river which we were going to float down to our destination. We were handed off to the Brazilian tribe at that point and we parted ways with our Guyanese guides. Our new hosts and guides came up the river in huge dugouts. These were truly trees that were dug out. They were over 20 feet long and and nearly 3 feet wide. Each dugout took 3 of us, two guides and equipment. At least that was my last tick inventory.

After a few fun rapids our hosts wanted to stop and go fishing. OK! I was all over that- until they pulled out  1 1/4 inch steel hooks on thick steel leaders. What the..? I was nonchalantly informed that we would be fishing for Parana! I had just been wading in that water! But Wow! Was that ever fun! We baited the hooks with some bloody fish and threw in the line. That's all it was, was line, that we would hold in our hands- no pole. Within a few seconds the water was boiling and I was pulling the line in as fast as I could without falling in. The disappointing thing was how small those bloody bastards were! They weren't much different than an overgrown sunfish or bluegill- WITH RAZOR SHARP TEETH. I quickly gave them my respect, though, when my steel hooks would come back bitten in half- Ouch! After about an hour the fish were bagged and we headed down again- with arms and legs firmly in the boat.

A short while later I heard some excited shouts in the dugouts ahead of us. Our guides pointed out a Tapir was swimming across the river. Oh cool, I thought, we can watch it gently swim across and take some pictures. Ah well all of a sudden our dugout started moving pretty fast right towards the mammal. Oh! And the guy up front was pulling out a cute homemade bow and arrow set! OMG! We were on a hunt! It was incredible how focused and frenzied these hunters became. We did not exist and were just along for the ride. By the time the tapir lumbered onto land it had 4 arrows in it. We hit the banks and our hosts were gone, leaving us white folk slack-jawed and looking at each other in amazement. We heard a warrior-like scream that even now sends chills up my spine. By the time I stumbled out of the dugout and hiked about 100 yards to the kill, the hunters were starting to dress the deer-sized animal.

We were at the village in another 20 minutes or so. The hunters were welcomed as heroes, having brought home fresh meat, fish and white men- or was that white meat :) ? The kids were swimming out to greet us! What the....? (Side note: later I noticed that some kids were missing toes and I asked the head teacher why- Paranas! Crazy.)  Over the next three days we set up a clinic and saw everyone in the village, discussed all of their ailments they had over the past year, mostly couldn't help them with them but pulled what seemed like hundreds of teeth.- short version. We ate with the villagers and left the inch and a half cockroaches to do the dishes. We did some first aid teaching and played with the kids- no swimming.

The village we went to apparently was so isolated that just about 5 years prior was the first contact they had with the outside world and shortly thereafter, they got a village shot gun for hunting. Prior to that they were hunting with poisoned tipped blowguns which now they felt were obsolete. I was able to trade for one of the last two they had left in the village. An souvenir to top all souvenirs.....

I reflect on this trip as the greatest journey that I ever had and likely ever will have. I cannot imagine a trip more exotic. There are so many times I get jolted by these memories, that I had to share them.

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