Amazon Brazil – I wake to a sound just on the other side of the screen next to me. The mosquito net is still tucked in under the mattress all around us. The white netting flutters slightly with the rhythm of the fan. I hear the noise again, the trees above us seem to be moving.
I stick my head out of the netting to check my shoes for spiders and scorpions or any other manner of things that bite. All clear. I crawl out, slip on my shoes and head out the door of our shack to see what has arrived in our camp. I look up above the tin metal roofs to see a troop of squirrel monkeys flying through the trees.
They chatter noisily and sail through the air from one tree to the next as they make their way toward the water. The sun had just risen past the horizon warming the jungle with its colors. The air is warm and slightly muggy but still pleasant so I stand on the wooden walkway and watch with wonder at the distances they could reach flying through those tiny branches.
Soon the monkeys had all gone, falling leaves and shivering branches left in their wake. I go back to our little room to get ready for breakfast.
Today, we were to follow Cacá, our guide, into the Juma jungle.
This is Part Two of our Amazon Jungle Tour series. If you have not read Part One on how we got to the jungle check out our Piranha Encounters article.
Time Measured by Life
The sounds of humans have faded. In their place, the air is filled with songs of birds. In the Amazon in Brazil, the birds come in every size and color: tiny little bright yellow birds, kingfishers, hawks, storks, Cocoi Heron, Scarlet Macaw, egrets, hawks, and much more. The variety was striking. The frogs join in with their timber, all to the backdrop of the distant growls of the howler monkeys.
A splash in the trees to our right pulls our attention and we scan the waters for more movement.
It is currently the dry season (June to November) but there is certainly no lack of water. The rivers and streams are receding but still high. We can see the high watermarks on the trees above our heads.
Rain from the Andes and the entire Amazon river basin that extends over most of the northern part of South America (40% of the landmass) drains into the Amazon river. The waters in this region can rise 49 feet (5 meters) above the levels held at their lowest point each year.
Many homes are built on stilts or on massive logs that allow the homes to float up and down so they always rest on the shore. The unfinished home sitting on the water outside our lodge rests on massive logs that keep it afloat.
“How long with those logs last submerged in water?” I asked Cacá.
“Till after I am dead and for my child’s life,” he answered. Time here is measured by life rather than years.
“I recommend you don’t touch anything”
Soon the boat is navigating through trees taking us closer to shore. Cacá reached over and filled his water bottle from the dark waters and took a large swig. The water in his bottle looked clear but nobody followed suit. We climbed off the boat and into the small opening of the jungle.
“I recommend you don’t touch anything,” Cacá said before leading us into the jungle using his machete to clear the path. He told us that scorpions and other dangerous bugs hide easily on the trees.
“Did you play here as a kid?” Alia asked.
“No,” he responded with an alarmed look, “it is too dangerous for a child.”
The six of us followed Cacá single file as we weaved through the dense vegetation.
Rainforest vs Jungle
The Amazon region is considered both a rainforest and a jungle.
Rainforests are forest ecosystems characterized by high levels of rainfall.
While the word jungle has been widely used to describe unruly spaces, its most common definition is land overgrown with tangled vegetation at ground level.
Tasting the Jungle
Cacá stopped to cut a few tiny pieces of bark from a tree and hand us each a portion.
“Taste,” he said.
We put the tiny pieces of bark on our tongues and made a face. It was bitter and very strong.
“This we make into tea. It prevents yellow fever and malaria. No yellow fever or malaria with my people because we drink this tea,” he said.
A few meters later he stopped again and pointed to a small, straight tree that looked like it had large thorns. On closer inspection, the protrusions felt soft, almost paper-like. Looks can be deceiving.
“We cut this tree and put it in the water for a month. This makes the center soft. We then push the center out and use the hollow log for poison dart guns to hunt,” he explained.
This is what I liked about having a local for a guide. He was simply telling us about his life. What seems to us as a foreign and dangerous environment is normal and peaceful to him. He thrives out here and says it is “a good life.” We were not with some outsider telling us about customs here, but someone who actually lives it.
Eating Larvae from the Babassu
He stopped again and picked up what looked like a massive nut but actually turned out to be a small, elongated coconut called a babassu. He placed the babassu nut against a tree and swung the machete rather close to his fingers cutting off the end of the babassu. Inside was a white core.
We each tried a piece of the white core. It tasted like dried coconut.
He continued searching for more babassu nuts as we walked along until he found what he was looking for. This one seemed to have two white cores, except that the second one was moving. He tapped the nut against the flat surface of his machete making a pinging sound. The white wiggling mass fell out.
The white wiggling mass
“Would you like to eat one?” Cacá said holding out what is pretty much a giant maggot.
We poked the maggot. The soft thin skin felt like a squishy white bag of milk. It is the larvae of the beetle pachymerus nucleorum that develops inside the fruit feeding off the coconut as it grows.
“It is good,” he said as he popped the larvae into his mouth.
“Sure,” Alia said.
She has turned out to be pretty daring with bugs. She pinched the head of the larva like Cacá did and bit off the body. We watched to see if she would be sick or make a face but she just broke into a smile and nodded her head pleasantly.
“Kinda freaky. It tastes like nothing,” she said smiling, “It is squishy and lovely. It’s like a jellybean with no flavor.”
I’ve watched Bear Grylls eat large maggots before and I always thought it was disgusting. I didn’t know if I would ever try something like that. But here in the Jungle in Cacá’s home, it all seemed so normal.
“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said taking the next larva and eating it. The little white milk bag popped inside my mouth releasing a pleasant taste. It actually tasted good. Milky. The grubs were much better than the roasted ants we ate in Colombia.
Then the guys had their turn.
Aggravating the Ants
Cacá scraped the bark of one tree and told us to sniff it. It had a faint but pleasant smell. He said that it was the tree that is used to make the Chanel No. 5 perfume. Now, however, they say that only a marginal amount of this tree is used in their perfumes in an attempt to protect the rainforest.
On another tree, there was a large mass on it that looked like an ant mound. Cacá stopped and began to hit the tree with the blunt side of his machete. The vibrations had the large mass moving with thousands of ants bothered by the movement.
Cacá then reached out and placed his hand on the tree letting the ants cover his hand. There were some expressions of disbelief and we wondered what he was trying to do. Then he removed his hand and rubbed them together crushing the ants and spreading them over his hands and forearm.
“Bug repellent,” he said, “try it they don’t bite.”
Alia tried it while the rest of us watched with curiosity, but we were already slathered in our own bug repellents and did feel the need to try this one.
If You are Lost in the Jungle
Cacá started hitting another tree with the blunt edge of his machete. Each thunderous blow echoed in the forest. Based on what transpired in the previous tree, I wondered what kind of giant bug would come out of this one.
“This is the telephone tree,” he announced, “When hunting we signal each other when we have something or if we need help. If we hit it ten times it means we are lost and someone will come to find us.”
We continued trekking through the jungle. Every so often, Cacá would stop and look up into the trees, or stick a branch into a hole in the ground, and we’d wait expectantly. This being the jungle, there is no guarantee of what you can see.
“Good we did not get lost,” he said when the boat came into view again. I’m sure he was joking.
“I got lost out here with a group once. My father and friends came and found us. We were out here for hours,” he confessed as everyone piled into the boat and we headed back to the lodge.
Later in the week, we would get lost with Cacá, but that will have to wait for part three of our Amazon Jungle story.
Sweat began to drip from my forehead as we navigated behind Cacá. He was whacking branches out of his way with the machete to ease our passage behind him. Trin was in the back of the line and I was right in front of Trin.
One moment we were walking, trying to look ahead and at the same time watching where we put our feet on the jungle floor. The next moment, Cacá had turned around pushing the two people who were up front towards my direction. His eyes were big and he held his machete out.
“RUN!” he yelled.
I turned, Trin had already taken off. I was curious as to why we were running. What would one run from? Certainly, we wouldn’t run from a jaguar, they could overtake us all. Most animals give chase if one runs and most would outrun humans so why were we crashing through the jungle. My North American woods experience told me not to run.
Even the deadliest spider in the world, the Brazilian wandering spider, is primarily nocturnal. Would we run from that or just move away? Surely an anaconda or boa constrictor would not give chase. The questions mounted.
How everyone in a group reacts is important in an emergency situation. Today Trin and I were with strangers. Our friends from the USA had left the day before. In their place were a young couple from Germany and a young doctor from Argentina who kept wandering off to check out all the cool bugs of the jungle. Just that morning he went into the forest behind the lodge and came back holding a large black scorpion in a pair of tweezers.
We just met these three and only knew their names at this point. I wondered how this group dynamics would work.
I’m in a jungle that I’m unfamiliar with. Therefore when the local guide waves his machete and says RUN as he heads my direction, I run and I’ll ask my questions later.
Thankfully everyone in the group did exactly as Cacá instructed immediately without question.
After a few meters, we stopped and looked expectantly at Cacá.
“Come, I will show you,” he said quietly.
He led us back toward the direction we ran from only angling out to the right. He paused, hunched down, and pointed through the branches.
A large swarm of wasps was swirling like a small dust devil busy about their task. Wasps are described as jerks just about anywhere in the world but out here in the jungle, they are no joke. In fact, the wasp with the longest stinger in the world has been discovered here in the Amazon jungle. There is also the hawk wasp that preys on tarantulas. We learned about the hawk wasp tarantula killing techniques in Costa Rica. I don’t know what species of swarm this particular one was, but we were not going to mess with it.
Life Lessons from the Jungle
Life is so diverse and abundant in the Amazon. In a place that seems to be filled with deadly predators – deadly spiders, fish that can clean meat to the bones of larger animals – so much still thrives. It is fierce and it is beautiful. It seems that no organism is alone.
Trees support vines then vines kill the trees and become the tree and take over its vertical spot in the jungle. Bugs and parasites all working with other life forms protecting some and fighting others.
Thriving in any environment requires an understanding of that environment and wisdom on how to adapt to the changing world around us. Check out our next post that just might provide a glimpse of what life could be like in the Amazon Jungle.