August 9, 2018
I woke Monday at 5am and immediately felt ill. My heart was pounding, my head spinning, and my stomach turning over. I realized we hadn’t eaten lunch or dinner the previous day, and I had only had a boiled egg and some rice for breakfast at 6am. Since I was a kid I have been getting sick in the morning following days when I didn’t eat dinner (usually when I got sent to my room before dinner was ready and was too stubborn to come back out). I rolled out of bed, brushed my teeth, and started to carry the cargo for the journey to the small port where our boats were waiting. After several trips carrying sacks of food and gear, I was feeling much worse. We rolled in to Jairo and Marina’s house at 6:30am for breakfast, which was rice, plantains, oatmeal, and more eggs. Even with hot sauce I couldn’t make myself eat much of it and I was grateful when Ellie came out of the kitchen with a plate of papaya and passionfruit for each of us. The Maijuna don’t really eat fruit, so we had a lot to eat. Marina got me some cold water and I sat on the floor for a bit, and my heart was slowing down. It was time to go. We distributed on two boats, with Jairo and Victorino with me and Duglas, Glenn, and Lanjer (young kid) with Ellie. It was a three hour ride up to the camp where we’d be leading expeditions from for the next three days (Maronal).
Every time it rains and the river rises, the power of the water brings down new trees and trunks into the river itself, impeding access from boats. To go up river, you need a good driver, a good machete and chainsaw man, and a bit of flexibility and daring. Some trunks you can slide the boat under but you don’t fit, so while the boat passes under you jump on top of the tree and slide down the other side back into the boat. Sometimes you can simply lay down in the boat and be okay. If a log is almost submerged, the driver will just gun the motor and drive the boat straight over the top of the tree, so that the boat is temporarily out of the water then crashes back in. It’s a pretty exciting little piece of river to say the least, and this trip was no exception. After two and a half hours of weaving and dodging we arrived at Agapito’s house, where we made a pit stop. Fernando, who was at the house, had recently come back with several huge catfish and offered to trade us one for a kilo of sugar and a kilo of rice. Having eaten rice for many days already, I was pretty excited. When Ellie’s boat arrived we headed up river once again and arrived at Maronal within a half an hour. It was about to rain, so we unloaded the cargo quickly while some of the Maijuna went to work with machetes, clearing the campsite and setting up a structural frame made out of trees. We hung large tarps I had bought on the frame and tied them down with rope as the rain started to fall. We noticed that the campsite had a new feature: a moderately sized colony of leaf cutter ants. There were streams of hundreds and thousands of ants all over the site, immediately marching over all of our cargo as it impeded their scent trails. They don’t bite people, so we just kind of laughed it off. There was still plenty of time left in the day so as the raid started to recede we set up a work plan for the afternoon. I was feeling worse and had diarrhea at this point, so Ellie offered to take the farther of the two walks with Victorino to two mineral licks out to the east while I went with Jairo and Glenn to a mineral lick that was supposed to be within a few minutes’ walk of Maronal.
As I mentioned before, the Maijuna sometimes have an altered perception of scale. The “muy cerca” mineral lick turned out to be a 45 minute hike in dense forest; usually no trouble at all but I hadn’t eaten much and was feeling miserable. To make things worse, the sun had come out and the temperature had risen dramatically. We got lost several times on the way, having to backtrack and lose more time and energy. When we finally found the mineral lick I was exhausted and gladly took a minute to rest, gather data, and begin to set up the camera trap. Thinking back, I have a sinking feeling that I did not set the right settings on the trap itself. I guess I will find out in November. We headed back to camp, which was only a 25 minute walk now that we had cut a trail, thankfully. Ellie and Victorino returned just before dark with news that they had found one mineral lick but couldn’t find the other in the dark. I just kind of shrugged it off, I didn’t really care. Catfish was being served as pango, a traditional meal of rice (or yucca), plantain, and meat. Pango fills you up, but it doesn’t have much flavor to be honest and the plantains were still many days from being ripe. I destroyed the fish but still didn’t have an appetite for the rest. We took out some lanterns and spread the map out to make a work plan for tomorrow, then went to bed shortly after the sun around 7pm. I needed it.
I woke at 1:30am; something was not right. Flashlights were rolling in and out of camp as people ran around. There was rain absolutely pounding on the tarp a foot above my head and I was getting wet. I scrambled out of my tent and took stock of the Maijuna running around trying to take better shelter and move their mosquito nets further under the tarp. Several ropes had come loose and were pouring water into the center of the camp. I fetched my rain fly and threw it over my tent. Seeing everything else was pretty much under control, I stumbled back inside and fell right back asleep.
At 5:30am I rolled out of my tent and noticed again that something was off. Duglas was up cooking breakfast, with a grim but amused look on his face. I asked what was up and he gestured to a sack of food lying nearby. It turns out that leaf cutter ants don’t just cut and carry away leaves. During the night, the colony had ravaged our food stores, not only carrying away the food itself but also pieces of the packaging and sacks that held all of it together. The result was a half-eaten sack of wet sugar, oatmeal, rice, and crackers filled with hundreds of ants. Once I got over the shock I realized it was actually pretty funny; until Duglas pointed at my backpack now hanging from a tent pole. The sides and mesh backing of the bag were absolutely riddled with holes, with several ants still desperately clinging to the pack that Duglas had snatched up and hung. Ellie rolled out of her tent exclaiming that they had eaten holes in her tent as well, and she had woken up and heard them chewing in the night. I ran over to my tent to check, but it’s still all solid. I feel bad, but good thing Ellie camped closer to the colony than me!
Breakfast was more pango. I kind of resigned myself and poured on some hot sauce. I had a cup of fariña, which is ground toasted yuca (very very hard and crunchy – like grains of sand) that you just kind of drink with a bunch of water. I still have not gotten the taste for it. It keeps you going, anyway. After breakfast, Ellie and Victorino headed back to the east to try and find the missing mineral lick and another one further to the north while Jairo, Glenn and I headed to the northwest to fetch some camera traps that had been set 5 kilometers out a few months ago. That is quite a walk, sadly. I was one sweaty man after the nearly three hours of fast hiking it took to find the last trap. I’ll take this quick opportunity to expand a bit more on what hiking with the Maijuna is like. They will always go in front, machete in hand. The machete is not to clear the path, though. It is used very selectively and after hours and hours of walking behind watching, I think I have determined the circumstances for its use. The first is to cut anything that poses danger, i.e. vines with enormous spines (plentiful) or debris strewn in the path that is certain to trip someone (also plentiful). The second is to mark a trail. Every 20 meters or so, with a quick flight of the wrist, the Maijuna would cut a plant along the trail; a branch here, a vine there, and so on. The result is that you still have to dodge and weave to avoid all of the things in the “trail”, but there are signs that they can follow back to the camp. I say they for a reason. While I am improving every day, it’s hard for me to look 20 meters down a trail and pick out a broken twig among all of the other broken twigs that seems to have been made by a machete, but these guys can do with contemptuous ease. On this day, we were following a trail that had not been walking in quite a long time, so most of the plants had completely grown back. Whenever the trail was lost, Jairo and Glenn would immediately split off in a thirty degree angle or so, walk 10 meters, then slowly swing in an arc towards where we came from searching for the inevitable sign that the trail had taken an unseen twist or turn. Let me tell you, the trails do twist and turn. We were heading west, but I think for every 10 meters west we walked, we walked two in every other direction along the way. Jairo can read the forest floor like a map and while I was busy chugging water he stopped, turned, and pointed to a tree ten meters away. After an hour and a half of lost trails and twists and turns in the middle of nowhere, he had taken us right to the first camera trap. An hour and a bit later, and we found the second. I had a welcome rest as we sat and listened to a troop of Red Howler monkeys in the trees not far from where we sat in the leaves catching our breath. It was 11am already, and we were running behind schedule even with our fast pace. We turned back and headed for Maronal again. On the way back, we startled a particularly large bird that Jairo said was good eating and he stopped for a second and took a look around. He beckoned to me and led me to a small bush which, when he pushed it aside, revealed a big dark brown speckled egg. He smiled and said do you want to take it and eat it? Of course I said absolutely yes. He fashioned me an egg carrier out of palm leaves and strapped it to my pack, and we went on our way.
When I arrived at Maronal, my egg was gone. Probably a sacrifice I made unknowingly as I stumbled through the giant palm swamps midway. Too bad, it would have made a nice change to the pango. I was soaked in sweat so I stripped and jumped in the river as it started to rain. What a great feeling. Jairo was in camp with a worried look when I got back, and he told me that his boat motor was broken, and he did not bring a wrench with him to fix it. I went and had a look and the nut we needed to take out was well and truly stuck from 11 years of use. Of course, we only had one paddle with us. Ellie and Victorino returned and we made a team decision to leave the campsite with its ant colony and thousands of (stingless, but annoying) bees and head back to Agapito’s house for the next night of camping. We stowed the cargo and Victorino came back from the forest with a large branch he meant to use as a paddle to help Jairo. We shoved off and down the river we went, with Jairo paddling and Victorino half paddling and half poling with his huge stick. What a sight. An hour and a bit and we finally arrived to find the rest of the crew already relaxing and eating snacks. It was clear no more work was going to be done that day, which I was happy with since I was still sick and tired from the walk. We unloaded and set Duglas to cooking while Ellie and I took another look at the map to make tomorrow’s plan. Soon we had an audience as the ever-curious Lanjer and all of the children at Agapito’s house were gathered around the map trying to see what was going on. I had to take the camera out, it was too cool of a sight to pass up.
Dinner was pango. The catfish had been replaced with eggs and green beans we had brought with us, which made it actually bearable. We fell asleep shortly after 8pm, and woke again at 5:30am as Duglas was set on cooking breakfast. Breakfast was pango. This time, instead of green beans and eggs we had canned sardines, which just made it a salty pango. It’s funny the things you start to appreciate: canned sardines have never tasted so good. Thankfully Jairo and Ellie had begged him to make oatmeal as well and, although he had dumped nearly half a kilo of sugar in it it was filling, energizing, and most importantly it was different. Fernando’s wife surprised me after breakfast and brought me over a bowl of masato, which I had never tried before. Masato is the traditional Maijuna alcoholic beverage made from fermented yuca. It has a slightly sweet but starchy taste, has a texture of warm milk that has started to turn, and an ABV of about 3-4%. The key is that you drink it in bowls, not cups, and you have to drink the whole thing. Luckily, it’s more or less known that gringos prefer to start drinking masato slowly so they did not seem at all offended when I only had three or four mouthfuls then set it aside. I have heard from many different people how sick it makes you the first few times you have it, so I am expecting to feel somewhat ill in the next few days. After breakfast, Victorino and I headed slightly up river and out to the west to find three mineral licks called Pihuicho. I was starting to recover and the hour and a half hike made me sweaty but I was feeling fine when we arrived.
At the first mineral lick, I immediately noticed something that was different and seemingly significant. The area was covered in huge rocks, fragments of bedrock lifted from underneath the soil. I have a theory that mineral licks are formed by erosion of the bedrock layer that leaches nutrients from the rock into the soil above. This may be a fact actually, I have no idea, but to me it’s an idea. Rocks are super hard to find in the rainforest. You just do not see them. So this collection of huge pieces of bedrock in the one place I hoped to see bedrock was a bit of a lightbulb going off. I drove a stick into the mud of the lick and saw that the layer of rock was only about a foot under the surface. I filed that observation away, we will see what comes of it. Anyway we set a camera and headed to the last two licks.
The third mineral lick was eventful. It was enormous, much bigger than any I had seen before. It looked like a large open swamp of mud, and Victorino told me that the animals eat the mud and drink the water everywhere throughout. It was going to be at least a two camera job, possibly three; but I only had two more with me. I tossed my pack on the ground and started towards a promising-looking area towards the center of the swamp facing the entrance to the lick where I had seen tracks of tapir, peccary, deer, and even tortoises. That was a mistake. My first step I sank into mud that was up to my thighs, well past my knee-high rubber boots, I was not expecting it and tripped with the momentum, stepping with the other foot too and sinking even further. Mud filled my boots and my pants and Victorino started to laugh. Not that funny when you have a long hike home. I worked my way free and scraped out my boots with a broom Victorino whipped up from palm leaves, then turned back to the lick to reconsider. We needed to be a bit more tactful.
I made a plan and Victorino put it into work, collecting a pile of old trunks, logs, and debris by the edge of the swamp. I would toss a log in, jump to it, then he would toss me another and I would continue until I reached the point where I thought the first camera should go. I placed it and repeated the plan for the second camera. We were not able to test the aim of the cameras, but I wasn’t about to go walking around in thigh-deep mud to find out if they were a centimeter off or not. We headed back to the boat. Victorino complimented me on my ability to find and identify tracks as I stopped him to point out a series of Yellow-Footed Tortoise tracks and Red Brocket Deer tracks that he had walked over. I’m feeling good.
When we arrived at Agapito’s again, Ellie and her crew were already back from retrieving more traps from a 5 kilometer trail to the east. I noted that more people had arrived, with one person in particular who is a bit of a mean personality with vulgar language. I’m not a fan. Ellie and Victorino headed back out to take out one last trap nearby and I began to catch up on data from the trip in my notebook. As I was minding my own business, I became aware that this person was talking about me and making fun of me, thinking that I didn’t understand Spanish very well. It came to a point when he was using vulgar language and said “watch this, he’s like a parrot he only knows a few words – Brian! Do you know how to speak?” Everyone kind of laughed nervously, because they knew that I had been spending a lot of time practicing my Spanish. I said “Yes, I understand very well, thank you. I’m no parrot.” and went back to writing. He tried a different tactic: “Have you tried masato? Someone get him a bowl of masato.” I said “Yes, I have tried it, thanks, it’s quite good.” Nonetheless, he got up and fetched me a full bowl and set it down. I dutifully had three or four gulps then set it down and kept writing. At that point, Jairo jumped in and said “No, it’s good for him to go slow and have it bit by bit”. I guess bullies exist in every culture…
The boat ride home was perfect and relaxing, after a long few days in the field. Pairs of beautiful, huge scarlet macaws were flying back and forth across the river, the sun was beginning to set, there was a lovely breeze, it was fantastic. When we arrived at Sucusari, we found Elvis waiting. Dinner was a welcome diet change of spaghetti and red sauce with onions. I ate a LOT.
The 9th was meant to be a day of rest, and it was fantastic. We woke up at 7am to eat and had a nice relaxing meal of coffee, oatmeal, and eggs. We spent the rest of the morning chilling and entering GPS data into my hard drives. It was a good day to relax because man was it raining hard. We ate lunch at 1pm and, when a break in the rain came, went to a mineral lick nearby with Shebaco to show Elvis the methods that we have been using in the field. Nice and relaxing but nice to have the extra data. The afternoon consisted of trying to wash all of my clothes in the river, then an early bed time of 7pm. We had a big plan set for the next day…
Ellie’s alarm went off at 4:30am on the 10th, shortly followed by a HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Today was my birthday, hard to believe. I had lost track of the days. Once I realized it was a special day I pulled on my favorite sloth boxers and dug Katie’s birthday note from my bag of letters (thanks friends!). Attached was a party hat, of course. We packed breakfast to go and we were on the river with Jorge and Catalino by 6am. We were looking for a guy named Nicolas to join us, but we didn’t know if he would be home and if he would be free, but we were going to drop by. Fifteen minutes up river, we saw Nicolas waving on the side of the river and made a quick U-turn. He was like sure, let me grab my machete and that objective was checked off the list early.
We got to the site access from the river and had a breakfast of rice, spaghetti with sauce and canned sardines, lentils, and oatmeal. Not the ideal breakfast, but that stuff will keep you on your feet let me tell you. Not bad for breakfast in a boat. Elvis and I knocked out three mineral licks early while Ellie went with Nicolas to two more. We had a bit of time so Elvis and I headed to another lick further out. My tracking skills are improving and I managed to pick up many many different animals as well as a tigrillo for the first time (ocelot or margay – the local name is the same for both species of cat). Super exciting that they’re around and that I can ID the tracks!! We crossed a log bridge that was covered with millions of ants, and within two minutes of arriving at the other side, I began to feel bites all over my body. I freaked out and Jorge was yelling take off your shirt! I haven’t stripped that fast in my life. Jorge started knocking the ants out and, although it looks like I have the chicken pox now, I am ant free. The last mineral lick was gorgeous, with a huge slope with tons of animal tracks and a large round face where the animals consume soil. I wish it was closer to the river so we could take students out there. I asked Jorge to take a funny picture with me for Kate, since I was hiking wearing her party hat. It took some explanation before Jorge understood why I looked like an idiot, but here I am in a mineral lick with a red hat. Enjoy. The boat ride home was gorgeous, and we knocked out two more licks on the way. The result was that we expected the trip to take three days and it took most of one. We knocked out 8 mineral licks in one day, and arrived before the sun set. When we got home, we ate a late lunch of rice and eggs and onions and then we got a friend to drive us to the lodge (where I am now sitting blogging). Overall, I have certainly had worse birthdays. Here’s to 24.