Escape from the Jungle [Nerd on a Wire]
I don’t get scared until my Lucky hat flies off. It has the word “Lucky” inscribed on the bill and has been a fixture on my head for the past four weeks of trekking in Peru. “Crap,” I mutter under my breath. I grip the back of the motorcycle more tightly and prepare myself for certain death.
As if in reaction to my curse, the bike fishtails over a particularly muddy patch of rainforest. Juanito, the 17 year old who has volunteered to drive me out of the deep jungle to a slightly less deep part of the jungle, rights it and revs the engine. Mud splatters up onto my already grimey pants. The bike leaps forward. Juanito has a rat tail. I think about telling him that those went out of style in the US about 25 years ago. Then I remember a valuable lesson recently learned from a Peruvian ayahuascero/Buddhist (like a Shaman, but more…Peruvian):
“Let your words be worth more than the silence they have broken.”
Given the precarious ground Juanito and I are skittering over–in addition to mud, there are large rocks and a cliff just to the right of the road–silence seems particularly valuable at the moment.
This motorcycle ride was never part of the plan. At the beginning of my last week in Peru, I decided that instead of heading west to visit Arequipa (big city, mountains, dry), I’d head east into the Manu Rainforest Preserve (remote, jungle, hot ‘n humid). I booked the trip last minute with a small, family run company. I’d have to leave the expedition a day early and travel overnight to make my flight back to the U.S.A. No problem, they assured me. They’d take care of it.
At that point in my travels, I should have known better. The Peruvians I’d met were among the friendliest, most generous people I’ve encountered in my life. They have also exhibited a laid back attitude towards time and planning that should have given me pause. But I really wanted to go to the jungle. Like, a lot.
Even while booking the trip, I knew that there were dangers. I hadn’t taken any anti-malarials or been vaccinated for yellow fever, hepatitis, or any of the other diseases the CDC website urged me to protect myself against. Besides that, the jungle was home to vicious wild pigs, untold numbers of poisonous snakes and spiders, and the fearsome chupacabra. No, wait… That’s Mexico. Still, dangerous place, the jungle.
I’d steeled myself for all of these risks. Just not for death by motorcycle.
This whole Peru trip had been about pushing my boundaries. It started with a weeklong spiritual retreat during which I sat in a circle puking with 20 people from all over the world. I mean, there was more to it. Very life changing. But also there was puking. Then I trekked up a really big mountain and managed to stay alive. Finally, and perhaps most daunting, I went to Lake Titicaca, put on a hat and poncho, and participated in a traditional Peruvian dance party. That didn’t kill me either.
Up until that morning, the jungle trip had been amazing. A five hour boat ride into the Amazon. An endless field of fireflies flickering beneath a full moon. Sitting on a rickety platform high above the jungle floor watching exotic birds fly to and fro. Sleeping in a gently swaying hammock while rain drummed on the thatched roof of a shelter. Not bad.
It started to go a bit pear-shaped when we had set out shortly after 10 AM. William, our guide, took me aside. “There may,” he said, smiling, “be a small problem. Because of the rain, the roads. . .you probably can’t get back how we planned.” I took a deep breath. “But,” he said, “You can take a boat to Atalaya, find a moto to Pilcopata, and the car we reserved for you should be there.”
None of that meant much to me, but it sounded like a solution. I nodded enthusiastically. “Great!”
I thought that ‘moto’ meant motorboat. In a flooding situation, a motorboat would make sense. When I got to Atalaya, I discovered that “moto” meant motorcycle. And I discovered that the only operational motorcycle in town was bright red and belonged to a daredevil with a rat tail named Juanito. He smiled shyly at me as he offered to drive me the hour or so it would take to get to Pilcopata. I shook his hand and tried to unsee the scars on his legs and arms.
Pretending a nonchalance I didn’t feel, I straddled Juanito’s bike, gripped the passenger handles. He revved the engine and off we went. I was more or less ok.
Until my hat flew off.
Now I’m not ok. I try to remember who I put down as my emergency contact. How long would it take anyone to find us at the bottom of a cliff? Would the motorcycle explode upon impact? If not, how long could I survive with my paltry knowledge of edible plants? I’d learned how to extract water from bamboo and how to eat termites. But how long can you live on termites?
Webs of horrific possibilities spin in my head. I’m about to descend into full fledged panic, when I voice cuts through the strands of fear.
“Breathe,” says the voice.
I recognize it as belonging to Adrian, one of the guys who had helped facilitate the life-changing, puke-filled retreat that had started my Peruvian journey. During one particularly intense experience, I’d started to unravel. Adrian had sat with me, helping me stay anchored. Helping me breathe.
“Feel your hands,” he’d said, “Your feet. Your weight. You are here.” Breathe.
On the back of the motorcycle, I feel my hands gripping the plastic handles. My feet on the pegs protruding from the rear wheel housing. My weight keeping me anchored (hopefully) to the bike.
Juanito pilots us onward and I keep breathing. Now that I’m not wearing my lucky hat, I can feel the air on my exposed scalp. We get to Pilcopata where I find that there’s no car waiting to take me back to Cusco to make my flight. I breathe. Juanito and I chase tour buses (we drive up beside them and I yell at the driver “VAS A CUSCO?! CUUUSSSCOOO!”) for about an hour before I find a taxi to drive the eight hours to Cusco over crappy roads in pitch darkness. Ends up the taxi driver wants to smuggle coca leaves out of the rainforest and wants to use me as cover. I breathe through all of that, too.
I make it to Cusco and get on the plane. I take a deep breath in and defiantly don’t think about how ridiculous the past 24 hours have been. And I definitely don’t think about the myriad mosquito bites I’ve collected and how any one of them may condemn me to death by yellow fever.
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featured image credit: Teosaurio