August 6, 2009
On some of my travels, I’ve found myself in unwitting situations where I wonder, “Where the hell am I and how did I get myself into this mess?” Anaconda hunting was a prime example of this type of scenario.
When we arrived at our camp the day before, we picked out rubber boots that we would wear for the anaconda excursion. The only boots that really fit me went up mid-calf rather than up to the knee like the other ones. The guide said it didn’t matter because the mud would only come up to our ankles. As we left the following morning, a guy asked me if I’d thought about whether or not what the guide said was true. He had a point, given the guide’s previous understatements, but it was too late because we’d already left.
The walk started off innocently enough with a little mud and some tall grass. But I soon found myself in the middle of the swamp and there was no turning back. With each step, I had no clue whether I was stepping on solid ground or what seemed like quicksand. As I alternated between unsuctioning my feet from the swamp and swatting branches out of my face, I began to question whether finding an anaconda was worth spending half a day with mud carrying unknown organisms creeping into my boots.
I eventually I fell into a stride and found that picking up the pace helped me avoid sinking into the mud. When possible, I stepped on dried grass or plants at the quicksandy patches. We crossed over a semi-dried up pond and bumped into another group who was staying at the same camp; some English college students and middle-aged Canadian couple. Their guide took off and we began to follow him, but then a group of us decided it wasn’t worth it to venture off into open land when the sun was so hot. We were very low on drinking water because we hadn’t imagined we’d be out there for so long.
We sat under a tree, and being still invited the creepy crawlies to climb all over us. Just as I jumped up when I found a spider on me, I heard some shouts. An anaconda had been found! Finally. We went to scope out the scene. The snake seemed lethargic and defenseless. It was obvious that it had just eaten something and you could see the outline of whatever it was digesting in it’s belly.
I was excited when people were done with the snake and we started to head back to camp. But then, a huge wasp came out of nowhere and stung me on the shoulder. It hurt like hell and my head filled with thoughts of asphyxiation. My honeymoon phase with the Amazon had ended. It didn’t mean I loved it any less, but I’d accepted the realities of it. At first you stare at it with awe and wonder, but you eventually come face to face with all of its little pests.
My boots contained miniature swamps by that point. With every step, my feet were sloshing around inside them. My guide felt bad for me and we stopped at a stream where he helped me empty my boots and rinse off my socks.
We fell way behind everyone, but eventually caught up with the Canadian couple from the other group. At that point, traversing the swamp had a become more of a mental battle than a physical one for me. My legs were propelling themselves forward independently. I was over the swamp, my mind was focused on decreasing the distance between myself and the camp. The sun was blazing overhead and there was no escaping the heat and humidity and I was completely out of water.
The Canadians kept falling behind because the woman would drop to her feet and cry every time she tripped. In the swamp, it’s easy to trip a lot. Their group’s guide was probably already back at the camp, and my guide obviously felt responsible for ensuring that they made it back safely. Every time we stopped to wait for them, both my feet and energy sunk and my mind wandered back to whether or not the wasp that stung me was poisonous. Maybe it sounds callous, but I wished the woman would pull it together. We were out in the tropical Bolivian wilderness, and there wouldn’t be a rescue helicopter coming anytime soon. And the longer we were out there, the more likely we would become dehydrated and get heatstroke.
I saw trees in the distance and figured it had to be our camp. I asked the guide to point me in the direction of the camp and took off by myself. I had a run-in with dehydration earlier in the year and I knew that I really needed to get some fluids in my system. On the way, I bumped into the guide from the other group who finally decided to come back and help out. He gave me a drink of water pointed me towards the path, but in the thick tall grass, I still got lost. I eventually heard someone frantically shouting my name, my guide coming to the rescue. I’d overshot the trail and had to go back a bit in the other direction.
When we finally got back to the camp, I immediately took off my boots and socks. My feet looked like raisins covered with melted chocolate. I chugged water and had lunch. Twenty to thirty minutes later, the Canadian couple showed up looking tired but fine. After lunch, I tried to wash the mud out of my clothing in the camp’s tiny sink. I took a long cold shower and found an empty to hammock to lie in and contemplate the day. As much as I’d not enjoyed the swamp experience, it was a good challenge. I’d done it very ungracefully, but I’d completed it and that made me happy.
The late afternoon brought a much more enjoyable activity– piranha fishing. I’d never been fishing before, but it always seemed like it would be interesting to try. I enjoyed being back on the boat. The river was more friendly and fun than the open lands, as long as you didn’t fall victim to a cayman. After several tries, I caught a small fish. It wasn’t a piranha, but that didn’t take away from my excitement about catching a fish for the first time.
We were budget fishing and our rods were handmade. They consisted of just a hook, fishing wire, and a stick. The hooks kept getting stuck on trees or ripped off by piranhas. We headed back to camp when we ran out of supplies and bait. We only came away with three piranhas, all caught by our guide.
The evening was similar to the previous one. First there was a stop at the Sunset Bar. Back at the camp we had dinner, which included the three piranhas our guide caught. There is not a lot of meat on them, but they are tasty little fish. After dinner, the cooks brought us wine and a strange delicious concoction made of fruit and cookies that resembled a cake. I’m not sure if we were celebrating the second and last night of the tour or Bolivian Independence Day. Maybe both. There were no daily parades in the jungle so I’d forgotten it was Independence Day. We played cards by flashlight after the power went out. For some reason, the mosquitos were even more vicious that night than they were the previous night. My shoulder already had a swollen bump the diameter of a baseball where I’d been stung. I was tired of bugs and wanted to get up early for the sunrise, so I went back to our room early and settled into my mosquito net covered oasis.