by Lisa Alpine
“Sitten ze down!” The German’s livid face was as red as an equatorial sun setting through the pollution haze of a Third World metropolis.
Flora and I looked at each other. She winked and we wobbled the canoe back and forth with our newly acquired hip-shaking samba dance moves. Again. It was too delicious to be exacting revenge on the pissy photographer, who was tightly gripping both sides of the pencil-thin canoe. Murky, chocolate-brown river water splashed into the hull. This sent him into full-throttle hysteria.
Should we tip him overboard? I could tell Flora was thinking the same thing. No one would know. We were in the heart of the Upper Amazon Basin on a remote, flooded tributary.
He had shown up the day before. Ray had sent him. A photographer on assignment for a travel magazine. He had a lot of expensive camera gear with him.
Ray had also sent me to stay with Flora. I had arrived one week ago with a hammock that I hung from the rafters of her tiny hut. We’d hit it off, having more in common than one would suspect between a tribal Amazonian woman and a middle-class California chick. We were the same age and had the same men issues. Daily I went out on the river with her three young children to catch live fish in handheld nets. We would carefully flip the iridescent wriggling fish from the netting into tightly woven, waterproof baskets. Flora sent these to Ray via the weekly mail panga—a long, narrow, motorized canoe. Ray was a tropical fish trader.
It was a two-day boat ride from the jungle port town of Leticia, where I had come from, to Flora’s hut. I had wanted to spend time deep in the Amazon Basin. That meant getting off the well-trafficked thoroughfare of the Amazon River and into its backwaters.
Fish Trader Ray was the man for my Amazon plan.
I had met Ray in a hotel lobby in Bogota, Colombia at the beginning of my South American odyssey four months earlier. Fantasies of rubbing shoulders with a bunch of colorful characters straight out of Graham Greene and Gabriel García Marquez novels was the extent of my travel plans. And of course, to experience the Amazon and go to Carnival.
I landed in Bogota on a $125 round trip ticket on Avianca Airlines from Miami. I spoke zero Spanish but managed to find a dingy yet elegant hotel with high ceilings, fans, and gleaming hardwood floors in the colonial part of town. I was immediately enthralled by the mustachioed men with battered leather briefcases drinking cafe tinto holding their morning meetings in the overstuffed lobby chairs, and the plain-faced Catholic nuns from missions deep in the selva sipping from green glass Coca-Cola bottles. Then there was Ray—a big, loud twangy-talking Texan, who looked like he desperately needed something cool to drink, wearing a pastel striped shirt with sweat stains under his armpits.
Desi Arnaz and Carmen Miranda were my only window into Latin culture. Oh, and the crazy nonstop partying Brazilians I had met the year before in Paris. Expecting salsa and rumba dancing in the streets with sexy ladies crowned in tropical fruit hats, I was dismayed to find Bogota a slummy and polluted place populated by sullen citizens shuffling down the sidewalks. At 8,600 feet in elevation, this dreary city was chilly and overcast with nada a Busby Berkeley fruit hat in sight.
It had been a frustrating arrival and I was piqued.
After checking in I wandered into the streets to find my first local meal. There were no restaurants, just a few hole-in-the-wall stores in this rundown part of town. A gang of young Colombian toughs in flared jeans were milling about on the corner, eying me. The soundtrack from West Side Story played in my head: “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.”
Gulp. Chin up. I crossed the street toward them. “Hola” I said with false bravado, making hand gestures to indicate I was looking for food. They were as surprised as I was by my forthrightness. Surrounding me like a military escort, they marched me to a stairwell leading down to a dive with six tables. In unison they poked their heads into the place and yelled, “Abuela!” A darling grey-haired woman about half my height appeared from behind a beaded curtain, gave me a welcoming smile, and gestured for me to sit at one of the plastic flower-print-covered tables. The gang departed, but not before they all kissed their grandma on both cheeks and formally shook my hand. The woman handed me a menu and I recognized one of the items offered: tostadas.
“I’ll have an order of that,” I said.
Savory smells emanated from the tiny kitchen. The short signora shuffled out from behind the clacking curtains and set a small plate of plain toast in front of me. Where were the tortillas, meat, cheese, guacamole, topped with sour cream?
I had just learned my first gustatory word in Spanish. Tostada=toast.
With two pieces of toast in my grumbling belly, I headed back to the hotel tired, grumpy, and ready for a hot shower and a long nap. I turned the water on full blast and within minutes the small bathroom steamed like a sauna. As I stepped into the shower stall, a strange gurgling sound grabbed my attention. Peering through the mist I was horrified to see a waterfall gushing out of the toilet onto the bathroom tile and out the door in a steady rush across the mahogany bedroom floor. No matter how many towels I threw down to block the flow, it was unstoppable. Without thinking, I wrapped the last towel around me, scampered out of the room and down the grand staircase to the reception desk.
The clerk was shocked that I was standing at the counter sporting only a bath towel. “Americans can be so inappropriate and such attention-getters,” I’m sure he was thinking as he tried not to look me up and down. My bosom was barely covered as I fluttered my hands and flapped my arms to communicate that there was an imminent disaster happening upstairs. “A flood! The toilet! Hurry! In my room!” I squawked like a parrot.
I now had the full attention of the clerk and everyone in the lobby. But nobody understood. The urgency was completely lost on them, yet they certainly found me amusing. They laughed as I continued to gesticulate that there was a serious problem and it was not me dressed only in a towel.
The sound of splashing water got them to focus. A river of water cascaded down each stair like a liquid Slinky. Now they were looking at something besides me.
I slumped in one of those overstuffed chairs in the lobby, completely ignored, and waited for them to fix the toilet and mop up the mess.
“Looks like a rough day, young lady.” The large bulk of the man with the stained shirt I had seen earlier stood above me with a concerned look on his face, his thinning sandy-grey hair slicked back in an impressive helmet. “I’m Ray Johnson and you obviously don’t speak Spanish. Can I help you?”
He didn’t seem lecherous and reminded me of a mix of Sean Connery and Santa Claus, so I hiked my towel up a little higher and confided, “This is my first day here. Where can I get a good meal?”
“The hotel restaurant has quite decent fare. May I take a fella American to dinner? Not now, of course…”
I giggled, relieved to be speaking English, and tugged at the towel again in a futile attempt to cover an inch more of my legs, self-conscious about how I must seem wrapped only in a towel.
The hotel staff moved me to a drier room, where I lingered in a luxuriously hot and uneventful shower. I gussied up in a new pair of jeans and a crisp, cream-colored linen blouse, and met Ray in the dining room. A waiter with a white napkin draped over his arm took our order. Ray counseled, “Colombian food can be very starchy and bland. They cook with a lot of yucca, which has the texture of a stringy potato without flavor. They also add fistfuls of cilantro to every dish. Try the carne asada with a hearts of palm salad. Have a beer, Argentinean Malbec, or a Chilean cabernet, if you like, but I don’t drink.”
“What are you doing in Bogota?” I asked after we had ordered and I sipped on a lush, garnet-hued cabernet.
“I’m a tropical fish trader, along with other commodities, and I’m here to drum up buyers.”
I nodded as a waiter bustled by with a fragrant, steaming dish. I could smell the cilantro. My stomach rumbled.
“Why are you in Bogota?” he asked.
“This was the cheapest airfare destination I could find to South America. I’ll be traveling for a year or two.”
“So where are you going on your South American grand tour?” Ray asked with a grandfatherly twinkle in his milky sea-blue eyes.
“The novel Green Mansions inspired me to travel the waterways of the Amazon Basin and explore its green veil. I also really want to go to Carnival in Bahia, Brazil and samba dance in the streets. I think the cheapest way to get there might be down the Amazon River.”
He thought this was hysterical and laughed till he wiped tears from his eyes but finally responded, “You might be right, but do you know how long the river is or where you are going to launch?”
I answered seriously, “It’s two thousand miles to Belém in Brazil and I’m going in via the headwaters of the Rio Napo in Ecuador, just like the Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco de Orellana did in 1542. Orellana’s voyages served as partial influence for the Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, the Wrath of God. I’ve done my research.”
He tried to stop grinning and said, “Well, you must come visit me on your way to Brazil. Leticia is a trading outpost in Colombia on the Amazon River bordered by Peru and Brazil. I live there with my common-law Yagua wife, who’s from the Red Macaw clan, and our passel of kids.”
He seemed sort of old to have a young family, but I kept that thought to myself. The waiter brought our dishes. The savory aroma of grilled rare meat was irresistible. Silence reigned for a few moments as we both ceremoniously picked up our silver-inlaid steak knives and dug in eagerly.
“How did you end up in the Amazon?” I stopped chewing long enough to ask.
Ray waggled his fork at me and said, “In the 1950s I was a photographer for National Geographic. We were down here making a film when our plane crashed in the jungle. Everyone survived, but I got malaria and was too ill to continue on with the film crew. Besides, I fell in love, several times, and stayed in Leticia. Been there twenty-one years.”
“That’s about when I was born,” I said.
He chuckled and carved into his blood-red steak while still talking. “Thought I could discover an unknown tribe and make a name for myself by filming them. I’d canoe far up the rivers and ask around, hear rumors about tribes that were still virgin to the white man’s eyes. I even encountered an isolated clan up near the Orinoco River delta on the Venezuelan border. They didn’t cook me and even initiated me into one of their hunting trip rituals where they blew snuff up my nose with a blowgun. It knocked me out for hours, and terrifying giant anacondas and toothy, yowling jaguars populated my hallucinations. Oh, and I threw up. A lot.”
Mouth gaping open, I stared and asked in disbelief, “You took psychedelic drugs with a cannibalistic tribe?”
He shrugged and said, “I didn’t know. Thought it was cocaine or something, though the blowgun was a lot longer than a straw or a rolled-up dollar bill. I was in-like-flint after that experience and slept in the chief’s hut, completely convinced I had found the lost tribe until one night, swinging in my hammock, I noticed light glinting off a Coca-Cola bottle hanging high up in the rafters. Boy, was I disappointed!”
“After that, I started taking tourists and scientists into the jungle since I knew it so well. Funny things happened. One lady botanist was terrified of piranha and continually obsessed about them. I reassured her they were not in the middle of the river we were traveling on but schooled in the eddies along the bank. Right then, we hit a wake and a piranha flew from the water, arced into the boat, and landed on her head, latching itself onto her forehead. Getting that fish off was one of the biggest challenges of my life. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as I pried the piranha’s pointy teeth apart. She made me deaf with her screaming. Fortunately, it was a flesh wound. The fish didn’t take a big bite since there’s not a lot of skin to bite into on the forehead.”
“Ray, that’s impossible!” I laughed.
He shook his head and said, “You wouldn’t believe how weird it can get in the Amazon.”
He continued, “At that point I decided it was too difficult being a tour guide, so I put the word out among the various indigenous tribes that came to Leticia for supplies that I was buying exotic birds like macaws, toucans, and Amazon parrots. There was a big market in the States, but that ended when so many died in quarantine because of avian diseases. And you couldn’t sneak ‘em in anymore after customs officials upped their security checks because of the escalating drug traffic out of South America. So now, I do fish.”
Several months later, having mastered Spanish out of sheer necessity since my flummoxed first night in Bogota, I was still tenaciously heading by boat to Carnival in Brazil. Traders’ canoes languidly ferried me down the Rio Napo in Ecuador to Iquitos, Peru where the Napo flowed into the two-mile-wide Amazon River.
One sweltering day I found myself scrambling up a muddy embankment to the dock leading into Leticia. Ray’s invitation to visit was not forgotten. I hoped he would introduce me to the “real” Amazon.
The early morning sun was already blazing on the Amazonian frontier town as I walked the wooden sidewalk that went back toward Leticia. Electric Blue Morpho butterflies burst from the rain puddles while mangy mongrels skulked about, picking at piles of fish bones haloed in clouds of botflies. Indians in feathered headdresses and ear plugs, their skin painted in red achiote, hustled past on their way to the open-air market, carrying spider monkeys, black caiman, emerald-green macaws, and even a terrified hissing jaguar kitten, trussed on poles or trapped in basket cages swinging from the Indians’ blowguns. One shirtless mestizo in ragged soccer shorts had a twelve-foot anaconda draped around his shoulders. He caught sight of me and before I could wave him off, he wrapped the snake around my neck, holding onto the back of its head so it couldn’t bite, and asked for money for a photo. The reptile was uncomfortably weighty and smelled of snake urine, which has its own distinctly unpleasant pungent odor. As I looked at its skin, I noticed ticks bloating out from underneath its scales. Repulsed, I wiggled out of the snake’s tightening grip. Bursts of gunfire, coming from a ramshackle bar perched on stilts overhanging the river, punctuated the cacophony at the dock. This roughshod town assaulted all of my senses at once, invoking Hieronymus Bosch’s paintings of hell.
Salty sweat poured down my face, stinging my eyes. I managed to make my way to the deserted main plaza and sat, panting, on a bench under the pathetic shade of a scrawny palm tree. Scratching under my shirt, concerned one of the ticks had hopped off the snake for a warmer host, I wondered how to find Ray. He didn’t have a phone or an address, and had simply told me, “When you get to Leticia, just ask for Fish Trader Ray.”
I motioned to a young boy kicking a ball across the otherwise-empty plaza. “Donde esta Fish Trader Ray?”
The boy looked puzzled and then asked, “Pescadero Raymundo?”
He motioned for me to stay where I was, and ran off down a side street. Minutes later, Ray appeared on an exhaust-spewing motorcycle with his wife and several kids hanging off his wide girth like a bunch of ripe bananas.
Ray hesitantly greeted me, but then a huge smile broke across his face and he embraced me in a sweaty bear hug, introducing me to his family. He said, “You found me. I almost didn’t recognize you. You’ve lost a lot of weight since we met in Bogotá and your clothes are pretty beat up. Still going to Carnival?”
We all sipped Coca-Colas at an outdoor cafe, the kids playing with a shiny black rhinoceros beetle that scuttled in the dirt under our table. The frosty, curvaceous bottle in my hand yielded the most delicious, sugary-sweet, icy-cold soft drink I had ever quaffed. Surprised that he had paid for our drinks in dollars, I asked him why, and he explained, “The dollar is more common than pesos because of the drug cartels coming through here to the States. Leticia is a hub for outlaws, contraband, and cocaine.”
Ray entertained me by pointing out CIA agents trying to blend in as American businessmen in dark suits, their bulging necks and biceps giving them away.
“Why are they in this godforsaken place?” I asked.
He raised his eyebrows and talked out of the side of his mouth in a whisper. “You don’t want to know. They protect the drug trade and make sure the government officials are cooperating.”
“My tax money is paying for that?”
This further heightened my desire to get out of town pronto and return to the green tangle of the jungle. Give me poisonous bugs, blood-sucking bats, carnivorous fish, and strangling snakes anytime over men with guns.
“Ray, I really don’t want to stay here. I’d love to spend time with you and your family but this place scares me. Do you have any suggestions for how I might get farther into the backwaters of the Amazon? I want to see the rarer flora and fauna, and then head toward Brazil and Carnival. I’ve been practicing my samba steps…”
He nodded sympathetically and said, “Leticia is a very dangerous place. There’s a mail boat traveling downriver leaving late this afternoon. My buddy Marco, the captain, will drop you off at Flora’s, about a two-day boat ride from here on one of the more obscure branches of the Japura. She collects exotic aquarium fish for me and loves visitors.”
Ray walked back down to the wharf and got me settled into Marco’s twenty-foot-long panga. He waved goodbye with his weather-worn Panama hat, surrounded by his retinue of barefoot children and his short, stoic, native wife. Another gunshot emanated from the stilt bar, as if a starting pistol was announcing our departure. Leticia quickly—and thankfully—faded into the distance. That town was no place for a young woman—unless she was plying her trade.
The sunset across the twenty-mile expanse of the Amazon River was a fantastical light show of tangerine spectral colors. The sultry water’s surface shimmered in a coppery-peach glow. I curled up on a lumpy sack of mail, appreciating the tranquility, and dreamily watched as the constellation of the Southern Cross faintly appeared in the gloaming of twilight.
We chugged along the sluggish waters of the Amazon River with dozens of other craft, from slipper-size dugouts paddled by plumage-bedecked natives to rusty cargo container ships struggling upstream to Iquitos or Pucallpa. My only company in the stern of the boat were a wild peccary in a slat cage who, thankfully, gave up squealing after a few hours, and Marco’s pet capuchin monkey, who made a game out of looking for nits on my scalp. His gentle preening soothed me during the hazy, heat-baked days. I had to lie on my pack, as the mischievous monkey also enjoyed digging through it with his dexterous digits—squeezing out the toothpaste or chewing on the soap bar. His most naughty and annoying trick was absconding with my silky underwear, placing it on his head like a beret and keeping just out of my grasp. We shared a passion for cashews and boiled palm nuts that I cut up and fed to him. He was too cute to be mad at for very long especially when he innocently batted his coal-black eyelashes at me.
Toward the end of the second day we detoured up a coffee-colored river confluence and into narrower tributaries, finally arriving at a small hut on stilts above the riparian jungle terrain.
There was no terra firma to disembark on, so we motored right up to the porch railing. Marco introduced me to a compact, smiling woman with bright white teeth, mocha-toned skin, and peculiar pale green-blue eyes that flashed an invitation of friendship. Flora reached down, gave me her calloused hand, and hauled me up from the boat’s rim into her twelve-square-foot thatched-roof shack. Marco confirmed he would come get me in a week and hook me up with a ride to Manaus midway between Leticia and the mouth of the Amazon River in Belem, where a bus would provide transport to Bahia in about three days. “Just in time for Carnival!” he emphasized as he shoved off, in a hurry to get back to the main river branch and visit his family. The monkey screeched goodbye with a furrowed brow as he watched me, and my pack contents, fade into the dusk. He was wearing something on his head…
Flora seemed pleased to have me as a guest. She was isolated here with just her three young children, all under age five, for company—her only social life the occasional visitor Ray sent or the infrequent passing trader. The tribe she came from lived much farther upriver and she never saw them. I never asked why she lived by herself, but I got the impression she was an outcast due to her mixed blood.
She spoke passable Spanish so we communicated easily. I agreed to contribute to the food kitty and also help her with household chores, fishing, foraging, and childcare.
When we weren’t out fishing we cooked, swept, wove baskets, and lounged in the hammocks, sharing stories and braiding my hair. The kids were fascinated by my back-length blond tresses and fooled with them constantly. I teased that they should open a beauty salon. This sent them into giggle-fits, as Flora and I were the only women for many miles in this riverine no-man’s-land.
Flora’s tipsy canoe was the only way to get around. Carved out of a single tree trunk, it floated just a half-inch above the waterline. Balance was essential when we sat, stood, or paddled.
At night, after the children were asleep, we’d slip into the dugout with flashlights and glide silently into the lagoons surrounding the shack, looking for black caiman. Their eyes glowed a spooky citrine-green in the distance like iridescent marbles hovering right above the obsidian-dark waters. We’d quickly shine the flashlight into their eyes to mesmerize them before they disappeared below the surface. Then we’d paddle over and gently tap on their prehistoric boney heads. This would break the spell and, plop, they’d sink underneath the inky water.
That was about it for nightly entertainment.
My visions of the magical realm of the jungle that Green Mansions had stimulated were real. How glorious the gigantic, two meters in diameter, Reina Victoria lily pads were—each one a universe inhabited by jade-green frogs and giant-legged bugs—and how strange and mythical the pink river dolphins appeared, quietly rising up and sinking back into the muddy malachite waters as our canoe wove through the mesh curtain of vines and drifting roots. I was finally living the fantasy that had inspired the long and arduous journey I’d taken to get here. Traveling through Flora’s watery world was worth every bug bite and petrifyingly scary moment.
Over her brazier set on the floorboards, we shared meals of smoked monkey stew, boiled palm nuts, dried pirarucu—the largest freshwater fish in the world, and my favorite: grilled Capybara—the world’s biggest rodent. We also did what women do all around the globe—we talked about men. Ironically, she had the same boyfriend problems I did. Hers was a bigger dilemma, as she also seemed to get pregnant and have children by the various Casanova traders who canoed past.
The week at Flora’s passed quickly. I was ready to travel onward to Carnival, especially once the sour German arrived the day before I was to leave, and put a crimp in our fun factor. He took up half the hut with his camera gear and shoveled all the stew onto his plate leaving a thigh bone and some sauce for the rest of us. He spoke in a bullying baronial tone of self-importance ordering us about like servants, but Flora needed the money he was paying for her guide services, so I couldn’t shove him over the railing and feed him to the caiman like I wanted to. Thankfully, Marco showed up when promised and had consigned a boat ride to Manaus for me. I hugged her wild, spunky kids goodbye and promised Flora I would stay in touch with her via Ray and return to visit her special watery world someday—maybe with my own future children in tow.
I did arrive in Bahia on the first day of Carnival as Marco predicted, and danced nonstop in the streets for a week. Several pair of shoes were worn out as I tried to keep up with the battery of booty-shaking, sexy samba mamas who paraded around town 24/7 in their stilettos, towering headdresses, skimpy costumes, and mile-wide electric smiles. Shimmy, shimmy, smile, rotate, wave to the crowd; then run, run, run to catch up with the frenzied drum bands on the motorized parade floats and shimmy some more. It reminded me of the moves Flora taught me to prepare me for Carnival, standing up in her tipsy canoe, scaring that silly photographer. Shimmy, shimmy, shake, shake, giggle, guffaw! Sisterhood discovered deep in the Amazon.
The Amazon and Carnival faded into a blur of further larger-than-life adventures traversing Iguaçu Falls and the glaciers of Patagonia, over the Atacama Desert to Bolivia, and months later, flying home from Ecuador—a full circle from where I began my Amazonian quest.
I went back to California and started an import business. For seven years I commuted to South America, and whenever I could find a flight from Colombia or Peru to Leticia, I’d take a detour and visit my friend Ray and his growing family. Leticia held a certain backwater charming seediness that grew on me the more I explored the region. Flora had married one of her Casanova’s and moved to Iquitos and I never saw her again.
The last time I saw Ray was thirty years ago, right before I sold my import company. He was hoisting me into the cargo hull of an un-pressurized plane on a dirt runway filled to the gills with odoriferous planks of salted pirarucu fish. Throngs of Indians pushed and shoved to get on the plane that provided the only transport to Bogotá on a random schedule. Luckily, they were much more diminutive than Ray, who tossed me like a football, launching me over the indigenous feathery finery and headfirst onto stacks of smelly fish. As the plane sputtered and the propellers whirred, we lifted upward. There was Ray on the runway below, large and pasty-white, enthusiastically waving his sweat-stained Ecuadorian Panama hat, grinning and squinting upward toward the blazing orb of the sun. His kids taller, his wife shorter. Fish Trader Ray. My Amazon man. Straight out of a novel.
Lisa Alpine is the author of Exotic Life: Laughing Rivers, Dancing Drums, and Tangled Hearts (winner of a BAIPA Book Awards Best Women’s Adventure Memoir). Writing, dancing, gardening, hiking, family, and travel are the passions of her life. She divides her time between Mill Valley, CA and the Big Island of Hawai’i. Find out about her writing workshops and book events at www.lisaalpine.com.