Bite the Piranha, Eat the Amazon
October 3, 2014
There’s a time and a place to drink gallingly black instant coffee from a plastic cup, and it’s here and now, at the Marasha Reserve, sitting on a wooden dock and looking out across the lake. The sun is just glimpsing over the tops of the tall, green trees, the breeze is still cool and causing the water to ripple like the skin of an octogenarian’s hand. Sharp, squawking parrots cut the morning’s silence, while fat red birds with pompous blue crests on their heads warble from branch to branch.
Carlos, our guide, has just speared a fish, and he holds it out for us to see. The prongs slit cleanly through its silvery side, and its useless, flapping gills are panting. Inside is ruffling the most gorgeous red. Soon, it will be deep fried and eaten for breakfast with crisp arepas, scrambled eggs and milky hot chocolate.
For weeks before my trip, people had been telling me how dangerous the Amazon was, and I’d been properly worried. There’d be mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and dengue, malarial and parasitic water, deadly frogs and spiders, poisonous trees and fruits, snakes that swallow you whole and alligators prepped to pounce.
But the longer we spent in the Amazon, the less likely it seemed to kill me. In Leticia, Colombia’s main outpost before the wild, the city droned with beat-up motorcycles, a soothing hum in the relaxed, tropical atmosphere. The pastel streets were full of open storefronts selling neon plastic junk, beachwear, and souvenirs, and men and women manning little metal carts with kebabs and hot dogs, sweet fresh juices and fried empanadas for sale. Stray dogs lounged on every corner, and though they were mangy and beat-up-looking, they didn’t give a second glace as you stepped over or around them.
As in much of Colombia, the restaurants all offered a daily plate lunch: Fried fish or grilled meat served with platanos, rice, beans, and yucca, and always accompanied by freshly pressed natural juice and a soup made with yesterday’s leftovers. The broth is cooked from bones and fortified with potato, yucca, plantain, and scraps of pork. The soups, I’ve found, are always very “parts is parts,” as my great grandmother used to say.
In the Parque Santander, we watched the parrots coming home to roost. Around 5:00 pm, they began to flock into the park, whooshing from tree to tree in wild, whirling packs. The sound was like a maraca full of crickets being shaken by some gigantic celestial titan. Looking at them from below, I felt what food must feel like when it’s being peppered.
Of course there were real dangers, and as we left Leticia to go deeper into the jungle, they felt more present: A water taxi the size of a personal motorboat jumping rough waves, headed into a dark and windy horizon. Red fire ants softly crawling up the hem of your pants. Cuts spliced on a piranha’s spines or a rusty fish hook, open to the Amazon’s muddy waters.
As we hiked into Marasha, our guide pointed at the ground, littered with prim, orange fruits. “Not even the monkeys eat those,” he said. He showed us scored machete marks on trees where hunters had collected poisonous sap. “It would take you ten minutes to die, and nothing on Earth could reverse it.”
At night, we canoed into the marshes to look for caimans. The lake’s waters were still, the sky black as tar. Our canoe sat low in the water, and our guide’s lone light shone into the rushes, looking for the reflection of red eyes. He cooed out across the still waters, a sound at once like a bullfrog’s croak and a loon’s call, and I imagined a love-lonely caiman charging our boat, wondering why it had been summoned. The canoe wedged further and further into the marshes, the reeds and grasses rustling ominously as the wooden hull stroked past. Then the sky lit up in flashes of lightning, still far off but sparking closer with each flare. For the first time, I was truly afraid.
I was going to die in the Amazon. A caiman would come slinking beneath the boat and flip it with her powerful tail. Our canoe would sink, slipping into the black water, brackish marsh closing over our heads, giant prehistoric fish with beady eyes tugging our toes down.
I closed my eyes. Inside the darkness of my own mind, there was no low boat, no lighting, no alligator to snap. The jungle opened up like a symphony. Deep croaking bullfrogs, crickets, sleepy birds, wind-rustling leaves, lapping water, sounds I’d never even heard before.
When I opened my eyes again, I looked up at the sky, freckled with stars, bright and undimmed by human light, each star mirrored below in tiny pinpricks of light from glowing marsh bugs and the greenish, glassy reflection of frog eyes.
I was not going to die in the Amazon.
What I saw in that glorious sky, is that none of us know how or when we’re going to die. If it’s not a caiman and a cold lake, it’s a car hurtling over the dividing lane of traffic, it’s a bad piece of fish, disease, a peaceful sleep, gray-headed against a soft white pillow.
I sometimes feel, the older I get, the more fearful I become. As if having had this much of life, I’m greedy not to give any of it up. I find myself more afraid to fly, more afraid to talk to strangers, more afraid of walking home at night. I don’t want to die, but I don’t want to always be afraid of dying.
This morning, with this coffee in my hand, this placid lake before me, I feel calm, brave. A pretty green parrot cocks its head at me and when I hold out my hand, she jumps onto my finger and climbs up my arm as if it’s the most natural place for her to be. Her weight is heavy and comforting.
Soon, it will be time for breakfast. Crisp yellow arepas and scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, sweet rolls with butter and strawberry jam. Then we’ll head back into the jungle.