“If ever there is a time to have a functional boat, this is probably it,” my cousin’s husband, Simon, remarked drily as we crossed the river in our mouldy wooden vessel.
It was rainy season in the Amazon and much of the forest was flooded. There we were, rowing into that dark green abyss having foolishly agreed to hunt for piranhas in a desperately leaking canoe.
I had been most enthusiastic about the plan. I really wanted to eat piranha. But at that moment I was just trying not to giggle. I was frightened my inevitable hysteria would a) upset our balance and b) distract me from the business of merrily bailing us out with a shallow plastic plate.
“This is unbelievable, just unbelievable,” I giggled, finally allowing the tears of silent laughter to pour down my cheeks as we ducked under vines and branches, avoiding tarantulas and other bugs lurking in the sinister brown water.
“I have never been on a tour as ramshackle as this one. Never in my life,” Simon replied. With that, he tried and failed to avoid a last minute low-hanging tree – promptly drowning the four of us in a shower of over-sized ants.
Ramshackle was not the word.
We’d met our tour operator, Carlos, two days earlier. He’d approached us in a cafe in Leticia, capital of Colombia’s Amazon district. Although the price he quoted for a two-night foray into the jungle was expensive for Colombia, it was reasonable enough in the western world.
Besides, the description of the jungle ‘lodge’ he’d built himself sounded charming, as did the promise of the company of his wife, Viviana, an ‘excellent chef’.
“If you come, you can see a five-metre anaconda. I know because I caught it myself by accident in my fishing nets and I still have it,” he said proudly, sealing the deal.
Predictably, it rained the morning we departed. Carlos insisted we stop to buy plastic covering, strange considering we were already huddled under the motorboat’s tarpauline.
Still, the Amazon was splendid and we were soon nudging the low boat beneath trees laden with sloths.
“The captain’s going to see if there’s one low enough to show you,” Carlos announced, ordering us to wait under the tarp as our boat driver appeared, clutching a machete and preparing to shimmy up the nearest tree.
The crash came seconds later. We emerged into the rain to discover a large adult sloth floundering slowly in the water, buried beneath several branches.
Deforestation and the molestation of a jungle animal and we’d only been there half a day. Great.
The piranha fishing debacle occured the following morning – but not before we’d spent the night in a suitably comical failure to locate caimans (similar to alligators) We eventually gave up and returned to the lodge leaving our boatman, Gilberto, to successfully hunt for one on land.
Jorge (Carlos’ helper) soon decided enough was enough with hunting for piranhas in a leaking canoe. We returned to the lodge to upgrade boats. We’d been gone an hour and were somehow no closer to locating one.
(The five of us – Simon and I, Jorge, Boatman Gilberto and our fellow traveller, Mert – would eventually catch a piranha. Just one. It took two hours. In fact, it was Gilberto who caught it – using the handmade rod I’d handed him so I could fall asleep in the drizzle. Fishing was never my forte. And before you ask – it tasted like bone. Millions and millions of really tiny bones)
I was sampling that freshly cooked piranha when Carlos dropped his bombshell.
“Tonight you’re going to sleep out in the jungle,” he declared.
“Unfortunately, I can’t join you. I can’t leave Viviana alone. But Gilberto and Jorge will accompany you.”
It was drizzling (again) as we motored an hour downriver to a tiny hamlet with three wooden houses. We unloaded the boat, preparing to walk to an appropriate camping spot.
“Shall we wait a while until the rain stops?” I asked Gilberto, albeit a little hopefully.
“It’s not going to stop Señorita,” he smiled.
Simon pulled me aside.
“Why exactly are we doing this?” he muttered.
“It’s going to be dark really soon. They have no equipment. We are going to be eaten alive by mosquitos and it’s not like we’re going to see any wildlife. It’ll be too dark.”
I nodded. I was having similar doubts, especially when Jorge and Gilberto decided it was too flooded to progress on foot. We borrowed a small boat to row further into the forest.
Both men were carrying hammocks, tiny rucksacks and the flimsy sheet of plastic we’d purchased at port. Reality was beginning to dawn. That was our protection.
We had been rowing for 15 minutes – Simon, Mert and I standing in the centre because the boat was too small for all of us – when, finally, Jorge voiced some concern.
“Did you hear that?” Simon asked, tapping me on the shoulder.
“Apparently Jorge is worried we don’t have enough plastic to cover all of our hammocks for the night.
I thought for a second, before leaning forward to where Gilberto was merrily navigating us forward.
“Gilberto, is there anywhere at that place where we can get some beer?” I asked.
“And would anyone have a room where we could hang our hammocks, where it’s dry?” I continued.
He nodded again. I turned to the boys but they’d already heard the word ‘beer’.
We returned to the hamlet.
In fact, it was one of the loveliest evenings we could have spent. We bought beer from one of the houses – the only home with a generator and hence, a fridge – and a family-of-six agreed to share their one-room house with us.
We barbecued and shared our chicken supper with them and I spent the evening with a cheeky five-year-old balanced on my knee before finally falling asleep amidst this family and their mischievous new born kittens – two skinny, rebellious critters who took a liking to the underside of my hammock.
The next morning I couldn’t be bothered to explain our defection to a chirpy and well-rested Carlos. None of us were surprised, though, when he revealed his famed five-metre anaconda had died the previous week.
But we did hide a smile when he took us to visit a friend who’d also managed to capture one of the mammoth snakes. It turned out to be the woman in the hamlet with the fridge (also known as The Pub) Yes, we’d merrily drunk those ice cold beers just metres from a murderous serpent.
I’m sure there’s a moral in this story somewhere.