The curse started building steam from the moment we stepped on the bus. We had found what appeared to be a fabulous 5 day, 4 night trip into the Amazon for an absolute bargain. A glossy pamphlet showed photos of anacondas, sloths, monkeys and pink dolphins. It couldn’t get any better, right? We signed up, confident enough that we didn’t do any further research and congratulated ourselves on the deal. We headed out to the Quito bus station the next day in high spirits and bought a bag of chips for the quick 8 hour overnight bus journey.
That was about the time the landslide took out the only road leading to the Cuyabeno Reserve. Around three hours into the trip I woke up, the bus had stopped and I was shivering. You could hear the hum of a soft rain on the roof, the engine wasn’t running. I smeared the condensation off the window with my sleeve and realized we were in a long line of stopped vehicles.
“What’s going on?” I asked in sleepy Spanish.
“A few more hours I think.” The Ecuadorian gentleman emphasized the deep lines in his face with a scowl towards the front of the bus and shook his head, jowels quivering. He explained that there had been a landslide but I didn’t understand yet.
I reached into my bag looking for something warm to put on, unfortunately I had packed for the Amazon. I layered on my super thin, quick-drying t-shirt and barely there hiking pants and settled in. Around 3 am I couldn’t hold it any longer, I had to pee. The driver pointed at a dark shape across a small field.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I snuck back into the bus, it’s vibrant orange seats muted to grey in the dark. I tiptoed past the people curled into tiny balls and shook Matt’s shoulder.
“You’ve got to be kidding me.” He croaked at me.
“It’s scary!” I cried, lifting his closing eyelid gently with my thumb.
We ran through the rain, soaking my pants in tall grass, making my way to the portable toilet. 8am came and went, the only change was the crick in my neck and a cramp in my legs. Matt and I shared the little bag of chips for breakfast. I ran through the rain again, still soaked and shivering from the first trip.
More long, cold hours passed before the bus rumbled to life. We were moving!! We crawled along the road, approaching a massive pile of dirt and heavy equipment. The section that had crumbled had been temporarily repaired, narrowing down to less than a full lane. I flinched as the bus rolled off pavement and onto the narrow dirt path. I left forehead prints on the window as I peered down the cliff face, watching the wheels skirt the edge.
We finally made it to Lago Agrio but as we were running 12 hours late, we had missed our connections. We changed to a bus full of children on a field trip. Their teacher handed out peanuts, skipping our little group with a pained look. My stomach complained loudly to him and I peered out the window as one of the kids munched peanuts and studied my sleeve.
Nearly 22 hours after we had set out, we made it to the Amazon. One overpriced package of cookies later and my mood took a dramatic turn for the better. There are five of us, Danielle from Ireland, Alex from England, D’Artagnan from France, Matt and myself, we set out in a long, blue, motorized canoe. The canopy reaches out, trying to close the gap of sky made by the river. We pause to watch tiny squirrel monkeys chatter and run through the trees, leaping haphazardly from branch to branch. They are casually graceful as they run, halting abruptly to yell at each other as if in annoyance. Pajarito, whose name means little bird, tells us they are looking for a place to sleep and he chitters back at them. Pajarito is in fact birdlike in appearance but not in the frail way of a robin, more like a sturdy toucan or a vulture with his barrel chest, dark eyes, pocked cheeks, and prominent nose. His hair is tucked up under a baseball cap and he peers intently into the trees.
You can hear the Amazon thrumming with life, insects burr and birds call out to each other. Somewhere a frog cheeps. Pajarito mimics them, blending his cries into the falling night seamlessly. Breathing in the hot wet air, it tastes like magic. It’s rich with a dark, fecund smell and also something fresh, alive, green. I keep glancing movement in the corners of my eyes, I turn my head sharply towards it but I can’t quite catch it. A little unease prickles up my spine as I get the distinct feeling that the jungle changes every time I’m not looking it. We scoot along the river and arrive at a lodge with planks nailed unevenly into wooden walks high above the ground and sharply peaked thrush roofs. I’m grinning from ear to ear as we climb the steep steps up from the river and approach the large open air room. A tarantula larger than my hand rests on an orange tablecloth, it’s movements quick and jerky.
As darkness falls we slip on a tall pair of rubber boots and set out for a night hike into the jungle. My left boot is larger than my right and I pinch my toes to keep it on. The hair on the back of my neck jumps to attention as we pass another tarantula, it’s tiny hairs standing stiffly out around it. Webs float like oversized snowflakes, black and yellow spiders the size of my palm are waiting patiently in the center. Other webs glisten in huge clouds of sticky silk, filling the space between leaves and hundreds of tiny spiders run around busily. Spiders are all that we see. A thick string of spider silk, or possible a loose hair from my ponytail, touches my face. I jump up and thrash my arms in a silent panic, stumbling and staying upright only because I use my face as a crutch against Matt’s chest. He has turned around and is now bent over in smothered laughter. I don’t back off though as we’re stumbling about in near darkness. There is only Pajarito’s light far out in front of us, Danielle’s cell phone and Matt’s headlamp to guide us over the tangled roots and squelching mud.
“I don’t know why we don’t see nothing!” Pajarito yells exasperatedly. He’s moving very quickly through the jungle now, pausing occasionally to scold us, “No talking!” We clomp around in the clunky boots and come to a fallen tree, slightly taller than my stomach. Pajarito is already beyond it down the path, the lack of his light deepens the darkness around us. Matt hops over easily and I place my hands on the trunk and tuck a boot into a vine that Matt used. Just as I transfer my weight it snaps. My foot comes halfway out of the boot and I scrape my nose down the side of the softened trunk before catching myself. I give the vine a filthy look, jump and swing my foot up, gracelessly dragging myself onto my stomach. I manage to get on the log and stand up. I’m holding my breath so D’Artagnan can’t tell I’m panting and my foot bursts through the log, dropping me to my ass with a loud whumpf! My leg is swinging free in the hollow darkness of the tree but my boot was still on! I flex my foot tighter and before I can scramble free, D’Artagnan has lifted me free by my armpits and set me on the log. I nearly fall off but he holds me steady by my armpits.
“Are you ok?” He asks as I jump down heavily and stagger a little.
“Yeah, thanks.” I stumble forward, laughing in embarrassment. Not 40 feet further my feet slip in the mud and my backside is covered in slime. He picks me up again, holding me steady as I try to find footing in the mud that is apparently not nearly as slick for him. I take Matt’s headlamp and point it directly at my feet, taking up the rear. Tip-toeing across a log that stretches across a small ditch, I’m grateful Danielle has waited for us and is lighting up the log a little.
“No snakes, no frogs, no nothing! I don’t know why we don’t see nothing! It is not dark enough. The moon is too bright!” Pajarito has paused to wait for us, gesturing angrily at the clouds. “When we don’t see nothing, we go back.” He turns around and heads back down the muddy trail in a huff. We make it back to lodge and Pajarito is still upset and confused about why we haven’t seen any animals. I figure the spiders count and I’m too busy congratulating myself on only stumbling a couple more times. I brush at my pants but I’m pretty thoroughly coated in mud. Several cockroaches the size of my thumb run from the light, we tuck our mosquito net in tightly under the bed and I fall asleep on the damp sheets rubbing my tender armpits.0