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Archive for the ‘Amazon’ Category

5/29/10: Iquitos, Peru

I need to tell you a secret. Please don’t tell Kevin. Here goes…

Today was our last day in the jungle, and I was definitely ready to leave. In fact, I was ready to leave three days ago. And two days ago. And yesterday. I’m sorry.

It was the bugs. Oh my god, the bugs. There were so many bugs that it’s impossible for me to exaggerate how many there were. We had mosquitoes in Africa (minor nuisance), we had mosquitoes in Southeast Asia (scarcely even noticed them), but we were not ready for the bugs of the Amazon. We have a bottle of REI Jungle Juice (98.1% DEET) that I had never used because I didn’t like the way it smelled, I didn’t like how it made my skin feel oily, and I didn’t like the fact that it’s strong enough to corrode plastic. But oh, how quickly my strongly-held beliefs changed when put to the test! I would have bathed in Jungle Juice if it would have stopped the mosquitoes from coming near me. I would have drunk it and let it seep out of my pores. I would have poured it all over me and set myself on fire. But I think that would have been a bit dangerous. As it was, I slathered on an extremely unhealthy amount onto my clothes and every inch of bare skin below my chin every time we walked into the jungle. And still – the bugs, they were everywhere. They were on my shoulders. They were on my back. They were on my hair. They were on the backside of my knees. We all had bites on our hands and feet. I even got a few on my butt. The worst was when I would feel something in my ear and put my finger in there only to pull it out and find it smeared in blood and squashed mosquito.

Most people only do three or four-day trips, and it’s easy to see why. I kept wondering what had possessed us to decide to do six. Why were we putting ourselves through this? Every day, I counted down the activities until the day we would leave. I woke up on day four and said to myself, “Only two more nights!” After our all-day hike on day five, “Only two more excursions! I won’t ever have to come back here again! I will never EVER EVER be this itchy in my life again!” (Can you believe I was the least bitten of the three of us? After three days, Amy had over a hundred bites on her legs. I probably had 20 or maaaaybe 30. I am a wimp.)

And finally – today, we left Muyuna Lodge. We did our last excursion – a walk through the nearby village of San Juan, population 129, ate lunch, and boarded the speed boat back for Iquitos.

We pulled into the pier around four in the afternoon, and I hopped out of the boat. I can only describe what I experienced as immediate and extreme culture shock. We had only been in the jungle for six days, but somehow in those six days I had forgotten what the rest of the world looked like. What are those strange contraptions on wheels hurtling by at astounding speeds? Why are there so many of them? Why are they making these odd, insistent honking noises? Take me back to the jungle!

It’s true – as soon as we stepped foot in Iquitos, I wished we were back at Muyuna Lodge. I missed the cozy kerosene lamps that lit the wooden walkway leading to our lodge. I missed the loud jungle night noises, the hooting and croaking and shrill whoop-whooping. I missed the quiet rhythm of our days – explore, eat, explore, nap, explore, nap, eat, explore, sleep. I missed the quiet canoe rides and jungle hikes. I missed watching the sloths do nothing in the trees. I missed it all. I even almost forgot about the mosquitoes. It’s funny how your mind plays these tricks on you, isn’t it? So now that we’re back in Iquitos, ask me how our trip to the jungle was. Don’t be shy, go ahead, ask.

You: How was your trip to the jungle?
Z: Oh, it was amazing. We saw all kinds of animals. My favorite were the sloths – they’re so funny looking. Almost like it should be impossible that they even exist. And the lodge was really great. They work really closely with the village next to them, recycling and making sure the all the waste goes back to Iquitos. And the location was perfect – really peaceful and remote. The staff was really nice, and the food was great too.
Y: So it sound like you had a pretty good time.
Z: Yep, loved every minute of it… (afterthought) Oh, but if you go, watch out for the mosquitoes.
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Picture of the Day: One of the villagers shot this jaguar when it came near his little girls.

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5/28/10: Iquitos, Peru

In honor of my latest reading milestone, John Grisham’s The Firm (which, by the way, was fantastic), today I’d like to bring you a two-part post in the theme of a crooked corporate office.

  1. This place is definitely bugged.
  2. Get me those pdfs… pronto!

(1) This place is definitely bugged. The problem with our visit to the Great Wall was that it was absolutely frigid outside – almost too cold and too windy to move. The problem with the Inca Trail was TWWAIQ who wouldn’t stop asking inane questions. The problem with Bangkok was that it was awful. But those are all temporary problems: seasonal, circumstantial or scamtastic. (Yes, I do believe that one day Bangkok will turn into an enjoyable city.) The Amazon rainforest, however, has a problem that will never go away: mosquitoes.

I know Amy touched on this in her first guest post, but it bears repeating. The mosquitoes here will drain you of your will to go on, as if you were watching the never-ending disaster (movie) that is 2012. After the third night I actually plotted out a few different escape strategies just to get away from the devilish bugs:

  • Leave on the boat with the other three members on our group. But this would be too easy.
  • Tame a jaguar and ride it through the jungle a la Harold and Kumar on their cheetah (only we’d ride our animal to safety). But this might take too long and thus encourage further bites.
  • Drown ourselves in the river, thus permanently putting an end to our misery. The only viable option.

This might seem a bit harsh, but if you ever saw any of Amy’s limbs during this week you’d understand. I’m pretty sure any competent doctor would have asked her if she’d like some skin to go with her bug bites. No amount of DEET or Off! Skintastic for Kids could block the barrage of insects. The repellents simply acted like the 15 security guards surrounding an SEC basketball court when the home fans want to rush the playing surface. 20,000 on 15 – it’s not a fair fight. I myself had repeatedly asked Zhou to cut off my own feet to put an end to the itchy misery, but Amy really put my own problems in perspective. I quickly learned that Zhou is not the only Zhang who is ten times tougher than me.

However – yes, there is a however – we have now made it to day 5, and all three of us are glad we stayed. Once there is no open skin left for a mosquito to bite, we were able to shift our entire focus to the amazing Amazon around us. I can’t imagine a more interesting and intricate ecosystem in the entire world. One could spend 10,000 days in the jungle and discover something new and incredible each day. Unfortunately we only have six. It really isn’t enough time.

(2) Get me those pdfs… pronto! I made a living for two years converting documents into Adobe pdfs, so I owe a lot to these crisp, beautiful files. But here in the rainforest, pdfs have a completely different meaning: poison dart frogs. Today we went hunting for pdfs.

Our guide, Moises and his friend from the village, Miguel, led the charge in the forest with a simple sentence of guidance: “Keep your eyes peeled for frogs in case we miss any.” Don’t worry guides, I thought. I’ve wanted to see these things ever since Sigourney Weaver introduced them to me on Planet Earth – I’ll have no trouble find a bright, neon frog in the woods.

Two hours later and no one had seen a single pdf. Two tiny, ugly toads had jumped by, but that was it. I imagined in my head that we had somehow caught the pdfs during their big weekly congregation. Somewhere far away in the woods there were hundreds of colorful frogs huddling as if in a rugby scrum, discussing their plans for the upcoming week. If only we could find this scrum! It would be magical. Unfortunately, we were stuck close to the path. And there were no frogs in sight.

Just as we were about to give up, Miguel shispered (that’s short for shout whispered) to us to come see. He had a pdf trapped under an l (that’s short for leaf). We all scurried over quicker than Brianna the soccer player. Moises took once glimpse and proclaimed, “Oooh, that’s the most poisonous frog in the rainforest.” He then grabbed the frog and leaf in his bare hand.

Look at how tiny that thing is! (Yes, it’s full grown.) No wonder I never saw one. But now that I did see it, it became my favorite animal in the rainforest. It’s so colorful, but so deadly. (Obviously not to the touch though, as Moises just proved. Apparently it will burn the skin off your face and would kill you if you eat it, but it won’t hurt your palm. Just be sure to wash your hands after touching.) It’s so cute, but so amphibious. It’s just plain interesting.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the end result of our search for pdfs. Just for fun, check out some of the other colorful things we found along the way.

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Puzzles for Postcards

Where Am I? Name the landmark and the country.

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Picture of the Day: Jungle proposal.

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5/27/10: Iquitos, Peru

[Editor’s note: One more time, please give a big round of applause to guest poster, Amy! After today you’re stuck with just Kevin and Zhou for the rest of the trip.]

There’s a lot of things we’ve skipped out on telling you—a whole day’s shenanigans is just too much to fit into one tiny blog post. For example: the lodge serves fruit loops every morning for breakfast (not just fruit loops, but isn’t it a bit odd to have fruit loops in the jungle?); also, frogs like to crouch on the rafters at night and sunset on the Amazon is beautiful.

These details don’t actually matter. They may be funny or interesting to hear, but they’re not actually important or relevant enough to make it in. Here’s two that are:

  1. We are actually exploring the rainforest with three other people. Two of them are a young couple from Boston and the third is a Londoner going on vacation between jobs.
  2. These three people left today. (That was quick, right? We just introduced them to you and now they’re gone!)

Ok, so maybe these details seem even less important than the breakfast fruit loops. Relax; it’ll all be clear soon enough.

(Speaking of skipping out on things, I actually skipped out on our 6:15 birdwatching boat ride this day. Oops. Zhou and Kevin say nothing out of the ordinary happened. Don’t worry! This morning wasn’t important!)

After our breakfast fruit loops (and other appropriate jungle breakfast foods), the six of us went out on a motorboat to see the craziest lily pads of all time. Not only are they big enough to comfortably enclose three or four rowdy babies, but they also have defensive spikes all around their undersides and stems. This means that your tiny tots tumbling around on top of the pads will be protected from any attacking Amazonian fish.

The lily pad edges: Don't mess with them.

Large enough for an army of babies.

After appropriately ooh-ing and aah-ing at the giant lily pads and their defense mechanisms, the six of us returned to the lodge to have lunch. And then—this is where things get exciting—the other three people left. And cool things happened.

Don’t get me wrong—they’re awesome people. They’re really nice and have a great sense of humor (they have to, in order to put up with us). The thing is, like Zhou said yesterday, six people tramping around the Amazon is just too much. We make too much noise and scare all the animals away, and when we finally do see some, it takes forever for all of us to actually spot the animals and take pictures. Sorry, guys, but…

…it’s cooler here without you.

Zhou & I in our canoe, excited to (quietly) paddle around the Amazon, spear fish, and see monkeys.

And Kevin.

Moises with his speared fish.

The night hike - would we have seen this giant toad with six of us in the rainforest? I don't think so.

The whip scorpion.

I would have been quite alright with this tarantula running away from the sound of people. Sadly, we were too few to make a proper ruckus.

The lesson of the day, then, is that, while exploring the Amazon, tread lightly and hope that everyone else leaves midway. Then the rainforest is all yours.
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Picture of the Day: A frog waiting in the rafters to attack unsuspecting passersby.

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5/26/10: Iquitos, Peru

This afternoon, I was all ready to write today’s post. I had it all planned out. I was going to write it, get it out of the way early, and finally be caught up on blog writing. I even had a title – “A Day for the Birds.” Here’s a bit of how it was going to go:

This morning we went out to look for a prehistoric bird. The thing about prehistoric is – what does that mean? Normally when I think of the word “prehistoric,” I think extinct. But we didn’t go birdwatching for an extinct bird, that would just be plain ridiculous. So prehistoric can’t mean extinct. I guess if you break it down, the word “prehistoric” means “before history.” But what does THAT even mean? Does it mean before oral history? Written history? What about caveman drawings? Is that written history? And what’s the big deal about things being prehistoric anyway? I’m pretty sure cockroaches are prehistoric, but you don’t see people throwing parties when they see a giant cockroach on the kitchen floor…

And then I would continue with a few more mediocre prehistoric jokes and throw in a bunch of pictures of all the birds we saw today.

Pairs o' keets. Hahaha... I crack myself up.

Two egrets.

A vulture spreads its wings out to dry.

My best picture of the prehistoric bird. It's not very good.

And then I was going to come up with some way to end it and pat myself on my back and be on my merry way. Yes, I said merry way. You got a problem with that?

Then tonight happened. I don’t want to scare you, so I’ll tell you this much before getting into the story. [SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!] We make it out alive.

Our late afternoon excursion today was a jungle hike. We took the boat out to a trail and walked for about an hour into the jungle. We saw a bunch of insects and lots and lots of plants, but not much else. At one point Moises turned to look at me and shook his head ruefully, saying “We make too much noise.” Well, we’re eight people and six of us had never seen a tarantula until last night. Of course we make too much noise! But Moises is a poised guide, and I think so that we would remember the hike later for something, if not jaguars, he led us off the trail to a giant tree and gave us a talk.

“Lecture time. Get comfortable.” Uh-oh. He’s going to yell at us for making too much noise. Our boots are too loud. We talk too loudly. We walk too loudly. Our cameras are too clicky. I don’t want to get yelled at! “I have worked in the jungle for 33 years. I used to work for the army. Train students on how to survive in this jungle. Most of them wouldn’t last two days. I’m sorry, Moises! I don’t know anything about the jungle. I walk too loud, I know! It’s easy to get lost in here, especially on a day like this. No sun, and the sun is your compass. But me and Raoul, we have a compass up here, in our heads. You guys, you don’t know where we are. If you were here by yourself, you wouldn’t last two seconds.” The yelling is coming, the yelling is coming! Noooooooooo! You have three enemies. No water. No food. The jungle heat. Just do it! Get the yelling over with! I’m going to teach you how to find water in the jungle. That way, you can survive for a few hours at least. Oh. He’s not going to yell at us. Whew.

Amy drinks from a jungle vine.

Moises cut up pieces of the safe drinking water vine and we all had some vine water. Then we started walking back. Except we didn’t go back to the main trail. For some reason, Moises and Raoul started hacking a path through the jungle instead. We followed, ducking under branches and squelching through puddles. We got whipped by vines and branches. I walked through countless spider webs. All three of us tripped and fell (not at the same time, though that would have been funny). And this went on for close to an hour – until we stopped. I looked around me. We weren’t anywhere closer to the main trail, and as far as I could tell, we weren’t anywhere closer to the dock either. We were in the middle of the jungle, we had walked for an hour, maybe in circles, none of us had any clue where we were, it was getting darker and darker by the minute (and we didn’t have any flashlights!), and Moises and Raoul were holding a hushed consultation a few yards away from us. What part of this situation wouldn’t make one panic? So I started to panic. I turned around to face Amy and Kevin. “I think we’re going to die out here,” I said solemnly. Amy looked at me nonchalantly. Kevin just shrugged. I was completely and utterly stumped. How could they not appreciate the deathly peril we were facing? We were going to die out here, lost and lonely and with a thousand mosquito bites – what could be worse?! Where the heck did I find these people?!

I kept thinking that it would be pretty ironic if we perished out there, lost, right after Moises gave us that speech about the compass in his head and surviving in the jungle. But I really didn’t want to die for the sake of a good irony. It wouldn’t have been worth it. I was just getting to the panic level where I was about to passively voice my concerns to Moises (“Um, Moises? How long is it going to take us to get back to the boat?”) when he turned to us. “There’s too much water this way. We have to turn around and go back to the main trail and walk back that way.” So we turned around. And went back. And walked. And walked. I don’t think I’ve ever walked so fast in my life. By the time we finally stumbled out of the jungle and reached our boat, the sun had been down for awhile, and I was completely exhausted from thinking about all the ways we could have died in the jungle (jaguar, choking vine, drowning, boa constrictor, monkey attack, poison spider, machete accident, brain fever).

We made it back to the lodge without incident, and it turns out that they had sent two boats out (separately) to look for us. So I guess in the end, Amy and Kevin were right. There was no need to panic. We were always going to make it out alive.
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Picture of the Day: Little toad, big toad.

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5/25/10: Iquitos, Peru

For my own amusement, I’m going to play a quick word association game with myself and subject you to it.

Serengeti… the place with all the animals in Africa, not to be confused with spaghetti
Himalayas… the mountain range in Asia that contains Everest
Great Wall of China… the big, long wall on the northern end of China
Amazon… the popular online shopping site with free shipping over $25!

Aw nuts. I was doing really well until that last one. The worst part is, I’m here in the real Amazon and I still screwed it up.

Kids, the point I’m trying to make here is that there is more to life than online shopping, even when shipping is free. (Sigh… I miss free shipping. And cheap CDs. And recommendations tailored for me based on my browsing history…) In fact, did you know that amazon.com got its name from the world’s largest river here in South America? It wasn’t the other way around. And for the first time in my life, I can now tell you with confidence that the Amazon river (AR) is much cooler than the Amazon online shopping site (AOS). Case in point (or is it case and point? I can never remember.):

Today’s itinerary included four excursions. I’ll explain quickly the differences between each excursion here vs. shopping online, then post a few pictures. Be forewarned though – the only drawback to the AR is that the surrounding rainforest prevents good lighting, therefore it’s not ideal for pictures. (AOS though is great for pictures: you can get killer deals on digital frames for the upcoming Father’s Day!)

Our first excursion: bird watching. I don’t even like bird watching, but here n the AR the birds are so colorful, unique and in abundance that even boring activities such as this are quite fun. For example, every time the Oro Pendula wants to make its distinct call, it drops its head below its feet, spreads its wings and emits a loud sound similar to that of a coin plunking into a pool. You just don’t get that in AOS. There you can buy books about bird watching, or books about Larry Bird, and even then you have to wait 7-10 business days for the free shipping.

Our second excursion: swimming with dolphins. If your expectation was to ride with one foot on the back of each of two happy dolphins, go buy a movie on AOS and watch someone else do it. If however, you want to take a boat into the middle of a murky but warm lake with large pink dolphins and smaller gray ones swimming all around you and then jump in and scare them away, come to the AR! We had a blast watching the river dolphins, especially the pink ones, then jumping in the lake ourselves and watching them all swim away.

Our third excursion: fishing for piranhas. In the AR, you simply cut your least favorite finger and dip it in the water to catch piranhas… just kidding. We put raw meat on the end of a line, splashed the water to attract the fish, waited for a nibble then yanked up as hard as possible to try to jerk the hook through the fish. Apparently there’s no better way to catch them, and sure enough on my first yank I had a piranha. By the end of the hour, we caught nine between the three of us. By the end of an hour on AOS you might have nine of something, but you probably spent a couple hundred dollars.

Our fourth excursion: spotting tarantulas. Whenever I think of tarantulas I think of the Tarantella dance that Hook does in Peter Pan – a movie I would have bought on AOS if only it were around back then. Here though, a tarantula is a vicious, hairy, man-eating spider who won’t take no crap off of nobody! (Sorry, a lack of quoting Cool Runnings in real life forces me to do it on the blog.) The only thing that seems a bit incongruous with the tough, spidery look: the pink toes.

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Picture of the Day: Amy finally gets to witness one of our world trip sunsets… this one was just ok.

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5/24/10: Iquitos, Peru

[Editor’s Note: Today we welcome another guest blogger: Miss Amy Zhang!]

Today, I got to feel like Harry Potter.

Those of you who have read Harry Potter, cast your minds back to his first Quidditch match in the pouring rain. He was miserable. He was wet. The Slytherins were like so many mosquitoes harassing his players, shooting the Quaffle through the goal posts while the Gryffindors weren’t looking. Most importantly, he couldn’t see through his fogged-up glasses and therefore could not catch the Snitch. Which is the whole point of Quidditch, really.

Yes—today, I got to feel like Harry Potter. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience of my life.

Let’s take it back about half an hour earlier. Zhou, Kevin and I were tromping out of the lodge in our knee-high rubber boots, long-sleeve shirts, and pants. The long-sleeved clothing was for fighting off bugs. The rubber boots were for fighting off mud.

Moises, our trusty guide, led our mini-expedition into the rainforest. As he walked, he pointed out interesting trees and insects, like a tree with poisonous sap flowing just underneath its bark, or the leaf-cutter ants busily carrying bits of leaves two or three times their size to their hive. Suddenly, we heard a loud snarling noise.

These ants are working hard—leaf-cutters at cutting leaves, giant ants at being poisonous.

Moises sprang into action, leading us rapidly off the path in the direction of the snarling. (By this, I mean that he broke into a slow jog, while the rest of us shuffled along in our rubber boots and tried not to fall flat on our faces.) A few minutes later, he pointed up a tree.

Turns out, the loud snarling was a monkey. (Who’d’a thunk?) While we squinted up at the tree and tried to find this loudly aggressive monkey, a light rain began pattering down through the canopy. My glasses fogged up and, frustrated, I took them off. What little chance I had of seeing the monkey was ended right there. Mosquitoes, originally a minor nuisance, came up in swarms to beat at our faces and hands. There were so many that it looked like Zhou was wearing a hairnet made out of mosquitoes. Being the good little sister that I am, I whacked at her head with a hat to get them away.

I began wishing fervently that Hermione would swoop out of nowhere and save us with a trusty spell or two, magicking my glasses clear of fog and our pathway of mosquitoes. Feeling like Harry Potter really sucks when you don’t have magic.

Eventually, our walk ended. It felt so good to return to our mosquito-free rooms and have dinner, after a short nap on my part and some reading on Zhou and Kevin’s. Then, after dinner, we went back outside, climbed into a boat, and went looking for caiman.

A baby croc snatched from the reeds by our guide.

Setting the mosquitoes and the rain aside, I thought our first day was pretty awesome. After all, I’m with two globe-trotters in the Amazon rainforest, the most gorgeous place I’ve ever seen. It’s more than enough to make up for feeling like a magic-less teenage wizard (truly a sad kind of wizard). And, really, what more can you ask for?
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Picture of the Day: This lucky guy doesn’t have to pay taxes or buy bananas!

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