When I was just a kid, in the very early days of television one of my favorite programs like so many other kids was Tarzan. The jungle was a place of mystery and wonder, danger and fascination. The character of Tarzan became my weekly guide to this magical land, so far away. I never could have imagined that, one day I would see it for myself. Certainly, nobody else would ever believe that a man of almost five hundred pounds could ever manage to make a trip like that. It was an experience that few could ever equal.
My trip to Peru was to be a variety of incredible adventures and certainly the photographic opportunity of a lifetime. I spent several days in Lima, Peru's exciting Capital with side trips to Machu Pichu "Lost City of the Incas" high in the Andes Mountains. I also went to The Plains of Nazca which I first saw in the Von Daniken movie "Chariots of the Gods" and finally to Iquitos a town spread out along the banks of the Mighty Amazon River.
I had been invited to stay at a very unique spot called "The Amazon Safari Camp". The vehicle that met me at the airport was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. A series of rickety seats had been fixed to a small flat bed truck with racks to support a canvas cover that for that day had been left off for some reason. The truck bumped its way along a road that was more like an old elephant path than a road. If one did not hang on for dear life, being thrown out was a very strong possibility. Every Tarzan adventure I ever saw came to life as we wound our way through villages filled with grass huts, kids, chickens and goats running along side the truck and old natives sitting crossed legged by their huts and smoking from long pipes.
Iquitos was a much larger center with a setting that looked like the largest yard sale you had ever seen. Finally the truck came to a sliding stop at a set of stairs that led to the bank of the Amazon River where a number of very large canoe like boats complete with thatched roofs bobbed up and down on the lapping motion of the river. With my cameras carefully loaded into one of these river boats, a dozen or more natives were called to hold the sides while I stepped off a makeshift dock. Had they not been there, I am certain that the boat would have simply turned over and cast me like a gigantic lunch into the river where several Phirania salivated at the possibility. To my relief, I did manage to get in and seated as my guide Ramon smiled with a mouth missing most of its teeth and told me that we would be several hours on the river before reaching the camp.
As we moved slowly up the Amazon to the steady hum of our motor bouncing back off the solid wall of green that lined the river, I was amazed to see movie star Jason Robards sweep by in a speed boat. I screamed a hello as he passed and was told that he was making a movie in the area. You never know where you are going to run into such a chance happening.
In all my travels, I have never encountered anything like those few hours on the Amazon river. The beauty was spectacular. It was like actually being in a Tarzan movie for your self. We passed other boats gliding lazily along. Some boats were at rest with natives holding fishing poles, some had modern rod & reel equipment, all waved and smiled as we passed by.
The dense wall of green that lined the Amazon made me feel like I was winding my way through a watery maze of some kind. We rounded a bend and Ramon pointed as he called out " camp is there". A series of tent like structures came into view they were built on very high stilts that held them some eight feet off the ground below. The huts were wood from the floor level to about as high as the door latches and screen the rest of the way to the roof some of which were canvas and others thatched. I almost expected to see Tarzan himself swinging through the dense foliage to greet us.
I was led to my room along a wooden boardwalk that served as a path between structures. When I entered I saw a very simple accommodation with two wooden chairs, neither of which would hold me. There were two cots with paper-thin mattresses and a table that held a wash bowl and a pitcher of water. For the Amazon Jungle this was five star.
When I reached into my pocket for a tip to give to the young lad who had carried my bags to the room, I let out a scream when a giant black bug leapt out of my open hand. I hate creepy crawly things of any kind and this bug was huge. My host laughed at my reaction and took great delight in telling me that I would see bugs and other Amazon creatures that would make my first bug encounter in the jungle seem insignificant during the next few days. I began to wonder if my coming to the Amazon was such a good idea.
We ate our dinner on an open balcony that overlooked the river. The symphony of jungle sounds that filled the night air was almost loud enough to drown out our conversation. I could hardly help but wonder if we were being watched at this very moment by some jungle creature that was considering making a dinner of us. The comforts of the Lima Hilton were a long way off but the experience that I found myself having in this incredible setting was one to be truly appreciated for its distinctive nature. A clap of thunder roared around the river bend to announce a coming storm, as well as the time for us to retire, tomorrow would be a full day.
After saying our goodnights we made our way to our respective rooms. When I pulled back the thin woolen blanket that covered my cot I was horrified to see nothing less than an army of huge black bugs like the one that had welcomed me earlier in the day. It was a sea of legs and sweeping feelers moving around my cot, even if there was room for me, there was no way I was going to lay down.
The unwanted room - mates had made themselves very comfortable and completely ignored my frantic efforts to make them move. In spite of my size, it was me that was afraid of them. They sure as hell were not afraid of me. They almost seem to be licking their collective chops for the moment that I became too tired to stand any longer. I was determined to stand all night if I had to even though I had been told that the bugs would not hurt me. "Sure" I thought, just eat a piece of me here and there. How come Tarzan never told us about giant bugs in the jungle.
As I was pacing back and forth, it began to rain. Some of it even came through the screens like a fine watery mist. The rain pounded on the canvas covering the room and on the foliage outside creating an unusual blend of sounds. With all the other sounds that echo through the jungle at night, I could not help but wonder if I would ever see home again.
By four am, I was getting so tired I could hardly keep my eyes open. I finally said " ok bugs, if you want a really big meal here I come". With that I sat on the edge of the cot and lay down to sleep. To my surprise the damn bugs all jumped off the bed. I wish I had known that a few hours earlier.
With morning came a breakfast in a setting that only the Amazon jungle can provide. After that, it was time to explore. After a few words to the wise from the guide on what not to do, step or sit on along the way we set out on a trek through the jungle.
Between chops with the huge knife I had been given to help clear the way, I saw ants big enough that half a dozen of them could easily carry me away. There were spiders with bodies as big as a tennis ball with legs. As fascinating as it all was, I quickly determined that I was not cut out to be a jungle adventurer. Fortunately, I did not see any snakes. That would have sent me completely over the edge.
Hacking and whacking our way through the dense sea of green all around us we came upon what appeared to be a clearing. The guide informed me that we were in fact arriving at a Pygmy village and assured me that they did not cook strangers. Besides they would never have a pot big enough for me, on the other hand, they could cut me into little pieces.
When I came crashing out of the jungle into the clearing little people started to pour out of every tree and behind every clump of bushes. They also came running out of the mud huts that made up the village. They slowly approached me and reached very carefully to touch me. To them, my appearance was an event.
The guide explained to them in their language that I was a photographer, here to get some pictures. As he conversed with the chief all the others were crowding around me smiling and poking at all parts of me to see if I was real. They seemed to think that a God of some sort had come crashing out of the jungle. It was very clear that they had never seen anything like me before, at least without a trunk coming down between the eyes.
The guide came over to me with the chief in tow, in the chief's hand was a long pole like object that I quickly learned was a blowgun, the main weapon of the men in the village. The guide said that the chief wanted to see if I could shoot a dart as far as he could. I accepted the challenge.
The chief inserted a dart, raised the blowgun to his lips and with a great puff sent the dart all the way across the clearing and solidly into a tree on the other side. Then it was my turn, he handed me the blowgun along with a dart. I was assured that these darts did not have poison on them which made me feel a little more comfortable.
One of the advantages of being so big is that I could expel one hell of a puff of air in more than one novel way. I could even give the big bad wolf a run for his money. I asked the guide to tell the chief to watch a tree considerably farther than the one he had hit. As he told him the chief began to laugh and shake his head. Most of the other little people also laughed at the thought that I might do better than the chief. Sammy, my guide explained that he had never brought anyone to the village who could shoot farther than the chief.
I inserted the dart, raised the blowgun to my mouth, aimed at the farther tree and puffed like I was the big bad wolf, desperate to get at the little pigs. The dart left the blowgun like a Saturn rocket. There was an audible thwack as it sank deeply into my target.
The outcry from the chief and his people made me have second thoughts about having, beat the chief in his own village. I hoped that it did not mean that I had just placed myself on the dinner menu. Happily this was not the case.
The chief and villagers were flabbergasted at the giant who had appeared out of the jungle and with a mighty puff had actually been able to beat their leader. It became very obvious that I had made some new friends. The chief declared that a feast would be given in honor of this great event and the rest of the day was spent in celebration and fun. When time came for us to return to camp, I was presented with my own blowgun and the knowledge that, at least in this Pygmy village I was to be considered an honorary chief. Sammy told me that In that village I would be remembered and the story of my visit become a part of the village folklore.
When we finally returned to Iquitos for our journey back to the Hilton version, of five star accommodation, I couldn't help but wonder if the river was full of hungry phirania, praying in fish language that I would fall in. As I watched the wall of jungle glide slowly by, Ramon laughed and said," you will be a legend in The Amazon"! It is nice I thought to be a legend someplace. Back in my own part of the world I am seen as just a fat man. In that Pygmy village, even if only for a moment, I got to be impressive and someone special. I like the Pygmy way of looking at things.
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