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Another Day on the Amazon

Aug 17, 2007
An observant, quiet person will have rich interaction with nature during the course of every day in the upper Amazon region of Loreto, Peru. I fished with two friends in my thatched-roof, wooden riverboat, Dawn on the Amazon, less than one day's travel from Iquitos. We explored a labyrinth of small rivers and cochas, between 3 and 4 degrees south of the equator, without seeing another human being. We caught fish every day except the day that is the subject of this story.

On this particular morning, I could not a trick a fish, not a nibble, not even a piranha. My patience and confidence disappeared. I no longer believed the next cast would catch the lunker peacock bass of my dreams. Peacock bass, or tucunare, are the hardest fighting fresh water fish and one of the hardest to catch when the rainforest is flooded. The tropical sun was bright, there was no breeze, and the only ripples on the water were the ones I made. I imagined the tucunare devouring small fish the size of my lure in the cover and shade of the flooded forest, watching me bake in the hot sun.

A flock of greater ani, feeding on insects and frogs, worked their way close to me, sounding like a factory manufacturing metal parts. Their color is darkly iridescent, like a clumsy crow with the beak of a parrot. I made another cast. A greater ani awkwardly half-hopped, half-flew, with its tail flicking every which way, and nearly caught my lure in mid-air. I remembered years ago when I caught a screech owl on a limb line. Well, first I caught a minnow, then a small, yellow-bellied catfish ate the minnow, then the screech owl caught the catfish, which is how it came to be that I caught the screech owl. I love birds, and particularly birds of prey, and felt awful the next morning when I ran my lines and found how the drama of the food chain played out on my limb line.

That did it for me, I did not want to catch another bird, so I reeled in my lure, stowed my fishing gear, and paddled my dugout canoe quietly around the edge of the flooded jungle, staying in the shade as much as possible, watching, listening, learning, fulfilling my fantasies. I was witness to the primordial tropical forest. Giant trees soared above me straight and true, like the masts of sailing ships, vines hanging down like the ropes of the ships rigging. Strangler fig vines grew big as trees, epiphytes appeared to grow and bloom in mid air, under story plants had leaves the size of elephants ears, sensitive plants closed in the shadows, opened in the sun, every shade of green in the spectrum represented in a mosaic of greens, to relax the eyes, and fill the mind with wonder, and all the while my ears were full of the songs of birds, overflowing with the squawks of parrots and macaws.

They saw me first. Five Columbian black spider monkeys in a dead tree hanging over the water a few yards in front of me were startled to be seen in the open and put on an aggressive display of barking and jumping to scare me off. I lay back in the canoe and enjoyed their antics for several minutes. This was my first experience with spider monkeys up close. They live in the high canopy and are usually only glimpsed as obscure silhouettes before they disappear, never coming all the way down to the ground. Part of the reason for this is that Maquisapa are considered to be delicious and are hunted by the riberenos, and the indigenous peoples of the Amazon. They are primate smart, and must have determined I was not a threat.

I estimate they weighed nearly 20 pounds, with long arms and longer prehensile tails. They all gathered on one medium sized dead branch and jumped up and down until the branch broke and fell in the water with a splash in front of my canoe. They hopped off at the last second, regrouped, and seemed very pleased with themselves. They jumped, swung, and ran away, limb to limb, occasionally glancing over their shoulders at me and were soon out of sight.

I sat up just in time to look down the blowhole of a 8 foot long, 300 pound pink river dolphin as it sounded inches from my canoe and splashed water on me with the expulsion of air, startling me again with the sound, a loud bufeo. It slowly and gently rubbed its body the length of my canoe, the tail splashing me with water again as it submerged. It was an astonishing experience.

Was it a coincidence that the dolphin surfaced so close to me within 30 seconds of the spider monkeys departure? I think the two nature events were somehow connected. The dolphin has a brain capacity 40% larger than a human and a history of interaction with people along the river, and I am certain it initiated playful contact with me. No other creature in the Amazon is the subject of so many stories, and legends. The bufeo colorado is not a threatened species, partially because the riverenos consider it to have supernatural power. To deliberately harm a bufeo colorado is virtually unheard of. Supernatural powers or not, playing with a pink river dolphin, breathing bufeo breath, is one of the unforgettable Amazon experiences. After recovering my composure, I paddled back to the Dawn on the Amazon to share my nature experience with my friends. They had also given up on fishing so we tied the canoes on the Dawn and motored back to our base camp.

Even before we arrived it was obvious something was wrong. We had hung our laundry on a line to dry. The line was bare. Towels and clothes were dirty and scattered. The morning's breakfast skillet was upside down with grease spilled all around. The spatula and a bar of soap were missing. Our cloths had a musky odor. What happened? The mystery was solved when we spotted a handkerchief and my underwear half way up a tall tree.

Every morning a large troop of squirrel monkeys moved through the canopy. Each day they became bolder and passed closer, until this day when they raided our camp. Squirrel monkeys have the largest brain to body mass ratio of any monkey, which is probably why it was a squirrel monkey that was chosen first to go into outer space. They are very cute, but have a strong musky smell. Unlike the spider monkey, they have well developed opposable thumbs, handy for stealing the gringo's spatula.

We did the laundry again, straightened up the camp, cooked a nice meal using the previous day's salted tucunare, steamed with onions, garlic, ginger, and a splash of wine, yellow potatoes from the Andes, fried in palm oil, turned with a fork, a heart of palm salad, another splash of wine, or two, and sat around the fire retelling the stories of our day.

Why were the animals moving? Was it coincidence, the moon phase, the "sign," or some other natural phenomenon? We decided it was just another normal day along the river, in the rainforest, with Dawn on the Amazon.
About the Author
Bill Grimes provides custom tours and cruises on the upper Amazon River and its tributaries from Iquitos, Peru, a unique personal experience in the rainforest. Visit http://dawnontheamazon.com for details.
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