2008 Contest Shortlist

Up an Amazonian Creek

Jungle fever in Peru.

Tossing and turning in bed the night before my Amazon Jungle expedition, I was having second thoughts of going up the Ucayali River in Northeast Peru to live with the Matze Indians. Not because these nomadic, warrior Indians up until recently were cannibals, or because of the piranhas, alligators, anacondas or malaria, nor because I’d be hundreds of miles from civilization. No I was worried about my jungle guide, ex Vietnam War vet, Aukoo. Maybe I’d been a little foolhardy during our drunken get to know each other when he showed me his rap sheet and I proclaimed,

“That ain’t a rap sheet, it’s a resume – you’re hired.”

Word had spread fast around Iquitos that I was heading out with Aukoo. Iquitos, a small Peruvian city in the middle of the Amazon Jungle, only accessible by boat or plane, was the starting point of my journey. Somewhat a dilapidated backwater in decline from its rubber boom heydays from the turn of last century, Iquitos today is an edgy frontier city, teeming with Indian kid pan-handling pick-pockets, street vendors, shady ex-pat criminals in hiding, snake dealers, DEA agents, and gold smugglers. I half expected to find Elvis and Jim Morrison down there. With its Asian styled three wheeled tuk tuk taxis and sticky humidity, Iquitos is a cross between the Wild West and Saigon.

Rumors were rife about Aukoo, from being a coke fiend, conman, DEA snitch, to just plain crazy. A real wild man, he was tall, wiry, wrinkled and desiccated like an old leather boot, married to an Indian and ten years too long in the jungle. But as he had a reputation of getting people well off the beaten I decided to ignore all warnings and hire him. However, always referring to himself in the third person, even he forewarned me in his broad American accent:

“Look Aukoo ain’t for everyone and only has one guarantee – to get ya out alive.”

Leaving Iquitos Aukoo, dressed in army fatigues and a cowboy hat, appeared to be in his element, telling his LSD chewing war stories as we headed up the Amazon River overnight by local ferry in ‘hammock class’. He talked constantly, without breath, wielding a machete in one hand and a beer in another – sometimes not finishing one story before beginning another. White spittle encrusted on the corners of his mouth as he described his time in ‘Nam as a ‘backpacker holiday with a parachute and a gun.’

By the light of dawn we disembarked at a small police outpost where we met Pepe, the Matze Indian village chief, although small in stature, he rippled with muscle like a man ten years junior his middle age. A traditional jagged blue line tattoo surrounded his mouth and continued up to his ears. Auckoo elucidated, “They call that the Jaguar Smile.” Pepe had a peaceful demeanor and seemed bemused by Auckoo’s antics, occasionally giving me knowing looks as if to say, You realize he’s insane?

Aukoo was a bit on edge entering the local police station to sign in with the still half asleep officer standing in nothing but his underwear. Only after did Aukoo explain he expected us to be thrown in jail because of some scam by plotting rival jungle guides in Iquitos. I hoped it was just a paranoid delusion as we prepared to venture into the thick of it. During breakfast Aukoo lit a fuse in a block of cheese, jumped over the table and yelled:

“Fire in the hole, its C4.”

We then meandered further up tributaries of the Ucayali River in Pepe’s dugout canoe. As the river became narrower, the jungle grew denser and Aukoo, smoking a cheap Peruvian cigar, babbled an encyclopedic knowledge of flora and fauna as we approached a small village. Grass huts inset in fields of maize and yucca. Auckoo explained how Pepe’s tribe killed a family of overzealous Christian missionaries on the very ground we stepped onto some twenty years earlier. Auckoo, carrying what appeared to be our only supplies – a crate of beer, five packets of cigarettes, two San Pedro cacti and a pineapple, called out:

“Lucy I’m home.” Grinning, he winked at me, “Let’s get this right this time, we got the bibles and we got the shot guns, praise the lord.”

Wild pigs, chickens and laughing children ran around carefree. Staying in Pepe’s hut we soon slipped into village life. Things didn’t look like they’d changed much there since the Pleistocene. An excited Aukoo woke me at sunrise the following morning,

“Get up, Pepe’s going to initiate you as a Matze warrior.” Pepe had a large green frog splayed out between four posts, each limb tied with string. Pepe, aggravating the frog by poking a stick up its ass and giving it a wiggle, induced it to secrete a milky white poison. He then removed a branch from the fire and pressed the burning ember into my chest, creating six small wounds. Aukoo smirked:

“Abuse in moderation, this is a full contact experience.”

Pepe then scraped away the burnt skin, exposing an open wound, and with an audience of giggling village kids, he smeared in the poison. It affected me instantaneously. My breathing labored, heart pounded and I broke out into a cold sweat. My legs buckled and I collapsed. It felt like I was dying as I threw up yellow bile. After ten minutes Pepe threw a bucket of water over me and I crawled off to my hammock, slipping into a deep sleep.

When I woke a few hours later I felt better, more than better I felt great, strong, focused and alert, suddenly aware of every sound and smell emanating from the jungle. Aukoo smeared an orange war paint across my forehead, “The jungle’s inside you now.” Pepe then took me hunting deep into the forest, with nothing but a machete. Now being an avid environmentalist I felt somewhat perplexed of going on a frog poison induced killing spree. However after chasing an armadillo and being chased by a huge Tapir we returned empty handed.

Rising at dawn on the second last day of our expedition, rain pelted down making everything damp. A bug eyed Aukoo was tending a foul smelling broth on the fire. He’d been up all night reducing the San Pedro Cacti into mescalin rich stew, he poured a cup and passed it to me. Hesitating I wondered if taking a strong hallucinogen, with cannibal Indians, in the Amazon Jungle and with a known mad man at the helm, was a good idea. Aukoo, already under the influence, gesticulated with his machete as he suggested:

“Lets do recon up the Mekong – we’ll jump in the canoe and just head up the tributaries till the gas runs out then float back down.”

Feeling like a character from Apocalypse Now, I was filled with a sense of foreboding as I swilled back the cup’s contents.

As the cactus worked its way across our blood brain barrier I just prayed Aukoo didn’t have a psychotic war flash back, as he ranted disjointed stories of ‘Nam and his ex wives with the occasional reference to the surrounding wildlife. Aukoo was jabbering. The mescaline intensified while sitting in the canoe in a torrential downpour. I smiled vacantly as my attention drifted to the passing jungle, it appeared to breathe and undulate. I pondered what the hell I was doing and of life in general, I pondered if I would get out alive and if I would ever be the same again.

As our time with the Matses finished, I realized the extent of Aukoo’s madness as we waited at the police outpost for our ferry to Iquitos. Out the front of the general store, where an old poker machine blared out Hugo Montenegro’s classic theme song of the Sergio Leone spaghetti western, ‘The Good The Bad, The Ugly’, Aukoo chewed magic mushrooms, drank beer and smoked a cigarette while sitting on a 44 gallon drum of gasoline. After a week of Aukoo’s antics, sleeping in hammocks and my skin welted with insect bites, I was over it. Then missing our ferry because Aukoo was drunk, I snapped.

“Man, get me back to civilization, now.”

A completely broke and tripping Aukoo jumped to his feet, some remnant command from his drill sergeant kicking in – saluting, he shouted:

“NOW. No. Other. Way.” He then commandeered a leaky canoe and we floated downstream, before the man older than my retired father, passed out drunk.

Eventually we reached Iquitos.

I may not be Matze Warrior material and although Aukoo’s Fear n’ Loathing safari wasn’t something I’d repeat – it was certainly an experience of a lifetime. Also whenever it rains now and I hear frogs croaking I feel a strange affinity with them. Maybe Aukoo was right, maybe there really is a little bit of the jungle inside me now.

Aaron Smith