*This is an excerpt from my blog when I worked as a photographer for the Amazon Conservation Association at their research headquarters in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon.
I woke to the chatter of the Tamarin monkeys hyper pre-dawn conversations. Grabbing the lesser of my moldy clothing (Amazonian humidity is wreaking havoc on my wardrobe), I walked to breakfast eager to down a plate of Tuco’s Saturday morning pancakes. He served them smothered in the sickly sweet ooze of condensed milk and juicy slivers of papaya with lime. What’s not to love?
As we did every morning, the field agents and I configured our plans for the day. We did this in part to ensure that we knew the location of each person, but also to figure out who had the most interesting plans for our free day. Most of the jungle is a dark green cave with low-light conditions and heavy air. I wanted to capture the part of the Amazon that most people don’t know about: the ‘aguajal’. The aguajal is a swamp, notorious for its prime Anaconda and caiman habitats, but also the most phenomenal flowers in the forest. Naturally, I did not want to explore unchartered anaconda territory alone, so I persuaded another similarly adventurous field biologist to tag along.
Donning my wellies and sheathing our machetes, Will Minehart (a field agent from Seattle studying ant bird speciation) and I prepared to trek through the palm swamp. The trail out of camp was wide enough to stroll abreast listening for mammals wandering through the damp brush of the primary forest. It led to the retired airstrip, which upon entering, blinded us with an inundation of blazing sunlight.
Ten minutes passed. Heat waves shimmered elusively across the overgrown sedge grass. The open air turned from enchanting to uncomfortably scorching. Despite the exposure, birders frequent the airstrip to admire the blue and gold macaws feeding in fruit trees, turkey vultures circling overhead, and great black hawks gliding regally through the sky. Purple passifloras lined the path, which eventually enveloped us in the cool humidity of the jungle path.
All the paths are named after women by the Peruvian staff and locals that make our work possible. Two different artery trails had been named after staffers wives. Not knowing the history of the outer trail names, we speculated that the condition of the trails was indicative of the temperament of the lady. Some trails would never be tamed.
Turning onto Mauritia, the path narrowed, traversing down a steep hill over dried creek beds and through thickets of thorny trees. We paused to snap photos of an inch long bullet ant, whose famed bite apparently feels like a gun-shot wound. Not wanting to test the theory, I remained a respectable distance from the menacing pincers while Will impishly directed the savage ant in circles by blowing in its face. I subscribe to a more preventative health care policy than my trail-mate.
Ficus trees clustered along the path, forcing us to climb over their buttress roots until we suddenly broke into the sunlight once again. Shiny green vanilla vines scaled lichen spotted aguaje palms while cumulous clouds garnished the pool blue sky. Ferns freckled miniature islands of palms tenaciously grasping nutrients from the rich soil, dangling flighty branches over the tea-colored waters. Parrots bickered with each other as they fed on larva in decomposing palms. Oropendulas sang drippy sweet songs, flicking their bright yellow tails as they built precarious baskets that hung from palm fronds and delicate vines. (Click here to hear an Oropendula. It was recorded and “technofied” by my friend “Glu”.)
Machete in hand, I blazed a trail across the soft terrain, testing the soft ground. High hopes of staying dry in this swamp were quickly becoming futile. The swamp was getting wetter, and we were never sure of its depth until we stopped sinking. Gasping when apparently solid ground gave way to chest deep muck, we would giggle and wrench each other free.
The numbered orange tags marking the trail were originally spaced every 25 meters. Yet the swamp is lively and never fails to exploit free space, so the markers were becoming obscured with leaves or mistaken for colorful flowers. Even after admitting water into our sweaty boots, our trip hardly moved faster. Walking to the next trail marker, even when visible, could take as long as 10 minutes in some spots, in part because we wanted to move quietly so as not to scare wildlife from our sights, but mostly because we couldn’t move any faster.
Three hours later, we entered a darker portion of the swamp, under cover of hardwood trees – a bit reminiscent of the deep south, but with more wild caiman. Rounding a thorny bush and avoiding a spiny trunked palm, I saw a yellow and black head jerk at the sight of my movement. “BLACK AND YELLOW KILLED A FELLOW” screamed across my conscious as I jumped backwards, bashing into Will and knocking us into knee-deep water once again.
Peering over the shrubs with wide owl eyes, I burst into an adrenaline-fueled laughter. I had to. It was a tortoise. We gringos can never be too sure of ourselves in an Amazonian swamp. Armed with Cipro and rubbing alcohol, we were not prepared to negotiate with a viper or a caiman, so we tend to keep on our toes.
While hiking through the swamp, I was struck with the desire to capture an image so purely swampish that while I am writing on my Mac during the hell beast that is a March in Maine, I will feel like I am breathing the lush air of the swamp once again. Six hours and 900 photos later, I left the swamp hoping I had documented in a single shot, the uncontained rapture I feel for this unique ecosystem. My attraction to the swamp stems from my childhood. On brutally hot summer days in central Illinois suburbia, I would don my purple bathing suit and fill a dirt-filled depression in the sidewalk with the icy hose water. I played for hours, content to sit in the mud, plastering my skin and making faces at passerby’s walking to the park.
Overturning our boots in the ditch next to the laundry line, mud, insects, thorns, sticks, seeds, and a number of unidentifiable objects spilled out, the rest sticking to our pants and socks. We arrived late for lunch, but covered plates waited patiently on the white tile counters of the cool kitchen. Leaving behind muddy footprints, we grabbed our meals and plopped on the wooden benches of the comedor. We devoured the fried yucca, chicken, rice and chicha morada, a local refresco made from purple corn. Full, happy, and showered, we settled into our respective palm thatched huts to do what everybody does during a hot Amazonian afternoon after a long day in the field: take a siesta.