Act I – Night
Our boat glided through the darkness on the large surface of Tambopata, the Amazon tributary in the Madre de Dios region. The muddy liquid snake remained silent under our feet, lurking like an anaconda before the attack. The stars – the light from the forest-spirits’ halos, as per the Machiguenga tribe’s beliefs – bestowed a glare on the jungle’s canopy, so faint that it barely reflected on the smooth waves of our passage. The beam from a flashlight held by our guide at the prow kept piercing the thickness of the night, moving right and left like a finger, searching for a reflection against a pair of eyes – any eyes – that would add further mystery to our nocturnal adventure. Supposedly, we were caiman-searching, but the night was big and the jungle even bigger – who knows what we could encounter. Hostages to the light, our eyes followed the movement almost passively. Jet lag started kicking in; the night, this alluring siren in spellbinding cloaks, kept enfolding us, and nothing, neither our thin disruptive beam nor our curiosity, could help us resist the indistinct incantations.
We did find caimans. A rare example of a dwarf caiman – the highlight of our exploration – honoured us with his presence as he patiently posed by the river bank. But I was more interested in the eyes that, I was sure, kept monitoring us from a safe distance and knew how to remain invisible, unscathed by our presence: the small gods of the forest who remain temporarily hidden in trees, birds, and animals; archetypal angels and demons of a Peruvian origin; tribes who have been treading the jungle since time immemorial to keep (according to their legends) the sun from falling into the abyss (or, according to our duller explanation, in search of hospitable nooks, food, and shelter) and who have been desperately trying to flee away from the destructive influence of us, the alleged “viracochas”; shamans and storytellers who incessantly recite the tricks of the gods, the recipes against the evil spirits, the myths of the tribes, and the stories of the everyday humans, carrying, like a baby clenched next to the heart, the pride of a people who has existed since the dawn of history. In the stillness of the night, the thoughts of these unseen onlookers skittered from leaf to leaf and traversed the massiveness of the jungle instantaneously, merging with our own thoughts that similarly – but more hesitantly – navigated their way into the unknown territory. Our breaths blended silently, and this – only this – was the way we were given permission to connect: at the higher vibrations of our humanity.
I was shaken off my reverie by a flood light that startlingly emerged on our backs. I turned, dazed and bewildered, only to see that the rounded sphere of the moon had finally managed to escape the entangled canopy, and had launched into the sky like a ball set free after having been forcefully kept under water. It looked at us from above with its smeared face grimacing into a smile and, then, dived into the river, paddling graciously down the current.
Act II – Just before the dawn
I woke up, besieged by the unknown sounds of the jungle that surrounded me. The darkness was still compact, the air fresh and wet. The forest was vibrating in an impromptu, though perfectly orchestrated, concert that combined chirps, trills, and quavers with moans, whispers, shrieks, and whimpers, echoing life in its fullest, amplified now in the tranquillity of the early morning hours. It was not just a deafening demonstration of the power of the insects’ kingdom, and a subtle – but, unmistakable – reminder of the animals’ presence. It was the reverberation of footsteps stepped, branches shaken, and wings fluttered long after the actual stimulus of the action; the inhaling of the trees and the exhaling of the wind; the silent presence of the river, and the sound of dew drops hoping among the leaves, dripping towards the ground but never touching it. This boisterous and intense vibration penetrated the body, the senses, the sleep, the very heart of the soul. And there, in this tiny core of my being, bliss was found, boundless and unfathomable – a reminder of how life can feel every day if only allowed.
The meditative moment was cut short by a daunting moan of unknown origin that travelled like a sonic snake among the tree trunks, remaining unnaturally long and tenacious. It occasionally seemed to wane as if moving away, only to return even more thundering and intimidating. It felt as if the pits of hell had opened, and the souls of the damned were taking over the surface of the earth.
I stepped out of bed and walked towards the edge of the room, where only a small wooden rail separated me from the rest of the jungle. I stretched my eyes to penetrate the darkness and focused intensely, trying to decide where the sound was coming from. What could it be? I ruled out the possibility of a mating or hunting animal, for the moans were too long and continuous to be coming out of just one beast. Maybe the wind was howling through the trees? It did feel like a tempestuous night on a boat – only that there was no wind at all.
The unearthly roar continued for a long while, romping on the forest canopy in aural ebbs and tides. At the break of dawn, the mystery was solved: it was just a visiting troop of red howling monkeys.
Act III – At Dawn
The morning fog was resting on the Tambopata River, enfolding the jungle in veils of opaque secrecy. The cloud was cool and the river warm, leading to myriads of minuscule steam columns rising from the surface like wet exhales breathed out during an erotic intercourse.
Traffic was minimal at our birdwatching spot: a toucan; an orange-cheeked parrot; a yellow-crowned parrot. We sat for about 90 minutes as silently as a group of people who are getting bored but, still, are trying to respect the moment, can be. We wandered a bit further off: colossal Brazilian nut trees, walking trees, parasites embracing trunks till they devour them completely, perilous bushes, and fungus of undefined medicinal value dotted our way, and we observed from a safe distance the tasks performed by an army of bullet ants and a colony of leaf-cutter ants.
The first macaw appeared the moment we had lost hope and were about to leave. It lightly rested on the tallest branch of the furthest tree on one side of the river bank, imperceptibly signalling to the rest of his species that the fog had lifted enough and it was safe now to proceed to their morning ritual. A second macaw appeared on the other side, remaining as remote as the first one. A couple more flew hesitantly scouting the area, before settling on another branch, just a tiny bit lower, closer to the ground.
Gradually, more and more appeared, summing up to a flock of considerable size: they lazed on branches or initiated vivid gossipy interactions, occasionally flying from one side of the river to the other, getting, with every move, closer to the ground. Finally, they all encircled a barren piece of land that was sloping over the river, rested briefly there – just enough to extract from the earth a mineral that is vital for the proper absorption of their food – and then flew off in a sudden, massive wave. Even though the target of this daily practice lasted only a few minutes, the whole routine took more than 1.5 hours to be completed. I am not sure if this was due to the precautions the parrots were taking against predators, or just because this was a good opportunity to socialize and interact. But, once more, I remained amazed in front of the wisdom of Nature that knows how to navigate life through miracles and miracles through life.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I still observe in awe and admiration the impressions that the rainforest imprinted in my essence. Such fingerprints are made with indelible ink, meant to remain unblemished while travelling in the vortex of time.
The gods of the jungle, the tribes, the river, and all the representatives of the animal kingdom kept their secrets well. Very little was revealed. Still, in the stillness of the few hours from evening to dawn, in these moments of meditative anticipation, a tiny fissure opened, and a sacred union was performed: a merge of all presence into One. I was reminded how it feels to be truly a part of life rather than just approaching the world as a separate experience. My heart echoed the heartbeat of the universe without rush, for there is no past or future. There is only Now. There is only Eternity. The journey that we have been offered as a priceless gift. And the colours of our presence that we choose as our legacy to the ones coming after us.
Photo credits: © Konstantina Sakellariou