I put one foot in, securing myself on Richard’s shoulder as I gently stepped over the side of the shallow canoe, nearly toppling us all over, making my gringo-ness amply evident to those around us, in the event that my bright white skin hadn’t done the trick.
I sat down quickly on the small bench, only a couple of inches lower than the edge of the peke-peke, securing myself as it rocked back and forth while the other passengers loaded. It was me, Richard, and a couple of friends of ours, Craig and Joanna, loading up for what we were convinced would be an adventure of River Monsters proportions. Our fearless guide was a man about my height (I’m 5’2”) who looked like the river obeyed him and the earth likely sought out his advice when deciding on weather patterns and seasons.
He was the guy you want with you when you are four gringos trekking into the depths of the Amazon jungle at night with literally no communication whatsoever with the outside world should it all go terribly wrong, which was a real possibility.
Three days prior, we had purchased three raw chickens at the local market, along with a 5 gallon bucket and a subtle nod to the men of the Louisiana Bayou who made it look easy catching “twee shaker” crocodiles in the swampy terrain of the Southeastern US. We had three seasons under our belt of watching the men of Swamp People attach rotten meat to the overhanging tree branches on large hooks, catching enormous crocodiles, and putting them out of their misery with one well-aimed shot, followed by high-fives and good cajun cooking.
We were trained.
Having explained the tactics to our local friends, they too seemed enthralled by the possibility of hanging rotting meat from limbs to lure in the prehistoric beasts, an approach they had never seen or tried.
As we embarked on our journey, the meat was what can only be described as nearly liquified mush, held to the bones only by the lingering tendons that hadn’t quite dissolved alongside their muscle and skin counterparts. Richard and our friend Craig had left it sealed in a bucket in the Amazon sun for three days. And the smell when they opened it was enough to knock the canoe off kilter and send us all plummeting into the rushing river beneath us.
They described it as “perfect!” as they high-fived one another.
They hung up the putrefied meat the day before from strategically selected trees along the banks of a lake inside the mato, just off the main river. Because it was high water season, much of the jungle along the banks was flooded, making it the ideal time to hunt for big creatures like caiman who lurked in the flood waters for their next meal.
It was dusk as we entered the canoes, which is around 6pm nearly year-round in this region.
Looking back, I don’t know if we had faith to move mountains or were just really young and dumb to be doing what we did. It could not be described as “wise” by any logical human, but we had at least considered the importance of having a local man with us to guide our boat, so that counts for something.
We crossed the river to the subtle opening that only a person well acquainted with the dense underbrush could even know existed. No way were our bodies being retrieved if this went south. We would simply return to the earth from whence we came.
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine at some point my almost two-year-old son’s face must have come to mind as I realized what we were actually doing. While he was back Stateside with the grandparents watching Thomas the Train, his parents were on a canoe barely big enough for the five passengers aboard with a shotgun, and a few machetes hoping to find—not actively avoiding—a river monster that could be dinner for the village for the remainder of their time there.
This is why I know guardian angels exist.
Our guide carefully maneuvered us through the tributary leading to the lake as we pushed branches out of our faces and regretted not putting on more bug spray. When the trees gave way to the opening, we collectively gasped at the beauty before us.
The lake stretched further than I had anticipated and by this time the sun had fully set, leaving only the crescent of a waning moon to compete with millions of stars overhead. Our guide just kept on. The stars had been his nightlight since birth and somehow he seemed to blend in with all the nature that we tried to take into our finite minds.
“Olha ali,” he whispered, breaking our trance. “Look over there.”
The men were giddy when their gaze followed his pointed finger and saw that all three lines were in the water. Joanna and I glanced at each other nervously.
That was about the time I started regretting every life decision that had led me to this point.
Observations like, “WHAT IF THERE IS AN ACTUAL BLACK CAIMAN ON THIS LINE?” and “THERE IS BARELY ROOM IN THE BOAT FOR US, MUCH LESS A 15’ MONSTER” suddenly seemed like relevant thoughts we should have considered beforehand.
We slowly trolled to the first line, as our guide cautiously lifted the line, all he pulled up was the line itself. No hook. Not even a trace of the sticky, slimy meat that once occupied it.
This repeated itself times three.
The fact that the hand-sized hooks were also missing, was enough for me to be ready to head back to our tents on the safety of the elevated shores and call it a night. But the guys, and no doubt our indigenous friend, were disappointed. They had visions of caiman-wrestling in the moonlight and maybe even a lost finger or two for story-telling purposes. But all we had was a story of
stupidity bravery and a reason to never do this ever again try again another day.
As we made our way back with mixed feelings of relief and disappointment along with a waning adrenaline rush, I was once again lost in the beauty around us. When the guide started the motor, no part of me was prepared for the fish that, startled by the sudden sound, literally flew out of the water and into the boat, slapping us with notable force. Joanna and I screamed and nearly abandoned ship as the guide and our husbands burst into laughter. Soon we were laughing, too, and the disappointment and angst melted away to relief and awe that this experience was mine and while my husband and Craig would’ve literally been willing to sacrifice a limb for it to have ended with caiman soup, I was glad it had gone just the way it had. Not many outsiders can say they’ve hunted caiman in the depths of the Amazon and lived to tell the story.
And upon our return to the safety of the shores, our guardian angels were given two weeks of paid vacay and medals of bravery by Jesus Himself.