Friday, December 26, 2008

Up the Tambopata, Backwards


There is nothing like a a robust high of 75 degrees the day after Christmas to inspire one to continue on with the Amazon adventures of last month. But that is Oklahoma for you!

Picking up where we left off - we are motoring up the Tambopata River in Peru towards the Tambopata Research Center for a two week tour of duty monitoring macaws, clay licks and jungle foraging activities for Earthwatch Institute. This is part and parcel of the training required to be Julie Zickefoose when I grow up. I endeavor at every step. But, if she is a science chimp, I am nothing more than a mere science marmoset - the golden lion mane long gone, however. I digress.....

Up the Tambopata, plying against the current, swift and fierce. The little motor chokes and sputters in an effort to move against the rapidly flowing water.

Up the Tambopata, our safety in the capable hands of jungle guides born and raised in this part of the Amazon. Born and raised in the Madre de Dios province of Peru. Hey wait, my life rests in the hands of 21-year -olds texting on their mobile phones. Help!

Up the Tambopata past the largest rodents in the world.

Yes! Capybaras! I love me some capybaras -- complete with giant cowbirds, no less. These semi aquatic, barrel shaped, web-footed rodents related to guinea pigs can weigh up to 140 pounds. Capybaras are coprophagous. Simply put: they eat their own feces - the bacterial gut flora in their droppings helps digest the cellulose and extract the maximum proteins in the six to eight pounds of grass they eat a day. I'll stick to yogurt, thank you. Capybaras are dearly beloved by jaguars. (Look ma, no hands, I'm a science marmoset!).

Up the Tambopata past the yellow-headed vultures scavenging the river banks.

Up the Tambopata past empty skiffs soon to be laden with goods for market - perhaps Brazil nuts or fish.

Up the Tambopata past the ubiquitous scarlet macaws.

Up the Tambopata past river guides heading home for the day.

Up the Tambopata past a troop of spider monkeys.

Up the Tambopata past serene oxbow lakes.

Up the Tambopata past the migrating hordes of butterflies.

Up the Tambopata past the fortune hunters seeking quick riches in gold prospecting.

And then suddenly, we're not going up the Tampobata anymore. With an obviously busted outboard engine we are now careening backwards at twice the speed we moved up river. Danger Will Robbins, danger!

The locals become concerned - no engine, no radio, no oars, no food, no water and the sun is rapidly sinking behind the Andes.

We strip to what can get wet and lower ourselves down the side of the boat in order to create a drag against the current that is swiftly returning us back from where we came. We are now in a race against the sun - in another thirty minutes it will be pitch black and the boat will become our bed. After about a half mile we are able to moor the boat on a sand bar. Sand flies rise up and fill every single orifice, every pore and a good part of the eyeballs. So much for the romance of the Amazon. Every intake of breath is an instant protein-packed meal of sand flies. Every inhale through the nose results in a cannonball sneeze of these tiny little pests.

Those of us hanging in the water are reminded not to urinate. To do so could attract that nifty little catfish, the dreaded candiru fish, that swims up the urethra, flails out its spiny dorsal fine and calls dear Willy home for the rest of the time that Willy remains attached. That's a big Ouch! And here's the remedy:
"Amputation of the private areas is the cheapest, and most life-changing, way to remove the fish. Actual surgery is extremely expensive and involves inserting the Xagua plant and the Buitach apple up the urethra. These two plants kill and dissolve the parasitic fish. If surgery is not done in time, the blockage of the urinary tract will prove fatal. The candiru is the only known vertebrate to parasitize humans." Sometimes its hell being a science marmoset.

The boatmen struggle to restart the engine. Fortunately the cough, wine and sputter of their efforts echos up the river valley and is intercepted by part of the kitchen crew at the Reserve.

Help comes in the form of strong hands...

and determination.
We are lassoed and looped and hauled up river like a bucking bronc, fighting the rapids all the way as the last bit of light fades away.

Sentinels of scarlet macaws greet us and we know we have finally arrived to our home away from home. Safe and sound....so far.

To Be Continued
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