by Monica Madsen
“Niña de la selva!” Eder, my soon-to-be guide through the Amazonian jungle, welcomed me in a cheerful, unguarded tone. I’m not usually big on nicknames, but I was honored to make an exception for “Girl of the Jungle.” Despite having grown up in the desolate high deserts of the Rocky Mountains, it seemed Eder was onto something when he gave this designation to me alone among our group of visitors. As a young girl, I had poured over National Geographic detailing the flora, fauna and cultures of the Amazon. As I now stood beneath the canopy that preserves one of the world’s seven natural wonders, I felt immediately at home in the sounds, scenery and activity of this land.
It had been about one month since I embarked on my solo excursion through South America. My adventure began at the top – in the majesty and history of the Peruvian Andes. Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, witnessing the mysterious earthwork of the Nazca Lines, and standing level with the ever-impressive condors of Colca Canyon had been an exhilarating and mind opening experience. Admittedly, though, I had been merely a tourist, not yet a traveler. As I waited for our boat to arrive, I tried to will myself to acclimate to the overpowering heat coupled with suffocating humidity. Suddenly, these distractions disappeared as the birds and cicadas began a spontaneous symphony. The vibrant red and yellow bird of paradise flowers were delectable, a visual dessert. My olfactory senses detected the subtle aroma of sweet, ripe fruit distributed by a much-welcomed, calm afternoon breeze. It was in that moment that I truly understood what it meant to experience the world through the eyes of a child. Yes. I was officially a traveler.
A local family gave us a scrumptious snack as we awaited our departure. We indulged in raw Brazil nuts, featuring an unexpected crispness with each bite. The earthy, savory flavor lingered on my taste buds, and my senses were even further enlivened. We continued to entertain our palates with a divine sweet: sticky coconut rice enveloped by a large, green banana leaf. While I savored every bite, the Amazon children humored me as I worked through my “Spanglish.” Carlos, a 10-year-old gregarious boy, laughed uncontrollably as I appeared to break into a wild dance trying to rid myself of the mosquitos swarming around this naïve new arrival. Despite bathing in repellant, the mosquitos took a particular liking to my blood. My Amazon friends were quick to note that the mosquitos never paid them any attention. I hoped that the insects’ attraction towards me wouldn’t discredit my “niña de la selva” status.
I said goodbye to my new friends; and fifteen of us, ranging in age from 14-75 years old, made our way down a narrow, rust-colored mud path where we caught our first glimpse of the legendary Amazon River. It exhibited a smooth, silky chocolate appearance, something I imagined may have inspired Roald Dahl in writing one of my favorite books as a child, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The river moved along at a relaxed pace, adorned with thick, vivid vegetation on either side of its expansiveness.
We all piled into a large, wooden, somewhat rickety motor-powered canoe and made the peaceful three-hour trip to the lodge, Refugio Amazonas. Along the way, a chorus of birds – 1500 varieties call the Amazon home – serenaded our voyage. We were then greeted with the most epic sunset I had ever viewed. Vibrant shades of blood orange and canary yellow neutralized with a soft salmon color blanketed the western sky. The once-chocolate river took on a striking array of the fiery, vibrant colors reflected from above. Charcoal shadows of palms and ironwood trees lined the perimeter of the river. I found myself in a meditative state as the previously overwhelming heat surrendered to a pleasant coolness as we glided along the river that had tantalized my dreams for years. This is what it meant to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life,” the words of Thoreau penetrated my being. Nightfall swept away the brilliance from the sky, and the elusive, nocturnal caiman, a non-aggressive crocodile-like critter that lives on the banks of the Amazon, shyly welcomed us to the jungle.
We arrived at the lodge, which stood a short hike from the river. It was something I’d imagine from a movie, but even Hollywood at its best couldn’t recreate this. Built of svelte but stalwart bamboo and a thatch roof made of wax, water-wicking leaves, it opened to the wild without windows or other barriers. A generator powered the lights in the common areas for a few hours nightly, but otherwise we relied exclusively on flashlights and candlelight.
Exhausted from an exhilarating day, I welcomed sleep. I climbed into my mosquito net-lined bed, and quickly fell into a dream state. Halfway through the night, I was awakened by a critter crawling next to me on the ground, and I was certain my uninvited guest was making his way through my backpack. I tried to ignore it for a bit, convincing myself that he was simply part of a dream. By this point in my travels, distinguishing between dreams and reality had become a bit of challenge anyway. I finally mustered the consciousness to take a look with my headlight, but by that time he had scurried off. Something about the Amazon reversed my long-time insomniac tendencies. Even with my visitor from the wild, I awakened more rested than I had ever been. Falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle, breathing in the thick humid air, and escaping technology and sounds of the city all contributed to my rapid entrance into REM. The oropendola awakened me each morning, its call resembling that of gigantic raindrops, as the screaming piha chimed in with its surprisingly bellowing noise for a bird of its size.
The therapeutic nature of this land was unveiled to me instantaneously. Much to my chagrin, I developed a nagging sore throat when recovering from the Inca Trail trek in Cusco a couple of days prior. I panicked that it would quickly escalate into a full blown 9-day illness. After a night and a day in the jungle, the medicinal powers and natural humidifier of the Amazon healed me entirely.
The days that ensued were adventurous, wondrous, and therapeutic all at the same time. Never one to shy away from adventure, I accepted Eders challenge to scale twenty feet up the vines that draped the kapok trees; bewildering those below who had miscalculated my strength. With a desire to maintain my “niña de la selva” status, I proudly accepted the proposition of decorating my face with the natural dyes of the rainforest. Jorge, a local farmer, laughed hysterically every time he looked at me. He jokingly told me the stain was permanent, and for a brief moment I believed him. He compensated for his mocking by allowing us to indulge in the luscious mangos, bananas, and star fruit that grew freely on his land. Each bite of the fruit delighted my mouth with a sweet burst of immense flavor. Quite frankly, I felt cheated by the United States grocery stores. So this is what fruit is really supposed to taste like? The succulent mango juices dripped down my face and covered each one of my fingers. I shamelessly licked each finger, taking in every last taste of earth’s divine treat. Engrossed in devouring mouthfuls of the meaty fruit, I’d forgotten about my surroundings momentarily. Eder silenced us all and drew our attention to a nearby tree. It seemed we weren’t the only ones who found Jorge’s fruit irresistible. Several capuchin monkeys playfully swung through the trees, each clasping small green bananas in their hands. They chattered amongst themselves, I suppose cheering one another on for striking gold. They peeled the bananas back one by one, gulping them in two bites. I was in awe as I soaked in the essence of their camaraderie and freeness.
Now that I was covered in the stickiness of the fruit, Eder mischievously suggested a swim in the chocolate river. From the San Francisco Bay to the murky irrigation canals, I’ve never been able to resist a dip in a body of water. Certain that a mud fight was inevitable, I figured it was in my best interest to be the initiator. Within moments, my body was smothered from head to toe with the clay-colored earth. Before exiting the healing waters, I peacefully floated on my back, staring into the sky as the powerful scarlet macaws made their presence known and the graceful butterflies danced around me. My skin had long been plagued with eczema that had not improved with even the strongest medicines, and my legs were spattered with wounds from trekking the Inca trail. Miraculously, though, within a day my skin was soft, and the wounds on my legs dissipated. The Amazon was healing me from the inside out.
Swaying in a hammock one evening, I reflected on how far I had come. I had been a vibrant, spirited, passion-driven child constantly in search of daring adventure. The first daughter, following three sons, I wasn’t quite the girly-girl my mom wanted to impose. Bloodied by one of many mountain bike wrecks, I attempted a stealth entrance into the house without my mom discovering. But her piercing shriek as she caught site of the blood drops trailing me on the floor let me know I was caught yet again.
Always looming in this young girl’s mind was a desire to break out of the small town where she was raised and explore the mysteries of the world. First on my list: South America. I started college, and what was once my passion-driven world became my goal-driven world. I powered through my undergraduate degree in less than three years and then married at the all-too-young age of 21. I was doing what I thought I was supposed to do to “be happy.” My twenties passed me by, buried in a passionless, constrained world. My South America dream became a distant memory.
My marriage unraveled after a decade of trying to make oil and water mix. Working sixty hours a week at an unsatisfying job and dealing with the aftermath of a broken marriage, I was overcome with the realization that I was merely surviving. My older brother and advocate, Ryan, recalled the passionate, exuberant girl I once was. He reminded me of my fervent desires to travel and explore, and urged me to do it now.
Devouring travel books as I commuted on the train, I soon became overwhelmed with the details. I knew I had to do this to rediscover the life that I knew was in me, but how? An acquaintance of mine recommended I speak with Matt Greenberg, a “fabulous” travel agent with Latin America for Less. Indeed, he was fabulous. Within days of me describing the detailed extended trip I wanted to take, he turned what seemed a vague wish list into a reality. Lost in thought as the hammock swayed, I was overcome with the realization that I was no longer simply existing in the rat race of the world; this was living. My passion had resurfaced.
As I observed the wild boars rolling in the clay, the vibrant macaws flirting in the trees, the lazy howler monkeys enjoying the moment, the dart frog as he pranced by me, the massive tarantula scaling his way along a Brazil nut tree, I was certain that I felt what they felt. I felt free. There was power in this new freedom. Nothing could break me. The wasp that stung my back, and the ants that bit my feet (I was assured that the formic acid would prevent arthritis) attempted to break my bliss, but didn’t come close. Thoreau’s words once again filled my mind “All good things are wild and free.” I was finally a good thing. I was niña de la selva. I was wild and free.