"Brazil 2001" story # 18

Ponte do Rio Ariau, Amazonias           June 11, 2001

Hello. Remember when I said I´d like to live in a samaumeira tree? Well, that was pure idiocy. Please forget I said that.

Now, to make me look smarter, let me take you to the early stages of proposing my and Steve´s jungle trek.
     The four Englishmen and I had gathered at a bar in big-city Manaus, capital of the Amazon. Barry and I were busy trying to convince Allison (who, oddly enough, agreed with us) and Steve that Steve and I would be safe going into the dense, unfamiliar, food-less jungle on our own.
     "I once took a class called OUTDOOR EDUCATION!" I said to Allison. "In AUSTRALIA! I know how to survive in the wild."
     "Why do you keep yelling at me?" said Allison. "I´ve been saying you guys SHOULD go into the rainforest alone. I´d go with you if I had more time. Barry and I know what the jungle is like after going in Bolivia. We went with a guide, and he showed us things like what grubs we could eat ..."
     Barry jumped in, agitated. "Why would they need a GUIDE? They´ve got JUSTIN! He´s from MICHIGAN!"
     "We´re not going to be eating grubs on my jungle tour," I said. "We´ll be eating three-course meals."
     "Yeah, like ice cream, jellybeans, and bread," said Steve, listing the three foods he´d seen me eat.
     "I think it´s fine for you to go in by yourselves," Allison repeated. "But a guide ..."
     Barry was now so frustrated his hands shook and he could only pronounce the last word of each sentence. "B´twy´dthned´a GUIDE!? Th´gt JUSTIN!! ´sfr MICHIGAN!!!"
     "I think that they OUGHT to go in alone!" Allison yelled.
     "Alright," I said. "I´m glad we finally convinced you." Barry and I celebrated with a high five.

Steve, however, hadn´t been convinced. He insisted on entering the hot, confusing, beast-laden jungle only with an experienced guide, if you can believe his absurdity.
     Reluctantly, I agreed to join him. Tuesday morning, we planned for the trip. Guide or no, I had equipment problems to attend to.
     The problems were with my six-year old brown loafers. As you may remember, the lousy bus thief had robbed me of a sole on way to Belém. For the second time in my favorite shoes´ lifetime, they needed an emergency sole transplant.
     I rushed the rotting shoes to the examining tray (the table we were about to eat breakfast on). The generous donor (a $2 pair of plastic sandals) lay beside. I asked the nurse (hotel owner) for the scalpel (a knife far too sharp for me to have been handling). I carved the sandal´s top so it conformed to the bottom of the right half of my most-prized possessions.
     "Tem sapateira nesta rua," the son of the hotel owner said. (There´s a professional shoe-repairer up the road.)
     What was he trying to say? "Eu sou sapateiro," I said. (I am a professional shoe-repairer.)
     "Sim?" he said, believing me.
     I inserted the transplanted organ and stitched up the wound (in shoe-repairer jargon, that means I attached the new sole with super-glue). In fifteen seconds, the patient was released from the hospital and ready to be worn. "How do they look?" I asked Steve, wearing them.
     "It looks like one leg is longer than the other," he said.
     This was true. The new sole was taller than the old one, causing me and my big smile to stand at a slant. Not to worry, of course. In the jungle, the advantage of having two different-sized legs would be invaluable. I´d learned that in Michigan.
     We walked through town, searching for a guide. Ten minutes of quality-shoe pleasure passed, and then the right, black sole fell off. Only the left, light brown sole remained. The shoes needed another transplant.

With my shoes not in proper functioning order, Steve and I were hopeless to find a guide. So, we parted ways. Wussy-boy went to find his guide. I went to enter the lonely, unmapped, swallowing jungle.
     Leaving small-town Rio do Ponte Ariaú, I stopped at some thatch-roofed triangle huts that housed Sataré indians. The natives had chubby bodies and nice faces that broadened where their smiles would be.
     Much of their culture revolved around a big, black ant. Weaved bandanas had been decorated with fake ants. A line-stomping dance had been named for the bugs and was done to prevent war, such as when the Portuguese had arrived.
     "Tucunderas." Twenty-something Mihai told me their name. Apparently, the poisonous bite of these ants caused twenty-four straight hours of pain.
     Those Sataré who still lived wild spoke a native tongue, went naked, and hunted sloths, monkeys, leopards, and parrots for food.
     The indians and I finished talking, and I hung my hammock from some trees for a mosquito-filled night.
     The next day, I saw a picture of a stumbling boy who´d suffered a tucundera bite. His frown, sobbing eyes, and wrinkled brow showed such agony it appeared his face had been shattered like a vase. In spite of this, I was ready to enter the forest.
     Mihai took me by low canoe through a wooded swamp. We banked at a grassy clearing surrounded by jungle.
     To my right, were thin, seventy-foot açai trees. To the left, a proud, strong, and beautiful wild samaumeira. A thick, wrinkled trunk soared 120 feet to the sky, where it´s green, feathered-leaf top trickled down light.
     We went to the samaumeira, and I wanted to climb. Holding some gray vines, I took two steps up and paused to hand Mihai my camera.
     Suddenly, two hefty jaws sunk into the top of my foot. Oh, the horror. Sky, tree, and indian all became my unconscious. A deep-aching pain absorbed my world, and I wanted to break into tiny pieces.
     A nest of horrible, arched back ants was swarming my foot. I felt the poison from a different ant pierce my big toe´s end. Possibly, there were two bites more.
     Resisiting the urge to collapse on my back in tears, I jumped down and shook the ants free.
     "Tucunderas." Mihai gave the depressing news. "Embora." (Let´s get out of here.)
     The poison was strong. I asked if it´d hurt more.
     "Dependemente da sua sangue." (It depends on your blood.)
     In the canoe, Mihai said my arm-pits would start hurting and I´d get a fever.
     "Fantastico," I said.
     I gobbled chocolate powder to battle the poison with. For a half-hour, the pain was steady at about 65% of the amount that would just make anybody, I don´t care who, burst into tears with nothing more to say. "Vinte-tres horas e trinta minutos mais," I said. (Twenty-three hours and thirty minutes to go.)
     We returned to the huts, and the pain dimmed considerably. I was even able to take a nap, and, upon waking, I was suprised to see the pain was nearly gone. It seemed I´d come upon ALL-ICE CREAM DIET ADVANTAGE # 391 - Strong blood.
     Speaking to Bacu, the yellow feather-earringed "mother" of the local Sataré, I came to the conclusion that these indians wouldn´t know their sacred tucunderas if one bit them on the nose. With all the mis-information I´d been given, I should´ve been guiding Mihai on our trek.
     Their story changed. I didn´t have strong blood. The rumored horrors of the tucunderas, along with the pain I´d seen in the picture, came only with the fifty to one hundred tucundera bites a boy submitted himself to for eight days straight when entering man-hood.
     My two to four bites were no worse than a sting from a stingray. At the moment the bite had occurred, though, I´d say the ants provided a second of the maximum pain a human could possibly feel. And, if ever faced with the man-hood challenge of the young Sataré, I´d run like an accountant to the nearest civilization.
     I suppose I should admit one cause of my tucundera wound: my six-year old brown loafers. How ironic is it that such a great pair of shoes, by being sole-less and out of commission, had led to my demise?
     Aah, who am I kidding? I can´t stay mad at my favorite possessions. Man, I have some good shoes.

My stay with the indians involved two more brief, solo jungle excursions. The first time, while I hacked a path through the plants with my machete, a "caba" (wasp) shot out and stung my chin, sending me running back to hide behind Bacu. The second time, it quickly rained on me.
     The point of this story? Well, obviously, it´s that I´ve proven I can handle entering the rainy, insect-ridden, dark jungle on my own. I´m from Michigan.
     I´m going in; if you don´t hear from me in two weeks, see that Barry is held responsible and give him the tucundera punishment.

Later, Modern Oddyseus

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