Remember, you have a family

"Remember, you have a family" were the last words my wife called out to me as I was leaving for the airport. 


I was going to the Amazon.  My excuse – a scientific conference in Rio that I was obligated to attend.  Conferences are essential to the academic endeavor -- they not only help science advance but they provide scientists with the perk of "the after conference". 


What did my wife want me to remember?  She was referring to my previous trip to a conference in Cameroon.


At the end of the Cameroon conference I told the organizer, a professor at a local university, that I was going to the jungle.  “Alone?”, he asked, surprised.  "You can't go alone.  It is very dangerous! Take one of my doctoral students to guide you."


It was easy for him to be generous with his doctoral students.    Doctoral students the world over are slaves, but I thought he was taking it a little far when he brought over four students.  "They all want to go with you," he said.  "They consider it an honor, so choose one."   And indeed they all seemed eager to come.


I chose a student who knew some English, hoping that together with my poor French we might understand each other.  The student was enthusiastic. In less than an hour he had packed his gear, picked me up at my hotel and we were ready to go.


Leaving the hotel, one of the local conference organizers ran up to me.  “There are skirmishes in the main part of the jungle,” he said. “Stay away from there.” It didn't take us long to change plans.  Instead of going west we headed east, the less traveled part of the jungle.  “I have never been in a jungle before,” my companion casually informed me on the way to the bus station, and he one of forty-eight children of a tribal king (wife number four)!


But he knew enough to find the bus that took us to a village near the jungle where we spent the night at a simple hotel. In the morning the hotel owner sent us to the native authority to find out how to get into the jungle?   


The local jungle administrator turned out to be a tall regal looking woman. "It is complicated and the entrance fee is very high" she told us.  "How much?"  She wasn't sure and made a few phone calls to find out.  “$1000,” she said. I was shocked, but my companion, familiar with local customs, did some sharp bargaining and brought the entrance fee down to $125.


The fee included a local guide in a military uniform who carried a rifle. We were impressed. Speaking French, he informed us that we didn't need to take much food since we would be eating and sleeping at his girlfriend's house in a village in the middle of the jungle.  Furthermore, everywhere in the jungle there is fruit for the picking.  


We headed to the jungle, the three men, our bags and a large rifle all crowded together on a little motorcycle. Each of us held on to our gear and tried not to fall, but despite our best efforts, bags, gun and passengers kept sliding off the motorcycle. The guide decided that he could do without the rifle and dropped it off at a hut on the way.  Somehow, only slightly bruised, we made it to the river crossing. 


On the way we saw many hunters leaving the jungle carrying animals of all kinds on their backs, dead of course. These were the last animals we would see on this trip. One of the hunters, a friend of our guide, decided to join us for the rest of the day and gave his catch and gun to a friend to take home for him.


We canoed across the river and began our trek on a wide path into the heart of the jungle.  An hour later, as darkness began to fall, we suddenly heard a loud trumpeting noise. 


"That's a mother elephant," said the guide. 


"Let's get up closer so we can see it," I said. 


"No," he warned, "it's dangerous, especially since the elephant has a calf." 


"Can't we just look at it?" 


"No."  "Yes."  "No."  "Yes."  "No."  "Yes."


"Are you frightened?"  I asked, hoping this would shame him into going.


"No, I am a soldier,” answered the guide, “but I am responsible for you." 


"Don't worry,” I said, “I will take responsibility." This empty promise always seems to work.


Finally the guide suggested that we approach the elephants from behind so as not to frighten them.  We left the main path and entered the thick jungle, trying to find a safe way to the elephants.


Using machetes to forge a path, we marched on. The foliage was so thick that it was impossible to see for more than a few meters in any direction.  The sounds seem to be coming from further and further away, and then complete silence. 


"The elephants must have gone away," said the guide.


I wanted to continue searching for the elephants but the guide told me that it was dangerous to be out at night.  “It's time to head to the village to eat and and sleep”, he said.


Hunter and Guide weren't certain how to get to the village but finally agreed that the narrow path on our right led back to the main path, that we left to find the elephants.  From there they knew the way.


Again, we began hiking and much to our surprise, we found ourselves on the bank of a river instead of on the main path. My guide reached into his bag and brought out a GPS and a map.  Very impressive!  But even in the Cameroon jungle a GPS needs batteries and these seemed to be missing. Meanwhile it became pitch black.


The experts decided that we need to look for a high place to sleep.  I never found out why this was important, but I accepted their decision.  We lit a fire, ate some nuts and candy bars. When we lay down to sleep we heard growling, shrieking, screeching, hooting, every imaginable animal sound. It was scary!


We survived the night. Guide and Hunter finally agree on a direction and off we went. We marched at a fast pace, carrying all our equipment.  By noon our bottled water was gone. Guide showed us how to cut meter long sections from thick vines and drink the fresh water that flows out. When we couldn't find the right kind of vines my student companion and I drank river water to which we added iodine pills. These gave the water a disgusting taste -- perhaps the bad taste keeps people from drinking a deadly amount. Guide and Hunter, acclimated to the local germs, microbes, protozoa and bugs drank straight from the river.


By this time the food we brought with us was almost gone and we found very few trees with edible fruit. But I was not worried. Our team seemed to know what direction to take -- just over that hill, just around that bend, just past that creek.  And then it was evening.


Once again we looked for a high place to camp and light a fire. We lay down to sleep feeling less exuberant than the previous night.


In the morning Guide and Hunter proposed a new plan.  If we can get to a big river (there are many rivers and tributaries nearby) we might find someone to take us downstream on his boat and out of the jungle.  We might even find an abandoned boat.  We began our hike.  By noon we arrived at a wide waterway and sat down, hoping to see someone pass by.   Not a living soul. 


After waiting a few hours Hunter became impatient and said that he would go off on his own to try to find someone with a boat.  The rest of us remained, hungry and silent.  A few hours later Hunter returned dripping wet. It seems that the locals who use the river sometime leave canoes lying around.  He had found one upriver but it sank on the way back to us.  Now, not only are we lost but the canoe owner might be very angry with us.


Meanwhile, my companion was feeling sick and nauseous. He had decided to go native and drink the river water without adding iodine.

We were ravenous and our search for fruit, nuts and roots was only partially successful.  Dejected, and well trained by now, we found a high place to camp and lit a fire.  On this third night in the jungle the little exuberance we were left with on the second night had completely dissipated.


In the morning we move, move, move – anything rather than stay in one place.   I had the feeling that we were going in circles, but it was hard to tell because everything looked the same.  By noon we were tired, hungry, frustrated, and angry. When we sat down to rest, Guide and Hunter decided to leave us, “to look for a way out” according to them.  Frightened, we tried to convince them not to go without us but they would not listen. Will they return? Is this is the end?


Companion and I went down the hill and sat next to one of the many rivers surrounding us. We hoped that someone in a boat would see us but again nobody passed. Except for Guide who came back after three hours to tell us that he didn't know where we were and had no idea of which way to go. “I am responsible for you,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me, and I don't know where Hunter is.” 


We decided to wait for Hunter even though we didn't know if he was planning to return. He seemed to have the better jungle sense.  And Hunter did come back bringing good news. He had found a concentration of fruit trees, a sign that we are close to a village. 


Hunter told us to follow him and together we would look for the village. He ran ahead and Guide, Companion and I could  barely keep up with him. Finally, after two hours, we stopped to catch our breath and ate the unripe fruit that we had just torn from the trees.


Suddenly, Guide and Hunter announced that they were going off by themselves again. They would find the village and come to get us, they said. But this time we didn't let them leave us. So the four of us continued marching together -- up paths, down paths, back and forth, round and round. When it began to get dark we slowed down.  “What is that odor?” I asked.  “Smoke,” Hunter answered “We are near   the village.”


Within minutes we were in a pygmy village, surrounded by many small people chattering away in a language none of us understood. They offered us bananas which we accepted gratefully. Each of us ate at least thirty little bananas.


The pygmy village was only a short walk from the village we had planned to go to on the first night -- another two hours of walking for us. We parted from Hunter who insisted again that he had never been lost before. He went on his way and we three headed for our village.


The next morning, hung over from the local liquor which the villagers generously shared with us at night, we made our way out of the jungle.  My companion still doubled over with terrible cramps from the river water said, "I never want to be in a jungle again."  As for me, I was not so sure.


Back from the Amazon. The trip was interesting but uneventful. It was not until a week after I returned that I found that I had contracted a skin disease, leishmanias.