Going to the Amazon has been a dream of mine for almost 40 years, it is hard to believe that I have been to over a hundred countries in pursuit of plants and that I have never been to one of the greatest epicenters of biodiversity on the planet. The decision to head to the Amazon was made over a two day period and fell into place for a number of reasons. My brother Patrick was already in Peru, our new cameraman Anthony Rodriguez was up for it and my brother-in-law Jake (Jason Piper) said “Hell yes, I’m in.” As the logistics came together, I did a quick review of my goals and decided that fruits would be high on the list. There are probably thousands of edible fruits in the Amazon basin and only a fraction of them are eaten on a regular basis even by the denizens of river settlements.
We arrive in Iquitos, Peru, blasted with the hot humid air of the jungle as the plane doors open. After finding a hotel and settling in, we turn our attention to finding a guide to get us deep into the jungle. Local tourist touts abound in this city that serves as a portal to the Amazonian wilds.
To accomplish much in a short trip (ten days is a short trip), I would have to be ready to scan the markets and forests and know what I was looking for. Years of study have already been made, all of those hours repeating scientific names of obscure jungle fruits may have seemed senseless at the time, but now have value. I expect to hit the market with my team and be able to name almost everything I see. Certain fruits will stump me, not because I don’t have any clue to what they are, it is just because they come from genera that are diverse and little documented. One good example is the genus Garcinia, there seem to be dozens if not hundreds of species in the Amazon, and to correctly identify them is a gargantuan task. It suffices for my purposes to know that they are Garcinias for the moment.
The trip begins. We all expect to converge on the strangely isolated city of Iquitos. Apart from being a jungle outpost that now numbers over 750,000 inhabitants, it also claims to be the largest “isolated” city in the world. Iquitos is only 50 years some years old, it is a cacophony of moto-taxis, motorcycles and cars that seems horribly out of place in its setting. The very worst of what “civilization” means. The Amazon is the highway of this city, and even though the fast transport route is by plane, in and out, the river(s) are the main roads.
We are intent on finding a guide. While there are hundreds offering travel packages purporting to visit the Amazon, we are not interested in their offerings. We are looking for someone who knows the jungle so we can look for what we want—fruits and edibles.
After speaking with a few dozen potential guides we fall upon a guy who goes by the name of Percy Elvis, a former soldier in the Peruvian Special Forces, Percy claims that his life is that of living in the jungle.
Unfortunately for him, my interrogation starts and he is soon wriggling in discomfort by my pointed and unrelenting questions. “Do you know this?” I point to a photo of a strange shaped fruit in one of my books. He pretends he does, but then I ask “How does it taste?” When he cannot answer correctly, I catch him. He retracts and my questioning continues. After another 10 minutes of rapid exchange, I turn to my brother and tell him that He (Percy) knows his stuff. “He is not a fruit expert, but he knows the jungle, this is our man”. Some of the biggest threats in entering an unknown domain are the beasties that lurk in the shadows. I feel that this guy is for real. Percy says that he smells snakes…that is reassuring, considering that these hot forests are home to the likes of the Bushmaster and Fer-de-Lance, two snakes that I would rather avoid. Good that Percy has a refined sense of smell. “What do snakes smell like Percy?” I ask, “They stink!” he replies. “Ok, well you keep your nose tuned.”
The last thing we need to do is decide on a price, Percy sees in us and our equipment, bluntly put, lots of money. We appreciate his request for almost $2000 dollars but we eventually negotiate half of that. The deal is sealed, we will head off to the jungle in the morning.
We take two little “moto-cabs” to the docks, we load our gear and provisions into the boat and pile in with 20 or so passengers to make our way to the gateway village where another smaller canoe will take us deeper into a tributary of the Amazon where we hope to find uncut forests.
The river boat is fast, after a couple of hours we pull up to the dock at a village, everyone disembarks and we move our gear to a waiting canoe being manned by a smiley dude called Jorge. This wood constructed “boat” is about 15–16 feet long and about 3 feet wide at the widest. We have to be careful to sit ourselves so as to create a “balance”. Jorge snaps the cord and the motor takes off, we manages the wand that directs us, we are off to the black water.
Farther and farther we go, until we reach the banks of the tiny settlement where we will spend the night. I trudge up the steps laden with baggage and equipment and along the way start to see edibles. We are staying in Percy’s “kiva,” something he built and owns. A neat row of four mosquito nets is lined up like big silk boxes. We eat, chat and sleep, adventure will come as early as the sun rises.
More to come…