Novelist Edward Docx had to know what it feels like to be lost—truly lost—in the Amazon. So he went to Brazil and hired some men to leave him in the jungleby Edward Docx / April 20, 2011 / Leave a comment
Our troubles began with the translator. Undeniably, José was a well-meaning man with a great many characteristics that the guide, Abi, and I both admired. It was a matter of regret to all concerned, therefore, that proficiency in Portuguese or English turned out not to be among them. A native Spanish speaker, he had arrived on the busy quay in Manaus accompanied by numerous madrigals of endorsement from the various agents, boatmen and interested parties involved in our little expedition. Indeed, so exceptionally fluent had he seemed in his acknowledgement of his own abilities that it had also appeared certain that they must extend far beyond the scope of the mere three advertised languages. But now here we were—standing deep in the Amazon jungle and, if anything, his linguistic facility seemed to be receding.
“So, let’s say just one hour,” I said.
José looked at both of us, nodded with childish enthusiasm and said nothing.
I tried again: “I need to understand what it’s like—to be alone here. In the rainforest. For my book. You leave me here for one hour and then we meet at exactly this spot.”
Abi, an ex-soldier with the odd double manner of a ticket tout—solicitous and yet scornful—raised his hands to enquire of José. But José resisted the entreaty and instead translated into Spanish—of which I understood just enough to know that he had not translated at all, and Abi knew just enough to think that he had.
“The snake—yes?” José concluded, in English, holding out his hand in front of his groin to indicate a man urinating carelessly. “The poison snake.”
Abi, now convinced he understood, spoke at length in Portuguese, pointing carefully up at a particular section of the dense canopy with one hand while seeming to indicate falling masonry with the other.
José laughed. “Is 13, his daughter,” he said. “Always pee pee.”
The heat hung heavily about us, suffocating, and the humidity was so thick that to breathe was almost to drink. Of all the requests I might make in such circumstances, the privacy to urinate was surely low among them. Worse still, Abi, an ex-soldier, must now think me a peculiarly prudish fellow.
“No, not this.” I did the urinating mime, perhaps unnecessarily. “No, no, no.”
“Não?” asked Abi, angrily.
But now a look of profound understanding burst across José’s features: “mierda,” he said, delighted, “mierda.”
At this Abi began to guffaw and crow like a father whose son has just produced his first voluntarily full potty.
“No. No. No,” I said. Ignoring José, I held up my watch to Abi. “One hour.” I traced the passage of time. “I need to know what it is like to be here alone. For my book. Can we meet here in one hour? I will not go more than 50 metres from here.”
This confused everyone. José retreated to Spanish, making great churns with his arms as though miming something like, I imagine, the process for making Marmite.
Abi held curled fingers and thumbs to his eyes.
I pointed at myself and at my watch and at my mind and at my notebook and then made scribbling gestures, which were further misconstrued as me asking for some kind of bill—though as to what recent dinner, event or purchase nobody could fathom. And so we continued for another ten minutes until, on vague and unsatisfactory terms, I was finally left on my own in the Amazon.
I stood still. The noise seemed to rise as if to greet me: a thousand calls, chirps, squawks, grunts, hoots, songs—and beneath it the electric simmer of the insects. The heat was itchy and close—a presence—and seemed to shrink tighter to my skin. All around me, there was only the matted tangle of the forest: a continent of jungle in all directions.
Instantly, comically, I was afraid and began behaving like a madman. I stared at the tree beneath which we had stood, attempting to photograph it with my mind in order that I might work up the courage to walk away, turn around, recognise it and not be lost. Only after about five minutes of this did it occur to me that I could actually photograph it. I got out my camera.
At this juncture I admit I might be open to charges of overdoing the anxiety. But bear in mind a few things. First, that hitherto I had spent every moment of the trip with the others—in the boat on the river, walking, sleeping in our hammocks. Second, that Abi’s grandfather, a tribesman, had lived in the forest and so for him the trees were still a home that provided everything from amusement to food and back again via medicine and water; and so his ease had allowed mine. Third, that I wasn’t sure José and Abi had entirely understood the plan. Fourth, that the paths we had been walking shared one thing in common: they were barely paths at all but instead appeared to disappear, to fork and fork again, to merge, to circle, or to arrive at impenetrable jungle walls of tangle and thorn. And fifth, that anyone not thoroughly familiar with the forest is usually desperate within three hours of finding himself lost and alone. Most die after a surprisingly short amount of time; usually because they make themselves fatally ill as they start to believe—consumed by hunger and maddened by thirst—that every berry, nut, root and leaf is edible. Even a compass bearing is useless since it is impossible to walk in a straight line for more than two paces at a time. You cannot proceed except in the direction the forest allows.
I set off.
The jungle has been compared to the ocean: the canopy is like the coral where the fruit grows and flowers bloom and the forest floor is like the seabed onto which all dead things must eventually fall and rot. Man is a monster of the deep, therefore, a creature of casual atrocity and low cunning lumbering through the perpetual green-brown gloom. I was sweating in places I had not imagined possible—knees, wrists, knuckles—water leaving my body across the entire surface of my skin. I could smell the heat gathering energy to itself; rich and close and fetid, warm clay, tepid tea, decay and new life mingling over and over.
I clambered over a nearby fallen trunk and bent beneath a hanging vine. I was extremely careful. Only an idiot would throw out a hand to steady himself: thorns and spines were on every side—barbed trunk-teeth, lethal hooks, scimitars and spikes. Everything crawled with insects. And I was well aware that all kingdoms had their formidable defenders: their bites and stings and scratches, their toxins and poisons and venoms, their bacteria and their viruses.
I stopped, still within sight of my tree. Trickery and chimera, I thought: already all directions looked identical, no direction at all. How the forest changed every 20 paces. Here, inexplicably, there was almost no understorey; the ferocious impenetrability of vine and thorn and frond and bush had mysteriously disappeared. I had the sense of being in a cathedral. There were mighty trees all around me, their trunks soaring like columns. I swayed, dizzy, creation singing in my ears.
And still the heat. There are lots of native words for the effect that the jungle has of mesmerising people. It was not difficult for me to feel something of what it would be like actually to be lost here. I imagined how I would count steps. How, at forks, I would break branches and twist them so that I would know if I came to the same place. How there would be only one plan—the oldest: to find water and to follow it from stream to channel until I reached a small river and from there along the banks in the cinnamon-coloured mud until I reached a bigger river and so on. But of course the water flows in crazy directions, seeps away, pools in swamps, disappears beneath rising ground or slips beneath impassable vegetation. And, leaving aside the natural hazards (the caiman, the anaconda, the tarantulas, the piranha), it would be impossible to walk the banks even if I made it as far as a river. So then what? Would I end up taking to the water and trying to float or swim back?
By this time I had scared myself to death. And I was convinced I could hear growling. Perversely, I realised, the places where the jungle thinned were the most treacherous—since the trails were clearer where they had been hacked through dense undergrowth. I started back the long 50 paces to my tree. The growling might be a frog, I thought, no doubt one of the lethally toxic poison dart family, known for their pale yellow skin, their intelligence and the fact that touching them results in instant death. Thirty minutes to go. What had I been thinking?
There are very few moments in a man’s life when he can be absolutely certain that no other fellow on the entire planet can possibly be engaged in the same business as he. But this looked like it was going to be one of those few. Back beneath the tree—already a place of sacred significance (oh, the religious impulse)—I decided to do what the protagonist of my book would do: count the number of ants on a nearby leaf.
This was more difficult than it seemed. My protagonist is a myrmecologist and would, of course, recognise species. I, on the other hand, could not tell a bullet ant (whose sting is supposed to hurt more than a bullet) from a fire ant (whose sting produces a fearsome rash of red swellings). All the same, notebook at the ready, I walked to a nearby leaf—a huge arching V-shaped thing—and began the experiment. There were two immediate problems: one, that ants move very quickly; and two—that they tend to look very similar. But this was the task that I had set myself and so I carried on, looking up every so often to take in the forest again: the layers of sound, the smells, the thrum of life around and the great non-human flourishing of it all. And, strange to relate, by creating for myself a purposeful occupation—however insane—I managed also to assuage my own anxiety about being alone in the universe. (Oh, the predicament of man.) And so for a while I was more or less OK…
Until I heard a crashing sound behind me. I swung round. There was nothing was on the path—but something large was moving through the undergrowth. I stopped dead still, listening. Peccary, soldiers, tapir, jaguar, tribesmen; it was possible to be less than three metres from any of these anywhere in the Amazon and a first-world man would never know. The sound came again—ahead, louder.
I called out. “Hello?”
I stood motionless, my camera hanging from my wrist, the sweat pouring off my body. Again I called out. Nothing.
My breathing stopped and my body tensed ready for I did not know what.
Then, from either side of the holy tree, hands raised as if claws above their heads, whooping and shouting and generally making more noise than an evil troop of howler monkeys, José and Abi appeared—two grown men behaving like adolescents while their charge all but wet himself like an infant. I’ve never been more pleased to see two people in my life.
“Good time party?” José asked, while inexplicably, Abi bent over and pinched repeatedly at his behind, wincing in the manner of one who had been repeatedly bitten.
“Good time party,” I said.