The extreme silence, the brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze along this great river can hypnotize you, and beguile you, with its magical powers. In this feature for AAA’s EnCompass magazine, I take you into the mythical world of the Peruvian Amazon.
Pink river dolphins undulated through the still waters of the Amazon River like half-submerged rose petals in a glass of chocolate milk—and they looked just as out of place.
I was sitting in the open-air lounge on a riverboat in the Peruvian Amazon, watching the dolphins cut through the flat surface with barely a splash. My fellow travelers were on an excursion in the nearby Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, and I decided to stay back to enjoy the quiet of an afternoon alone.
It was mid-day and quite warm. The riverboat crew had retreated to their cabins to rest; the howler monkeys and birds that filled the air with chatter all morning were equally quiet. The extreme silence, brightness of the midday sun, humidity, and lack of breeze had a hypnotic effect on me. I felt like I was in a hazy dream. So when a trio of pink river dolphins appeared right next to the anchored riverboat, I thought I was hallucinating, as if I were suffering from a 105-degree fever, or seeing flower petals floating in my beverage.
That’s precisely the effect that botos, as they’re known locally, have on the indigenous people who live along the river. A crew member named Jorge told me later about the stories he heard as a child growing up in a village upriver from the city of Iquitos. Pink river dolphins hypnotize you, beguiling you with their magical powers, he said. And as a woman of child-bearing age, I needed to be especially careful.
During the daytime, pink dolphins go about their usual dolphin business. But once the sun dips, Jorge explained, they morph into handsome men and go ashore strictly for the purpose of seducing the women of local villages and impregnating them. Before the sun comes up, these shape-shifting encantados turn back into dolphins. That’s just one of a number of special powers the dolphins possess.
Whether you believe in the magic, you have to respect the role that such mythology plays in the lives of the local people, called ribereños. Cautionary tales involving animals and nature have been around for millennia and are as woven into the lives of the Amazon people as the vines wrapped around the rainforest’s skyscraper-like trees. For the purpose of immersing completely into this far-away place, I decided to embrace the mythology of the rainforest.
I was thankful I didn’t go ashore with the other passengers that day: One of the activities was a swim in the river. And while that sounded so refreshing and thrilling, I could have fallen victim to another of the sneaky dolphins’ tricks: If one found me swimming alone, he would whisk me away to a secret underwater city, and I’d have to live the rest of my life there.
My guess is that this myth started as a way to get people, particularly children, to use the buddy system when bathing in the river. Dolphins bite. So do the piranhas that congregate in pools shaded by overhanging branches along the river banks.
I remembered this the morning we rose early to go piranha fishing. With egg sandwiches, muffins, and coffee packed in wicker picnic baskets, we motored in skiffs to an offshoot of the Ucayali River, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River.
We arrived in a tranquil spot where lime-green plants covered the water’s surface, and the crew handed out simple fishing poles made from a bamboo-like reeds. Bait consisted of bloody chunks of rotting beef—not a very appetizing smell first thing in the morning! I made sure I didn’t lean too far out of the skiff as I slapped the water surface with the reed to attract the steely eyed little monsters. Almost as soon as the pole went into the water, I felt greedy, omnivorous nibbles on the end of my line.
The fish proved easy to catch: I hooked seven red-bellied piranhas. The guides collected them in a plastic bin and took them back to the riverboat, where I asked the chef if I could help him prepare them for dinner. In the small galley, with towels wrapped around our hands to protect us from their razor-sharp scales, we cleaned the fish, dredged them in flour and spices, and fried them.
Like the river dolphins, piranhas are at the center of their own set of myths. Some Amazonians consider it taboo to dine on predatory fish like piranha; others say it’s an aphrodisiac. Either way, it’s not very tasty, even drenched in freshly squeezed lime juice.
Piranhas are also the most hyped creature in the Amazon. They rarely, if ever, go into ferocious feeding frenzies, and rarely attack humans. Still, it’s hard to convince yourself they’re angels when you take an up-close look at their serrated teeth, which indigenous people use to make tools and weapons. I showed the piranha my utmost respect.
The foundation of life
Respecting nature is the foundation of life for the people of the Amazon. For ribereños, nature provides shelter, drinking water, food, religion, and medicine. One myth says that protective spirits reside in the lapuna tree, and even illegal loggers know that if you cut down the wrong lapuna, really bad things will happen to you.
The No. 1 person in the Amazon to respect the power of nature, myths and all, is the local shaman. My Amazon riverboat expedition afforded me an opportunity to meet a local shaman for a ceremony and educational lesson in medicinal plants of the Amazon.
A shaman is a spiritual medicine man who has spent his lifetime committed to understanding the healing power of the rainforest, both spiritually and medicinally. The rainforest is his university, and his professors are other shamans who have orally passed their knowledge down to him.
Sadly, Amazonian shamanism is a dying practice—not many young people want to commit themselves to the intensive self-study, which new generations may see as antiquated. Yet so many inhabitants of the rainforest rely on the shaman, often visiting him for healing before venturing by boat—sometimes for days on end—to see a doctor schooled in Western medicine.
Once again, I decided to believe what I didn’t completely understand. One afternoon, we gathered on the hand-hewn benches in a small village and sat rapt for an hour before the shaman known as Maestro Juan. While I’d like to say he was wearing some sort of inspiring, of-the-rainforest getup involving scarlet macaw feathers and the vine of ancient plants, Maestro Juan was dressed like a regular guy in a polo shirt and ripped jeans.
He lit a hand-rolled cigarette of sacred mapacho tobacco and blew the smoke from his mouth onto the crowns of our heads. Following the instructions provided through an interpreter, I used my hands to “wash” my body with the smoke. I listened as the shaman described the purpose of a half-dozen murky liquids in old plastic soda bottles. They all healed different ailments.
I took a whiff of ayahuasca, the legendary hallucinogenic potion that induces spiritual journeys. This particular expedition doesn’t include an ayahuasca ceremony, but we were grateful for the opportunity to learn about the plant-based potion that’s said to relieve people of emotional burdens.
And, really, you don’t need to go through a painful, drug-induced journey to be changed by the rainforest. You still can experience its magic on a comfortable riverboat with a fully stocked bar and air conditioned cabins. As long as you immerse in the experience—and its myths, whether believable or not—you will go home changed, as I did.
Just do me a favor and don’t look a pink river dolphin in the eye while you’re there—unless, of course, you want to have the most dreadful nightmares for the rest of your life.
Elissa Leibowitz Poma is a travel writer based in Washington, D.C.
Reprinted from the January/February 2017 edition of AAA EnCompass.
Lead image (c) JJ Huckin/WWF-US