Selva Tambo

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Selva Tambo
October 16, 1997

Dinner preparations begin at the jungle refuge in Selva Tombo
Somewhere in Martha Stewart's guide to social etiquette must be a line warning against cooking untried dishes for guests. But here we were, courting faux pas, balancing lukewarm tequilas in hand, while the dinner of 10 hungry gringos burned in a banana leaf.

The rich surubi, a popular Amazon river fish, certainly deserved better. Charred black from smoke and coal, the dinner was a victim of my inspiration. I'd once seen a film on an Amazonian river tribe on an Amazon river tribe who cooked in jungle leaves. Only now I remember they were eating grubs.

"I hope you're not too hungry. We have more beer," I hear Nancy explaining in the next room.

To everyone's amazement the surubi tasted delicious. Everyone, that is, except the local Bolivian guides, among whom leaves replace aluminum foil and the machete is the perfect kitchen tool.

This is Selva Tombo, our jungle refuge where our souls became entwined with the canopy of jungle vines and our spirits danced the drunken ballet of iridescent butterflies. We came to Selva Tombo, a thatched lodge running jungle tours, to chop some vegetables and sweep up. In exchange we could stay. Gustavo and Emily, two kindred souls we'd met before in Potosi, were leaving to renew their visas in La Paz. Still intoxicated from our riverboat odyssey, we offered to fill in until their return.

Two days later Nancy has dubbed me Jungle Joe. Faded khaki shorts and an old straw hat and my trust machete comprise my common wardrobe. Rudolfo, the main guide, is my new inspiration. A trail walk with him is like a tour of nature's pharmacy. "The sap of this tree will make a woman sterile. Break this leaf and rub it where you've been stung by a buna ant." He comments constantly, jumping from one plant to the next. I take special note of the buna cure-all. I've heard stories of stoic men shedding tears such is the pain induced by this 2-inch ant.

Noisy nights at the lodge keep
the team awake and alert
The heat of the afternoon bakes the clay earth and fixes the air with a palpable haze. Hammock time. Swaying between heaven and earth, a witch doctor's apprentice in hand, the swirl of jungle sounds sweeping through the palm thatch.

At night we duck beneath our mosquito net, the burbling calls of night birds and flashing neon beetles lull us into sleep. But inevitably one of us startles the other out of dreams with a desperately alarmed, "What was that?! Did you hear that?"

It's tag-team sleeping. Nan now sleeps, while I strain to hear the crinkling of underbrush over my pounding heart. El tigre, a 150-pound jaguar, has a fondness for the night animals drinking water from the river by our bedside.

Despite the Edenesque setting, there are distractions to our paradise. The 12 unexpected travelers carrying expectant appetites into our kitchen come to mind. Normally we hovered in an informationless void, pondering the comings and goings and postulating on possible itineraries for the equally clueless visitors.

Rurrenbaque, the big city with its population of 200, was 20 minutes downriver and a world away. And until the time came to hitch our exit on the next carved-out banana boat, we'd prefer to keep it that way. It's easy to understand how people come to this place and never return. I imagine someone explaining, "Oh, Bill and Nancy? They went off to live in the jungle ..."

I like the sound of that.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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