"We have only grubs to eat," Moises said, sounding somewhat apologetic.
"Great," I replied, in all earnestness.
I'd had it with hunger. I'd had it with wet. My own scent offended me. My arms ached from waving off kamikaze flotillas of mindless, DEET-disrespecting mosquitoes. I'd had it with sweat bees, desperately in love with my sodden leather boots, clouds of them swirling around my feet at every stride. I was a starved sweat machine, a giant itch, a pathetic, sleep-deprived gringo who couldn't even catch an agouti for dinner. But at least I'd developed a yen for grubs. When you're trying to live off the land in the green heart of Peru's upper Amazon rainforest, strange things begin to happen.
You learn to like beetle larva.
Grubs aren't bad, really, especially if you've been subsisting on a diet of scrawny fish speared out of a murky mud stream. Day after day, almost nothing but fish. Fish, fish, fish equaled bones, bones, bones, and eating them meant scraping tiny shards of flesh from their intricate skeletons like some desperate mendicant.
As snack food, raw grubs were welcome fare, if only because they were blessdly bone-free. (Bite down to savor them: a subtle epidermal crunch followed by a creamy release.) But they're even better kebab-style, grilled and smoked over an open fire, which wasn't an easy thing to come by in the continual dankness of an environment that receives 120 inches of rain a year.
Happily, I wasn't on my own. Gerineldo "Moises" Chavez—jungle guide, rainforest wizard, and often-taciturn mentor to visitors seeking some sort of transcendence by way of privation in the the jungle—was in charge. And presently, he was making fire. He scurried around a clearing we'd made with our machetes and arranged a half-dozen fallen logs, each about eight feet long, into a giant spoked pattern. Squatting at the hub, he constructed a grill of green saplings, using four sticks with Y-joints to prop it up. Then he grabbed an unemployed piece of firewood, peeled off its bark, and, bracing the stick against his wiry midsection, whittled up a pile of escelsior for kindling.
Still, the logs were completely sodden. No problem. "Kerosene tree," said Moises, gesturing toward the trunk of a copal. It was pocked with wartlike clumps of sap, and he walked over and began pulling them off, balling them up, and nestling the natural fire starter in the kindling. One match, and we had a flame. The result was slow-burning fire that, if need be, we could make last for days by nudging the spokes toward the center as they burned. Hot grubs, coming up!
Moises was a man I'd come alternately to to admire, dislike, and love, depending upon the status of my stomach. And my continual state of hunger had come upon me in a surprisingly short period of time, just a couple of days into a weeklong jungle-survival trip through the damp, buggy forest. Out here, no one could hear your stomach rumble. There was no comfort food to be had if you were playing by the rules—and I was. Though I had smuggled in a pair of binoculars, an extra T-shirt, a water bottle, iodine tablets, and a bottle of ineffectual bug repellent in a small rucksack, I hadn't brought a crumb of food: no furtively stashed energy bars, no candy, no clandestine cookies.
My survival ordeal was an offering of Amazonia Expeditions' Tahuayo Lodge, a remote outpost on the Tahuayo River, an Amazon tributary about 60 water miles south of Iquitos. Most lodge visitors who take advantage of these excursions into primitivism do so only for a night or two, between bird-watching outings and swim-alongs with pink river dolphins. Wimps. I was more zealous than that. I'd never been to the rainforest, that forbidding, almost mythic wilderness with its undiscovered species, primordial vistas, and exotic tribes. What better way to get to know it, to understand it on a visceral level, than to submit myself to the vagaries of its flora and fauna? A week sounded right. I'd learn through the immersion method.
All I'd need, I was told, was a machete.