Between the bags of cacao, the backpacks, the hammocks, the piranha carcasses no one had cleaned up, the beer cooler, and the bottles of water and gasoline, the only place to sit was on the narrow gunwales—torture no amount of coca could disguise. Our goal was to visit several cacao-gathering homesteads, as well as the settlements of Palermo and Jerusalem, Aurelio's childhood home. "First Palermo, then Jerusalem," Volker muttered. "Sounds like a crusade." Cacao was everywhere. We found an old, shirtless man with a skin disease devouring the right side of his body. He sat in a hut surrounded by well-manicured cacao trees. His name was Pedro, the last of a community of Trinitario Indians, and he'd lived there for 45 years. Pedro said there were 2,500 acres of chocolatales in the area, but there was no one left to harvest them. I couldn't believe it. In other parts of the world, chocolate companies fight like hell over the paltry supply of high-grade cacao varieties. People have even been shot in Venezuela. Here, it rotted in the forest.
"What if I helped you get pickers here during the season?" Volker asked. "And I provided food, training, and boats? And you ran the show? And we paid you a premium for everything you harvest?" "Why not?" said Pedro. They shook on it.
Palermo, we soon discovered, had been abandoned to the floods. After 12 more back-breaking hours, we reached Jerusalem, still a foot or so above the floodwaters. Aurelio and his brothers had inherited a shack surrounded by 7,500 acres of swampy rainforest rich in cacao. The family had been hard at work: Every square inch of ground we could see was covered in a thick carpet of empty, composting cacao pods. I was thrilled to be off the boat, but as we walked toward the shack over the crunching pods I suddenly noticed that they seemed to be rippling. The entire grounds, even the floors of the shack, were alive. The ants had moved in.
By this time, I had a relationship with the jungle like that of a beaten dog to its master: I loved it, but it just kept hurting me. I'd worried about all the wrong critters. It wasn't the jaguars; never saw one. It wasn't the caiman; those we ate ceviche style, raw tail meat sliced thin and marinated in fresh lemon juice. Ditto for the piranhas and snakes. (You don't even want to know about the countless tiny vertebrae.) I even got along famously with the tarantulas, which have a personality not unlike the Dude of The Big Lebowski.
But the fucking ants. Mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, and gnats? Awful. But the ants, streaming through the forest in black rivulets of sadism, are the real lords of the jungle. There is far more ant biomass than human in Amazonia. They attacked from the ground, came boiling out of old canoes, fell from trees. Staying in Jerusalem was suicide. Dante, who'd absorbed enough coca alkaloids to keep the city of Medellín partying for a week, voted for motoring blindly through the night. Overruled. "I know a place," said Aurelio.
We puttered down an old, dead-end arm of the river as it turned purple, mirroring the sky. Carpets of green dragonflies seeped over the water as river dolphins surfaced and fireflies winked in the trees to the rhythm of the frogs. At the end of a lagoon, a single hut rose out of the water on stilts. As we approached, a gnarled old couple tottered out. If they were startled by the sudden turn their evening was taking, they didn't show it.
I HAD HIGH HOPES of making it back to Trinidad the next day—Volker had promised me the best steak of my life when we arrived, and even a skanky hotel room with cold running water was starting to sound like purest hedonism—but the outboard gave up the ghost midmorning. Dante and Aurelio proceeded to do the desperate and hopeless things with screwdrivers that men always do in such situations.
With the engine dead, the sounds of the jungle rushed in. One has this idea of the rainforest ringing with dulcet birdcalls, but for whatever reason, most birds in the Amazon sound as if they have hairballs. The parrots screech. The macaws hack. The hoatzin, an evolutionary throwback, looks and sounds like Billy Idol. Walking the rainforest is like making the rounds in a tuberculosis ward.