The Teachings of Gerineldo "Moises" Chavez (or The Rainforest is a Great Place to Save, But I Wouldn't Want to Live There)

Deep in the seething, fecund Amazon jungle, a seeker finds wisdom, beauty, exciting new recipes, and inexhaustible armadas of biting insects. O Sting, where is they death?

   

"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.


 
 

MOISES, WHO IS 42 AND A DECEPTIVELY strong 5-foot-3 and 135 pounds, met me at the airport in Iquitos wearing baggy denim cutoffs, a T-shirt that read "I Survived an Amazonia Expedition," and a foam-domed baseball cap of the sort an American might associate with the interstate trucking profession. Tufts of curly black hair protruded below his hat, as did a set of smallish, jug-handle ears. We took a motorized ricksha—a three-wheeled motorcycle conversion that serves as the typical taxi in this steamy jungle city of half a million—to the Amazonia Expeditions dock. From there we powerboated three or so hours up the Amazon and another hour up the Tahuayo River to the lodge, which stands alone three-quarters of a mile from the tiny village of El Chino and has no electricity. The structure is glorious—a warren of cedar walkways on stilts 10 to 20 feet above the river floodplain; 17 high-ceilinged, open-beam, screened-in bungalows; a huge dining hall that looks out on a slow-moving bend of the river. The plan was to spend three days at the lodge—gawking at monkeys, fishing for piranhas, and napping in hammocks—before heading into the jungle with Moises, his apprentice Josias Tello, and photographer Bill Hatcher.

Normally, Moises Chavez's job as chief guide at Tahuayo Lodge is to run the daily activities: guided hikes, canopy climbing, and other outings in search of red-and-green macaws and pygmy marmosets—the world's smallest primates. He might even show you a hoatzin, otherwise known as the dinosaur bird, a blue-faced, ornately-mohawked creature bigger than a turkey, whose closest known relative became extinct 36 million years ago. Though Moises comes across as intense, he's quick to produce a wide smile. Even during these first days, it was easy to see him as eerily in harmony with the rainforest, a jungle spirit who seemed to glide through its labyrinthine corridors, reading them as readily as I might the aisles of a Safeway.

He learned the ways of the rainforest growing up in Indian villages deep in the Peruvian Amazon, where his late father, Gerineldo Sr., worked for the Peruvian government as a teacher to indigenous tribes, accompanied by his Brazilian wife, Moises's mother, and his two older brothers. Moises was born in the Yagua Indian village of Huanana on the Napo River and attended school in the thatch-roofed huts that his father built, but he also participated in all the rites of growing up native. If Moises's pals were going spearfishing for dinner, he went too. If they were extracting strychnine from the curare vine for poison blowgun darts, he did likewise. When ill, he went to the local curandero, or healer. The kids spoke Spanish in the classroom and a mixture of Spanish and Indian dialects elsewhere. (Moises picked up his passable English later, working as a guide.)

The family lived with the Yagua for six years or so, but then Moises's father taught among other tribes, including the Huitoto, Bora, Ocaina, Secoya, and Ticuna—all in Peru's far-northern Loreto Department, between the borders of Ecuador and Colombia. Along the way, Moises picked up a wide range of skills, customs, and dialects, giving him a uniquely ecumenical understanding of the jungle and its people. Now it's difficult even for him to say where he learned what. "I'm all the time very curious as a boy, and live with other boys like animals," he explained. "I see when we hunt and fish how they move through the jungle like animals. I learn from my father, I learn from their fathers—but mostly I learn from the other kids."

Moises was 14 when his father became ill with Parkinson's disease, forcing the family to move to Iquitos so Gerineldo Sr. could receive medical treatment. Moises quit school, and together with his older brothers began working for Explorama, a large American tour company in the city. After further survival training during a short stint in the army, Moises returned to Explorama.

He'd been working there for ten years when a former researcher from the Chicago Zoological Society named Paul Beaver lured him away. Beaver was running wilderness camping trips from a base camp on the Yarapa River but wanted to open a lodge near the Tamshiyacu-Tahuayo Reserve. The two-million-acre area is a Pleistocene refugia, meaning it remained forested during the Ice Age and hence remains home to strange endemic species, such as red uakari monkeys and canids called bushdogs, that few Westerners have ever seen. The reserve contains greater mammal diversity than any like-size nook of the Amazon and greater primate diversity (15 species) than any wildlife preserve in the world. During the late eighties, the Rainforest Conservation Fund collaborated with local people of mixed Spanish and Indian descent who live in villages along the Tahuayo to thwart development and lobby for government protection, which was secured with the establishment of the reserve in 1991. Now it's a showcase tropical rainforest, seemingly a world away from the slash-and-burn madness of the Amazon forests of Brazil.

With Moises's reputation as a superb guide and teacher, Beaver opened Tahuayo Lodge in 1995. "I knew Moises's skill and attitude could help me create a competitive tourism program," Beaver told me. "I was like a struggling sports franchise willing to pay astronomical sums to a star player. I treated Moises as a free agent and persuaded him to come work with me."

Moises has still never been outside the Amazon Basin.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

MOISES AND I, ALONG WITH Josias and Bill, pulled out early the first morning of our outing and motored upstream in a skiff. Soon the Tahuayo narrowed. Its tannic brown darkened into a shiny obsidian, and the rainforest curtain pulled down tightly on either side. We saw a few settlements, and then nothing but jungle, and by the time we ditched the skiff on the northern edge of the reserve we were more than a full day's journey by fast boat from the nearest incandescent lightbulb.

We hiked single-file through the varzea, a type of jungle whose undergrowth isn't terribly dense and whose floor lay under water several months each year (it wasn't flooded now). Moises led, and I followed. He seemed to move with a casual shuffle, but after a while I noticed that between steps his feet were actually skimming the ground just above the surface, seldom even rustling a leaf. All the while he never looked down. His eyes roamed the dense canopy 150 feet overhead, spotting every monkey, toucan, tree rat, and sloth around us. I have no idea how far inland we walked, because Moises would constantly halt, point up, and declare: "Tamarins." Then I'd spend the next five minutes peering through my binoculars, trying to dial-in a glimpse of the chattering monkeys. "In the trees," he'd add, laconically.

His omniscience was absolute. He explained that the seeds of the bataua palm could be crushed and mixed with water to make a thin chocolate milk. Another nut, the coconut-size chambira, was good for a dram of water and an eighth of an inch of ingestible goo. Cleave a certain thick, woody vine and crystalline water would bubble through a fibrous core; all four of us could drink heartily from a three-foot section. A leaf he called Santa Maria served as homegrown toilet paper. "You have to know which leaves is not stinging," Moises cautioned. I tried to be a good student of the jungle. It wasn't easy without Moises's constant guidance. I could recognize the odd rubber or mahogany tree, but in between might stand 50 other species that didn't repeat themselves once.

After one stretch of silence that morning, Moises announced: "The jungle is a very big place, but here is not dangerous. With a good guide, nothing going to happen to you."

"I'm glad of that, Moises," I said. "But what's for lunch?"

"We eat fish. Later."

By midday we arrived at a clearing disconcertingly close to a swamp—our campsite. Fertile mosquito turf. In the cloying heat we set about building a tambo, a traditional open-sided hut, which meant hacking down small trees for the studs, lashing the framework together with the inner bark of the machimango tree, and using strands of the ubiquitous tamshi vine to tie down palm fronds on the A-shaped roof.

Moises wasn't much for verbal instructions. If I brought over the wrong variety of palm he'd just toss my fronds aside. If I tied a knot incorrectly, he'd say, "No," and retie it. All my candidates for uprights and beams were rejected without explanation, tossed onto a pile of firewood. So I concentrated on thatching. As Josias delivered armfuls of palm fronds, I'd cut them into uniform lengths, fold the leaves to one side of the spine as I'd seen Moises do, and sandwich three of them together to form a single shingle. Then you just tie them to the beams, parallel to the roofline, with about six inches of overlap.

In a few short hours we had a sturdy hut for four. We threw down palm leaves as a floor and strung up our individual mosquito nets. (This is not considered cheating, even by Moises.) We each had a pup-tent-size berth, with unobstructed ventilation. Better than a muggy tent.

Then, nine hours after breakfast, it was off to our fishing hole: a still, muddy stream. How did we expect to extract fish for four from this opaque murk? Simple. In the time-honored tradition of the jungle people, we'd paralyze the suckers. Having already cut roots from the barbasco plant, we now pulverized them to release their toxins and began to swish the bundles in the water. The barbasco oozed a milky-white colloid that, after about 20 minutes, brought several dozen catfish, oscars, and killifish to the surface—not dead, but in a dull stupor. Easy enough to spear, though. "Some people tell the jungle peoples is bad to poison fish," said Moises. "But the poison no hurting the peoples; they eat this way for thousands of years." Moises and Josias racked up a bounteous catch of bony and anorexic fish, which we smoked over our fire back at camp.

As I spat needle-sharp cartilage into the campfire, I asked Moises where we'd be going tomorrow, now that our tambo was built. I wondered if we had a goal to our wanderings, if we were headed someplace in particular.

He looked at me, expressionless, and replied, "Where we go? I have many stuffs to teach you."


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

"WE MOVE TO TERRA FIRME TODAY," Moises announced the morning of our fifth day. We headed back to the boat, crossed the river, and hiked a half-day up and over a ridge to an upland forest that sits 50 feet higher than the seasonal flood zone. The jungle here was denser and a degree less buggy. The ferns, palms, and other plants grew bigger, so bushwhacking was difficult. But by then I'd perfected the sharp-angle slash that Moises had shown me. (If you whack at a stalk perpendicularly, I learned, your machete simply bounces back.) We chose our new tambo site on far more appealing real estate, just above the banks of a clear-flowing stream. No swamp to contend with, but it was raining hard. ("Woman-rain," Moises had announced—five minutes before the deluge. "Because when woman cry, it all day. Maybe three days. Man cry in one or two hour.") By the time we cut our first fronds for Tambo II, the sky was a waterfall. It was a relief, actually, to feel a ten-degree drop in temperature and to grab a shower as we worked. When the structure was done, Moises and Josias threw up a squirreltail as a cooking hut. We sat on palm leaves under our sturdy new tambo, nibbled a few grilled grubs, and watched the rain drench the darkening forest. The downpour continued all night, but nary a drop violated my palm thatch.

The next morning, Moises rousted us and announced, "Today we gonna make the trap." Picturing some simple bit of subterfuge that would snare tasty fodder for a lunchtime barbecue, I began, under orders, hacking posts and once again gathering palm fronds. After hours of fierce and sweaty labor, we had constructed a four-foot-high palm-frond fence reinforced with hundreds of thick stakes, stretching for a hundred feet along a ridge. Two narrow openings were sprung with huge logs that would thwock any beast trying to seek its way through the contraption.

"What exactly do we hope to capture?" I asked Moises, in hopes of calming my stomach.

"Rat," he replied with a sly grin. "Agouti, actually. Could be snake. I no like, but we have to eat. Jungle people say it bad luck not to be eating what you catch." What wasn't amusing was that the trap wouldn't catch anything until late at night, so for dinner it was bony fish—again. When we made our rounds the next morning, our artsy installation hadn't snared a thing. "Not long enough," was Moises's explanation. "The jungle people, they making trap many longer."

Which led him into a stirring soliloquy: "Nothing easy in the jungle. People think they reading a book, they coming here and understand. It's not true."

No such illusions on my part. Any visions I'd had of the rainforest as conveniently bountiful had long since been starved, sweated, and itched out of me. To be sure, all the necessities of life were there. But they were just out of easy reach.

Did it matter that we never caught anything in our contraption? Did not a long day's shared labor in building it bring us closer together? Were we not laughing as we worked? Well, yes. Maybe surviving the jungle really meant enduring its hardships as friends. Maybe.

But I was still hungry.   

Robert Earle Howells is the editor of the Outside Buyer's Guide. He lives in Southern California.

An Outside Television documentary on Robert Earle Howells's adventure in the Amazon will air on the Outdoor Life Network on January 10 at 9 p.m. Eastern time. For more information about Tahuayo Lodge, contact Amazonia Expeditions at 800-262-9669 or www.perujungle.com.



More Travel