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?

Jan 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

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."