Jungle Born

Our Amazon guide Orlando grew up in the little village of El Chino, on the banks of the Tahuayo river, a tributary of the Amazon.  He had to move to Iquitos to attend high school, and there he decided to learn English and study building.

He was one of the builders of the Tahuayo Lodge.

He built the chairs we sat on during dinner.  But his leadership skills were recognized, and he became a guide for Amazonia Expeditions.

Jungle born, Orlando is compact, all muscle, and as comfortable in his element as a fish in water, or a bird in the treetops.   He has a bright smile, and not just because of his two gold teeth.

He says he is at home in the jungle as we are in our city.  “I am never lost.”

Orlando was the grandson of a shaman who lived to be 103 years old.  His grandfather always said his death would come when he decided it was time to die.  When Orlando’s father died, his grandfather decided he’d lived long enough.   Although in good health, with no sign of illness, he lay down to sleep that night and never woke up.

One morning we got into our boat to explore the river.  “Look, angel fish!”  They were just like those we used to keep in our aquarium.

“Catch one, ” said Orlando.  The kids laughed, thinking he was joking, but his hand shot into the water.  When he opened it up, there was an angel fish.   He gave us a close look and set it free.  We already were beginning to suspect he was a jungle superman.

One night we took the boat to search for caiman, the South American crocodile.  We were covered from head to toe with protective clothing and mosquito repellent.

Orlando never gave it a second thought.   Like Superman, he was invulnerable.

  In the beam of light from Orlando’s headlight, we saw the red glow of a caiman’s eye and followed it to the shallows. Orlando had a stick with a wire loop to capture the caiman for a closer look.  When he tried, with a loud splash the startled caiman plunged into water.

“Escapa?” asked Mario.  “Escapa,” said Orlando, shrugging.  “He is from the water and I am from the ground.”

The next caiman was six feet long.  It lunged past us with a loud splash.  I was leaning over, trying to catch a glimpse.  When it dove past our low-riding boat with a noisy splash, I screamed and jumped.  Orlando was still chuckling the next day as we hiked in the jungle.  Jewel-bright Morpho butterflies fluttered by like a fugitive piece of sky.  Others gathered on the riverbank, ingesting soil for the minerals.

Where we saw only treetops, Orlando saw tamarinds or red titi monkeys.  He would whistle or blow onto the back of his hand, and the monkeys would answer back.  Once he pulled the boat over to the riverbank and began to make monkey chatter.  Within minutes, climbing out of the trees and into our boat came two Woolly Monkeys.  Amazonia had rescued Lorita and Chepa from the black market, and had recently reintroduced them to the jungle.

It was a highpoint.

His machete was an extension of his arm.  Sometimes Orlando had to chop his way through the jungle, just like in the movies.

But he also used the machete to paddle the boat, open a can of pineapple, and carve a blowgun out of balsa wood.

When our canoe paddles went missing, he cut paddles from tree branches with his machete.  When our boat sprang a leak, he used his machete to carve a wooden plug to fix a leak in the boat, and pound it into place.  Once we saw a fly land on his back.  As naturally as a cow flicks an insect with its tail, in one quick motion Orlando swung his machete over his shoulder to swat the fly with the flat of the blade.

One morning Orlando set aside his machete for his knife.  “Jungle surgery,” he explained.  A year before Mario accidentally set off a trap, and was badly injured.  Most of the fifty or so pellets shot into his foot were removed at the hospital in Iquitos.  Whenever another pellet surfaces, Orlando cuts it out from Mario’s foot.  I brought antibiotic ointment, a supply of waterproof bandaids and, oh, yes, cough drops, because Mario had a cold.  They laughed and called me “Mama.”  I  shouldn’t have worried–even after jungle surgery, Mario played soccer in the mud that evening, wearing only flip flops.

When Orlando returned us to Iquitos, he showed us some sights, including this plaque, declaring the Amazon one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.

We did see some amazing natural wonders in the Amazon.

But if you ask me, Orlando would qualify as the Eighth New Wonder of Nature.

c2013 Naomi Baltuck
Thanks to my daughter Bea, a natural storyteller who kept a journal, and helped me recall the details.

Click here for more interpretations of The Weekly Photo Challenge: Rare.


    1. Dear Jamie,
      Orlando provided the perfect window through which we could view another whole world and way of life and way of thinking. There is so much more I would like to share, like the stories he told about his childhood, his family, and his village. I don’t think I will get back there again, but I am glad I went, and I came home with a new perspective on so many things.

      1. Exposure to other cultures is such a powerful thing. Maybe you would consider doing an essay for Bardo??? Up to you. I love what youa re sharing here and there, so beautiful and so completely accessible. Bravo!

      2. Dear Jamie,
        I would be glad to. This was an eye opener, and it did make me re-examine my perspectives and values, especially after spending some time in his village.
        Thanks, Jamie, as always, for your generous response and encouragement.

  1. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who travels with antibiotic cream and band aids. Another amazing adventure for the Garrard fam. Truly incredible.

  2. What an adventure. The monkeys are cute riding in the boat with you. I would guess one would keep a safe distance from Orlando, especially when he’s swatting flies with his machete!

    1. Hi Patti,
      Those monkeys were fascinating! Such different personalities. The dominant one, Lorita, went straight for the bananas, and held one tight in each hand and foot. But Chepa, the little one, knew enough to go to the lunch box and try to break into The Mother Lode.
      I was completely confident of Orlando–I have never met a more competent man. If I ever had a shred of doubt, it disappeared the day we did the ziplines and literally placed our lives in his hands.

      1. I’m glad you got out of your comfort zone and had this wonderful adventure, giant spider and all. 😉 Ziplines look like fun.

    1. Thank you! I never pictured myself doing this sort of thing, and it’s nothing like the survival camping groups that went out into the jungle without food or water or tents, but it certainly did stretch me out of my comfort zone.

    1. Hi Carol,
      I am so glad you could come! There are others who fell in love with it, and once they go, find themselves going back again and again. I can’t see myself going back–this was definitely a once in a lifetime for me–but I am glad I went, and now I am very happy to revisit it in good company. Thank you, as always, for your generous response.

    1. Thanks for the visit. That little green frog is called a Glass Frog. We pulled our boat into a swampy place at night, turned out all our lights, and just listened to chorus of the Glass Frogs. It sounded like wooden wind chimes clinking and tinkling all around us–I had never heard anything like it.

    1. Hi J.D.
      The monkeys really were a high point of the trip. They were very different from each other in character, and we could almost hear them think. Because they had been recently released into the wild, they were not at all shy. In fact, they looked in pockets for treats, and parked on our laps to eat their oranges and bananas. Orlando had to throw a piece of bread onto the shore to coax Chepa off the boat!

    1. Dear Arlene,
      Orlando really was the most competent person I have ever met. We literally put our lives into his hands more than once. Thanks so much for the visit, and for taking the time to comment. It is good to hear from you, as always!

    1. Hi Jo,
      I was glad to go, and glad to come home. I can’t imagine having been placed with another guide. The only thing that I really regret about not going back is that I won’t know the end of Orlando’s story. We all loved him, and wish him all good fortune!

  3. A trip to surpass all others. Lucky you had such a wonderful guide. I’m shaking in my boots just thinking of all the things that could go wrong which, luckily you were able to resolve because of Orlando. Whew. what an adventure! The pictures make another memorable pictorial tour. Thanks you for sharing, Naomi.

  4. Naomi, what a wonderful job immortalizing Orlando. In truth, the people we meet on our journeys are so much more than we could ever create in our fiction. Thank goodness for that. Real superpowers are mastering the challenges of every day life, however they arrive at your door. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Wow !!! Naomi The past two blogs blow me away. Your artistic photos and writings plus Bea’s faithful writing in har journals really bring us to those spots in our imaginations. Orlando is a treasure and I am sure he will come up in a story of yours . Can’t wait to hear more. Eli is a true adventurer and seeker of the world and I am so glad he got you all to South America so the rest of us can enjoy it vicariously. I loved the picture of Thom with the Monkey. That is a keeper> Love, Monica

    1. Dear Monica,
      So good to hear from you! Thanks for the very nice comments. I loved the photo of Axel that you sent, and the summer updates on your trip back east. I was going to write to you today–just put Bea on the plane back to school this morning. Everyone is fine, and we hope you all are too!

  6. This post are so enjoyable and … playful, full of joy and fun.
    That photo with all butterflies, amazing … haven’t seen that many during the whole summer. You got some new friends .. and dinner was saved – what a fantastic adventure and you have shared it with us in a brilliant way.

  7. I wonder how Orlando would get on with 21st century life in (say) Seattle? I imagine he’d be very polite, interested, appreciative…before making a beeline back to the jungle 🙂

    1. That is a great question, Roy. I must admit that I have wondered that very thing. Orlando cuts a pleasant, but unimposing figure, blending in among the throngs in the city. No one on the street would suspect that he catches crocodiles or hunts wild boar to feed his family, or can carry his weight in one arm, while chopping his way through the jungle with a machete, as agile as any wild thing in the jungle.

  8. Ha, thanks for sharing the story of the mult-faceted and resourceful Orlando! Both your pictures and the travel tale are wonderful!

  9. What an honor and a privilege to have met you! I marvel at your enthusiastic approach to life and the world we live in. And when in your presence, I can feel the excitement you carry with you, and share, as you experience the people and whatever the environment. You bring us a surge of life wherever you go. Thanks for sharing you many talents. Hugs.

    1. Dear Marion,
      You are too too kind. I think you are such a positive and energetic person that it is contagious, and too, it takes one to know one! I hope to see you at one of the writing meetings soon.
      Hugs to you too, my dear!

  10. Naomi, What a fabulous trip. And your photos are stunning. It sounds like you had quite an adventure and I’ve really enjoyed catching up with you. Thanks for all the great posts and pics. All the best, Terri

    1. Dear Terri,
      Thank you so much for your visit, and for taking the time to share your very kind response. This was the most challenging trip we have taken so far. I have been really loving catching up with yours! Your photos are amazing.

    1. Hi Shakti,
      Thank you so much for your generous response to my Amazon post. I learned so much on this trip–definitely stretched my own comfort zone, and it’s nice to know that I can do so. But my number one takeaway has been a great respect for a completely different way of living in a society that might look wanting to an outsider, but one that is actually very rich and rewarding. The villagers of El Chino work so hard, but they take such good care of one another and really know how to enjoy life.

  11. what an incredible adventure told within the lines of your photographs…
    Thank you for sharing your journey
    (and Thank you Jamie for pointing me in the direction!)
    Wonderful post..I enjoyed it very much…
    Take Care…

    1. Dear Scilla,
      I love your response. In so many ways, I believe that’s true. He was a healer in his way–not just jungle surgery, but collecting and making medicine from the bark of trees, communicating and respecting for the jungle fauna, and demonstrating incredible patience and kindness toward us clumsy tourists. He told and believed stories that demonstrated the mystery and power of the place–I hope one day to share some of them in a post. Thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective, Scilla. You always make me stop and think.

  12. Orlando is so cool — some kind of super-hero, even! I just love all those photos, those colours, and your words. I couldn’t believe the colour of those butterflies. Thanks for sharing your journey, Naomi. It was a magical experience seeing such an unspoilt part of our planet.

    1. Dear Sarah,
      Thank you for coming and sharing it with us. The butterflies blew me away. I never saw so many, or such colorful ones. They were EVERYWHERE! Orlando had such funny stories about previous adventures and whacky clients that we decided he and Mario needed their own reality show sit-com.

  13. I love these stories of Orlando. A good tool is always an extension of ourselves. Your stories and pictures are such a pleasure. And of course, special thanks to Bea. The work of any one among traveling companions is always that much better because of the very special spirit of the group. And even if just one tells the story, it is to the credit of all. Thank you so much, Naomi.

    1. Dear Shimon,
      Thank you for writing. I will pass on your words to Bea–she stayed up each night keeping her journal on the day’s happenings, which was really honoring the experience, and a gift to us all. It is always such a pleasure to hear from you!

  14. I admire your family for sharing each others passion for travel and adventure. Together you created the most amazing and memorable of memories. Your pictures and words made me feel like I joined you in your exciting journey. Thanks.

    1. Hi Jo,
      Orlando is an amazing person. He told us stories every night about growing up in the jungle, about his grandfather, and also some eerie ones about strange jungle spirits and I know he believed in them. When he told them, it was enough to make me wonder.

  15. Accomplished in every aspect of survival – people like Orlando make me realise the wealth skill and natural knowledge we’ve lost, but worse, aren’t harnessing, something that becomes more and more important as our impact on the planet becomes more damaging. What a difference he made to your Amazon adventure, Naomi. 🙂

    1. Thank you, Meredith. It is really interesting to see this guy in the jungle, in his element, like a fish in water. It was jarring to travel into Iquitos with him, and see him on the city streets. If I hadn’t seen him tracking six foot long caimen or snatching up wild snakes in his bare hands or repairing a boat with a machete and a piece of wood, I might not give a second look to a rather ordinary looking guy walking in the streets of the city. But he was an amazing person. It makes me think of all the strangers we meet in passing, and how they might all surprise us.
      Thanks so much for the visit, and for taking a moment to share your perspective.

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