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.

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