The Heart of the Amazon

My trip to the Amazon Rainforest was definitely one for the books. I don’t have the vocabulary to accurately describe my experience, nor the talent to delve into the complexity of the region I explored, nor the ability to portray how incredible the sights, sounds and people are.

I navigated the rainforest at nightfall to witness the insects that dwell there. I spotted pink dolphins, anacondas, sloths, monkeys, various species of birds and so much more in their natural habitats. I played with monkeys at a nature rescue center and acted as a mother to a baby monkey who refused to let me go. I crossed an item off my bucket list when I jumped into the Amazon River. I participated in nightly sports and other activities with community members living near our lodge.

What I found most fascinating and awe-inspiring, though, were the legends and stories our guide, Sandro, shared with my friend and me each night. Rather than detailing each adventure I had, I’d like to leave you all with these tales, because to me, they are the soul of the Amazon, the mystery and wonder that truly represent it.

Anacondas: As water-dwelling snakes, anacondas are considered one of  the the four most dangerous animals in the Amazon Rainforest. Last year, the Amazon River flooded more than usual, and the people in the forest suffered tremendously. In these areas, it is typical that parents don’t tend to their children 24/7, so a 4-year-old boy had been playing on his own. When the boy did not return as day began to turn to dusk, his parents began to worry. Members of the community began searching for him, and near the village they discovered an anaconda with a large lump around the middle of its body. Fearing the worst, they killed the snake and split it open. Inside, they found that the boy had suffocated within the snake’s body—the anaconda had swallowed him, completely clothed.

Jaguars: Another on the list of four most dangerous animals in the Amazon, the jaguar is also considered one of the greatest land predators of the forest. Sandro brought along a new cook on a camping excursion in the national forest nearest Iquitos. Although the cook was afraid of being alone in the forest, Sandro took his camping group out for an adventure, leaving him to prepare their dinner for their return. As the cook began to peel potatoes, he heard a low growling in the distance. At first, he thought nothing of it, but the noise began to grow louder and nearer. When Sandro returned, the cook was nowhere to be found. The group shouted for the cook and soon discovered him high in a tree. When he got down, he told them all he had climbed the tree when the growls became uncomfortably close, supposing it was a jaguar. Later on, Sandro asked a native who was along for the excursion if it was possible for a jaguar to be near the campsite. When the native said it could be, the two explored the area—to find fresh jaguar tracks 150 meters away.

Sloths: Many people within the Amazon believe that if a pregnant woman sees a sloth, her baby will emerge either ugly or with down-syndrome. So, when pregnant, women attempt to avoid sloth sightings at all costs.

Erotic Tree: The name of this tree comes from the penis-like shape of its branches. Amongst many natives, it is custom that when a woman first gets her period, her dad will find the branches from this tree to make a necklace to demonstrate that she is now fertile.

Red Saber Tree: This is one of the largest trees in the Amazon, and according to many, a genie lives inside of it. If you spend one complete night at the base of the tree, you will receive what you desire.

Tree of Justice: Red fire ants inhabit this tree. If someone committed a crime or was considered an infidel, he would be tied to this tree. Someone would bang on the tree to anger the ants, causing them to attack. One small crime means three to four hours tied to the tree and about a week and a half of recovery from fever and aches afterward. If the person does wrong after this or commits a more serious felony, he would be left on the tree until death, typically 19 to 20 hours.     

Pink Dolphins: People of the Amazon think that the pink dolphins of the Amazon River can convert into human beings, and the males impregnate the women when their men are away. One night, a woman in the tribe of Sandro’s grandfather got ready to go to sleep while her husband was out fishing at night with all the men of the village. She got into her bed, mosquito net arranged and machete nearby, but soon heard footsteps in her house. The sounds grew louder and soon her mosquito net was being rustled open. The woman snatched her machete and sliced off the arm of the man who was attempting to enter her bed. He ran off right away, but she chased after him, creating a ruckus and banding all the women of the community together. They followed the drips of blood, but they came to an end at the bank of the river—no more blood could be found. When the men of the community returned, they discovered a dead pink dolphin—missing the exact fin as the arm of the man who had escaped the town.

Falcons: There is a certain species of falcon within the rainforest that if you are able to imitate its sound exactly, you will then achieve complete control over snakes, just as the falcon itself can stun snakes merely by its call. However, if it is not identical, your death is sure to be caused by a snake.   

Dwarf: Deep in the forest, a dwarf with one regular leg and the other that of a deer resides. If someone is lost in the Amazon, the dwarf will appear immediately, taking on the appearance of someone close to you—a friend, a relative, a spouse. If you have a good spirit, the dwarf will lead you back to safety. If not, the dwarf will take you through the rainforest for days, leaving you even more lost until you realize you’d be there forever, and eventually you will turn into one of those dwarfs as well, having to lead others deep into the forest without hope of ever returning. So, if you’re lost and someone you know appears (and you have the fear that you have a bad spirit), you must ask to see the person’s leg. The dwarf will then vanish.

Ayaymama Birds: A family of four—a mother, a father and two children—lived in solitude deep within the Amazon Rainforest. As I mentioned before, it isn’t custom for parents to tend to their children at all times. So, the mother and father left the food out for their children one day, as they did every day, and set off to fish. However, the pair was killed by a black alligator. The children, expecting their parents to come home at the same hour as usual, unknowingly waited and waited for them to appear. After some time, the older child realized their parents were not coming, and took his sister out to look for them and got lost along the way. After a few days of wandering, it was clear the two would not survive—they were hungry and too young to have any knowledge of what could or could not be eaten within the forest. Mother Nature took pity on the two, and turned them into what are known as ayaymama birds. You see, the entire trek, the girl was sobbing and crying out, “Ayaymama!” which translates to “Mother, why have you abandoned me?”

Demon’s Fruit: Sandro led a 16-day survival hike to the Ecuadorian border with a group of Israeli military men on vacation from their duties. There is a native fruit that grows only on large trees in the less dense areas of the forest, but the group came across it growing on a smaller tree. When they reached out to pick a few, a tribesman who resided in the area warned them that this particular fruit is known as a demon’s fruit, and if you want to consume it, you must ask permission internally beforehand. One Israeli didn’t believe the man, so he ate the fruit without a second thought. That night, he woke up twice during the night, claiming he felt as though he was being strangled and thrown from his sleeping hammock. They summoned a shaman, who performed a ritual and said the man must ask for a pardon in order to achieve peace. From there, the man did not suffer any consequences and was able to sleep peacefully.