I’m at the airport in Lima, Peru waiting for my midnight flight. My itinerary from Ecuador to Argentina is not a typical one. I saved a couple hundred dollars by catching a flight from Lima instead of Quito. Twenty dollars was all it cost for a bus ride from Ecuador’s capital to the southern border and ten was spent on a hostel in San Ignacio. Though my ticket says Buenos Aires, the ultimate destination seems as clearly mapped out as the nauseating floor pattern on the thin carpet beneath my feet.
I bought a journal at the gift shop to help me overcome the stretches of boredom that accompany every long voyage. The cashier gladly accepted my US dollars but gave me Peruvian soles in change. I didn’t calculate the exchange rate to see if the amount she returned was correct. Perhaps the game is played here as it is in Ecuador where shortchanging someone is a way of life. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I wouldn’t even classify it as dishonesty. It’s just the way business is done. There are no apologies when the mistake is pointed out. The money is quickly recounted, and few customers count their change twice.
I originally came to South America—Ecuador, specifically—to see the jungle, and I’m still trying to figure out how to put into words exactly what I experienced. Words alone don’t seem to suffice. For example, there’s the humidity. Living a good chunk of my life in south Texas, I know a little about humidity, but the word ‘humid’ comes nowhere close to describing the jungle humidity that will turn a package of Tic-Tacs into mushy goo in just a few hours. And then there’s the mental effect. The jungle can be suffocating to the point where sense of direction, time, place, and purpose are distorted in so many ways.
The jungle I saw didn’t seem to fit with the glamorous tales of adventure in the Amazon my uncle Enrique used to tell me when I was younger and my mother, a native Ecuadorian, would bring me to Quito to visit her family. I remember a time when I was eight and I sat on my uncle Enrique’s lap as he pulled out a leather-covered scrapbook and told me of a life completely foreign from my own. I remember that moment so vividly, staring up at his whiskered face, into his wide eyes hidden behind the thick lenses of his crooked, black-rimmed glasses. Inside the scrapbook was an assortment of pictures from the jungles of the Amazon basin. Some were clipped from magazines while others were sepia originals. My uncle explained that the jungle is like a high-rise apartment building. In the basement, the river, live the caimans, piranhas, and anacondas. On the ground are millions of insects in lines of traffic marching and burrowing their way through life. Midway up the trees are the tarantulas, boas, termites, and monkeys, and at the top are the birds with their enormous nests and panoramic views.
It’s amazing that the world of the birds is a mystery; we’ve studied the ocean floors more than we’ve studied the jungle canopy.
I remember seeing a photo of a jungle shaman. He wore a crown of colorful feathers on his head and a necklace of jaguar teeth around his neck. A macaw feather pierced his wide nose. Then my uncle turned to a loose page consisting of an odd pencil sketch. The drawing was of a broad-chested bird with a rainbow of feathers, furry legs of a jaguar, the neck of a serpent, and the leathery face of a monkey. The image was so entrancing it would be permanently imprinted in my mind. He said the shamans called it, Cayramashi. I grew up dreaming that somewhere in the jungle, perched high upon a kapok tree out of reach, was a bird as mysterious and enticing as the Cayramashi.