Alice Audley discovers plenty of surprises in the depths of the Amazon… As we sped rapidly through the water, swerving past fallen branches and bits of driftwood, my thoughts wandered to my childhood, to Rudyard Kipling and to Mowgli. Though not in India, my sister and I were on our way into the depths of a wild, dense and fascinating Jungle – we were on our way into the heart of the Amazon.
With our bodies slightly shaken, but our lives intact, we disembarked our dubious vessel and were welcomed into the Juma Jungle lodge. Perched on stilts over the river and consisting of only five cabins, the place was basic, rustic and intimate. As we sipped on a delicious cup of Brazil nut tea, I was convinced that the next couple of days would provide the perfect opportunity to relax. That was before I met Osma.
‘No Osma, really I don’t swim!’ I lied, gabbling nervously as he edged closer, giggling innocently. The next thing I knew I had plunged into the opaque depths of the Amazon River. Simultaneously gasping for breath and wanting to scream, I was rendered mute. I lashed my legs frantically against the thick water where precisely twenty four hours earlier I had fished for and caught Piranhas. My heartbeat raced: ‘I’m going to be eaten alive!’ In what felt like minutes, but was more likely seconds, I scrambled with all my might back onto land. Panting, I looked at Osma. ‘Ha, ha, ha’ he laughed as a wide grin spread across his Cheshire cat-like face ‘I told you you could swim!’
A short, athletic man with an olive complexion and mop of black hair, Osma was the real deal. It was only day two of the Jungle experience and I had already caught a baby alligator, stepped over an anaconda and had a near-death experience. What more could possibly be in store? My question was answered as dawn broke on the third day.
Floating down the river in a small canoe, I asked Osma what we were doing and where we were going. ‘Wait and see,’ he answered grinning. ‘Wonderful,’ I thought sarcastically as we ploughed on down the river, the morning mist engulfing both our vision and us. Our bodies brushed against a series of sticky reeds and a slight clearing of the air told us that we’d reached the mighty river’s bank.
Out and into the jungle we trekked, briefly silenced by the chattering of monkeys and the sweet melodies of tropical birds. ‘What do they eat?’ my sister whispered to Osma, he looked round, paused and with a completely dead-pan glance, he replied ‘Food.’ I chuckled.
Further and further we penetrated the unknown before reaching a small rickety shack. ‘Here we are!’ Osma announced proudly – we exchanged anxious looks. Out of the shack wandered a little, old, gangly legged, white bearded man. ‘This man here make the rubber’.
Soon we were learning how to bleed the rubber trees, collect the sap in little cans and then make…good question – the answer still rather shocks me. Entering the shack we were faced with a little fire, a stool, and wait for it, about eighty wooden phallic models. The old gangly man was the local condom supplier! About half an inch thick and used up to eight times each, it was of little surprise that the local family’s average brood was approximately fourteen!
With our own condoms made and packed in our rucksacks we said farewell to the old man and got back into the boat. Rowing slowly upstream we gasped as a pink dolphin jumped out of the water, Osma laughed at our shock – he seemed to know that it was already there.
Amid discussion on the beautiful dolphin we were taken by yet another surprise: Osma suddenly plunged the right oar into the Amazon and we veered course. Hauling the boat into the undergrowth of the nearby river bank, he leapt out into the waist deep waiter and disappeared up a tree. Flabbergasted we watched him with cat-like speed and agility climb five, ten, fifteen feet before he whisked himself out of sight.
A few minutes passed and I started feeling rather uncomfortable; was he leaving us to fend for ourselves? Were we supposed to follow him? Was he ever coming back? Our questions were answered with an almighty splash – Osma had just fallen 30 feet out of a tree. More questions replaced the old: how were we going to get him to hospital? Was there even a hospital? It got worse. We couldn’t see him, he wasn’t surfacing – tourism had morphed into tragedy.
Jumping out into the water, I searched frantically for his body. Then the tree rustled above me and down shuttled Osma happily, his grin intact. I wasn’t smiling and got back into the canoe. If he was up the tree then what on earth was in the water? Osma waded through the reeds, ducked under broken branches, thrust his hands into the murky water and withdrew a fully grown male Sloth! My smile returned.
Grey-brown with a tiny head, beady eyes and oversized claws, I can only describe it as beautifully ugly. The discovery though, camouflaged amongst the branches, 30 feet up in the air – how had Osma managed to see it? A few moments later a wide grin etched itself across my face. Here amongst alligators, piranhas, sloths, dolphins and homemade condoms I’d crossed paths with the one thing I never thought possible – I’d finally met Mowgli! Alice Audley