During a late-morning downpour along the Cuyabeno River, one of the Amazon's hundreds of tributaries, I suddenly understand why the natives have historically preferred to go nude.
This deep in the Amazon, there really is no escape from the clothes-drenching quality of the storms, which rage without warning. The sky, brilliantly sunny and blue one moment, turns as black-purple as a bruise the next. A streak of lightning rips through, and then the rains thunder down like bullets, the jungle animals responding with a series of shrieks and howls and multiple sounds I possess no vocabulary to describe.
Out on the river, where I find myself on this second day of my five-day stay in the Amazon, the rain beats against my back and seeps in through the head hole of my poncho. It soaks everything beneath, and I find myself thinking how much more comfortable I would be if I could just shed my clothes and let the rain run off my bare body.
My guide Luis, who is half Quichua and half Shuar Indian, lived for a time during his late teens with the fiercely independent Huaorani tribe who are notorious for, among other things, their distaste for clothing. Soon after I met him, Luis proudly showed me a murky, faded photo of a younger, bare-chested version of himself, looking surprisingly prim and proper as he stood in the jungle in his black nylon shorts next to a Huaorani elder who sported a spear and, well, nothing else.
Luis told me that an agency he used to work with had once tried to include a visit with the Huaorani in their tour program.
"But they stole everyone's belongings, and they refused to wear clothes," he said. "So that was the end of that."
During my Amazon tour in Ecuador, I am staying in the less clothing-averse and more possession-secure territory of the Siona tribe. I am staying with 13 other travelers, all of whom are proving to be better sports than I am.
Even in this heavy rain, as broken-off twigs pelt us from all directions, my fellow travelers remain upright and binocular-alert for animal sightings on the river. In contrast, I burrow deeper into my poncho, blinding myself from our surroundings as I silently will the rains to cease and wish for the canoe to carry me somewhere far away where everything will be still and dry.
The Amphibian Amigo
On my first night in the Amazon, I had found a large lemon yellow frog on the wall of my shower. It was the size of my outstretched hand and appeared poised to jump on me. Trying to disguise my panic, I walked briskly to the lodge's living room where I called out for Luis in a shaky voice. He told me I was lucky to have been blessed with such a presence and followed me back to my room with a quick, animated stride.
As Luis attempted to catch the frog, it jumped bulging-eyed and wild-legged from one shower wall to the next. I shuddered at the thought of having to bathe like this or, worse still, to sleep while my new friend lurked somewhere in the shadows.
Fortunately, Luis captured the frog and ever so gently deposited him in some undergrowth a safe distance from my cabin.
Another guide passing by inquired about Luis' catch and my near hysteria in requesting his help, to which he responded, "una ranita," a tiny frog, and to which they both responded with uncontrollable laughter.
The Ugly American in the Jungle
After the monsoon of my second morning, I return to my cabin to change into my third and final set of dry clothes. The first had been drenched during a downpour that had greeted me upon my arrival, and even though these clothes have now been hanging from my bamboo bedpost for 24 hours, they are still soaked. In this jungle humidity, I realize, nothing ever really dries.
Over lunch I ponder whether the caiman that had circled the lodge dock when I'd arrived might have been a bad omen, and I decide to indulge my crankiness by passing on our afternoon canoe trip and sunset swim in the Amazon. I tell Luis that I am feeling tired from the previous day's journey—an hour flight from Quito, a two-hour car ride to the river, and then another two-hour canoe ride to the lodge.
"What will you do all day?" Luis asks, staring out at the sheets of rain surrounding the lodge.
"I'm going to read," I say and then, regretting it immediately after I voice it, add, "I have a book I'm really into, a really good book about the Amazon."
Luis looks at me with an expression that is equal parts perplexed and pitying.
"I know," I say. "I can be very…what is the word in Spanish for people like me?"
"Prefiero no decirla," I'd rather not say, Luis responds, and this time we laugh together.
The next morning, I douse myself with what has become my daily rainforest tincture—a sticky, pungent mix of citronella spray and sunscreen. Outside, I step into the knee-high rubber boots the lodge provided and which Luis suggested we store upside down to keep out curious creatures. I step off the raised wooden boardwalk that links the lodge's rooms and into the mud itself, as thick as quicksand and so deep it reaches up to the edge of my boots. I join Luis and the rest of the travelers, and together we set off into the dark jungle, the canopy too dense to allow in any more than the slimmest rays of sunlight.
"Please don't touch anything around you," Luis says. "When I see something dangerous, I'll yell it out."
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