Madre De Dios

Monday, May 9, 2011

The rain sounded different to Cusco rain. Fatter, wetter somehow, the decadent splatter of water on leaf. The drugs had me pinned between an exhausted indifference to whatever may have been crawling through the holes in walls and window screens, and a lurid imagining of too-many-legged tarantulas seeking escape from the rain under the worn mattress of my bed.

I coughed, and a jagged spear of lightning made the shadows jump alarmingly. The others weren’t back yet.

The gentle hum of conversation from the next room sputtered and died, and Lea came in yawning. “I’m sure they’re fine,” she told me, as thunder rumbled and the rain intensified. “They’ve stopped off at a community along the river, and they’re drinking beer with beautiful Amazon women as we speak.”

I nodded, coughed again, and the drugs finally took hold and pulled me down into a deep sleep.

5 a.m., Two Days Earlier

It was the first time in Peru I’d known a bus to leave right on time, a startlingly efficient loading of passengers and cargo, and then we were sailing off smoothly in the Cusco pre-dawn. It seemed a wonderful sign.
We slept most of the way, huddled together in twos against the bitter cold, opening eyes occasionally to the jagged, green and brown mountains of the Peruvian Andes, the jarring political slogans plastered across adobe houses.

At ten we paused in Paucartambo, stumbled off the bus. “Lechón!” Willy declared, and we marched to the market to feast on fried suckling pig, freshly squeezed orange juice and soft round Andean bread.

“You’re not hungry?” I asked Daniel, our guide, who was leaning against the bus smoking a cigarette when we returned.

“No, no,” he told me. “When I’m on a trip, I don’t eat at all. Thinking too much, you know.” He tapped forefinger to temple several times, and turned away from me.

7 p.m., That Same Day

I was cranky by now, complaining that Daniel was treating me like a hysterical woman. I smoked a cigarette furtively out of the bus window, looked into dark rainforest, longed to stretch my legs, thought wistfully of our lechón breakfast. I’d had the nerve to question the continually changing story about where we were going, how we were getting there, and what time we were arriving; now I seemed to be on Daniel’s black list.

But at last we were there, piling off the bus in the dark, shouldering backpacks and exchanging sandals for rubber boots. The bus disappeared into the jungle darkness, and we milled around by a large pile of food, second-hand clothes to give to the local children, and machetes, unsure what the next step was. Daniel herded us all down the road, and we wandered through mud to reach a raised, roofed platform, a few men and women watching a dramatically scored telenovela.

The head of the community stood, greeted us, and expressed total surprise over our presence.

Daniel, it seemed, had not bothered to call ahead.

Lunchtime, Next Day

I was shivering uncontrollably in bed, layers of other people’s jackets on top of me, the unmistakable menthol reek of Vicks rising from my chest. I coughed, and coughed, and longed for sleep.

A knock on the door, and Brendan stuck his head round. “Drink this, it’ll stop your cough.”

I took a sip of tea, roused myself, walked into the next room where a half-drunk bottle of rum sat on the table, poured a hefty dose into my mug.

“Great mix with the sleeping pill we gave you,” Joel observed from the corner.

“And the paracetamol,” I reminded him. “I don’t care. All I want is to sleep. Even if I never wake up.”

And I curled up under my pile of mismatched clothing once again.

That Morning

At 5 a.m. I’d been a little sniffly, a little stiff and sore and fatigued, but nothing serious. Daniel woke us all up, and we piled into boats, sped down the Madre de Dios River, wind whipping hair back from faces, the throbbing roov-roov of the outboard motor smashed into a million jagged pieces and hurled among the trees in an eerie, alien echo.

The trees. An indescribable impressionist painting of a million yellows and greens. Our driver laconic in a red T-shirt, barely glancing at the wonders we were passing, attention firmly on the river. I leant back with the wind, closed my eyes, took a deep breath. Resisted the temptation to scream my euphoria into the rushing air.

3 p.m., That Afternoon

“Cam, ¿estás mal?” Daniel had remembered my existence, it seemed, and his responsibilities as guide.

I nodded, sat up groggily. I hadn’t managed to fall asleep, and felt drugged, heavy and stupid. He opened the door further, motioning for a small, middle-aged indigenous woman in a pink T-shirt that said “Butterfly Woman Estile Girl” to come in.

Ella es Vicky. She’s here to help you,” he told me, and disappeared.

Vicky smiled, lit a cigarette, indicated for me to sit up straight. She blew smoke forcefully over my feet, three times, my clasped hands, three times, and my forehead, three times.

“Put this under your pillow when you sleep tonight,” she told me, handing me the unfinished, hand-rolled cigarette. “And later, I’ll give you a jarabe to drink. You’ll be better by tomorrow.”

I thanked her, and she was gone. I gratefully lay my head down again, but Daniel was back.

Ya nos vamos,” he told me.

“¿Ahora? ¿No me puedo quedar aquí? Daniel, no me siento bien.”

But it was no good. Apparently I had no choice but to head with the others to our next village. I stumbled through a haze of rum and paracetamol and sleeping pills, gratefully surrendering my backpack to Mo, and made it to the dock.

4 p.m.

“I don’t think they should be putting that raft together with nails, should they?”

6 p.m.

We, the half of the group that had chosen boat instead of balsa, arrived to an abandoned port in twilight.

“Didn’t Daniel tell you he’d radioed to let them know we were coming?”



No sé.

Willy went off to find someone, anyone that knew where we were supposed to be; I collapsed on a pile of wood waiting to be collected by the madereros. We were surrounded by everybody’s belongings, and I thought about the raft in the dark on that great big river. The humidity had gone out of the air, and in the rapidly-fading light the jungle seemed vaster than ever.

Vamos muchachos!” Willy had found two kids and their father who would guide us to the president’s home, to see if we’d be allowed to stay the night.

The walk cut through heavy jungle, across a stony, dry riverbed and up through patches of cleared farmland. One foot in front of the other, no light, the drugs rising up and stifling me as I trudged on and on and longed for it to end. I had my pack, and Mo’s, and right then I hated him as he drifted downriver on the raft.

In the riverbank I lay down for a moment, closed my eyes and with no trace of irony told the others to go on, I just needed to sleep. They let me rest for a moment, rocks cool and refreshing on my feverish, sweaty back, Vicky’s jarabe a comforting warmth in my stomach. I gathered myself, and we walked on into the night.

We walked for an hour. The president was not expecting us. We were deposited in a lodge, and fed, and I was, at last, horizontal. The rain began, and I thought again of the raft in the dark on that great big river.

The Following Morning

The rain had eased into a gentle drizzle, and the sun shone through mosquito wire curtains. I lay in bed, testing lungs dry and weak with coughing, drifting in and out of sleep. No energy to think about lost friends, or the next step.

Until I hear Tess’ voice.

Eyes spring open, and I sit up. Leander too, and we stare at each other.

“They’re back!”

And she’s out of bed and out of the room, and I can’t quite make it but crawl to the edge of the bed, eyes fixed on the open front door of the lodge. They file in, one by one, hug us, and ask about beer.

A Week Prior

It was the first time we’d all got together as a group – the soon-to-be jungle adventurers. It was getting late, and the Australian boys already well into their umpteenth beers of the evening when Daniel finally arrived for our briefing.

“Translate for me, OK?”

I nodded, and he launched into an introduction about the jungle, the places we’d be going, the things we’d be doing. He speaks quickly and with few pauses, and I have to keep jumping in to stop him, to try and get the English translation in edgewise.

Brendan and Joel are a little drunk and slightly distracted, galloping off on wild tangents about hunting and boars and cracking good-natured jokes, and I struggle to keep the bilingual meeting on track. Daniel doesn’t seem too concerned.

“Anyway guys, basically my only job is to get you in and out safe and sound. We’re gonna have a great time.”

By Camden Luxford


About the Author

Camden Luxford lives for long, uncomfortable journeys and dreams of the Trans-Siberian Railway. From hitchhiking in Europe and traveling through Asia by bus and boat, she has found herself in the Peruvian Andes, where she relishes the colors of the festivals, the warmth of the people and the hearty flavors of the soups.

When she’s not exploring her new home, she’s studying politics by distance or writing for her blog,, or as a regular contributor to Camden’s writing has also appeared in the TheExpeditioner’s Guide to the World.

[Cusco/Flickr ;Market Ladies by Kaitlyn Rose/Flickr; Boat on the Madre de Dios River/Flickr]

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