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Goose Macaw Chase, Urubamba River, Peru (Part 1)
Dropped off at the riverside near Timpia, knowing only that I had to find the jefe of the village and get permission to see the macaws, I headed down a muddy path that led back, back, back. The farther I got from the water, the more apprehensive I became. Finally I came to a long row of small houses, with a wide marshy field in front, then another row of houses.
Faces turned and gawked at me as I squished past them in the mud. I imagined it wasn’t every day that a soaking wet gringa with a huge backpack wandered into their yard. I asked a few people about the jefe and they told me which house was his. They weren’t overtly rude, but they weren’t exactly what I would call friendly.
The man to whom they directed me was a bit more receptive. He was Tomas, the vice-jefe, and he took me to see the main jefe, Felipe, who lived at the very end of the long row of houses. Neither of them had bones in their noses or any evidence of human sacrifice in their homes: both were pleasant, as were their wives, and their kids were cute. They wore normal clothes and wellingtons, as did most people in this village. For good reason, I thought ruefully as I looked down at my mud-caked shoes and jeans.
I asked Felipe about the macaws and he studied the sky. “There’s been too much rain today. They don’t come when it’s raining,” he said. “And it’s too late. Come back tomorrow, meet me in my office around seven. If conditions are right we can get you a guide.”
If conditions are right. I didn’t press, but thanked him and walked back to the path leading to the boat dock. Tomas accompanied me. “Where are you staying tonight?” he asked, and I told him about the hospedaje at Sabadi. “I think that might be closed,” he said, “but you have a tent, right?” I told him I didn’t, and he gave me a funny look. I know, dude. Bad planning. He was probably used to well-prepared, well-funded avian researchers and considered me the world’s most terrible scientist.
As I waited for a cargo boat to come along and take me downriver, I chatted with the woman who worked at the boat dock booth. She was 31, a widow with three kids. “Your husband died so young,” I observed. “I’m really sorry. Was he sick?”
“No,” she said, indicating the rushing water before us with a tilt of her chin. “The river took him.”
I studied her prematurely lined face. Despite its simplicity, this was a hard life here.
I waited an hour, and finally saw a guy pull up in his own boat. A private boat! When he walked up the riverbank, I asked if he could jet me down the river, to the hospedaje at Sabadi.
“Esta cerrado,” he told me. “Los dueños están de vacaciones.” Tomas had been correct: the place was closed. I felt my heart sink and considered my options, which seemed to be: sleep outside and hope for no rain, which seemed naive; or sleep in the fetal position in the boat dock booth. But then the guy told me about a little guest house back in the village … if I asked permission from the jefe, maybe I could stay there for the night.
Does anything go down around here without that dude’s permission? Another trip back up the long path, back to the houses and the people swiveling and staring, back to Felipe’s house, where his wife told me he wasn’t there — he was in his office. Which was at the other end of the village. Of course.
I was still soaked, and sloshed through the mud thinking the clock was ticking on my ability to stay in these wet clothes and shoes for much longer without losing my mind. If Felipe said no to the guest house, I would crash the boat dock booth and that was that.
I passed Tomas’ house and when I saw him, I told him he was right: the hospedaje was closed after all. He told me I could stay in the guest house, and walked me there. It was a tiny cabin, one room really, with a small porch and an outhouse and outdoor sink. But that was great by me: I just wanted to change my clothes and crash. The sun was sinking fast and Tomas showed me the room: empty except for two cots with thin mattresses. He grabbed a broom and swept a couple of wrappers and dust bunnies hurriedly out the door, pulled a thick wool blanket over one of the mattresses, switched on an overhead light (I hadn’t expected that) and declared me all set up for the night.
As I stood outside washing up and brushing my teeth, a loud crackling noise startled me: it was an ancient-sounding PA system and a man’s voice reading announcements. I could see a large building across the field and a speaker on top of a tall pole: this must be Felipe and that was probably his office. It all seemed to me more like a military camp than a typical community.
I lay on the mattress on top of my sleeping bag — it was way too hot to get inside — and played Angry Birds on my iPad. It was only 8 p.m., but I was exhausted and kept dozing off in mid-game, flinging birds in all directions. As I got up to switch off the light, I noticed a few gaps in the walls and floor, and spent a few minutes stuffing my wet clothes into them. Didn’t want to be surprised by spiders in the night. I flicked off the light and lay back down, nodding off almost immediately.
A scratching noise woke me before long, and I looked at the window where it came from. Crawling along the screen, in silhouette from the light of a neighbor’s house, was a big rat.
I gave a sharp inhale and sat up, noting he was outside and glad I had heavy screens keeping him there. I didn’t find it easy to fall back asleep, though, and a few minutes later, as I lay on my sleeping bag trying to relax enough to doze off again, movement caught my eye. In the feeble light I saw the rat again, on the windowsill … then he darted down the sill and along a shelf. Inside the room.
“Oh, hell no.” I jumped out of bed, ran to flick on the light switch, and grabbed the broom that Tomas had used. Where had he gone? Something thumped overhead and I looked up to see a long gray tail disappear into a gap in the ceiling slats. Then I heard scuttling and squealing above me, in the space between the ceiling and roof. The rat had friends, and they all lived right over my head.
I have had my sleep rudely disrupted by jungle rats before, in Laos — so one would think this situation was no big deal. But that incident had less of a desensitizing effect on me, and more of a traumatizing one. I couldn’t sleep with rats around, and I knew they’d be curious about the new smells I’d brought. There was nowhere to go except the porch, and rats were out there too. At least in here I was off the ground and protected from the rain. A quick appraisal of the situation revealed several holes in the ceiling and no way to plug them.
The rats had appeared only after I’d shut off the light. So I kept it on, and that worked — for a couple hours. Then the light turned off and there in the darkness, I realized this village had electricity available during certain hours only. All I could do now was burrow deep into my sleeping bag, and sleep with the broom. A few times I heard rats scuttling around, and I hollered obscenities at them which (I told myself) scared them into retreat. A couple times I banged the broom against the wall or floor, but mostly I stayed enclosed. Until I heard the unmistakeable sound of something rustling the heavy plastic bag full of my toiletries. I popped out of my sweaty sleeping bag and flicked my iPad cover open. Its screen illuminated a rat on the shelf opposite me, his eyes glowing in the light. That one scurried off. I turned the light to my toiletries bag — no rat there — but he was probably inside the bag.
It was a lululemon athletica shopping bag, imprinted with New Agey feel-good platitudes such as, “The conscious brain can only hold one thought at a time. Choose a positive thought!” As I stood whacking the bag with a broom handle to flush out the rat, I vaguely wondered whether the lululemon people ever imagined their bag in this type of situation, or whether they had a relaxation mantra strong enough to release my future angst over this. I didn’t see the rat scuttle away, and feared I had killed him, rather than just scare him out of the bag and away from me. I worried about my hair and skin products tainted with dead-rat germs, imagining a fat gray body cooling and stiffening in a fragrant grave of Clarins and Kiehl’s. When I finally fell back into a fitful sleep, I dreamed I found three big, dazed, vengeful rats in the lululemon bag the next day.
But the following morning, there was no rat in the bag, just a broken bottle of moisturizer. To my surprise, the rats had not chewed through my food bag that held fruit, granola bars, and chocolate. Stupid rodents. I got dressed and washed up at the outside sink, and headed off to find Felipe.
But he didn’t have anything good to tell me. Pointing at big dark storm clouds to the north, where the cliffs were, he said there was no chance the macaws would be there. “They don’t go there when it rains,” he explained. I would’ve thought the rain would make the clay all nice and chewy for them, but then again, my logic had failed me for pretty much this entire trip. “Can you stay a few days?” he asked. “Three, four days from now, maybe it won’t be so rainy; maybe they’ll be there.”
I didn’t have enough supplies for a few more days, and couldn’t even consider spending another night in Rat Cabin. I thanked him for all his help and left the village, stopping by Tomas’ house to thank him too. “Come back in May!” he said brightly. “It won’t be so rainy then.”
A two-hour boat trip followed, this time through no rain, so I could get some better shots of the waterfalls along the river.
Then, a two-hour ride to Ivochote over the muddy mountain road on the back of a motorbike, and a ten-hour bus journey (also on the muddy road) brought me back to Quillabamba. It gave me a lot of time for thinking, and during that time I reconsidered my stance on tour groups. I will admit, they are a good idea in certain situations. As is a tent, and better rain gear, and maybe rat repellant. I have to find out if that exists. If not, I could invent it and cover the box with quotes like “Stay positive, breathe deeply, and avoid rats!” and make a fortune.