Little Grass Shack in Amazonia

The ACTS field station in Loreto Province, north of Iquitos waaaay out there.
The ACTS field station in Loreto Province, north of Iquitos waaaay out there.

I’m nursing a cold I caught from someone who will remain nameless (“you didn’t catch my cold, you caught the worldz cold”) and after 48 hours of two boat rides, four motocars, one taxi, five planes and one whole night sleepwalking through the Lima airport, who wouldn’t get a cold? I’ve just about finished my Amazon-hammock read: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, a vast and complex novel with profuse interwoven characters, flowering subplots and looping vines of details. It is filled with footnotes which themselves have footnotes. It’s the perfect metaphor for the infinite world of Amazonia.

A comfortable reading room, no?
The Science Team catches up on their reading.

Our home away from home was remarkably comfortable- a station carved out of the jungle; clean, well maintained and run, staffed by local workers who kept the forest at bay with machetes, kerosene (dabbed on the lashings holding the buildings together against the marauding termites) and brooms. They kept the thatch roof repaired with fresh bundles of dried palm fronds woven tightly together, they carried huge heavy burdens of supplies from the Iquitos boat, including food and drinking water, with only a strip of cloth across the forehead holding the load on their backs. A wonderful cook prepared three good meals a day for us (!), always with fresh fruit and vegetables and delicious river fish, rice and beans. Someone slipped into our rooms every day and made our beds (!) and straightened the mosquito netting and lit the oil lamps for us. Since I know you’re curious, the latrines were clean and decent. They were spacious thatch-roofed bamboo-screened cubicles, open at the top, with hardened clay floors, a wooden box with a genuine toilet seat and lid, an oil lamp lit all night for after hours visits, and no more than a respectable number of living critters in residence, all easily seen and avoided (a huge spider made a good living next to the latrine lamp but stayed put, it’s “wandering spider” name notwithstanding). The showers were similar: thatch-roof hut with wood-lattice floor raised on poles, with a fiberglass basin to stand in while cold tea-colored water poured over you, pumped up directly from the river. That first splash from the showerhead was a screamer.

One of the station's pets, a huge Blue and Yellow Macaw, which talked a lot and occasionally screamed like a little girl.

The station had a solar generator which stored up enough juice to recharge our batteries and run electric lights in the dining hall and the laboratory two hours every evening. The lights went on at nightfall; around 8:30 or so the generator would wind down and putter out. We weren’t left in the dark. There was the lovely and romantic glow of oil lamps throughout the station and the paths were lined with home-made kerosene torches (made from one-quart baby-formula cans, holes punched in the tops and wicks stuck in, pouring out heavy black smoke and tall flames). By lamplight we would talk- reading was out- drink nightcaps, and the Science Team (Mike, Steve and Natalie) would strategize their next day’s actions. Bed-time got to be in the 9 to 9:30 range.

Weighty discussions of science and favorite TV shows.Nightly discussions of science and favorite TV shows.
Bathroom companion, Amazon style.
Bathroom companion, Amazon style.

I regularly got up before 5 to get out and look for birds before breakfast, which was usually scrambled eggs, fried yucca, a roll or pastry, and some fruit juice made fresh from unidentifiable and fabulous fruits. The Science Team would be on their second cup of coffee (we brought down a press pot and four pounds of Peet’s best, and the station provided hot water and canned milk), sitting on the the balcony watching poison arrow frogs crawling up and down the trunk of a nearby forest giant, or seeing what kind of hummingbirds came to the spiral ginger flowers, or listening to the oropendolas displaying in the palm-tree nests overhead. Birds with their own thatched roofs.


Russet-backed Oropendola nest, drawn through a field scope
Russet-backed Oropendola nest, drawn through a field scope
Russet-backed oropendola display, Peru. Drawn through field scope.
Russet-backed oropendola display, Peru. Drawn through field scope.

The station was set just uphill from a meandering stream and there were lovely trails to follow into the forest. We all agreed to keep each other posted of our whereabouts at all times; it’s easy to have a mishap or get lost out there. I carried a compass and left notes of where I was going to be if no one was around to tell in person. We gave names to the various trails so we could locate each other if someone turned up missing for a meal. It was a necessary protocol. And the trails were so inviting…


A peaceful stream, quiet tributary of the Amazon in northern Peru.
A peaceful stream, quiet tributary of the Amazon in northern Peru.

I’ll leave you with this sound file, recorded streamside at one of my favorite spots, where I also made this drawing. Turn up the heat, put on the bugspray, and imagine yourself in this tropical place.

9 thoughts on “Little Grass Shack in Amazonia

  1. zeladoniac says:

    Just hang on, there are more recordings to come- and videos, too! A CD is by golly an excellent idea. Let me talk to my marketing department….

  2. Brian says:

    Wow!- last I heard you were just out the door on your way to Peru. Now I get to see what happened. Great stuff! just started looking and listening. Thank you for doing it all.

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