The jungle seems to know no geometry. Strange for a place stretched between the sun’s equatorial arch and soil that’s never dry. But the best conditions for life occasion the most points of conflict, thus the most points of diversion until, after countless generations, you have this inextricable tangle of utter difference. 600 species of tree in a hectare. The general thrust is endlessly upward, but there are countless ways of getting there.
To virgin eyes like mine the jungle’s spaciousness wants always to collapse into flatness. I cannot long sustain the difference. I can’t differentiate like our guide does the tree from the rarity that can’t be thence flashing to the “is” of the animal. The only true kind of sameness—a being’s sameness with itself—depends on its difference from all else. It emerges as sameness from the difference. But for me, a neophyte to difference as ubiquitous as the jungle’s, even this “with itself” has difficulty enduring. The eyes can’t rest—can’t hold beings securely—and eventually they give way: an endless mélange; an abstract painting.
As we glide downstream I recede deeper into thought: This indigina named Guido at the head of my boat, going forth in the opposite direction from my stream of consciousness (pointing his finger, calling out names of invisible creatures) must know far more about the idea of a tree than Plato did—of what is a tree and what is not.
My sight, like the storied sight of yet another Francisco: Francisco de Orellana. He named this place El Amazonas by mistake. You see, the eyes of most are inclined to look for what shines forth, and see in close conformity with what they expect to see beforehand. Falling within this rule, de Orellana and his troop of conquistadors came to the jungle looking for El Dorado: the source of what shines forth in all obviousness. And they expected to see the Amazons along the way, so when they felt the whir of arrows and strange weaponry, and caught glimpses of longhaired ghosts behind arboles and lilianas, they saw what they expected: Amazonas.
But to be an explorer in the jungle in the essential sense is not to ex-pect. It’s simply to spect: to look out for what is happening. That’s the value of jungle. Even the natives, for whom the jungle must largely ossify into a latticework of signs which support their lives, must be gripped by the profound flux of the place—its indeterminate difference. Before Orellana misnamed the river Amazon, the natives called it Maranón, “Sea or River.”
To “truly ex-plore”. As the phrase suggests, the calling out of beings from the chaos that underlies them is the primordial demand of life. I do not fully hear a noise or see a sight. Things come formed into the scope of Being as beings: a woman’s laughter, a motorbike, a cup. And even in the jungle, where life everywhere impinges upon life and ends are hard to differentiate, we are this trying to differentiate. We vivisect and taxonomize the ever unparalleled present. But so long as our multifarious limits and definitions, macabre echoes of what’s past, are made to play in the moment like deftly dancing, singing skeletons, that’s what I call true exploration. And that´s as lush as life gets.
But the woman in front of me in our canoe had what appeared to be a different technique. Every twenty seconds or so, she took a photo of a green something. – Now, I’m not a Buddhist: I believe high peaks of joy are defined by deep abysses of suffering, and I don´t wan´t to negate these both with a middle way. But my values aside, this day upon the river I wished a Bodhisatva was our guide, for more than from the names of birds and butterflies, the woman in front of me could´ve benefited from a talk about grasping. My stance on grasping: It should be done ever so selectively and through careful digestion. Otherwise one fills oneself up with nonsense. With a gesture bespeaking this stance I pulled off my hood and fell in love with the rainy mist on my face. Every now and then I followed a blue morpho with my tired eyes — the most brilliant of butterflies, and (as blessed fate would have it) also the most graceful.
Then, coming around a bend I don’t fully see what I see. That is, what’s seen lingers for a long time in the surreal, a bit like the state of slowly waking from a dream, but less dramatic and more protracted: Men with black masks. One holds a sort of machine gun. They signal us ashore. There are three of them in the landed boat in front us. The two without guns have grenades. One dangles a grenade by its pin. The other holds his high for us to see. I’m frightened for a little while. This would be an incredible way to die, like a Catholic pilgrim being shot as he walks into St. Peter’s for the first time. But I still have much to do.
Surprisingly though, my fear was gone by the time we reached shore. The jungle: a lifelong dream come true: a strange induction and strange peace of mind. People were already in the little clearing the masked men led us to. One of these captives, a teenage boy, had been crying. Emotions are strange: a tri-alogue between the senses, physiology, and thought. When it comes to fear, certain paths of thought are masterful at reining in emotion’s chariot, but in so doing I need to remind myself not to get myself killed. When it comes to love, I´ve felt fitfully compelled at times toward the opposite of reining myself in, but only sporadically. Here too the chief concern is perhaps to keep from getting myself killed.
Strangely, looking at the wan and tensed expressions around me, I thought of my old job. Specifically, my favorite pastime: watching a child hurt himself in a padded room, for the sake of hurting himself but also so I’d have to stop him so he could try to hurt me before I could stop him, trying to hurt him as little as possible in stopping him. How much more tranquil, more sensible, was this kid (I could tell by his stature) with his automatic pistol, and these other boys with grenades, as if war was about to break out amidst the jungle stillness and the cicadas.
The “photographer” was crying about having lost her camera. She whined to our guide to ask for her memory card back, but he shook his head almost imperceptibly, scared to even look at the robbers. The Chilean man beside me released an emphatically deep breath now and then. He held out his hand to me and his eyes were wide. I held it, smiled, nodded at him and thought: this is nice. I thought of what my mom told me about our infamous plane ride, weaving our way through a tornado icicled sky—how strange and terrible it was that as the plane careened and dove and reared up again, these people were all prepared to die looking straight ahead, without prayer, without a word to each other. She was going to die on a plane full of zombies, the only noises amidst their silence being her two sons: my brother, who was just a baby, screaming and crying, and me, four years old, screaming and laughing with glee. I still remember how fun that flight was for me, and I thought of it as I held the Chilean’s hand for a few seconds: a very nice gesture, and very Latin.
The details of the robbery are rather boring. Just as in life more generally, I behaved with enough recalcitrance and flippancy so that they knew I wasn’t very afraid of the gavel, but not enough to get into much trouble. When we were directed back into our canoes, whose motors they’d pulled the fuel lines from, I asked old man Robin Hood, the robbers’ leader, for my notebook and medicine the way I´d ask a smartly dressed man for the time. I wanted these things back of course, but I also wanted him to hear there was no fear or contempt in my voice. He simply gestured to one of the canoes.
After the robbers sped away upriver I took off my sandals and went with a couple guides to pick around in the soft clay for things left scattered about: a few cans of tuna, an old chef´s knife stuck in a fig tree. When the motors were repaired I got in a canoe that went upriver to recover the boat the robbers had almost certainly ditched to escape through the woods. Meanwhile, the canoe carrying my lodge-mates and our things the robbers had left (and courteously repacked for us), continued downriver to the lodges, so when we arrived upriver to the launching point I had nothing to do but wait shoeless in the sun.
I walked around smiling and shrugging at the locals, then sat beneath a tree full of strange birds with teardrop shaped nests and long tails. They warped out fantastically bent notes and whinnying peals that died away like a mockingbird´s warble. Their calls sounded impossible, as if sung through a medium slightly more viscous than air — like little dinosaurs must´ve sounded, I imagined.
Meanwhile my fellow travelers accounted for things and tried to get a ride back west. I was the only one who wanted to return to the jungle. The others had been afraid, which was understandable, but it was surprising that none of them had even gotten a steady look at the robbers. They all had accounts of what took place, but they were all divergent from each others´ speculations and the truth: Five robbers, six, or four; two guns or four. The only thing they were in accord about was making a police report and then leaving the area altogether.
Bored of their talk, I went and sat beside a cacoa bush and watched butterflies alight and wing away. My favorite Farside comic pictures an entomologist. He´s holding a butterfly net and a butterfly between his thumb and forefinger and saying: “A wonderful specimen. A symbol of innocence and the fragile beauty of life … Hand me the jar of ether.”—Funny, right? But if the butterfly is here and now, don´t we almost always have our jars of ether at the ready beforehand? A butterfly wants to be seen. It takes captive our eye: winged copulant whose first organ is his eye. But in everyday matters (which matter most) we usually tire of what´s happening, or else are afraid to see, and account for the present without having had the energy or courage to actually look at it. We´re on the bus back west without having looked at what went on in the jungle, bereft of something more important than money or a camera.
As I said though, I´m not a Buddhist. It seems to me that placing the infinite, indescribable moment as the end and not the beginning of something new is just another form of tiredness: the symptom of a tired society — life tired of itself. My life is for specting, true ex-ploration, first because I´m happy with life and life depends upon meaning. It needs the creation of truth—needs signs, symbols, and beings. And second, because human life needs primordially new meaning now and then — new interpretations of Being and beings as such.
To turn to this butterfly and cocoa fruit, and not leave them with a word, but instead let the moment, this free space in which beings rise to our attention, give rise to something new — is poetry. But even Descartes, Newton and Einstein created their truths upon a primordial poetic ground. Only, their inventions were above all methods of seeing that have proven so powerful in man´s reorganization of nature that they´ve become the prefigured plans and blueprints for us all —so much so that they strike us now as Truth itself — as explanation rather than interpretation. And whether we´re individually conscious of it or not, on the peripheries and in the center of mankind, the technological blueprint, roadmap, and frame which constructs itself through scientists´ universal methods of interpretation, is governing us. It is our way of Being — our jar of ether.
And while the power of this way is already beginning to question and repent itself, it´s still little understood. The nature of truth, our age´s truth especially, needs to be revealed. We need to be reminded of what we are, invoked again into being winged copulants whose first organs are our eyes. We need to make a turn, and that means learn to see not only truth at the essential ground of things, but also art and our own art´s potential. We need to learn to see poetically again. Otherwise we won´t be prepared for the leap into the abyss we all approach. “To be a true explorer—to help build the chrysalis that brings about this change.” It was with this thought that I sat shoeless in the sun, feeling utterly possessed, secure, and free. And this is as rich as life gets.
We waited till late in the afternoon (for an army escort that never materialized) to return to the jungle. But I wasn´t destined to reach my intended destination that day. Not long after starting again we met my lodge-mates coming upriver in the opposite direction. They´d put what they thought was mine in a garbage bag: several sets of clothes, no shoes (curiously my sandals had gone missing), and the notebook and medicine which old man Robin Hood had indeed been pointing to. I was happy. I wasn´t looking forward to the two hour ride back to the once jungle, now petroleum town called Lago Agrio, “Sour Lake,” to find a place to stay the night. But I was looking forward to coming back here in the morning, and it turned out that an older lady named Cornelia wanted to return as well.
A manager of our lodge accompanied us back to town and got us rooms in a hotel. The photographer, who cried and then became angry after the robbery, demanded two rooms for her and her boyfriend for some reason. And when our lodge owner arrived to make sure we were alright, she tore into him brutally. She demanded trips back to Machu Pichu, back to the Galapagos and more to make up for her lost memory card and other possessions. She yelled at him, “How are you going to get back my memories?” and threatened to ruin him if he didn´t fully compensate her for her losses. It´s a terrible thing to watch fear and grief turn to resentment and spite in a person, especially when these after-affects slowly dull into greed. — I left, but not before hearing the two Chilean men who´d been quiet till then join in the assault, probably at hearing the young woman bluster about lawyers and connections in American media. That night I found an ATM. The next morning I got up early, bought shoes and a bag for my things, and returned to the forest.
Perhaps it´s better that my stay in the jungle was bookended by so much that demands this narrative´s attention, because presently I don´t have time to describe my stay there in a way that does it justice. Soon after I arrived my allergies departed, as did my digestive problems (which had been worsening for a week), and my first night there I had the happiest dreams I can remember having. And as for what I saw in the jungle, an incomplete list will have to suffice: frogs, lizards, fish, plenteous birds, among them toucans, a quetzal bird, and macaws, a marvelous array of insects, caimans, three anacondas, and most special for me, seven of the region´s ten species of monkeys. And I spotted the last two species of monkey before our guide called out their presence to us. In a little village I even got to play with a wooly monkey they were raising for food. And I got to hold a half-tame pigmy marmoset, the world´s smallest monkey, in the palm of my hand.
But my central moment came on the last evening of the trip at lago grande, a shallow lake that´s home to mature anacondas and caimans, peregrine pink dolphins and manatees, plentiful piranhas, and the rare arapaima, the Amazon´s largest fish. The strange, prehistoric faces of these last (along with those of the aptly named alligator gar) always gave me the willies as a little boy as I stood before their tank at the aquarium in San Francisco.
We´d already seen a few arapaima surface before we reached a place on the lake that lay directly upon the equator. Then Neiser, our guide, owner of our Guacamayo lodge, smiled at us and asked if we wanted to go for a swim. No one else did, but nature books and programs were my curiosity´s chief sustenance as a kid — a food I was constantly hungry for — so I knew it was perfectly safe to swim here. I jumped in and swam out a bit, went down and came up, floated on my back and closed my eyes. I wanted the monsters — benevolent, ugly, auspicious and terrible — to all be swimming round beneath me while floated, peaceful in the knowledge that all is well.
The sun is setting in the west. In the east a thunderstorm is gathering. Ecuadorians call the Amazon the orient, but it seems to me it´s not only origin, but frontier as well. Beyond petroleum towns, beyond roads, unfathomably older than these: primordial. The place from which beings ever emerge and are pulled strivingly back into by nothing but life. Eternal wellspring of truth: jungle, sea or river, Maranon, the Amazon.
This was my central moment. But as I already touched upon, our disparate, personal centers notwithstanding, The Center is the same. The jungle is a resource, saved from petroleum fields and dams by tourism industry revenue. And in Quito, the capital, our little incident in the forest had created a stir. Neiser, who´d been a guide in the Cuyabena reserve for fifteen years, knew how devastating a truly violent incident would be for his livelihood and the forest, so after the robbery he´d called the media and the rainforest alliance to draw attention to the problem.
The story grew to the point that the president felt obliged to respond, so all the victims (minus Cornelia and I) were brought to the palace for lunch with him, followed by a press conference. So it was that the “photographer,” who as it turns out was actually a reporter (of all things) in the States, got just the opportunity she was looking for. She distorted truths and flatly lied about Neiser´s conduct following the incident, in front of the press, the minister of tourism, and the president, so Neiser´s license was revoked and his lodge was closed by presidential decree.
This last fact was the news Neiser greeted us with before dinner our last night in the jungle. He asked for our help, for honest testimonials about our experience, and many were forthcoming, but I couldn´t see how these would help. When we got back to the launching point the next afternoon we were greeted by a girl, Anita, from the tourism ministry. She asked Cornelia and me if we wanted to go to the Galapagos. We´d already heard rumors that the other victims were touring the Galapagos. Cornelia had whispered gleefully to me about it a few times, so of course she jumped at the opportunity now. I told Anita I could go after a meeting I had to attend on Monday, in three days, to speak on behalf of Neiser. She put me on the phone with Enrique, who told me of course — that I could stay in Hotel Quito however long I wanted, and could leave for the Galapagos when I was ready.
On the van ride back to Lago Agrio though, I began to feel confused. For this lady beside me, a free trip takes priority over the whole livelihood of Neiser, who to all appearances is a man of rare intelligence, character, and strength — and a man with a family. How can she think this way? And as for myself, what was this trip redemption for? Was there anything unjust that needed to be redeemed here?
Standing up for what we feel is right is necessary, but only because it leads to justice, which only finally comes to each of us, individually, when we affirm the world as it is. My trip to the Amazon reminded me of this. Not one thing I saw there undermined this interpretation. So how could I now expect others (who themselves are perhaps struggling to affirm their own worlds) to redeem mine? The longer I sat around the four star hotel the government set me up in, the more these thoughts took hold of me, until I called Enrique and told him I didn´t want the trip and would be checking out of there the next day.
I got to speak with the minister of tourism in person. And after a few days in Quito I felt we´d done all we could. Cornelia and I had written testimonies. Neiser, Guido, and I put some footwork in and they filed an official report to the ministry. I´d write more if Neiser and his friends needed it, but things seemed promising. And I told myself that if news came that the lodge was reopened, I would feel happy every time I reminisced of this whole experience. And the news did soon come, and Neiser was kind enough to say I can come back to Cuyabena anytime, for free, for as long as I want. And I was happy each time, and am — and yet, well, life is complicated.
When I tried to return to writing my play, it was just a blank. It was like I´d forgotten everything, and it still is. And when this happens sometimes I feel like I´m stranded on a rock out at sea, and the tide will soon sweep me away, and I don´t know if I´ll manage to swim to shore. Correction: when I´m healthy I think I´ll make it, but my digestion, which improved briefly in the jungle, soon went back into steady decline. And the more it declines the more I come to doubt. And rightly so; my independence depends upon it.
The sad truth of it is, it was in this anxious state that I left Quito for a remote lodge in a cloud forest. And then the worst happened. I was moving my bags from my taxi to the curb at the bus station, stupidly left a bag in the street for a moment, and the woman behind my taxi ran over it. She almost succeeded in monster trucking the thing as I waved both hands in a gesture of “stop!” After she´d put it in reverse and I managed to dislodge the bag from her wheel well, remarkably everything looked in relatively good shape. It wasn´t till that night when I sat down to write, alone in my cabin in the cloud forest, that I discovered my computer was broken. The bulk of two months of writing were likely destroyed, and my health felt precarious.
I turned on the shower, and when it was hot I got in and sat down. I thought about my own experience of grief. When I watched Simon, my close childhood friend and next-door neighbor, slowly die of a brain tumor, why had it been so easy? How at the age of six had I already grown so numb? It´s not as if I harbored illusions of him in heaven. I´d already told my mother I didn´t believe in God. I remember being little, walking around alone in my backyard, trying to think of the nothing of death, but my little mind couldn´t grasp the idea of non-Being, so I imagined death as thought in utter darkness forever, and that was frightening.
I sat in the shower with my eyes closed and felt completely incapable of getting out of the dark. With each step I take into the deep past and future and primordial present, I take it because I feel it must be taken, and take it knowing I´ll have to account for the step. But as time goes on, I only get further along, and further away from those I would love. I do love, but can’t love so deeply, because I´m alone. Do I need to be always? Do I press on and try to bridge this distance in writing, all alone? Will my strength persevere through lifelong loneliness? And conversely, am I capable of the love of lasting partnership? I don´t know. A distance of nothing at all, an immediacy, can feel like a million miles if one is afraid.
Things have improved a little since that night. I took back the reins, so to speak. The following day the man I was supposed to do construction for had me “volunteering” for ten hours at a cost to me of forty dollars a day, so I told him I was leaving the next morning. I rode on buses for eighteen hours here to Cuenca. And when carnival ended I recovered the data from my computer (including the bulk of this entry). I´m even feeling better physically after humbling myself like a hypersensitive little hermit and fasting for a day. But as for the world, I conclude it is a jungle, and perhaps it’s best it remains that way.