There were times when I just felt miserable in the jungle and wanted to teleport, if only for a day, back to my home in Pennsylvania and eat a hamburger, sleep in my cozy bed, and drink a beer. The great filmmaker Werner Herzog once described the Amazon as a violent place of misery and chaos.
I don't exactly share the same sentiment but I confess that the Amazon can be quite tough to handle and, at times, it does feel like a violent place with everything trying to bite you, sting you, scratch you, eat you, kill you, or make you sick. Here I provide just a few examples of my more less than favorable experiences in the Amazon.
Let's start with the obvious - the relentless mosquitos. The Yanomami call them "ukushi". Most active at night and were constantly trying to suck my blood. Though the bites were annoying and caused itchiness, they always brought a hovering concern and anxiety over whether each bite was a potential transmission of malaria, or what the Yanomami call, "priisii-priisii".
The mosquito injects, through its saliva, a Plasmodium parasite that migrates to your liver and incubates until its ready to invade your red blood cells, multiply, and cause them to burst. Such an infections leads to dangerously high fevers, uncontrollable shaking, and system wide damage to your organs. (Check out my blog describing when I first contracted malaria)
During the day there were always swarms of gnats, or midges, or flies that the Yanomami call pareto. They bit every exposed part of my skin leaving in me in menacing pain and itchiness. They went after ankles, heels, back, chest, arms, toes, ears, neck, fingers, the webbing in between the fingers. Just everywhere.
Once, I was unlucky enough to fall victim to a pareto that somehow made its way behind my sunglasses and bit me on the periphery of my eyelid leaving me with a swollen and painful eye.
I'll never forget when this one huge black fly was hovering around me like an attack helicopter. It was looking for a way to attach on m body. I vigorously shooed it away and then paid it no mind. Seconds later, it stealthily returned and, without detection, landed on my ankle. It began to ravenously chew through my skin hoping to quickly make a pool of blood to feed on. I violently slapped my ankle hoping to smash it. I missed.
Here's the crazy part...
It didn't fly away. It maintained altitude just above my head and stared at me. I never had such an eerie encounter with a fly. It felt like it was sending me a warning signal, demanding me to submit and give up my blood. It was angry looking. I waved at it but it performed a lateral evasive maneuver remaining within striking distance. The fly was on a serious mission to drink my blood.
Being bitten by bugs is just part of everyday life for the Yanomami. They never become immune to the bites and stings for they are always just as annoyed. But, to a degree, they become inured to the pain. It is the only reality they know. Since the day the were born their skin is a feeding ground for all kinds of insects.
To add to the list there are spiders that can leave you howling in pain. One examples is the tarantula (Avicularia avicularia) which the Yanomami call "ha-ho". They are rather meaty spiders with dark black hairs and seem mean looking.
On night, I was lying in my hammock, covered by a mosquito net, looking up into the starry night sky. Then, I saw this shadow scurry up the side of my net and stopped just above me. I grabbed my flashlight and shined up towards the shadow. That was the first time I encountered a haho. Fortunately, the tarantula was on the other side of the mosquito net so I felt safe. It still made my neck hairs tingle.
At the same time I was very curious and fascinated. As I grabbed my camera I blurted out, "Wow! That is a huge spider!" Then, my mom, immediately jumped out of her hammock, grabbed a piece of burning firewood and darted towards me. I think she recognized the word "spider" and sensed the worry in my voice. The tarantula must have sensed the commotion as danger and quickly jumped on a supporting shabono pole and scurried upward towards the ceiling.
Just as it was about to fall out of reach, mom pinned the spider with the burning end of the firewood, singed it, and killed it. I learned that, while tarantulas are really not all that dangerous, it can crawl on you while you're asleep. If you were unfortunate enough to inadvertently threaten it by rolling around, it will bite you leaving in you a lot of pain.
Good news - spider gone. Bad news - pieces of the burning embers fell on top of my mosquito and burned several holes through it. I didn't have any way to repair then so all night long mosquitos poured. I did not get much sleep that night. I felt absolutely miserable the next morning. Now I know to always bring needle and thread or patches. The mosquito net is one of the most precious pieces of equipment in the jungle. Well, you live and learn. I lived and I learned.
There was another time when I was staying at a mission compound where I had access to a toilet. In the middle of the night, I ambled over to it, half-asleep, to urinate. Seconds later I glance to my right and inches away from my face, was the meanest damn tarantual I had ever seen. I was so scared I jumped back several feet while I was in mid-stream. Let's say I just maid a mess of my self and the bathroom.
Again, they look rather dangerous but their venom is typically less than that of a bee. There are more dangerous spiders that are nocturnal and quite aggressive. The Yanomami call them wariomi. I have seen them and they are much smaller than a tarantula. I hope to capture one on my next trip and take some great pictures. Of course, I'll share them with you when I get back.
Next are the scorpions. The Yanomami call them suhi. It's the little black ones that you need to look out for, namely, the Tityus obscurus, the Amazonian black scorpion. Back in 2013, I had just sat on a piece of firewood when my mom pushed me aside and pointed to a tiny black scorpion just underneath me. I didn't know if was dead or if it was a molt. If mom had been concerned enough to push me then this must have been something dangerous.
Symptoms from this scorpion's sting include fever, nasuea, vomiting, sever pain, hallucinations, muscle twitching, and convulsions. The worst is that it can be fatal. There have been reports of deaths in the tropics due to scorpion stings.
Other creatures are not as fatal but can still cause a world of pain. For example, there are fleas, such as the Tunga penetrans, that burrow underneath your toenail (or other parts of your body) to feed on your blood supply and lay eggs. The Yanomami call them hihu. They start out as tiny speck, hardly visible to the naked eye. After a week or so of gorging on your blood they can grow 20-30 times its size. While not all that dangerous, it can cause debilitating pain and leave you vulnerable to secondary infections.
On the topic of feeding on your blood supply, in the Amazon there are vampire bats that solely subsist on blood. They wait until you are fast asleed to perch on an extremity like your toes. With their razor sharp teeth they easily slice through your skin. Their salive secretes an anesthetic, so you don't feel the pain, and an anticoagulant, so you blood doesn't clot. You continue to bleed freely as the vampire bat laps enough blood until full. As far as I know, there aren't any widespread disease transmitted by the vampire bat. However, knowing that something is drinking your blood while you're dreaming is a scary thought.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention ticks. The Yanomami call them tori or shiheni. Sometimes, I'd find large ticks after walking through the forest. They are pretty easy to spot and remove. However, the little ones can be easily overlooked. If undetected they'll continue to migrate up towards your groin area where it is warm and most, their preferred feeing environment. They can choose to feed on any part of your groin area. And that includes your scrotum. Yep, that happened to me.
I remember having a very miserable day. I was tired and sick. I collapsed in my hammock and fell asleep. Then, in the middle of the night, I woke up with the most intense burning/itching feeling "down there." I grabbed a flashlight and searched all over for what could be biting me. I was expecting some kind of creepy crawler. Upon closer inspection, I noticed two tiny tick on my scrotum and another nearby on the inner side of my thigh. I was furious. I mean, any night when you have tick feeding on your scrotum is a bad night but it had to be THAT night after having a miserable day.
Luckily, I had tweezers in my first aid kit and was able to remove them. In order exact revenge I placed them on a piece of burning embers wishing them a painful death.
On another day during another year, I was walking down the most beautiful creek with breathtaking views. The sun beamed through the trees at an angle that caused the water to glisten and sparkle. The trickles of the current sounded so peaceful as the water meandered around the rocks. Beautiful foliage lined both sides. As if queued by film director a blue morpho butterfly fluttered in front of me. I was in a state of awe and admiration. I was happily taking pictures when all of a sudden I felt an excruciating sting in my right earlobe. I yelped in pain and swapped at my ear. I knew I had been stung by something.
Moments later I was stung again. And again! At that moment I was freaking out. I was being attacked! I almost lost my camera in the water but was able to secure it and run for the hills. I looked back and saw this scary looking black wasp buzzing angrily. After I created enough separation between us, it finally flew away and disappeared. I had been stung many times growing up but I never had been stung by the same wasp multiple times. Wasps have several names in Yanomami. A couple are kopina and shioaye.
Growing up I was always terrified of any insect that crawled, flew, or jumped. I really had a deep fear of bugs. I was even afraid of a ladybug. If I ever discovered one in my room and I immediately ran and got my sister to dispose of it. It was a kind of a joke in the family. When they all heard that I was going to the Amazon for the first time they were all rather concerned for me. I could barely survive in suburbia New Jersey.
I'm happy to say that I no longer have a fear of bugs. I think the Amazon thrusted me into so many encounters and exposure with bugs that I've become somewhat used to them and no longer harbor a deep anxiety. I've grown to respect them. Now, that doesn't mean they've become any less annoying. I still prefer to keep my blood to myself but I also am fully aware that my blood is a source of nutrition for many species in the Amazon.
I can't say I completely disagree with Herzog. The Amazon does seem violent, scary, and chaotic. The fact that the Yanomami people have evolved and adapted to live so harmoniously with their environment and mastered the jungle terrain makes me respect them even more. I look forward to my next trip to the Upper Orinoco where I can learn more how to flow with the hardships of the jungle.
Thanks for reading! Purchase a signed copy of my book by clicking on the link below. Portion of the proceeds will benefit Yanomami programs in the Upper Orinoco of Venezuela
To learn more about the Good Project and it works with the Yanomami visit jointhegoodproject.org