“There are more and more people living in the jungle now,” Said Juan Carlos, waiting patiently for Hannah to translate his words for me. “And the jungle is changing rapidly as a result.”
I had noticed that too. Although Iquitos enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as one of the most isolated cities in the world, (surrounded by a sea of green so impenetrable no road connected it to the outside world), the jungle surrounding it seemed, to my untrained eyes, increasing punctuated by human presence.
He sighed – more to himself than to us – and in the time it took Hannah to translate his words, he spat something in rapid Spanish at the boat pilot. The pilot cackled and coughed violently, almost dropping his cigarette into the river’s murky depth.
There it was again; that peculiar quality of Latin Americans I had seen numerous times; to be able to laugh in the face of any circumstances.
Juan Carlos’ skin had a deep tan, testimony to long years of exposure to the unyielding tropical sun. I worked for almost a decade as a logger deep in the Peruvian Amazon, he told us, and we wondered how could he since he still looked in his 20s’. The jungle had become his companion, then his home. And eventually, something he knew he had to protect, even if for the sake of his own children’s future, of which he had two. He quit his job and started to look for a job as a tourist guide.
“Many people from the communities come to this forest, catching and killing the animals. That’s why there are almost no animals left here.” He remarked solemnly, as we followed him in a single file across the damp, mosquito-riddled jungle later that day. There was a tinge of regret and shame in his voice as if embarrassed that he couldn’t spot any wildlife during our entire walk.
I wanted to ask him what he really thought of the rain-forest. I wanted to ask him how he felt about the booming Amazonian tourism, about us being there. But my lack of Spanish robbed me of having a meaningful conversation with Juan Carlos. And in that absence of words, I suspect, that tinge of regret in his voice stood out even more.
On the last day of our tour, Juan Carlos offered to introduce us to his family. The lodge’s old dug-out canoe carried us half an hour upriver to another small clearing in the forest. The village seemed still under construction; another new addition to this already convoluted and complex world.
We played volleyball with the village kids until we collapsed on the dusty grounds, exhausted, and watched the bats materialize seemingly out of dusk. But for the entire time we were there, I kept going back to something Juan had said earlier that day;
“There are more and more people living in the jungle now…”