The problem with going solo is that you often can’t get to the best places alone, especially when you’ve never been there before.
I was in Bonito, Brasil, recovering from a very long, slow, dirty, people intensive trip up the Rio Paraguay on a barge full of Guaranis and Paraguayan marines when I got it into my head that I just had to see the Pantanal.
The pantanal is a huge tract of wetlands covering much of southwestern Brasil. It is a very convenient place to spot wildlife, as you can see most of the big animals native to the jungles but without so many trees to hide them from your sight.
Even though there aren’t many trees to hide the animals from you, the pantanal is quite large and there are swamps full of crocodiles and anacondas and quicksand and other inconveniences making a solo expedition on foot a bad idea.
If I had been an heiress, I could have simply plucked up a strong looking, handsome local with a truck and machete to be my personal pantanal guide, but alas, an heiress I am not, and so I trudged over to the local youth hostel and perused the billboards for pantanal tours on offer.
This youth hostel attracted the kind of clientele who would not consider paying more than $5/night for accommodation in a town whose accommodation varies from $5/night to $75. And that $5 accommodation must include full use of the kitchen or they would demand a discount.
The pantanal tour on offer at the hostel offered a budget tour commensurate with these budget traveller’s financial expectations. I knew that it would be a loosely structured experience but maybe I’d get lucky and end up with a gem of a guide anyway.
I boarded a public bus at 6 AM the following morning to ride into the Pantanal, where I would be dropped off at another place to be picked up by a truck carrying the other people coming on this tour, who were on the other side of the Pantanal, in the border town of Corumba, Brasil.
I had scanned the sign up sheet as I signed my name to it and knew that the others on my tour would be about a dozen Israelis, aged 21 to 24, a young couple from France and a 37 year old British male, whose profession, tantalizingly, was listed as “Sound Recordist.” I pictured a tall pale bespectacled nerdy type with a microphone earnestly holding his boom up high to capture the melodic sounds of some exotic birds singing within the trees. I had always wanted, more than anything, to capture the sounds of the jungle, which are much more impressive than its visual offerings, and so he seemed a handy person to get to know.
Nonetheless, by the time the Sound Recordist boarded the bus the next morning, I had already settled into a seat to my liking and wanted to keep the seat next to me vacant for my feet, books, snacks and other bits and bobs if at all possible. I am also, inconveniently, shy. He walked by my seat, paused to see if I would extend an invitation to join me. I kept my face toward the window. He passed by to the back of the bus. It was full. He came back to my seat, which turned out to be the only vacant seat left on the bus, and I moved my stuff over.
Glenn Street turned out to be a lovely human from London. And as he was not in the 21 to 24, just graduated from the uni or fresh out of the Israeli army demographic, talking to him, in English was a treat. I found out that he had left his sound equipment at home, but he was so full of stories from his extensive travels in South America and additional work related travels related to previous gigs with the BBC, Reuters, and British television, that I forgave him for his lack of equipment.
There was one other non-south American looking person on the bus, of the 24 year old Israeli just out of the army demographic. After 2 years of having an Israeli army hairdo, he was all about having lots of hair; it floated about his head in a wild black, curly cloud while a goatee and mustache added to the overall effect of hair enthusiasm. A pair of thin wire framed glasses topped off his look and I dubbed him the mad professor.
After bouncing along for about 5 hours, the bus dropped Glenn, the mad professor and I off on the porch of a rickety little house all alone in the middle of the Brasilian savanna.
A little old man wearing thread bare jean shorts and flip flops emerged from inside and let us into what turned out to be a store. We chose fruit punch and chocolate from his odd assortment of wares and paid him what felt like rent for the use of his porch for the day. He closed the store again and went back inside for more napping. It rained. A flock of parakeets passed by. Three dogs which were sized like nesting dolls came by and engaged in a threesome which went on and on, on the porch in front of us.
The mad professor talked about how mosquitos find him to be exceptionally delicious and swatted at himself for most of the afternoon. Glenn talked about how lucky he is that his ample body hair creates an impenetrable barricade to mosquito proboscises. I wished I still smoked cigarettes because lighting up a cigarette always used to make the bus appear and I was getting tired of that porch.
The truck appeared just after dark and my groupaphobia swung into full force. I did not want to clamber into the back of the pickup truck with the other stinky, muddy backpackers. Fortunately my chick status landed me bitch seat in the cab, which was a mixed blessing. The driver stank worse than the backpackers and the guy riding shotgun was a groper. As a result, I spent a few bumpy hours negotiating pokey fingers. The groper would put one finger on, say, my outer thigh, and if I let him keep it there for longer than a certain period of time, he would try two fingers, which sometimes was okay, but a palm was not, so he would get a shove in the ribs. Then the truck would jolt and we would bump around and his hand would land on, say, my arm, which allowed one or two fingers, but again, no thumbs, no palm. Eventually, my outer thigh became a kind of no man's land where he was permitted to rest one fingertip, but that was it. I was tired of it, but when I turned around to see Glenn and company banging around on top of twelve giant backpacks in the back of the pickup truck, which was trundling through eighteen inches of mud in the rain in the dark, I continued nonverbal negotiations with the groper.
The groper had said he would make sure he was my guide since we were getting along so well, I guess, and I hurt his feelings by expressing enthusiasm for another guide whom some returning tourists had said was excellent and more into wildlife than wild life.
That guide was taking the week off, it turned out, and so I got the colonel. He called Glenn, Claire, for some reason, so we started calling him Betty, but I don't think he noticed. Anyway, Colonel Betty hated Israelis full stop, thought most other gringos were pretty useless (which we are in the Pantanal compared to that lot) but was happy to be living there with the rest of the Pantanal cowboys.
The camp was like something out of Survivor but without the gimmicks, styling or subtly placed merchandising. The guides shuffled us into a big octagonal screened-in palapa with 20+ hammocks arranged like spokes around a central pole. Glenn’s bad back couldn’t survive sleeping in a hammock and my groupaphobia skyrocketed to emergency levels and we finagled our way into the guide palapas and two tents of our own. Two scummy tents on the hard ground suddenly seemed like the Ritz Carlton to both of us.
Early the next morning we were marchmarchmarched out of bed and into the jungle to see some wildlife, goddammit. Colonel Betty scornfully lead us through this thicket and that complaining about our loud flip flops, our stinky insect repellent and our general gringo ineptitude, which was surely the thing that was keeping all the wildlife away. We were a group of five - the snooty French couple, a Canadian architect, Glenn and me. We saw some monkeys, storks, weird little mammals and a few parakeets before Betty grew completely sick of us and hurried us back to camp for rest and food before the afternoon march.
My dehydration headache transformed into a full scale migraine with all the bells and whistles, so while the others were on their afternoon march through the swamps, I spent my time in my hammock popping painkillers, throwing them back up again, and explaining to cowboy after cowboy who came in to check me out, offer me tea, coffee, massage, water, aspirin and so on that I would be okay. I kept opening my eyes to big eyes searching my own in the dusky light, strong rough hands stroking my forehead, howler monkeys moaning and howling and just wished I weren't so horribly sick. Everything and everyone had the most brilliant auras. Finally, I awoke fully recovered at 3 AM, and my recovery couldn’t have come too soon, because 0430 found us all in the back of the truck (well, not me, I was riding bitch again with a sulky groper) en route to a murky swamp full of alligators to fish for piranhas.
We hooked steak onto our hooks and waded into the water, which felt like about the dumbest, most counterintuitive thing one could possibly do. I think they took us there before we were fully awake because otherwise there was no way we could be cajoled into wading into sludgy water with our meat hooks as alligators slithered by. It only took a short time to acclimate to the alligators’ presence as the meat was continuously being tugged off of our hooks by hungry piranhas and within a few hours everyone had caught something, so we headed back for Part Two of the day. We were all quite pleased with ourselves for being such good hunter/gatherers and proudly took pictures of our pile of dead piranhas next to a big rusty machete suck into the ground with some alligators lingering in the background, hoping for scraps. But then the truck driver reappeared from around the other side of the swamp with as many fish hanging off his string as twelve of us had collectively caught in the same period of time.
This really was an industrial strength budget backpacker tour. The food was continuously recycled from one meal to the next, the mosquito nets were holey, and the guides were not the kind of animal afficionados you’d expect in a place where you literally bump into tapirs and capybaras on your way to the bathroom. Nonetheless, I was warming up to the camp, I guess partly because of the gentle thoughtfulness of these rough loose pantanal guys who lived like Peter Pan's Lost Boys playing lasso the cowskull, tease the gringo with live tarantulas and snakes, dancing to pantanal cowboy music with a women if one was nearby and willing and with each other if not, drinking cheap cachara (brasilian firewater) out of the bottle, swapping hats, shorts, shirts and girls indiscriminately and laughing,working and living their days out as the tour groups ebbed and flowed in a weekly rhythm.
Our guides pulled on jeans for the afternoon and hopped barefoot onto their horses. The Israeli army followed and loudly hiya'd their horses into frantic
That night it started to rain, the generator blinked out. I abandoned the beer I was nursing at the makeshift bar to land in a hammock with one of the cowboys getting a justafootthenahandthenaneverything massage. All ten or twelve guides had offered similar services to me at some point, and in the darkness I couldn't even tell which one I had ended up with but for a minute lightning flashed and I saw he had a pierced chin, so made a mental note to ID him using that facial decoration in the morning. He turned out to be a bit too bitey and slappy for me in bed so I lost interest as quickly as it came, and that marked the end of my cowboy interlude. And so, after 3 years and 10 months without so much as a kiss I fell into a hammock in the dark for a fumble in the jungle with someone whose name I never caught. I was giddy and flabbergasted by the sudden turn of events, but Glenn who had spent many months in Brasil, assured me that such spur of the moment dalliances were as routine in Brasil as coffee drinking is in the rest of the world.
Glenn has a Brasilian friend in Rio who complains all the time about how nothing ever gets done in Rio because all everyone ever does is have sex. I wouldn't have believed the hype until I experienced a sliver of Brasil myself and I can honestly say that I have never been anywhere that is so sexually lighthearted, open and free.
Everything about Brasil inspires sex – the music, the language, the dancing, the scenery, the weather, the clothes, the food, but most of all the people because they are all thinking about screwing each other all the time and doing it as much as thinking about it. There are entire stores devoted to naughty Catholic schoolgirl minis and even the fat old ladies rock spandex and let their bellies and bums squirt out from between bulging seams because hey, it's flesh, wonderful flesh, this is big ass country after all and what is an ass for if not to shake and what is a belly for if not to squeeze. Brasilians come samba dancing out of their mama's wombs and can outfun the funnest of us and still have energy for more. I mean, honestly, let's see you samba dance for 8 hours and still be wiggling it, and it has nothing to do with being fit and everything to do with being fun.
My pantanal cowboy made me a necklace out of plant fiber and alligator teeth and just before I climbed into the truck to leave, he dragged me into his cabana for one last passionate kiss and placed it around my neck. I left the Pantanal aglow, with a great taste in my mouth.