“Where is he?”
“I don’t know.”
We’d more or less grown accustomed to the fact that things seldom went according to plan in South America. Nevertheless, it still came as a bit of a shock when, in a crumbling, abandoned hostel hours into the jungle-like wetlands of the Pantanal, our guide vanished into thick-with-humidity air.
The man bearing this unfortunate information didn’t look concerned. “I take you to bush now,” He stated matter-of-factly.
What could we do but agree? He headed out from the pousada straight for the low thicket of trees, barefoot and carrying nothing but a few bamboo fishing rods.
Trudging behind him with our backpacks on our shoulders and our flip-flops flapping against the mud, we wondered why he had no camping gear, no food, and no shoes.
For an hour and a half we treaded silently across the the wetlands. Through patches of low palms and calf-deep, muddy water and past the skulls of long-dead cows we plodded on as the grey afternoon slowly disappeared. The only sounds were the babble of the dozens of distinct languages of birds flying over the marshes, the squelching sound of our feet on damp earth, and the wind rustling the leaves.
A journey always seems longer when you don’t know the destination. When we finally arrived at ours, we experienced both relief and trepidation. A canopy of branches hung over a solitary tent in a wooded area next to a lake.
Without further ado, our improvised guide handed each of us a fishing pole and waded waist-deep into the lilypad-studded, piranha-infested water. A hefty chunk of meat hung from his hook, and within seconds he had pulled out a mean-looking fish with teeth sharp as needles. Stuffing the piranha into a Tupperware container barely big enough to hold it, he eyed us expectantly.
Scanning the water apprehensively, we cast in our lines.
With our dinner caught, we returned to the camp, only to exchange our anxiety about being eaten by piranhas to being eaten by mosquitoes and, perhaps, jaguars.
As we sat around the fire drowning ourselves in insect repellent, there was a rustling in the bushes. The sound of footsteps crunching on dry leaves moved in a circle around us, but we could see nothing but the fireflies shining against the night. The three of us that were there scooted nearer to each other, as if that would somehow make us safer.
Suddenly, a bright light shone into the thick of trees, revealing a gleaming pair of eyes above a wide snout. The wild pig blinked in the glare of the flashlight but didn’t move. The Brazilian man had to chase it away into the shrubs.
“We’ll go on a night walk soon,” He said in Portuguese laced with Spanish (for our benefit) after we had devoured the piranhas. When he returned after a while and simply bid us good night before retiring to a second tent- which he had pulled out of nowhere- we weren’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed.
The tents had no sleeping bags, only thin mats. This didn’t overly bother us because it was so warm- until the first prolonged flash of lightning. Then the thunder came, rolling continuously like an avalanche for unusually long stretches of time. The lightning didn’t flash, it shined, lighting up the entire jungle as if it was daylight. Predictably, the rain began in a matter of minutes. Our tent wasn’t even under the shoddy shelter, and it had no rain-cover.
We were jolted from our half-sleep and scrambled out of the tent, instantly getting drenched. After struggling to move it under the thin roof of leaking branches, the Brazilian unrolled another tent and threw it over ours as a cover before returning to his slumber.
After a long night, the morning saw us slumping back across the largest freshwater wetlands in the world to get back to the pousada. The rain was still unrelenting, but its delicious smell filled the air.
A herd of wild pigs ran past us, hurrying to find shelter. The macaws squawked from their tree holes, pink birds zoomed overhead, and a capybara sat still as a statue under some branches.
Heavy as I was with soaked clothes and shoes, my spirits lightened.
It wasn’t until the next day that our guide reappeared, claiming he had had Dengue and needed to go to the hospital (he later insisted that there was no Dengue in the Pantanal and that he had suffered from food poisoning).
As with most of our experiences on this continent, it hadn’t at all turned out the way we expected it to. But as always, it did turn out. We even received some money back from the organizer, which shocked us more than the disappearance of our guide.
And, in addition to seeing things few people can brag of- caimans sunbathing on the marshes, a red vs blue macaw couple fight over a tree-hole home, giant river otters greeting us at the water’s edge, toucans flying above our heads, a giant herd of cows following us loyally, monkeys and coatis scrambling up branches, and the scratches of a jaguar’s claws on a thick trunk- we came out with yet another ridiculous story to retell on long bus rides and in hostel lobbies.