Magazine article The Spectator

Barefoot in the Jungle, I Did My Bit for the Rest of the World

Magazine article The Spectator

Barefoot in the Jungle, I Did My Bit for the Rest of the World

Article excerpt

Noël Coward was right about mad dogs, Englishmen and the midday sun. How it was that I found myself playing in my first football match since leaving school four decades ago, at noon, in the Amazon, barefoot, against a team of Amazonian Indians in football boots, I struggle to explain. But I shall never again sneer at Michael Palin's televised adventures, supposing that it just doesn't happen that a Tibetan village turns out in force, and spontaneously, to play cricket with him, because something very similar has just happened to me.

We were staying at the Reserva Palmarí, a wonderful find: a basic but comfortable palmthatched lodge by the muddy Brazilian bank of the River Javarí, about four hours upriver from the Amazon to which the Javarí is a tributary. Here at Palmarí the curious and the serious can stay as paying guests, using it as a base to explore river and forest and track the birds, reptiles and mammals of one of the most unspoiled parts of Amazonia.

River is the only way there. There are no roads, and of course no airstrip. To reach the Amazon, where a canoe will collect you, the Peruvian Air Force flies a twice-weekly hydroplane service from Iquitos to the great river's confluence with the Javarí at Santa Rosa. The 300-mile flight costs $60 and was the best fare I ever paid. But you can get to the same stretch of the Amazon upriver from Manaus or downriver from Iquitos, or take a commercial flight from Manaus to nearby Tabatinga, or from Bogotá to nearby Leticia.

Three countries, Colombia, Brazil and Peru, meet here.

We had arrived at Palmarí the night before. The plan was to spend our first morning just swinging around in hammocks and relaxing, but the thrill of the night sounds of the jungle, the call of the monkeys and the swish of the river that dawn had filled us with excitement. So how should we start our week there?

The lodge chief, Victor (himself from an indigenous tribe), suggested we might like to see the small community of Santa Rita further up the river. I wanted to buy a dugout canoe and Victor thought we might find one there. So led by Victor a strikingly multinational group of us -- my Catalan nephew Adam, two British friends, Paul Twinn and Dominic Wong, Juan Diego our Colombian guide, a boatful of local Brazilian staff from Palmarí and a Spaniard called José -- piled into a big canoe with an outboard motor and headed upriver for Santa Rita.

Santa Rita is on the eastern side of the river, in Peru. A big red-and-white Peruvian flag fluttered from a smart flagstaff raised above the bank. A large painted sign of an official nature announced that this village was the beneficiary of government plans 'to make life better'. The sign did not say how.

In itself it represented the only discernible outlay of cash in the village attributable to a government. There was little else.

For Santa Rita was a negligible place. A small, sleepy community, baked in sun, soaked in lassitude and pickled in yagé, a bitter hallucinogenic drink made from leaves and seeds, the village consisted of a handful of huts on stilts (the Javarí floods every year) above a high, steep and slippery river bank, a few fruit trees -- and nothing else. No roads to anywhere; no roads at all. No amenities.

Just a big, baked patch of earth and dead grass with wonky goal-posts at either end. …

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