Deep in the Amazon jungle, our columnist has a close encounter with his hubris – but manages to keep his head (and feet).
It’s a bad idea to travel with someone you’re trying to impress, especially if you’re one of those fools who tries to impress with what they do, rather than who they are. I am one of those fools. I was with someone I hadn’t known for very long. We had met two weeks earlier and one night after drinks it seemed a good idea to invite her to the Amazon jungle. We flew to Argentina and then to Iquitos in Peru and boarded a riverboat to take us down towards the border with Brazil. One day we found ourselves on a skiff with five Americans and an Amazonian guide on an ox-bow lake. The lowering sun turned the sky gold and vast columns of cloud piled up like white paint.
It was hot and I trailed my fingers through the still water, dark with the tannin of mangrove roots. ‘Does anyone ever swim here?’ I asked idly.
‘Sometimes locals,’ said the guide cautiously. ‘Never a tourist.’
The words hung like dragonflies. At first I nodded in a half-listening way and looked back at the water, hoping to see a river dolphin, but the longer the words hung there, the more they sounded like a challenge. I felt myself rise towards them like some hook-jawed river pike towards a long-legged fly.
‘Never?’ I said. ‘Why not?’
He shrugged. ‘Tourists are afraid.’
My partner wasn’t thinking about the conversation we’d had the night before on deck, slapping at bugs and dabbing gin behind our ears. I’d told her how I’d swum in the crocodile-infested Zambezi (which wasn’t exactly a lie – I’d been stepping into a canoe and I’d slipped in up to my waist and shrieked like a howler monkey falling into a flushing toilet), but I was remembering how I’d painted myself as some fearless submariner of exotic waterways. I thought: she’s waiting for me to do something. Obviously, this was a delusion. Women are never waiting for men to do anything, except stop acting like fools.
‘Is it okay if I go for a quick swim?’ I asked.
My partner looked surprised, my guide looked troubled, the Americans on the skiff looked frankly sceptical. An hour before, we’d moored under a spreading tree, the tips of its branches dipping to make small eddies on the water, and we’d attached pieces of raw beefsteak to hooks and in 15 minutes we’d pulled up enough piranha to skeletonise a cow.
But I’d read somewhere that piranha stick close to the riverbank. At least, I thought I’d read it somewhere, but if I checked that information I’d spoil the daredevil effect. I stood and removed my shirt and looked intense, like Lewis Pugh at the edge of an ice bath. ‘You’re not really going to…’ said an American, but by the end of the sentence I was underwater.
The water was cooler than I expected, and much darker. In a thin band at the surface it was the colour of milkless tea, but below that it was a lightless ink. I’d been fearless a moment before, but sudden doubts assailed me. Maybe piranha didn’t gather in the middle, but where do anacondas hang out? Anacondas don’t need to see in order to hunt, do they? They use heat-seeking technology; I saw that on Anaconda 2: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. If one were to seize me right now I would just never surface; all those people on the skiff would wait and wait and I’d never come back. But wait, forget about anacondas – what about those little parasitic fish that swim up the stream of your urine when you’re peeing in the river and make a home in your urethra? Do they need the urine stream, or can they skip the middleman and head straight on in? Oh, what a fool I am, I thought, kicking in panic, surrounded by horrors, unsure which way was up. What kind of oaf treats the wide world and its wonders as the stage for preening and showing off?
It would serve me right to be eaten down there; it would serve me more right if when I surfaced she looked at me with scorn and shook her head in disillusionment. But luckily the world isn’t always fair. I wasn’t eaten, and we’re still together. We were married last year. I still try to impress her.
This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of Getaway Magazine.