Nowhere...Because It's There
"¿Cuál via?" he asked. "Which way?" I'll admit that question was a little unsettling. Unsettling not so much because I had no idea where we were in the first place, nor, for that matter, because I have only a foggy idea as to where it was we were going. It was because the guy who had, only a moment ago, asked me if I had a flashlight, and had, at least until they ran out, been illuminating our way with paper matches, as we bumped between trees floating in an eight-foot aluminum dinghy in the flooded jungles of the upper Amazon in the remote, third-world blackness of night, and finally asked me "Which way," was my guide. The guy who was supposed to know which way; the guy I paid to get me here.
Where was here? My estimations put us some 100 miles upriver from the Peruvian town of Iquitos, then a dozen or so miles up a small tributary and then perhaps a few hundred yards off to the left.
Why was I there? Well, that's another question entirely. Why was I there? I recall being asked that question once before, in the foothills of the Himalayas in Burma. Well, he wasn't asking me, exactly, why was I there. Rather, he was asking me, I guess, as spokesperson for all us nomadic wanderers, why we go there, why we travel. He simply could not understand why we came there, of all places, to his little isolated corner of nowhere. The people there lived simply, got up at dawn, cooked and farmed, went to bed at dark. Why ever would anyone want to come there to watch them? That question jolted me like an electric shock: Why do we leave our comfortable homes just to see some far-away stranger's home? What compels us travelers to go through the significant expense and discomfort to go someplace simply because we've never been? British climber George Mallory in 1924 answered this question rather flippantly. "Because it's there," he'd said. That's not an answer. Everest didn't accept it either and Mallory up there remains.
Well, why was I there? I was heading to a small rainforest camp located on an oxbow lake somewhere off a remote Amazon tributary. And I'd spent what to my guide must have been a lifetime's fortune to get here.
I'd made arrangements with him after some asking around the docks of Iquitos; he knew the camp I wanted, he'd said, and agreed to take me. He never asked why I wanted to go there, nor could I have answered. Oh, I could have said something about the rare pink river dolphins said to inhabit the area, or the Yahua Indians who lived near there, but he didn't seem to care. In silence, I loaded into that guy's tin-can dinghy and, at 4:30 in the afternoon, left Iquitos. I never learned his name. We skipped over the orange water at 30 miles an hour, the late afternoon sun coloring it and the trees on the shoreline and the cottony clouds. The heat was oppressive. The wind at that speed was delicious. I estimated about a three hour trip, meaning we'd arrive sometime after dark.
There on the Amazon, some 2,000 miles from its mouth at the Atlantic, the river spreads for more than a mile, tree line to tree line. Its flow is surprisingly swift and in it whole trees and great rafts of flotsam, masses of vegetation disgorged from the Andean highlands, drift by, themselves microcosms alive with fish and fowl and peopled too sometimes by those who ride those rafts and take their living from that exotic forage. Following the rainy season, the Andean deluge funnels into the Amazon basin raising the water level so virtually no dry land remains. It inundates thousands upon thousands of square miles leaving the tree canopy as islands in this vast, heavily wooded lake; the only mode of travel there by boat.
Being there, why was it so different from being at home? Well, this was the Amazon, of course. It, like our Yosemite and Grand Canyon, ranks right at the top of any list of the world's most spectacular sights; they themselves of course are worthy of a visit. When asked why I was there that time in Burma, I hadn't the grandeur of a Yosemite as an excuse. We talked, walking through golden hills, the smell of the dry grass damp in the morning air. It was beautiful, sure, but in no way unique; there was no sense of place separating it from, say, the rolling hills outside of my hometown on a summer day. We could have been anywhere, in fact. I told myself I came to visit the Shan, an area hill tribe. Because they were there?
I'd trek halfway around with world to spend a few awkward hours sitting uninvited in a Shan home, but wouldn't drive the few miles up the freeway, Little Saigon, only thirty minutes from my house. Arguably, the Vietnamese-Americans of Little Saigon are a unique hybrid culture found only in Little Saigon and its environs. But to speak of my neighbors in this way, as exotic peoples worth "going to see," smacks of racism; not so when applied to the Shan half a world away. This stretch of the Amazon above Iquitos is immense to be sure, but, quite frankly, is it really anything more than a broad plain of water flowing through a canyon of trees? This could have been any rural stretch of the Mississippi, or any wide tree-lined river, for that matter. Ah, but here lived the Yahua Indians and the rare pink dolphins.
The sun sets quickly in the Amazon and it gets dark, a Biblical, primordial sort of dark. Speeding up the river, we floated in a void, the jagged, black outline of trees separated like a torn page from the lights in the firmament of the heavens above. I felt upside down, like I was hanging off the planet—the stars, they pulled you into them, they swaddled you. The ancient Inca found their constellations not in the stars themselves but in the unusual empty space between them, so dense is this southern hemisphere sky. These spaces, for them, formed the creatures of myth. And then there's the Southern Cross, its appearance confirmed I was far from home. I've seen a lot of places, some thirty countries on five continents, I've crossed oceans in sailboats, been deep in the outback of Australia, but nowhere had ever felt as remote as this, as other worldy. Intergalactic distances we crossed, that guy my guide and I, the cosmic wind against our faces.
My guide pointed us into the inky void of the shoreline, branches and trunks gaining form as we entered them. Idling slowly amongst the black columns of wading trees, invisible brambles whipped our faces. Our route, it seemed, took us through this jungle to get to our destination. Around and around and through the forest we bumped, match after match held aloft—my guide, the Buddha-bellied statue of liberty. The matches lasted till we were thoroughly lost. To save gas, he killed the motor; its silence sucked the air from the place. Deep in the flooded jungle, maybe a hundred or two hundred yards from that little tributary river that was itself ten or more miles upriver from the Amazon proper, we were in a darkness without form more than 100 miles from where I should have, had I the least presence of mind, taken the advice of the half dozen or so other boatmen and waited until morning to begin this journey. No flashlight, clearly, and now no matches, only fireflies blinked, their lights reflected in the water gave the sense we drifted, disembodied, in the heavens. "Which way?" he asked me. He asked me, after all, because I was the reason we were there.
There was another western woman there in Burma that time. She wore a pot top on her head. The Shan use conical bamboo covers on the water cisterns in their houses. This woman must have mistaken it for one of those Vietnamese hats, you know, the conical kind, but it wasn't, it was a pot top, and everyone she encountered, everyone who saw her, knew it. I sat floating in the firefly stars and thought of that woman. Everyone but her knew, she had no idea; she walked around that village oblivious. The Shan villagers stared at her bewildered. To my guide, I guess, I was like her—just a crazy gringo wanting to go on a boat ride in the middle of the night with a pot top on my head. I felt his bewildered gaze as we sat in nowhere's inky darkness, waiting in silence for the dawn. Why was I there? I chose this over my comfortable bed in my comfortable house. Honestly, I would have chosen to come even if I had known this would happen. I'm just a modern-day George Mallory stuck in a boat in the upper reaches of the Amazon River. This was what I had come for. Because it was there.
About the Author
William Hillyard has a B.A. in Literary Journalism from UC Irvine and has published stories in the Denver Voice, Earth Island Journal, the Orange Coast Review, and the literary journal Kiosk. His Denver Voice story "Pichoneros" was a finalist for the NASNA Best Feature award. The first story in his "Wonder Valley" series is included as "Notable Nonrequired Reading" in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. He lives in Orange County, California. Read his work at www.williamhillyard.com