My urethra did just fine in Cuyabena National Park.

Dude, there’s this fish in the Amazon that swims into your wiener, then twists its head sideways and, like, never comes out. It just lives in there. Forever. I heard they have to cut your thingy off.

Thus was formed my initial impression of the Amazon, as a six year old with blond hair and wide eyes on the tanbark playground of Oak Elementary School. Later came phantasmagorical stories of piranhas, caimans, and anacondas to populate my notion of this post-Eden violent green abyss of living and killing, reptilian cunning and arachnid tenacity. As of yesterday, a quarter century later, I’ve finally seen all of those, except, thank god, that infamous little fish.

For our Amazon excursion we opted for the least luxurious camp (the photo was two cots in a bare wood-plank room) and the longer term, hoping for a more intense experience. Slogging through an unforgiving morass of leeches, spiders, and serpents. We took the night bus with a Dutch girl wearing a number of braces and casts after shattering her arm and collar bone bicycling down the Death Road in Bolivia. I just hoped she’d be fit enough to spear any caimans on her side of our floating fortress.

In my mind I combined the somewhat Spartan cinderblock accommodation and basic food we had in the Nepali jungle with the animal experience we prepped for in Africa, where they tell you not to wear fragrance, deodorant, or use fancy-pants scented soap, or your human olfactory pretensions will scare away all the beasties you traveled so far to see. I left my Old Spice in Quito.

At our breakfast table in Lago Agrio, the notorious oil town where the trip started, this image was jarred when a pack of fresh-faced youngsters (18?) piled in, matching new T-shirts with shiny logos, and began slathering themselves with sunscreen, bug repellent, and god knows what else in industrial quantities. A flock of college freshmen? Were they…bait?

We piled into the bus and headed for the airport to pick up a few more, and out of the terminal came a tri-generational family, from silver-headed grandparents blinking in the sunlight to a marshmellow-mild cherubic prepubescent.

It was yet another reminder not to have any preconceptions. That flock of college kids (go Michigan!) came with us, they were great to have around, and the family (minus the grandparents who turned out to be unrelated) was to be our companions for the tour. The entire tour. Every single aspect of it (except the cold showers, which are a solo adventure). We ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner with them, hiked, swam, and paddled with them. They sat and watched K get whipped by a Siona shaman in her bra. (Bet you’ll check back for that story.) The “grandparents” were easily among the most lovely people I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, and I was rather sad that they were paired with the college group instead of us.

How did we feel about pairing with a family of four for our entire jungle excursion? Hmm. I am generally of the opinion that humans don’t actually do well when exposed to each other for large amounts of time, which makes our social and romantic urges somewhat sadomasochistic, but salvation was found in that they were a remarkably likeable family.

They basically live on a farm in Oregon, the kids are taught delayed gratification by an annual pumpkin patch which generates their allowance, and they are each individually capable of carrying an intelligent conversation. The parents were intelligent, well traveled, and pragmatic, and our conversations (once the kids went to bed) were arguably the social highlight of the week. If we find ourselves near their town any year soon, I would love to stop by and visit.

It was an excellent week; I’ll try to get a few episodes up here before the next ones drown them out. At least the whipping…