I awoke on my thin, stained mattress, immediately checked my body for spiders and fleas, crawled under the mosquito net, and walked down to the river’s edge. I submerged my feet in the water, letting the cool liquid soothe the itching and pain from over a dozen bites and stings.
It was day six of my excursion into the Peruvian Amazon.
I was wondering how I would survive.
Traveling, as you may have heard, is really, really good for you. The following quote from essayist Shekar Kumar is a fine distillation of common wisdom: “However, qualified a person may be, if he has not undertaken traveling, his outlook remains narrow. He is less accommodating in comparison to those who have widely travelled. They are liberal in their outlook. They have maturity of judgment.” Granted, this author is most likely not including sex tourism in Southeast Asia, or drug tourism in Amsterdam as practiced by the universal “they” described above, but all the same he has done an excellent job of voicing the common conception of travel’s value.
Now, while it is not my intention to gainsay popular wisdom, I would like to submit that one of the true, overlooked values of traveling is its ability to inspire genuine terror.
A week earlier, Miguel, the director for Huayruro Tours, had promised no one else would be going as deep into the jungle as my guide and I.
“How many days are you planning to stay in the reserve?”
We were in his office. The floor was earth. The roof was tin.
“I booked a seven-day tour,” I replied.
“You know,” he said, walking over to a large map of the reserve, “if you stay 13 days you can reach this lake.” He pointed to a lake at the map’s edge. I saw a blue circle with the words, “LAGO PASTO COCHA. “Two tourists, sometimes less, visit the lake every year.”
There was nothing left to debate after that. Two weeks in the jungle! In the steamy bosom of unspoiled nature! I imagined all the travel bragging1 I would be able to do when I returned to internet-ready civilization.
At the same time, I agreed instantly because I knew that if I thought about his proposition for too long I would realize how senseless it was, how it wasn’t something the rational part of my consciousness wanted me to do. Staying a week in a rainforest is pretty hardcore. Staying two weeks is masochistic.
The distinct entries in my travel journal below demonstrate the difference between what I convinced myself the experience would be like—magical! —and how I knew it would play out in reality—the horror!:
Day 3: This place is a transformative cauldron. Everything is rotted away, boiled, forgotten, renewed.
This romantic mood would soon yield to more direct, incisive observations.
Day 10: Between the heat and the bugs this place is about to make me lose my fucking mind.
Most of my fears are, in general, quite reasonable. My fear of insects is not. They terrify me to a degree I can safely say is “phobic.” Why, then, would I place myself in the most insect-ridden environment on earth if not for the overwhelming thrill this terror brings? Love and wonder can eclipse the banalities and pains of everyday life, but fear works just as well and is criminally underrated.
People want fun vacations. They want to soak up the sun in Majorca. Or they want to fly first-class to Paris and have a celebrity chef in a famous restaurant cook them an obscure part of a duck’s anatomy for $500. But where’s the sense in that? I say have a vacation that is awful and frightening, while at the same time edifying and culturally valuable.
You’ll build as much character as you can tolerate, and your normal job in a normal town will seem like a paradise to return to in the bargain.
We arrived at the lake on day eight, after six hours of hacking through thick patches of floating weeds which choked the river across its entire length. The sun burned in the sky. We forgot to bring water. My guide drank directly from the river, and I squeezed as much moisture as I could from a half-rotten pineapple. I genuinely believed there was a chance we would come to serious harm. Dying appeared to me as a real probability.
When we finally arrived, the lake was placid, peaceful. Its wide, open expanse came as a shock after a week spent pinned between the trees lining the river. My guide put down his paddle. I lay down in the canoe. Neither of us spoke.
1 #travelbrag: the publication of one’s travel adventures widely via social media, often with an air of false humility. Travel brags are ranked on length of visit, obscurity of sites, and discomforts endured.