Lost deep in the Amazon Rainforest with a drunk veteran of the Colombian guerilla terrorist organization FARC, Will and Geoff must keep themselves together to find safety. Click here to submit a question for next week's Q&A episode. Also, text POD to (332) 877-9540 for friendship.
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
The grating sound of parakeets in Parque Santander you hear in the episode is actually the audio from a video I shot on my phone while I was there. There are all sorts of videos available on the internet, but none of them (including mine) do justice to what it actually looks and sounds like. Anyway, sorry for putting your ears through that.
- Atlas Obscura has an interesting piece about them.
- The boat noises were mine, too. And they were from that actual boat. Sorry about the wind. I always think it’s cooler to use the real thing when I have it.
- The day of this story was the first of a three-day excursion down the Amazon River from Leticia. The trip was organized by a woman named Luisa, who owns the incredible Casa de Huespedes hostel in Leticia. Despite what may sound like an off experience, I earnestly couldn’t recommend a hostel in a remote place more than this one. Luisa is unbelievably helpful and accommodating, fair and reasonable. If you want to travel to the Amazon, this is where you should start.
- I still don’t, and likely never will, know precisely where that tiny village with the soccer field is. I’ve scrolled through satellite-mode on Google Maps near Loreto Mocagua to find it, and I’ve come up empty. If you find it, lemme know.
- Say what you want about FARC, but our guide was a badass veteran riddled with all sorts of PTSD and anxieties. He’s self-medicating and that’s less than ideal, but the guy lives in the Amazon Rainforest. This episode is really about humanizing him. He's a figment at first - a vague sketch of a character. If I did my job, he's a human by the end, with all the flaws and redeeming qualities that make people worthy of love.
I hear with my little ear
- Amazon nature recorded not terribly far from the setting of this story (also in the Colombian Amazon, just up-river from Leticia).
- A little more Amazonian nature to fill it out.
- Squish squash squish.
- Kids being kids in a Colombian town on the Venezuelan border.
- Gentle street noises in Manizales.
- Woof woof chirp chirp this is what remote villages sound like.
[Sounds of the Amazon Rainforest]
My friend Geoff and I are deep in the Amazon Rainforest, maybe two miles from anything resembling a village. Its Geoff and myself and one other person: our guide. He's falling all over himself and there's spittle running down his chin. It was funny a second ago, but it just got real. For some reason, he decided deep in the Amazon Rainforest with two paying customers was the right time to announce he’s a veteran of FARC, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. FARC is a far-left former guerrilla military group. They formally disbanded as a military organization in 2017 and now they're officially a political party. That said, you probably best know them for kidnapping tourists and holding them for ransom.
But if we're being kidnapped, this is a pretty poor effort. Our guide is hammered and he seems lost in his own head. He's swinging his machete wildly in every direction, chopping branches from overhanging trees and slicing at the sky like a madman. Geoff and I cower as severed fiddleheads volley like mortars and branches fall from trees.
But then, all at once, he stands still. Puts a finger to his lips and hushes.
“It was like this,” he says in weak English.
He crouches behind a rock and instructs us to do the same. He pulls his machete to his shoulder and slings his right hand forward, as though he’s targeting a shot from an imaginary rifle.
"You do it too," he says. So now, three guys in the most dangerous rainforest in the world are now playing pretend with their machetes as fake rifles.
“Pow! Pow!” he yells, jerking his shoulder in recoil and almost falling into a bush. His face erupts in a maniacal smile.
“I shoot him dead,” he says.
We realize this wasn't playing pretend at all. This was a memory, not a fantasy.
He pulls up the left sleeve of his filthy yellowing soccer jersey, revealing a brutal scar along his upper bicep.
"But he got me too," he says.
Geoff leans forward with both hands on the hilt of his own machete, slack-jawed.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I'm Will Conway.
This week, three men lost in the jungle and one of them lost in their own mind.
Next week, intermission episode. If you have a question, text QUESTION to (332) 877-9540. I'll send you a link to fill out a thing and I'll answer it on the show.
Okay, let's get weird in the jungle.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sounds of vehicles and children playing]
If you squint, Leticia looks like any other rural city in Colombia. There are motorbikes rocketing down dirt paths. In the city center, there’s a park, Parque Santander. For 18 hours a day, it’s a little town square like any other in Colombia. Concrete walkways, a statue in the middle. Vendors selling street food, children playing, old men on benches and smoking cigars. But every evening at dusk, the world changes. The sky goes black, and the screeches begin.
[Rising sound of a chorus of screeches]
Tens of thousands of canary-winged parakeets swarm like locusts. The sky is so densely packed with them and they swoop so low that Geoff and I have to duck. The noise is so loud it rings in my ear all night. Locals say that as many as 30,000 birds swarm this park - just one city block in size - every single night.
And that - every day at 5pm - that is when Leticia drops the act. This isn’t rural Colombia. This is the gateway to the Amazon, the place where nature dominates man. Not the other way around.
But Leticia is merely the entrance to the Amazon, the gateway into the natural world so intensely foreign, so distinct from anything I’d ever seen that it may as well exist on another planet altogether.
I'll give you an example. Leticia is right on the border with Peru and Brazil. Peru is on the other side of the river, but Brazil is right there. You can walk right in and set your clock forward an hour, no questions asked. The government figures anyone who wants to try their luck walking from Colombia into Tabatinga, and then haul hundreds of miles through dense jungle to the nearest city, is more than welcome to die in their rainforest.
[Sounds of a motorboat]
But Geoff and I go the other direction. We blast up the Amazon River on a motorboat for ninety minutes. El bote rápido, as it’s called by the locals, and it is rapid. It drops us at the fourth of many, many stops on its twelve-hour jaunt to Iquitos, roughly 290 miles up the Amazon into Peru. Ninety minutes is more than enough for us though. our legs are shaking and we wobble onto a dock in Loreto Mocagua, a little village with a half dozen thatched huts to greet us.
[Motorboat fades away, sounds of a village, barking dogs]
And there’s the stocky little man in a dirty soccer jersey we’ve hired to be our guide.
“¿Cómo estan?” he says. “¿Son Geoff y Will?”
“Si, si,” I say, as though there could actually be two other people in this village named Geoff and Will.
He points us to a pair of rubber boots and two machetes leaning against a tree.
He instructs us to put on the boots, and then he offers us a sip from his water bottle.
I sniff and it smells like gasoline, and I sip and, I guess, well... yeah, it burns like gasoline, too.
"What the fuck."
My face contorts and he laughs.
“Cachaça,” he says, referring to the potent Brazilian spirit made from sugarcane.
I glance at Geoff. He shrugs and takes a swig himself. It’s 10 o'clock in the morning.
Our guide sits us down with an array of all sorts of local berries and tells us to paint our faces with them. And Geoff and I think that’s weird, but he tells us it’s a local tradition and so we do.
And as we do it, he takes out a little pamphlet and opens it up. Inside is a picture of every single kind of snake that can possibly exist. In limited English, he's describing each one, and I'm seeing Geoff go paler and paler. He's lived in Australia but, you know, he's Irish. They don't really have snakes there.
And then Geoff makes the mistake of asking if they're poisonous.
"Si," says our guide.
"Which ones?" Geoff says.
Our guide points to the pamphlet and says "todo," which means "all of them." And Geoff's face goes totally white. I lived in California for a while so I've seen rattlesnakes here and there.
And I say, "Yeah but Geoff they're not going to chase you or anything. Just don't step on them."
And the guide says, "No, no."
He points to three of them and says "These ones will chase you or jump out of the trees."
Geoff side-eyes the machete, our guide says it's time to go, and we hike into the jungle.
[Sounds of the Amazon Rainforest]
By the mid-afternoon, with our faces covered in warpaint and our hammered guide swinging his machete at overhead branches and stumbling backward into the trunk of a tree, I think that maybe humoring a few swigs of hard alcohol before a trek through the world’s largest rainforest wasn’t the best of ideas. Because Geof and I stopped at one swig. He didn’t.
Geoff puts his arm around him. “Vamos,” he says. Tender.
So Geoff and I lead him through the jungle just like that, clueless where we’re going, and now charged with babysitting a drunk veteran of a violent terrorist organization who speaks absolutely no English and, at this point, doesn’t seem to speak much Spanish either, beside babbling nonsense and whispering sweet nothings in our ears as we walk. He insists we’re going the right way but we've lost our faith. Geoff and I are jumpy and skittish and convinced a viper is going to sink its teeth into us or a python will wrap us up or a jaguar will lunge.
We march on that way for hours, Geoff and I swap out holding the guide by the shoulder and trying to steal away his nearly empty bottle of Cachaca. But seriously, take yourself through that: you’re in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest and your guide, a former member of a paramilitary group is absolutely obliterated and he’s waving a machete. Do you take the bottle from him?
At long last, the trees part and we’re in a clearing. A huge clearing, actually. Bigger than a football field. And it turns out that’s what it is - we’re on the edge of our guide’s village, and this is the town field. Makes sense, I guess. But it came out of nowhere. There was jungle, and now there’s soccer. Just like that.
Our guide says he needs to pick up supplies, though what supplies he needs are unclear. We wander with him through the city center. Both city and center are a little over-the-top in terms of word choice here, given the reality. There are two-dozen thatched huts, two concrete stores with tin roofs. There is no electricity, but for a handful crank-operated radios. People are staring at us as we pass and I look at Geoff and I realize, “Oh my God, we’re still wearing the warpaint.”
So two six-foot-tall white guys wearing indegenious warpaint and wielding machetes wander into a village deep in the Amazon rainforest with a drunk former member of FARC.
It becomes clear quite quickly that our guide is only here for one supply. He wanders into a concrete building I realize is a store when we walk in. He’s stammering and slurring and trying to buy booze. We can’t quite understand the conversation, but the man who owns the store is saying “no, no, no,” but he’s relenting slowly and now he’s agreeing, and our guide turns to us and asks for money. And then the store owner says “no no no,” again and we say “no no no,” and everyone laughs and we realize in that moment that our guide is literally the village idiot. And so the store owner is apologizing to us and Geoff and I are apologizing to the store owner and the guide is just confused and hammered he says we have to trek further into the jungle. And so we leave the town, and Geoff and I walk our guide arm and arm deeper into the Amazon Rainforest.
We're so deep in now we’re in one of those places on Google Maps where you might scroll and scroll through satellite images of treetops while you look for the Amazon River at two o’clock in the morning for no reason at all and wonder what the hell is happening down there. I can tell you, first hand, that what’s happening down there is two confused and scared kids are being dragged through the jungle by their drunk militant rebel FARC guide with no plan whatsoever. We’re so deep at this point - so far from Loreto Mocagua and from the river where life is sustained and most of the people who live in the Amazon live - that we figure we must just be wandering for nothing, wandering to set up a camp somewhere or nowhere.
But then there’s something. A thatched hut. From nowhere. It’s tiny and I barely noticed it at first. Turns out, this is our home for the night and just as well, because the rain starts as we drop our bags.
[Sound of gentle rainfall]
Geoff and I set up our hammocks while our guide starts a fire under an overhang and cooks some rice he’d left here. So we eat some rice with butter and watch the rainfall, and our drunk friend is becoming a person again, albeit slowly. And he's back and laughing and smiling.
An Irishman, an American, and a former militant rebel Colombian play cards in a hut in the Amazon Rainforest for hours.
[Sounds of rain, jungle and thunder]
Hours later, we trek back out of that jungle with our guide. We hug him goodbye even though his shirt smells like vomit and we get back on the boat and trudge further up the river, to meet a new guide in a new town, where we’ll fish for piranhas with bamboo rods and carry monkeys on our heads through jungles and do all sorts of things that make for lovely Instagram pictures, but nothing quite as unforgettable as getting drunk and lost and bonding with a former member of FARC wielding a machete in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest.
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I'm Will Conway.
Next week, an intermission episode. That means a Q&A and a huge announcement that will change the course of Baggage Claim. I'm so excited about it - make sure you tune in.
For the Q&A part, I really want your questions. I'll answer them on the show and I'll call you out by name. So do me a favor. I know your phone is either within reach or in your hand right now. I'm going to ask you to text QUESTION to (332) 877-9540. I'm going to let the music play while you do it.
Alright, I'll have answers for you next week.
See you next Tuesday.
[Theme Music Ends]