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Losing Luggage and Finding Hope

Getting dirty in the Amazon helps provide traveler with a clean slate

spinner image Illustration of a woman standing in a river while watching a sunset.
Illustration by Chris Lyons

As I knelt by the murky waters of the Amazon watershed in Brazil, I scrubbed furiously at my single pair of underwear. Clad in a swimsuit, I treated that pair of gray panties like the treasure it was, washing them for the fourth morning in a row while hoping the piranha would stay away for the time it took to get them clean.

The sun was still just a fiery orange smear on the horizon, so the relentless biting black flies had yet to launch their blood-seeking assault. Only the distant roar of howler monkeys broke the silence. Somewhere in this jungle, a jaguar prowled. We had seen its paw print in the mud the day before, adding a new danger to the list of “things that could easily kill us in the Amazon.”

I booked this trip for my 50th birthday. Instead of a luxury river cruise that included champagne cocktails, chef-inspired dinners and air-conditioned cabins, I chose a nine-day adventure. Part of the excursion was spent on an open-air tugboat that required buckets of water to be bailed out of the engine area several times a day. Our “luxury accommodations” were mildewed hammocks strung up by the shores of the river. We ate whatever we could catch from the black waters, which was often piranha.

I wanted this. I wanted to see the Amazon in its primitive glory before industrialization, logging or climate change took away one of the last wild, untamed and, in some cases, unexplored regions on earth. I just didn’t expect to do it without my luggage. After the turmoil and loss of the past two years, though, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I spent nine days in some of the most remote areas of the Amazon jungle, and losing my luggage somewhere between Sao Paulo and Manaus was just another blow in a year of losses. I had just ended a 26-year relationship, moved out of the house we shared for 17 years, downsized a lifetime of belongings to squeeze into a two-bedroom apartment and lost dear friends to a pandemic. And now I had lost all the clothing and gear I thought I needed to navigate a deep jungle exploration.

Yet, giving up the security of that duffel bag full of items made me realize that if I could survive this, I could survive an unpredictable future.


Best-laid plans

The Amazon adventure was booked for September. The pandemic was still raging in many parts of the world in March of 2021, so I, along with three brave friends who were crazy enough to join me, had months to plan.

When I say we thought we had prepared for any jungle situation, I mean that we packed  compasses for when we got lost, Swiss Army knives in case we had to fight off jaguars with our bare hands, enough bug spray to wipe out malaria, water treatment pills in case we had to guzzle parasite-infested water, and a book on guerrilla warfare and jungle survival.

I also had two weeks’ worth of undies, three Columbia fishing shirts, five tank tops, three pairs of hiking pants, three pairs of shorts, three types of hats, a sweatshirt and light jacket for cool nights, numerous pairs of $24 wool socks, three different styles of bathing suits and other gear that I couldn’t even remember packing.

I never check baggage, especially on international flights, but I justified it this time because of the knives and the gallons of bug spray. After landing in Sao Paulo, that luggage never made it on the plane to Manaus. We were told it would be on the next flight, landing two hours after we needed to board our “fast boat” out to the tiny fishing town of Maraã.

All that gear, all that planning, all that stuff — gone. All I had to journey out into the jungle was the sundress and hiking boots I wore on the plane and a few items tucked into my carry-on — a little blue bikini, one light sweater and a set of workout clothes that included a jaunty hot pink tank top and yoga pants.

There’s a certain giddy and resigned acceptance when you realize things have gone astray and there’s nothing you can do about it. The frantic phone calls and panic-laced energy suddenly die like a swatted mosquito, and it’s time to pull up your one and only pair of big girl panties and plow ahead.


Trying to make do

spinner image Heide Brandes on the water in Brazil
Author Heide Brandes spent nine days in some of the most remote areas of the Amazon jungle.
Courtesy Heide Brandes

Most of my adult life revolved around my and my ex’s world together — and my future without him was as mysterious and danger-fraught as this wild place I was venturing into. In a month, 26 years of memories were reduced to a pickup truck’s worth of moving boxes and a few mismatched pieces of furniture. When COVID-19 hit, the losses kept coming. Decades of friendships were scorched by the pesticide of political differences. Hobbies, exercise studios and clubs I belonged to shut their doors, and no amount of virtual classes could replace the camaraderie I craved.

I was tired of losing things, and when we arrived in the dusty fishing village of Maraã, the last “town” in the Amazon jungle west of Manaus, I scrounged what I could from the resale shops. I bought a flimsy pair of flip-flops, a stained bright orange long-sleeve fishing shirt, a baseball cap and a pullover sweater. I also bought a pack of underwear and cheap socks, but neither fit.

From Maraã, we boarded our tugboat on a dayslong journey to an even more obscure location. Here, we stayed with Mr. Jose, the last remaining member of the Katukina tribe still living on a massive remote body of water known as Parica Lake. On his humble plantation, we learned to harvest acai berries, shuffling up the tree with ankle ropes made of vines. We hiked in the footprints of jaguars, paddled canoes to unnamed islands and heard stories of the old gods and mysterious men with hair of fire and backward feet who prowl in the shadows.

Mr. Jose had stayed behind on that lonely lake when the rest of his family left for the “big city” of Maraã for an easier life. He was 14 and suddenly alone, and for 40-plus years, he has built his life around groves of acai trees and little gardens of pineapples. He built the hut he lived in out of jungle wood, and he killed a jaguar with only a knife and his bare hands when the beast ate four of his dogs.

At age 50, he visited his mother in Maraã and came home with a quiet, learning-disabled woman who would become his wife and companion. On the way back from town, he told us he wondered if he made a mistake and had ruined this predictable life he’d built alone in the jungle. I asked myself that same question: Had I made a mistake and ruined my predictable life as well?


Finally letting go

Looking back, I was freer in those days than I had been in more than 30 years. By day three, I was barefoot and feral, fishing out toothy piranha with a cane pole, dodging lethal Brazilian wandering spiders, bullet ants and fer-de-lance vipers, and drinking coffee boiled from the dirty river. By day four, the biting flies didn’t torture me anymore. Instead, they were an accepted nuisance that no amount of bug spray would deter. We learned to bathe in the river as fast as possible. From the shore or the back of the boat, we jumped in and back out as quickly as we could. It was a never-ending race to beat the bloodlust of piranha and caiman alligators.

When not eating piranha, we dined on fish with square humanlike teeth and drank the acai juice we harvested, all the while eyeing those deadly spiders that lurked on every wall of Mr. Jose’s home.

One night, I jumped into the shallows of the lake to rescue a small caiman alligator from a fishing net, blindly diving in despite the unknown dangers that lurked in the dark. I did it with abandon and excitement, feeling more alive in that moment than I had in years.

On day five, we ran out of fresh water and had to drink boiled river water. On day six, the rain battered down as if God was sending another flood. On day seven, I simply stopped wearing undies; no amount of cleaning mattered at that point.

On day eight, we took the overnight fast boat back from Maraã to Manaus, only to wake up at midnight and stare down the barrel of an assault rifle as local law enforcement scoured the public boat in search of drugs possibly being smuggled from Colombia.

On day nine, the shower in my Manaus hotel room didn’t work, and for the first time since losing my luggage, I cried. I was quickly given another room and took the first shower I had in nine days. It was by far the best trip of my life.

I wish I was able to say that those nine days of dirty adventure and lost underwear washed away all the fear and melancholy about my uncertain future, but that would be a lie. Instead, that experience seemed to solidify the fact that changes and loss were still coming, biting and incessant like those evil black flies, and no amount of planning or money or pure stubbornness could make it stop.

I came home — with scabs and blisters and probably a parasite or two — to an empty apartment, and I still wore uncertainty and sadness like that stained orange fishing shirt. But they weren’t as constricting anymore. I’d grown into those uncomfortable feelings, and like Mr. Jose, sitting alone for 40-plus years on a lonely lake, I knew I could adapt into a new me: a woman with a belly full of piranha fire, a list of new adventures and a whole drawer full of clean panties.


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