Wild fish ripped my flesh.
Let me qualify that. A wild fish ripped my flesh. If there is one point that Ney Olortegui, our Amazon guide, would like to make clear ("When I had an agent," says Ney, "I was going to swim in a 20,000-gallon tank with thousands of piranha at Circus Circus in Las Vegas. The guy who had contact with my agent say, 'You commit suicide' ") it is that people go overboard when they talk about man-eating fish.
When I look back on those stretches of the Amazon Basin that we traveled, the various tributaries and patches of jungle, it is not man-eating fish that spring to mind. It is mud. Strange gray-green-blue-brown mud. One small man-eating fish ripped my flesh. "You tell about that, nobody gonna want to come," said Ney.
Traditionally, stories told by explorers back from the Amazon are hard to swallow. Those fierce women warriors for whom the Amazon is named? Fabricated by a 16th-century Spaniard. Those 300-pound catfish that can drag children to the bottom of the river and gulp them whole? Well, those do exist. We ate part of one. And we decided that the Amazon is where Hollywood finds models for imaginary beasts: the wookie in Star Wars and the gremlins in Gremlins, for instance. We owned a gremlin and kept it on our raft. And we could have picked up a wookie, but we didn't. We left it in the muddy village of Santa Maria, moaning.
The mud is what sticks with me. Two episodes in the mud. Ney, my son, John, and I in the mud, twice—once wallowing like little kids, and once when I thought, Someone could die like this.
The thing is, you probably want to hear about the man-eating fish. O.K. But I refuse to sensationalize it.
There I was, dog-paddling in the Huallaga, an Amazonian tributary in northern Peru. Our raft, the Yacu-Mama (named by Ney for a legendary Amazonian monster), was at anchor. Several of us explorers were in swimming. Ney had assured us that we needn't worry about what he referred to as "my piranha."
As long as we kept moving, he said. The kind of piranha that frequented this stretch of the river would rather eat something dead: "People come here, they make a documentary out of the piranha. They take a cow, they shoot pictures till they drown the cow. They use special pipes from the United States to blow bubbles. They buy one of the stuffed piranha, put it in the water and make its jaws move. They strip the cow, so it look beautiful, to the bone. That's false. That's why my piranha have gained so much fame."
Then another explorer asked about something even worse: the candiru, a toothpick-sized fish that introduces itself (strange phrase) into one or another of a swimmer's orifices and cannot be removed except by surgery. Was it true, in fact, that the candiru was capable of swimming up the stream of a person urinating into the river?
"Oh, yeaahhh," said Ney. "They do that. Can...dee...ru. But thass just if you not wearing a bathing suit."