I have no idea why I came to trust Dave.
The man loved snakes, scorpions, and spiders. I hate spiders — and I’m not too keen on snakes or scorpions.
But this was the rain forest, where Dave seemed at home, and where, to me, everything seemed strange and foreboding.
I watched as a line of ants, dwarfed by the leaves they were hauling, marched past my feet.
I listened as distant howler monkeys made eerie noises like the wind wailing through the trees.
I cringed as a bright yellow spider made its resolute journey across the shoulder of one of my companions. Dave’s face lit up as he snatched the spider and held it in his palm, showing it off like a trophy.
“Completely harmless!” he announced. Anne, the young woman who provided the shoulder, merely shuddered.
Deep in the Amazon Rain Forest
Dave was leading our small group on an introductory hike through the rain forest, deep in Ecuador’s Amazon basin. We were staying at a remote lakeside hostelry called Sacha Lodge, reached by dugout canoe two hours from the town of Coca.
The guided jungle walks were included in the price of the stay, along with meals, a hammock and enough hot water to wash off the inevitable mud.
Though Dave was English, he seemed born to the rain forest, which over the past two years had become his spiritual home. He left England after working various bizarre jobs, including guinea pig in medical tests (one called for drinking grease while avoiding all exercise).
Fleeing to the tropics, he signed on as a hand on a private boat, whose owner stocked the galley only with canned tomatoes, mushrooms, and cocktail sausages.
After developing symptoms of malnutrition, Dave jumped ship in the Galapagos and made his way to the rain forest, where he hired on at Sacha Lodge, taught himself the ways of the jungle with the help of the local Quichua tribe and became expert in native lore.
Considering Dave’s checkered history with food, it’s no surprise that on our first walk — co-guided with Pablo, a machete-wielding young Quichua — Dave suggested we try some rain forest “grub.”
Dave is the kind of guy one should always take at his word. Pablo sliced open a small coconut palm, revealing a mass of wriggling white beetle larvae. Dave popped a grub or two into his mouth and offered us each one of our own: “Try it, tastes like coconut!”
Dave soon spotted more of his idea of food — a group of queen ants, whose bloated bodies made them a local delicacy. ‘What luck!” he exclaimed, enthusiastically gathering them up. “Great appetizers for dinner.”
I couldn’t wait for the main course.
As we rambled along, Dave gave us a course in jungle pharmacology.
“Think of the rain forest as a chemist’s shop without all the little bottles,” he said. Boiling up the bark of a chuchuhuasa tree produced a a liquid believed to combat stomach disorders, which I imagined was in high local demand.
Potions or lotions made from other plants were said to serve as contraceptives, aphrodisiacs, deodorants, or snake repellents.
Dave demonstrated one natural remedy after my arm was bitten by ferocious fire ants. Picking a leaf from a nettle-lined ortiga plant, Dave began furiously swatting my arm with it, proclaiming it a “powerful painkiller.”
At first, the cure seemed as bad as the disease: the nettles stung and formed welts on my arm. But soon the pain from the fire ants was gone.
Swimming With Piranhas
Still, I’ll never know why I followed Dave into a piranha-infested lake.
I assumed he was kidding when he said the lake was teeming with those fierce little fish with the razor teeth and ravenous reputations — that he was just mimicking one of those psychotic super-villains always trying to do away with James Bond. (“And now, Mr. Bond, as my special guest, I leave you to enjoy dinner with my pet piranhas!”)
I’m not a complete fool: I let Dave dive in first to test the waters. “Come on in,” he urged. “They’re not biting.”
And, in the heat of the Amazon day, the lake did look mighty refreshing. I jumped off the jetty, swam around a bit, and climbed out when Dave did.
Back on the jetty, Pablo was tying some bait (“pig heart,” Dave informed us) to a fishing line. Within seconds, Pablo had hooked a piranha right where we had dived in. Each time he threw the line in, he hooked another.
I glared at Dave. “I thought you said they weren’t biting!”
Dave smiled at me. “They don’t go after humans unless they’re really hungry or if you have an open wound,” he replied, shrugging it off as though it were a mere spider or scorpion. “You don’t have an open wound, do you?”
That night, we dined on appetizers of fried queen ants, which we picked up and ate like peanuts. “Good pub snacks,” Dave commented — and, I had to admit, they did go well with a cold beer.
As for the main course? Roast beef.
But, as a special request, the cook did fix me up some pan-fried piranhas.
Better them than me.