The Inca civilization arose from the highlands of Peru sometime in the early 13th century. Unfortunately, their last stronghold was conquered by the Spanish in 1572. From 1438 to 1533, they used a variety of methods that included conquest and peaceful assimilation to incorporate a large portion of western South America, centered on the Andean mountain range. Besides Peru, the Inca controlled large parts of modern Ecuador, western and south-central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, north and central Chile, and a small part of southern Colombia. Their main administrative, political, and military center was located at Cusco in modern day Peru. They were master builders and their many beautiful pyramids, including the majestic mountain top city of Machu Pichu, can still be seen and marveled at today.
To the Inca, the Jaguar represented royalty and power, and their kings wore the skins as part of their ceremonial attire.
I arrived in Guyaqil, a fishing port on the west coast of Ecuador, one hot, steamy afternoon in mid-July. The descending twin prop flew in ever-decreasing circles to avoid the jagged Andean peaks as it approached the airport. The purpose of my visit was to explore Quito, the capital city of the country, which has the unique distinction of straddling the equator and is the oldest Spanish colonial city in South America. Then, when the tourist in me was sated, I would make the journey to Cuenca, a market town nestled high in the mountains. After a brief stop at Otavalo, the small town noted for its leather goods and silver ornaments I would continue my adventure by canoe, down the Agua Rico River to where it flows into Lake Imuya.
After crossing the lake I planned to enter the jungle in search of the sacred but elusive Jaguar. The river forms a borderline between Ecuador and its neighbor Peru. Regular skirmishes flare up between the two countries, and full scale war has erupted more than once. The plan was to set off early from the Indian village, located a mile or so from the grassy banks of the river, so named for the gold deposits found there, and which the Inca used to make their exquisite adornments. The Spanish invaders, led by the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, named it the rich river soon after they discovered it on one of their many deadly forays against the Inca, in search of El Dorado the much rumored, mythical city of gold.
I first met Pasqual, a descendant of the Inca, in the hotel bar in Cuenca and told him of my desire to see the Jaguar. He listened intently and then asked, "Which one?"
"What do you mean which one?" I enquired, puzzled.
"There are two species. The normal spotted Jaguar and the much rarer black one."
My excitement grew on hearing this and I told him that I would be happy seeing either one.
'They told me later that I had climbed up on the table to make a speech, and insisted that they were to accompany me to Ireland to help me fight the British.'
'He motioned to two of his Indian friends who were sitting at the far end of the bar and they joined us at our table. A deal was struck whereby for a fee they would be my guides. We all shook hands and drank several toasts to the Jaguar. By the end of the night the tequila bottles were empty, save for the worms, and the Indians had jokingly christened me Senor Fawcett.
Percy Fawcett, the famous British explorer, had mysteriously disappeared in 1925 on one of his many expeditions through the Brazilian rainforest. He was in search of the lost city of ‘Z.’ I laughed nervously at this and hoped that I would fare better than poor old Fawcett. Most of that night is dreamlike, but I recall brief flashes of coherence, and singing Irish rebel songs at the top of my lungs, with the Indians dancing and falling about the floor, and a lot of laughter. They told me later that I had climbed up on the table to make a speech, and insisted that they were to accompany me to Ireland to help me fight the British. They promised that they would, and bring their bows and arrows. I, in turn, swore that I would help them fight their enemies, the Peruvians, and boasted that I would and could do it single-handed. After that, all else is blurred and lost in the alcoholic haze.
I rose to the surface slowly the next morning, lying face down in a hammock, with the merciless screeching of parrots ringing in my tortured skull. My face was inches from the flattened earth and I could see a swarm of huge soldier ants trooping off along the ground. With visions of being eaten alive, in panic, I struggled to turn over and reposition my aching corpse right side up. It was then that I silently cursed tequila in particular and all alcoholic beverages in general and swore fervently, should I survive this descent into hell, never to drink again. As my eyes began their slow agonizing return to focus, I realized that I was in a small mud hut with a dirt floor, and a thatched roof. In that state of borderline delirium tremens, I remember frantically scanning the walls of the hut with bleary eyes, expecting to see shrunken heads displayed there. A huge sigh of relief escaped from my parched throat when I realized that it was all in my distracted mind.
Soon, Pasqual entered through the doorway holding a small wooden bowl. He was wearing a headdress of brightly colored feathers and a grass skirt. Around his neck hung a necklace made of small bones and several sharp teeth that rattled noisily when he moved. Again, a sudden bout of alcohol-driven paranoia gripped me and I had the sudden. frightful thought that I might have made drunken, sexual advances toward one of his daughters the night before, and he was now going to poison me. But who could blame me if indeed I had made ill-advised attempts at courtship. Hot steamy jungles will do that to a man. They were extremely beautiful women and with their dusky skin, large brown, soulful eyes, short grass skirts and sensuous way of moving, even when just walking, made them very desirable and inviting. But no, thankfully, Pasqual was smiling and offering me the bowl. I waved him away with a feeble, "No, thanks. I think I'm dying," and covered my eyes wishing I was somewhere else. He was persistent, so I slowly sat up and took a few sips. In no time the bowl was empty and within minutes I was miraculously rejuvenated. "What was that? You must give me the recipe."
"I can't, Irishman, it's a tribal secret and if I tell you I will have to cook and eat you," he joked.
We left the village at daybreak and walked along the old, time-worn trail to the edge of the river where the dugouts were moored. After selecting the biggest and most sturdy one, we placed our backpacks inside along with cases of water, a basket of assorted fruits and dried meat, then pushed out into the water and set off. We rowed for the rest of that day, pausing briefly at times to rest, eat and drink water. Occasionally, cayman could be seen basking on the banks, their prehistoric, reptilian eyes watching us intently as we floated past. At one point in the journey, we passed large military encampments on each side of the river and I could see both countries flags waving proudly in the gentle breeze. Pascal explained that these were border lookout posts and, as the area was rich with gold deposits, unlawful digging was deterred by the military presence. Laughing, he pointed to the Peruvian soldiers manning their post, and reminded me of my boasting the night before. I tactfully ignored the taunts, and pretended to search my backpack for something very important.
After several hours of rowing, we came to a place on the river where the water changes its hue from the natural greenish-blue to almost black. This dramatic change manifests as a perfect line across the surface, as if drawn by an invisible hand. I was puzzled by this sudden change in color and was told it was due to the high tanin content in the trees that washed into the river along small tributaries. Large downed branches and huge amounts of jungle brush are also washed into the river during tropical storms, and could make our journey more hazardous. We rowed for many more hours, then decided that as nightfall was near and not wanting to be on the river after dark we would make camp on the bank and continue toward the lake in the morning. Before daybreak we set off again, but soon found our way blocked by a mass of floating branches and vegetation. We spent at least an hour cutting our way through, and finally, after another hour of rowing, we floated out onto the surface of the largest, and most beautiful, calm lake I had ever seen.
The long, drawn-out whoop of a howler monkey shattered the silence, and echoed all around us. As the sound faded, the silence dropped again, slowly. The stillness enveloping the lake that morning was perfect. The air, pure and frigid, could be tasted. Traces of the wispy, low-lying mist that hung just above the surface were slowly evaporating as the sun climbed lazily in the eastern sky. The flatness of the lake was a mirrored expanse stretching away from our canoe in all directions, and the reflection of a small, tree- covered island floating aimlessly off in the distance was crystal clear on the cold, azure water. A shimmering, pink skinned, freshwater dolphin broke smoothly from the depths and seemed to smile at us as it arched and slid back under. I glanced over my shoulder and smiled at the Indians sitting behind as they rowed with easy, practiced strokes, and watched as the ripples ran from the sides of the dugout and disappeared in the distance, as if in a hurry to reach shore.
The lush, green, canopied jungle lay up ahead, and I wondered if I would finally get to see the rare, fabled Jaguar once venerated by the Inca. Pasqual had assured me that I would, but I knew it would not be easy as the big cats lived deep in the interior, and we would have to re-cut an old trail. Trails are quickly overgrown due to the high humidity, copious rainfall and tropical heat, which is the perfect recipe for fast growth. Some species of vine can grow as much as six feet in one day, but my sharpened machete lay in the bottom of the canoe at my feet, and I was ready.
Up front, Pasqual raised his hand as a signal for us to stop rowing. I raised my oar, and as the canoe glided slowly to a halt, he handed me the binoculars and pointed. I raised the glasses and focused on a spot off in the direction of his outstretched arm. A large flock of birds were coming our way, too far off to see clearly, but as I adjusted the glasses and they got nearer, I saw that they were macaws. The sky became a riot of scarlet-colored flashes as their wings beat through the air. As they passed noisily overhead and flew off in the direction of the island, I continued to follow them, and watched as they lit in the treetops. The Indians prized the bright red feathers of the macaw and used them for their colorful headdresses. We resumed rowing then, and the lake was silent once more broken only by the gentle splash of our oars as they dipped in and out of the water.
We stepped out of the dugout at a less dense area of shoreline, pulled it up on high ground and tied it securely to the base of a sturdy tree. As we walked into the jungle, the heat, at first, was oppressive, the coolness of the lake by then, a distant memory. Pasqual cut the vines and hanging branches and as we followed we cut the ones he missed. We were now well inside the rainforest and the humidity was almost overpowering. We had brought plenty of water and Pasqual had told me that he knew of a freshwater stream should we get low. The sunlight faded dramatically as we progressed further in, and it took a while for our eyes to become accustomed to the interior darkness. The area was made up of mahogany trees, their large, smooth trunks stretching majestically skyward, and I wondered if any of the wood I had worked with in my other life as a carpenter, had come from this region.
My reverie was interrupted by sudden, loud scampering sounds and branches being shaken, which made us all look upward. There, high up in the canopy, a troop of noisy spider monkeys were on their way to another feeding area, probably fig trees. They took no notice of us as they swung from tree to tree, intent on their evening meal. Large colorful butterflies were our constant companions as they fluttered all around, in search of nectar. Soon, we came to a small clearing where shafts of fading sunlight lit the ground and turned the whole area into a serene, breathtaking oasis. Sure enough, as Pasqual had said, a gurgling stream wound its way through the clearing, cascaded over the rocks, and flowed off into the jungle again, on its way to the lake, its final destination.
We decided to make camp there and a good dry spot was chosen. We hung our hammocks between the trees, close together and prepared a fire pit. As we sat around the fire eating a strong stew containing I knew not what, nor dared ask, we chatted and joked like old friends. I found out later that the main ingredient in the stew was a mixture of cayman and guinea pig meat, which is considered a delicacy. Finally we clambered into our hammocks and settled down for the night, the fire heaped with enough fuel to last until morning. As I lay there in the soft folds, lulled by the gentle swaying, a lone cicada started making her night calls. Soon a second joined in and then a third. Before long the jungle was alive with the evening chorus and as I listened it became clear that they were following a distinct, pre-ordained pattern. The sound rose and fell rhythmically and seemed to ebb and flow through the warm night air. After about an hour, it rose to a deafening crescendo, and then abruptly stopped. The silence was complete once more. Sometime during the night, I thought I heard a low, growling sound off in the deeper reaches, but I wasn't sure. I had fallen into a deep slumber, and dreamt of the Jaguar.
What time it was when I awoke, I didn't know, but it was before dawn and still dark. Every muscle in my body was aching from rowing and slashing at the undergrowth over the previous couple of days. I glanced at my companions as they slept and listened to their light snores, and I could hear the faint, comforting, splashing sound of the stream as it caressed the rocks, on its way past the camp. The fire had burned low but still gave off light and heat and as I lay there waiting for my eyes to become adjusted, I was suddenly alerted by a rustling sound off to my left. I sat up, turned my head slowly, rubbed my eyes and stared. I could make out a slight movement at the tree line, close to where the stream entered the jungle. As I focused, I saw two large, bright yellow eyes staring at me. It can't be! With as little movement as possible, I instinctively reached for my knapsack, slid my hand into the front pocket and closed my hand around the grip of the old Webley pistol that I had placed there prior to leaving the village. As I slowly brought it up level, from behind a hand grabbed my wrist and another covered my mouth.
'You wanted to see the Jaguar, Irishman, well, now you will. He has come to visit with you...'
"Shhh! Be very still." It was Pasqual. How he had managed to creep up without me hearing him I'll never know, he had that uncanny knack of appearing and disappearing at will.
"You wanted to see the Jaguar, Irishman, well, now you will. He has come to visit with you," he whispered. As we both watched, the huge cat crept closer, looked at us fearlessly and padded silently toward the stream. He was no more than 20 feet from where we sat, transfixed. I could now see him clearly, and I watched spellbound as his glossy, black coat undulated with each silent step. My heart pounded when I saw the muscles across his shoulders ripple with each measured movement that spoke to the hidden power within his large frame.
He crossed the stream, and only then did he feel safe enough to drink. He was facing us directly, and spreading his front paws, bent down and lapped at the water. As he drank, I could see his four-inch long fangs gleaming in the light from the fading fire. Occasionally he raised his head and gazed in our direction holding us with his large, tawny eyes. I was riveted but strangely unafraid, and felt privileged to be in the presence of that symbol of royalty, and master of the jungle. He turned abruptly then and silently padded off into the early morning mist, and was gone. I was exhilarated by the whole experience and as I lay awake in the hammock, suddenly thought of my father, and his last words to me. “Son, whatever you do, don’t die with regrets.”
I smiled then and fell back into a deep sleep.
From "Don't Die with Regrets: Ireland and the Lessons my Father Taught Me."
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The Journey: A Nomad Reflects.