The following is intended to be the first in a short series of 3 or 4 installments recounting our travels, our adventures and our misadventures experienced in the very remote Serrania de Sira whilst looking to rediscover the lost or at least largely unknown frog which at the time was known as Dendrobates sirensis, Aichinger 1991.
This was written initially in late 2005 in a journal I kept. Though now more than 13 years has passed since the first of these expeditions transpired, the memories are in many cases still so fresh that it seems as though it all happened mere weeks ago. Closing my eyes, I can still taste the dry chalky red dust in the air as we raced down the road from Tournavista to Pucallpa. I was only 24 when I wrote this, and was at the time still adjusting to the nuances and intricacies of Peruvian culture, and to the overall, and especially so in rural Peru, much more relaxed pace of life, where time often had little to no perceived relevance. The days simply came and they went, and it was as simple as that. Still, rereading and cleaning up the writing some, I cannot help but chuckle and feel a little embarrassed with the bitterness with which I described the phenomenon of “Peruvian Time.”
Indeed, in those initial years the many delays and the frequency with which they transpired I did find aggravating, frustrating and at certain times infuriating. I am not sure at what point this began to change for me, but long ago, I began to not only take these delays in stride, but to welcome and appreciate them as very much part of the Peruvian experience. It was I think, such a welcome change of pace knowing that a six hour wait in rural Peru really changed nothing, whereas in the hectic pace and busy schedule I keep in Canada a six hour delay could have meant a shipment missing cutoff, resulting in days of wasted time and months of paperwork becoming invalidated. I realized too that some of the most unexpectedly charming conversations and heartiest laughs materialized serendipitously due to unexpected breaks in the action, due to what some refer to as the “Peruvian Chaos Factor.” Before long the charming culture and the country completely tempered my impulses to be punctual, and I began to and still so do crave time to escape into the Peruvian hinterlands and leave time and deadlines behind, at least for a day or two.
I will conclude this, which has now become a lengthier preamble than I initially anticipated with the following insights. In those early years, I was completely focused and driven by the near singular goal of finding poison frogs. This was certainly the case when the first of these expeditions to the Sira transpired. Fascinating for me after reading and editing these entries after all these years was that what I wrote about most was not so much the frogs themselves but of the people and the experiences encountered and endured in getting from point A to point B. Maybe on some subconscious level it already was more about the experience and the people I shared them with than it really was about the frogs. I came to Peru first in Feb 2003 for the frogs, it was however the people, the culture and the countryside all juxtaposed into a uniquely Peruvian experience that I fell in love with. To this day I still love nothing more in Peru than taking off in the predawn hours in a truck from Tarapoto with a couple of good friends and letting the miles pass behind us on the way to look for something somewhere else.
Puerto Inca – May 2005
“How long to Tournavista?”
“Only 3 Hours are you sure?” We could not help but to double check.
“Yes, 3 hours, no more” replied the captain. This seemed a far better option than the barge we had stowed our gear on, which we were told would get us to our destination in 8 hours.
We were looking to travel to Tornavista by river from Puerto Inca, rather than returning by road via Puerto Sungaro and ultimately to Pucallpa. Reaching Puerto Inca from Pucallpa a few days prior took us 18 hours. Though we traversed a distance of relatively few km, the road was nearly impassible, and we spent more time out of the camionetta pushing and digging it out of various quagmires than we spent riding inside of it. It was a grueling, tiresome, and frustrating endeavor. The stretch of road between Von Humboldt and Puerto Sungaro was and remains the worst stretch of road I have ever seen. We were looking to avoid repeating this endeavor, especially since it had rained heavily during the night, we knew the roads would be even worse than they were coming in. Thus, we were hoping to get to the port of Tournavista via the Rio Pachitea, and from there we would be able to get a car the rest of the way to Pucallpa. Manuel and I quickly unloaded our gear from the slow boat and upgraded to a nifty twelve foot aluminum boat equipped with a 25 horse power Suzuki. Soon we would be on our way to Tournavista. We were both relieved that we did not have to return by road Pucallpa,
It was 5 am and the villiage of Puerto Inca was still for the most part asleep as we embarked. Puerto Inca was a remarkably nice, small village of maybe a few thousand residents situated on the east bank of the Rio Pachitea, in central Peru. Our visit was brief, primarily a reconnaissance mission for an expedition we were planning later that summer to the remote Serrania de Sira. Pueto Inca would be our departure point. The goal of the coming expedition, as with nearly all our travels in Peru during that time, was to find a frog, the elusive, and largely unknown frog then known as Dendrobates sirensis. Our two days in Puerto Inca in May 2005 were spent organizing a few guides, making inquires and general arrangements for the expedition to follow that coming august. We of course were able to spend a little time frog hunting, and once we passed through the extensive cattle pasture that buffered the town we were able to find some forested areas, primarily bordering small streams running through the modest valleys in the gently undulating terrain. Here in the relatively cool, and humid forest, were able to find a lowland form of Ranitomeya sirensis. (At the time, this form was similar to those referred to as the “Panguanna” form of Dendrobates lamasi) Ameerega hahneli, and A. petersi were also in abundance alongside the gentle streams. Though abundant, the highly alert petersi tended to remain well concealed within the leaflitter not far from the streams. It was in fact only the flash of mint green from a frog fleeing underfoot that caused us to realize that we had better take a closer look as there appeared to be more than A. hahneli there. The population here is a dark brown dorsally, with mint green lateral striping, and a mottled belly of blue green to occasionally yellowish colour. They are impressive frogs, and the lateral stripes of green with dark brown has drawn comparison to petersi and mint chocolate Oreo cookies. After admiring and doing a terrible job photographing several specimens we were ashamed that we had nearly overlooked this frog as merely a greenish hahneli.
The sirensis were restricted as well to these humid stream side forest fragments, here they were found in nearly every Xananthasoma, with most containing an adult pair, and most often eggs and tadpoles of various stages of development accompanied the adults hidden within the ample refuge provided by these plants. This was our first experience with sirensis in the wild and we were quite pleased to add another species to our life list. A villager passing by, curious to what we were looking for, was eager to inform us that a red form of the same frog exists nearby. Alas, we had not the time to go in pursuit of the red striped frog. (For some reason, red in poison frogs always usually seems a little more exciting that yellow.)
We left Puerto Inca looking forward to our expedition in August, tantalizing images of the holotypic R. sirenses and the Serrenia de Sira providing pleasant material for a daydream or two whilst passing time on the meandering Pachitea river.
Including the captain, Manuel and myself, there were three other locals accompanying us, and they were not traveling light. The small aluminum boat was quite simply overloaded. No more than 20 minutes downstream, and still before dawn my happy times dreaming of sirensis were interrupted by a rocking boat. Manuel warned me, with mild concern washing over his face with, not to move. We were passing through a series of small rapids, which normally might not be a problem for a boat of this size, however as overloaded as it was any small movement from within the already rocking boat might be enough to capsize it.
Life Jackets on board? Of course not.
Inspiring more confidence was the captain navigating these presently turbulent waters with a flashlight not much stronger than the penlight attached to my car keys.
Further along and out of the rapids, with the sun rising and the fog was lifting, it was shaping up to be a beautiful morning. We relaxed and began to enjoy once again a peaceful journey down the river.
Oddly enough by 8 am we had not yet arrived in Tournavista. Not immediately concerned, I knew by then, that Peruvians are not usually the most prompt of peoples, and some seemed to exist in their own time zones. Estimates of time, especially in rural Peru must allow for a liberal margin of error. Nobody is perfect.
“How much longer” we ask.
“Half hour” he replied.
My ass was beginning to throb, and by shifting weight from cheek to cheek (carefully so I didn’t rock the boat) I was able to tame the throbbing, one cheek at a time. I could survive another half hour.
By 9 am I was becoming really uncomfortable and was tireing of being crammed in the damned boat.
“What the hell man, you said half an hour an hour ago! When are we going to arrive?”
“Ahorita” he replied.
Sure. Then in the distance, to the east of the river my eyes focused on a beautiful range of small mountains, rising up out of the receding fog behind the village of Puerto Sira. Wait a minute! Puerto Sira? That could not be, and with a sense of doom washing over me, I dig out my map.
Son of a Bitch.
We were indeed doomed. According to the map, we were are at best only halfway to Tournavista, and were at that time already over 4 hours into a guaranteed 3 hour ride!
Naturally I begin to anger, and bitch to Manuel about our present predicament, which was completely out of his control, however I just had to bitch at someone. Just what kind of idiot was our captain? I was edgy, sore assed, and the sun was getting hot, without a cloud in the sky it was going to be a scorcher by noon. We would surely arrived cooked.
It is interesting to note that for a country that has at least 4 words meaning essentially NOW (ahora, ahorita, ahora mismo, un ratito) nobody seemed to understand what the hell now actually means.
We are absolutely cooked, busted and numbed when docked at Tournavista a little before 1 pm. Just under 9 hours, for a 3 hour trip. Paying the captain for the trip seemed a huge injustice. Strechting and massaging the life back into our extremities and asses, we wondered about the barge we had forgone for the (faster) aluminum boat. If it took nine hours in that damned aluminum boat, how long would it have taken in the barge?
A quick inquiry from a local at the dock revealed a horrifying 32 hours. I can only speculate how pissed I would have been had we been stuck on that riverboat for 24 hours longer than the stated length of time. As we were to learn repeatedly, the Peruvian estimate of time is often useless, a phenomenon I will never understand, but when a Peruvian tells you with all certainty it will take half an hour, you better get ready for at best an hour.
So they there we were, feeling a little sorry for ourselves, 9 hours into the day and still at least 3 hours by road (we hoped) from Pucallpa. The road was dry, dusty, and incredibly rough, and having already experienced a treacherous 18 hour ride going to Puerto Inca crammed 4 people into the back of a pick up truck, Manuel and I opted to splurge and paid for the entire back seat of a small white station wagon.
Somewhat spread out in the back, we tried to get comfortable, which was not easy as the comfort factor had long since gone from the seat cushioning, as had the shocks, however, we had some breathing room, and the worst it seemed was over.
Sometime later I was whiplashed out of a slumber as the rickety wagon was brought to an abrupt stop, and in the process kicked up a huge cloud of dust.
What was going on I wondered.
The settling dust revealed a large man, a very large, very greasy, very dirty looking man standing at the intersection of a small trailhead and the road. With him two large barrels of aguardiente.
OK I thought answering my own question as to why we had stopped, we are going to haul those barrels into Pucallpa with us.
Wait a minute.
I knew something was terribly wrong as soon as Manuel began to argue with the driver. While I was not clear on what exactly is being said, I knew it was not good, and I became crestfallen. The already shitty day was about to fuck us yet again.
Yes indeed this man, along with his cargo would be coming to Pucallpa with us.
Despite having paid for the entire back seat, the driver told us in a rather prickish tone that since we were both skinny we did not need the room.
We were not impressed, and since neither of us wanted to ride bitch, we both got out and let the big grimy fella get in the middle.
Climbing in beside him he gave me a smile. My lips formed a smile in return, but my eyes said something else. He was taking up far too much room, and my hips were wedged between his monstrous frame and the unforgiving door.
With every lurch in road his sweaty shoulder and greasy elbow rubbed into my side. Despite the constant clouds of dust being kicked up by the car, I had taken to hanging as much of my torso out the window as was physically possible. It was a deseperate attempt at reclaiming personal space. Despite the choking dust this contortion was far better than rubbing against this guy who was by now sweating profusely.
I am not sure when exactly I began to lose mental control of the situation, but it must have been around the time I became aware of every breath he exhaled not only by the labored sounds of every inhale, but because I could feel the sides of his gut undulating against my ribcage as he exhaled.
I felt all control slipping completely away as I realized the sweat soaking through my shirt on the right side of my body was not my own. I felt completely repulsed and I was indescribably uncomfortable. My skin was crawling. I could feel myself losing my shit entirely.
Moments later, my shit, I lost.
There I was half out the widow and whist I gasped for air, he leaned over, and with a righteous snort, hauled up a loogie from somewhere deep, and spat the fucking wad out the very same window I was leaning out of. As the errant spray from his ignorant expulsion splattered against my cheek I snapped.
The car stopped quite abruptly, and Manuel and I walked in silence the last few km back into Pucallpa.
To be continued…