Forest journal: Twelve days in the jungle

Photos by Antonio Perez

Screaming monkeys, falling trees, chainsaw loggers, village chiefs and a nation's president are on the docket as Tribune chief business correspondent David Greising takes to the Amazonian rainforest.

Along the Essequibo River, Guyana. Day 1:

The first impression of the rain forest is the quiet. I always expected a constant chatter of monkeys accented by a sharp call of birds. But the Guyana rain forest alongside the Essequibo River--the country's largest--is strikingly quiet. It's quiet, that is, until the howler monkey shows up. (Photo: Sipaliwini River in Suriname, near the village of Kwamalasamutu.)

An apparatus in their throat serves as a boom box for howler monkeys who shout and bark, staking out territory and calling for potential mates, sometimes miles away.

Other surprises: The jungle floor is surprisingly open. A machete can help clear a trail but is not essential. Still, the vegetation is extremely disorienting. After a while, the 200-foot trees all start to look alike.

The British Broadcasting Corp. has set up a huge encampment here, and they're filming scientists from around the world doing field research. One woman spends all day atop a tree, observing monkeys. A rodent specialist catches bats in nets at night and dissects them by day. The bug man's arms are loaded with red welts--bites from the subjects of his study.

The BBC encampment has made almost no footprint on the jungle. The network's first one did, though. Workers slashed and burned several acres of old-growth rain forest, erecting luxurious thatched huts with a commanding view of the river.

We happened across the charred stumps and ghost-town camp during our first walk through the forest. Someone from the Beeb must have decided this forest carnage wouldn't be suitable as the backdrop for a nature series.

Along the Essequibo River. Day 2:

"Specimen collection" sounds almost antiseptic. But that's not the way it's done. Not in the Amazonian bush, anyway. Not around midnight.

When we jumped into a flat-bottom boat last night along with Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, specimen collection wasn't on the agenda. We were just planning to look. We had we set out in search of black caiman--the dreaded alligator-like reptiles that hunt anything in the water, including people. In Apoteri, a nearby village, a caiman snatched a child from the water a few weeks ago.

Using flashlights, we spotted the eyes of several caiman, shining like blood-red reflectors on the river's still surface.

When Mittermeier flashed his light into the trees along the riverbank--and the eyes of a snake shone back--the outing changed from idle to action-packed. Mittermeier had a backpack on, and in the field, a backpack can serve as a container for a reptile specimen. But first, Mittermeier would need to "collect" it.

Mittermeier directed Vidas, our Amerindian guide, toward the snake's red eyes. Just as the boat jutted beneath the overhanging branches, Mittermeier snatched the snake's tail.

He pulled gently at first. Then he put muscle into it. Soon he yanked so hard that seed pods from the tree flew into the boat and water.

Man overpowered snake, and the head popped out of the branches. With Mittermeier holding the tail at arm's length, the snake arched and jolted like a downed power line. It wanted a piece of him but couldn't quite circle back for a bite.

Mittermeier's colleague, Dick Rice, must have seen this sort of thing before. He sat in the bow of the boat, the snake's long fangs darting within inches of his face. But a jump into the river offered no escape. There were caiman nearby.

Apoteri village, Guyana. Day 3:

A few rusted skeletons of old processing equipment are all that remain from the days when a balata factory made Apoteri a commercial center. Villagers would fan out into the forest, gashing the balata trees with their machetes, catching its rubbery sap in their buckets.

Today, in this village of fewer than 200 people, only a handful of jobs bring in any money. Logging is the main line of work.

But the toshau, or mayor, sees logging jobs as a dead end for the village. "You get a job, but it's a one-way job," Toshau Edghill Bowen said. "You might have it, but what about your children? What about your grandchildren? What will they do when the trees are gone?"

Bowen couldn't talk to me when we first arrived, after dark and unannounced, in his village last night. We found him outside a friend's house, tending a fire and drinking parakiri, an alcohol distilled from the casaba plant.

The mayor's young daughters had led us from his stilt house across the village. My guide, Eustace Alexander, warned me to watch my step. Bushmaster might lurk along the paths.

The bushmaster, called a "king" of the Amazon, is a black, thick-bodied, highly venomous pit viper. They laze along the edges of paths, nestling among the roots of tall grasses and striking at anything that disturbs them.

I stepped carefully. The girls, barefoot and walking quickly in the dark, seemed not to care at all.

Georgetown, Guyana. Day 4:

Caribbean Airlines lost my luggage en route to Guyana. After three days in the jungle without a proper change of clothes, I prefer to think of my odor now as "musky."

Landing by charter plane in Guyana's capital city, I have 45 minutes to buy new clothes, shower and be ready for my next meeting. Just one catch: The meeting is with the president of Guyana, Bharrat Jagdeo.

Besides bushwear, I'll need a Sunday-go-to-meet-the-president outfit. The store has no athletic stockings, and I'll come to regret this. Sheer, knee-length stockings don't do much to keep chiggers and other biting insects at bay. No wonder they're not forest fashion.

At the president's compound, Tribune photographer Antonio Perez and I push aside a heavy iron gate. A guard lightly touches our bags, and we are walking toward the president's office.

Jagdeo greets us jovially, allows Tony to photograph him speaking with Mittermeier, then quickly dismisses us. They are talking about setting aside more of Guyana's rain forest for conservation and for carbon credits, and they don't want a reporter listening in.

Raleighvallen, Suriname. Day 6:

If a tree falls in the rain forest, you bet you hear it.

We had just come across one of those quiet natural wonders of the Suriname rain forest--a small grouping, or "lek," of cock-of-the-rock, a rare bird indigenous to this area.

When we came along, two males were on the ground, strutting, dancing, stabbing their beaks at each other. Roughly a dozen perched in nearby trees, their shocking orange plumage and improbably round crest showing brightly, their loud calls announcing their position.

Then we heard it: A loud, deep percussion, like the sound of a distant cannon. Mittermeier told us it was the sound of a rotted tree trunk, explosively giving way.

A few moments later: pop, pop, pop. Those were the lianas, thick and wooded vines that connect the crown of a tree to the forest floor.

Then a roar, an avalanche of sound--utter destruction. And it was headed our way. It was easy to imagine the crown of the tree crushing or impaling us as it fell.

Tony bolted. I bolted. Everyone ran except Mittermeier and Vidas, our Amerindian friend. Both had heard the sound before and lived to talk about it.

Kwamalasamutu, Suriname. Day 7:

We land at Kwamala, and the whole village turns out to see us. This happened at Apoteri too. People emerge from the trees and riverbanks to see the plane set down, unload alien people and quickly depart.

The moment we set down, dark clouds empty like a large bucket, drenching the village. We scurry under some stilted, thatched huts. Across the way, viewed through a sheet of water, young girls in hammocks giggle and play games, just whiling the day away.

The village is ready for us. Kwamala once chased away miners, loggers and other interlopers with arrows and even blowguns. Now, Conservation International is encouraging a tourist trade. Women from the village have beaded cheap armbands and necklaces--nothing special. They have a lot to learn.

As we wander the village, though, people begin offering anything that might sell: baskets, loin cloths, cooking utensils. A boy comes with a bow carved from leatherwood, a dark-grained, springy wood. He bends it back and unloads an arrow, thwang!, straight toward the sky. A bird arrow, it has multiple prongs carved into a reedy plant. That one, I buy.

There is a rousing volleyball match on the packed mud of the village center. A young man, a newly elected "captain" to the village granman, or tribal leader, rushes up to Mittermeier. He wants a basketball and some nets for the hoops. He's clearly putting on a display, showing his public that he knows how to deliver for them. If this were Chicago, he'd be an alderman.

Werehpai Caves, Suriname. Day 8:

"My spirit is too weak; mortality Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep."

The English poet John Keats wrote that, on his first viewing of the Elgin Marbles, a breathtaking marble frieze that had just arrived from Athens, where the Turks who controlled Greece at the time had sold it to Lord Elgin.

The same sense of wonderment struck me today. We are among the few non-Amerindian people so far to see the petroglyphs of Werehpai.

The stone carvings, thought to be 5,000 years old, were discovered several years ago when a villager chasing a runaway dog chanced upon them. The carvings clearly depict native life--monkeys, snakes, human figures with large, warlike face masks.

One of the seven grottoes that make up the caves seems to be an arena of a sort. If animal or human sacrifice took place here, it would not be surprising. But Mittermeier said a pair of archeologists who studied the caves recently say that there is no evidence of bloodletting.

The tribes of Kwamala plan to turn this into a tourist attraction. For now, though, the visit to Werehpai feels like an intrusion into a holy site. Our guide, from the Tirio tribe, says a prayer before allowing us to enter. And yet, paradoxically, the visit also creates a connection to those ancient people--they feel more alive, by virtue of being carved in stone.

Keats apparently returned to the Elgin Marbles numerous times after first viewing them. They entranced him, much as these petroglyphs can mesmerize a visitor.

I wonder, if the Werehpai caves do become a tourist attraction, whether the people of Kwamala ever will regret marketing this rare treasure to the outside world.

Kwamalasamutu, Suriname. Day 9:

Last night started with two bottles of good quality local rum sitting idly against a wall. By the time we wrapped up, the bottles lay empty, having helped us distill some truth about this little village and the world around it.

The night started with the meeting Mittermeier had come for: A discussion with the granman of Kwamala about how carbon credits could help preserve Kwamala's rain forest. Lit by kerosene lanterns, with the granman dressed in a traditional beaded wardrobe, the talk had an air of ceremony and consequence.

Our talk eventually veered toward the profound too. Michael Tobias, a wealthy ecologist, philanthropist, author and photographer, is writing a book about environmental sanctuaries and traveling with Mittermeier--a friend and subject of his writing--in Suriname.

Tobias, a Jainian devotee who believes in protecting all forms of life, once airlifted cattle off a New Zealand island he owns because he considered them an invasive species. A lesser, and hungrier, person might have considered alternative ways of dispensing with the herd.

In Kwamala, all of us were upset, and Tobias nearly nauseated, when we saw a villager gutting a red-footed tortoise. A day earlier, we had spotted one while hiking up Voltzberg Mountain. Mittermeier pointed to the tortoise as evidence of the area's undisturbed ecology. Still, they are a popular food for forest people. Tobias prompted the night's most important revelation when he began wondering about the life plans of people in a place like Kwamala.

That's when Vidas spoke up. I had begun admiring Vidas even before he stood his ground while the huge rain forest tree crashed nearby. Vidas lives in two worlds: flying bush planes and operating a high-end video camera at work, hunting with bow and arrow for his family's meals when at home. The idea of a "life plan" seemed to make no sense to Vidas.

"People in this village, when they think about the future, they say, 'Today, I fished here, and I caught a lot of fish. Tomorrow," he said, pointing his finger in a different direction, "I'll fish there.'"

"And then, maybe later, I'll fish over there." He pointed in a third direction--as if directing his thoughts toward the world's vast possibilities.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about the benefits of simplicity. I'm guessing Vidas has not read Thoreau. He and the people of Kwamala don't need to.

Georgetown-Lethem Road, Guyana. Day 10:

When our driver first showed up at 3 a.m., I nearly choked. Headed south in search of clear-cut loggers, wildcat miners, and other forest interlopers, we wanted to be inconspicuous.

But when our Range Rover showed up, even in the dark it seemed to blare: "Nosy American."

Red, white and blue stripes blazed diagonally across the car's body, each 6 inches wide. Compared to this paint job, neon would have seemed like camouflage.

But we persevered, even as a busted air conditioner turned our off-roader into a rolling oven.Our driver quickly learned the drill. Always park facing out, in case we need a quick escape. Keep the engine running. He watched as we stowed my notes and Tony's photographic memory cards after each interview. The next person we meet might try to take them from us.

We learned lessons too. The first one: Don't judge a driver by his taste for non-cryptic coloration.

This man was a find. People along the road greeted him like an old friend. Asked to help find loggers in the woods, he drove into a logging camp, honked his horn, and out came Werner Grimmond, who had worked as a surveyor for Demerara Timber Co. until recently.

As Grimmond showed us around, pointing out clear-cut logging and telling us about other spots further away that he said were worse, I wondered how he could be so indifferent to any backlash he might get from the timber company.

"Somebody has got to come in and stop these people," Grimmond said. "They're destroying the forest. The forest will still be here for me. But maybe not my grandchildren or my great-grandchildren. They might have nothing."

Boa Vista, Brazil. Day 11:

People who don't want to be quoted by name, who are obsessed about how their words might appear--they're always the least likely to be interesting. Laerte Oestreicher is the exception to that rule.

When we first approached Oestreicher in the office of his Boa Vista sawmill, he sought to turn us away on the spot. No interview, he said, and no pictures.

But we held our ground, just casually asked questions about his business, and got him talking. By the time Tony started snapping--timidly at first, continuously before long--Oestreicher's sharp tongue was off and running.

On dealing with Chinese buyers: "No, they're not people of confidence. We don't ship to them because they're not correct payers."

The Brazilian government's troubles with Amerindian people? Uncle Sam's doing, he said. "They send someone into the jungle to stand there with the Indians and make trouble," he said. "They pay people to do these things."

Climate-change politics are an American plot, Oestreicher argues, spouting a line that Brazilian politicians have argued too. "They didn't protect their forest. Why do they come here and want to protect our forest?" he asked.

Oestreicher's sawmill, one of at least a dozen in Boa Vista, literally consumes rain forest wood. His screeching sawblades can dress an old-growth tree in 10 minutes. A dozen workers turn out 15,000 cubic meters of wood in a year.

"We have good wood," Oestreicher said. "We have the jungle. We have the Amazon. We're selling a good product."

Good for Oestreicher, certainly. For the rain forest, maybe not so much.

Georgetown, Guyana. Day 12:

A trip such as this one involves dozens of appointments and hundreds of logistical details. Of all of them, the one that most haunts me is always the same: My fear of oversleeping and missing the flight home.

On this trip, like many, I have to leave my hotel at 3 a.m. in order to get my flight. My luggage has been found, but it is in Miami, not here, so I am still dong laundry each night in my hotel sink--on those nights when I have had a sink.

I've got to pack my new possessions--that leatherwood bow and arrow from Kwamala, much beadwork, a blowgun, a basket, some Brazilian soccer jerseys.

Before nodding off for two hours' sleep, I carefully store the most valuable possessions I have acquired on the trip. They are four spiral-bound reporter's notebooks. Their pages are warped from the humid jungle air, creased where they've been folded into a pocket, dirtied where they were hidden from sight.

But they're the chief product of these two weeks' work--and the several weeks of research that got me here in the first place, that led me to Kwamala and the Georgetown-Lethem Road.

Somewhere in those pages the story is already written down. It's in the words of Granman Alalaparoe, of Werner Grimmond, of Laerte Oestreicher.

Now it's my job to pull it out.

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