Thursday, April 30, 2009

Paradise Lust: An Eco-Friendly Journey Into the Heart of the Amazon - Chapter Five

Chapter Five: The Tale Told by an Idiot

I don’t know how long we wandered through the trackless rainforest. It could have been a day … it could have been a week. I was lost in my own nightmarish monotony. Left-right-left-right. Swear. Left-right-left-right. Grumble. Left-right-left-right.

A grain of sand in my shoe was getting bigger with every excruciating mile. One morning it was as big as a grapefruit, and by mid-afternoon it was about the size of the Rockies. I wished it were in my other shoe. There was a hole in that one.

We had sung “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” so many times that I had begun to think that his name really was my name, too. If we had been interrogated by some foreign or domestic agency right then, I would have willingly and eagerly admitted to being John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt without so much as the threat of waterboarding.

The Amazon had been, at first, a panoply of thrilling originality. Over time it had become a tiresome pageant of tedium. I chewed on my shirtsleeve for several hours. I wasn’t really hungry — I’d recently eaten my hat — but I thought it might help relieve the stupefying boredom of our slow march.

I was exhausted, I was bored, I had eaten nothing but insects and textiles for days, and I had not used the restroom since I had left the United States. But, I had saved a square foot of this hell-forest and I was damn well going to look at it! When it comes to real estate, the only thing that is really mine is my funeral plot and the square foot of rainforest I saved on Facebook with my (Lil) Green Patch. And this was the only one of the two I’d ever be able to appreciate.

My square foot was out there and, by God, I was going to see it.



I was prepared for another Left when Pepe stopped suddenly, causing us all to plow into his back.

“Hey! … WTF … Ow! … You sorry son of a … Oink-a!”

“Don’t eenybody move. Don’t even make a sound. Dere ees a very beeg jaguar een front of us.” Pepe started to back up slowly.

“OH MY GOD!” somebody shouted, but I’m not going to tell you who it was. If the jaguar hadn’t seen us before, he certainly did now.

This wasn’t your typical Disney “Johnny the Jolly Jaguar.” We couldn’t just pull a porcupine quill out of its paw and have him lick our hands and lead us to a lost city of gold. No, this was 350 pounds of well-muscled malevolence, and it was mad. It let out a cry like a catamount. Which makes sense if you look on Wikipedia.

I slapped Christy Smith-Christie hard across the face. She hadn’t been the one to startle the animal, but it did relieve a little of my tension.

A leads to B leads to C. We were at C. “We going to die now,” Pepe explained to us.

I screamed like a girl.

“Throw it the pig!” I said. I hadn’t yet learned that not every problem can be solved by throwing a pig at it.

Our native guide, Pepe, did what any rational native guide would have done. He ran away.

“You can’t outrun that thing!” I called after him.

“I don’t haff to outrun eet, Meester Bob! I chust haff to outrun jew!” And he was gone.

I took stock of our situation. We were three starving Americans and a pig hopelessly lost somewhere in the Amazon Rainforest staring down the business end of a jaguar. No two ways about it … Pepe was right. We were about to die.

The jaguar growled. I stepped behind Timmy, but the Pole Cat gave me a stern look so I stepped behind him, instead.

I was more or less prepared to die. I had canceled my newspaper subscription and left a key with the neighbors. And I did have that funeral plot.

I closed my eyes. Then I opened them because I thought I should look death in the face. Then I closed them again because the jaguar was looking right at me. Then I tried opening just one. Then I put my fingers in my ears and blinked rapidly so it looked like a silent movie. Yep. That’s the way I wanted to go.

I didn’t hear the rustling in the leaves because I had my fingers in my ears, but suddenly a half dozen Waiayotta tribesmen appeared from the forest, each with an arrow tipped with a poison frog aimed right at the jaguar. They did know their frogs.

The jaguar scowled — if they can scowl — and disappeared into the forest. I put my fingers to my lips and whistled the way cool people do, and the cat came back.

“He went that way!” I said, pointing after Pepe.

The jaguar and I made eye contact, and, for a split second, we understood one another on a visceral level. Predator to predator. “Thanks for supper. I’ll show you a lost city of gold sometime,” he seemed to say. And he was gone.

Christy Smith-Christie slapped me hard across my face. O.K. … O.K. … Fair is fair. We were all relieved and made to thank the Waiayotta, our champions.

“Schlemiel! Schlimaazel!” one of the warriors said to us.

Of course, we had lost our interpreter when Pepe ran away so we had no idea what he was getting at. We tried speaking English loudly, since that always seems to work. We tried some universal hand signals, but it seems Little Bunny Foo Foo had never hopped through this forest. They looked at us as if we were some kind of brainless foreigners, not Americans.


I’d heard that sound before.

The Waiayotta warriors stepped aside to reveal four of their kinsmen bearing a lavish palanquin bearing — who? — our erstwhile companion and sometime god of the Waiayotta, Geo the Clown!


The clown was always smiling, but he seemed to smile extra scarily as he nodded to one of the tribesmen with the frog arrows.

“Inka dinka dinka dinka doo!” the Waiayotta said. A dozen more tribesmen came forth and made us ready for the next phase of our journey.

The Pole Cat, Smith-Christie, Timmy and I were each helped into our own individual sillas, which amounted to not much more than a waiting-room chair strapped to the back of one of the burlier natives. The pig was wrapped in a more traditional papoose and carried by a less imposing tribesman. He seemed quite comfortable and happy to travel in style. A few of the other natives took up our gear. We all fell in line behind Geo in his grand palanquin and, looking like something straight out of the Sherpa Image catalog, we resumed our journey.


I don’t know who arranged it, but each silla had its own selection of magazines. People … Newsweek … Southern Living … Highlights. I was halfway through a connect-the-dots when we finally came to a halt.

“What’s this?” asked the Pole Cat.

“Where are we?” asked Smith-Christie.

“Werv u brawt us?” That was Timmy.

The Waiayotta knelt and Geo the Clown stepped out of his sedan. He stood a little taller than I remembered. And he spoke. That was a first.

“Here is the rainforest you have saved,” he said. His voice was sort of a cross between Kelsey Grammer and Harpo Marx.

“Yippee!” was our first reaction, immediately followed by, “Where?”

Honk-a! spoke the horn. A Waiayotta stage hand came forward with a black bag, gave it to the clown and removed to a respectable distance.

“It is here.” The clown rummaged in the bag a moment and brought out a white hard-hat and gave it to the Pole Cat. “Behold!”

Nobody says “Behold.” That’s stupid. Nevertheless, the clown indicated a tree none of us had noticed before.

“It’s the tallest in the forest,” said Geo. “Climb it.”

The Pole Cat brought out the climbing gear he had carried all this way. Ropes and spikes and jangly metal things. He stood at the base of the tree and looked up.

“I’m scared!” he said.

“Put on the hat.”

The Pole Cat put on the hard-hat and began to climb. In minutes he was higher than he had ever been before. And he wasn’t afraid!

“I get it now! I understand! I don’t have to be a lineman. It’s wireless. It’s all wireless! Oh, why didn’t I see it before? Hey! How do I get down from here?”

Geo turned to Christy Smith-Christie, the Berkeley co-ed. He reached in his bag and he brought out a long, yellow ribbon which he gave to her. He revealed to us another tree. The widest in the forest.

“Behold!” Now I thought he was just showboating.

“Here is the tree you wanted to hug. Your parents are watching. They always have been. They know you love them and they always have. Now, click your heels three time and hug your tree. Tie this ribbon around it in their memory as you go.”

She hugged the tree, chalked off the first hug and the second. When she was on the far side of the tree, hugging and chalking, the clown focused his attention on Timmy.

“Timmy. U wnt d cof syrup trE.” He reached in his bag and produced an empty medicine cup and a formidable syringe. “Bhold! L%k
der,” he made a grand gesture — grander than was warranted under the circumstances — “Yr trE awaits. Fil d cup N yr kin wil B :-$$$ 4ever.”

“Tnx, Mr. *:O)”

I regarded the clown with anger and suspicion. “I’ll bet you don’t have anything in that little black bag for me!” I said.

“But I do,” he said, reaching into his bag.

“Don’t say, ‘Behold,’” I said. I might have rolled my eyes.

“Be— Oh … O.K. Look over there.”

There it was. I’d spent hours on Facebook to make this moment a reality. And here it was. I was looking right at it. My own square foot of rainforest.

It was on a level piece of earth, exactly one foot by one foot, tastefully landscaped. It was enclosed by a short, white wooden fence with a gate which was open, inviting. On the square foot within the fence grew an apple tree laden with plump, juicy apples. Granny Smith … Red Delicious … I don’t know what kind they were. I didn’t really care. I was famished.

As I prepared to step inside the little white fence, I noticed that the rainforest had one more surprise for me. Entwined among the branches of the apple tree was what had to have been the biggest snake I had ever seen. I’m pretty sure it was an anaconda.

The allegory was not lost on me.

“Looks like you’ve got a choice to make,” said the clown.

Now, I know when I’m being set up for a Fall. Snake in the apple tree? That’s the oldest trick in the Book!

“Nothing doing!” I said.

I was pretty hungry, though. And the apples did look pretty good. What harm could just one bite do?

But I’m a thinker. I thought, I’m standing in one of the few places on earth untouched by the hand of man. A virtual paradise. Mankind was getting closer to my little square foot of rainforest every minute. It shouldn’t be like that. I guess that’s why I tried to save it in the first place.

I thought, I have faced all manner of inconvenience and discomfort to come here because this rainforest is something I believe in. And, once I’m here, I find a snake in a tree with several very tempting apples. The last time anyone was in a situation like this, man was cast out and paradise lost.

So. I made a decision. Paradise it was, and paradise it should remain. This time, Man would leave voluntarily and the forest would remain in all its magnificence, unseen and unmolested. I closed the gate on the little white fence and latched it behind me.

“I’m ready to go home now,” I said.


Now I’m back to the old routine. Doing what I can to save the world, one click at a time. Because I care just that much. I’m glad I saved the rainforest, but it’s good to be home.

And, yes, I did finally get something to eat. Before we left the rainforest, my companions and I enjoyed a nice roasted pig. Don’t ask me where the apple in its mouth came from.

Hey! A friend just sent me a drink on Facebook. I think I’ll go down to the bar and find it.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Paradise Lust: An Eco-Friendly Journey Into the Heart of the Amazon - Chapter Four

Chapter Four: The Ten-Year-Old’s Tale

A cat looks down on man, a dog looks up to man, but a pig will look a man right in the eye and see his equal. Winston Churchill said that. If our new pig had looked us in the eye after we’d been stumbling through the rainforest for several days, the pig would have been right on the money. We were a sight! But I, for one, was glad to have him among us. Just looking at him brought a smile to my face.

That might have been due to my unrelenting hunger.

“Why don’t we eat him?” I asked.

Others agreed and we probably would have eaten our little friend, but we didn’t have so much as a knife or a fork or even a pointed stick among us.

“Maybe we could just chew on him a little …” I suggested hopefully.

In the end, we simply gave him a name and accepted him as a junior member of our band. Timmy, our ten-year-old from New Hampshire, christened him “Luau.” I thought that fitting, and vowed silently to make the ironic name come to pass at the earliest opportunity.

We all took our packs and strapped them to the pig’s back with some Bungee cords I had thought to bring. By the time we had our gear stacked high on the hog, he looked like a little pink dromedary all decked out for a long march across the land of the Pharaohs.

Oink-a! he said happily.

“l%k @ him!” Timmy laughed. “w@ a funE lukin :@) hes.”

“What?” asked the Pole Cat.

“I think he said ‘Oil can,’” I said.

“Look at him! What a funny looking pig he is.” Smith-Christie translated for me, sotto voce.

“You can’t talk in pictographs! How can — never mind.”

Kids today spend far too much time on social networking sites and texting each other. I doubt Timmy had had a face-to-face conversation with another person since he learned to type. Even when he spoke, his thumbs moved. Resistance is futile.

At any rate, we all — three Americans, our native guide, Pepe, and a loaded pig — resumed our journey to the heart of the Amazon where we had each saved a few square feet of rainforest with our own (Lil) Green Patches on Facebook. It was slow going at first, but the pig found three truffles before we had gone fifty feet. I would love to have eaten one myself, but I’m allergic to chocolate.


My stomach sounded like a garbage truck emptying a dumpster. Grrrr-rrrr-rrrr … wham-wham-wham … grrrr-rrrr-rrrr. It stopped just short of beeping when it was finished. I was so hungry, I could eat a … a … really, I couldn’t think of anything unpleasant I hadn’t already eaten since I got off the plane in Saint San-Don Pueblo in what seemed like another life.

“Dude! I’m a lil hngry 2,” Timmy said.

A few minutes later, Pepe signaled us to stop.

“Lunch!” he whispered, pointing up ahead.

About ten feet in front of us was an anteater, diligently engaged in evicting ants from their homes and relocating them into his greedy snout.

“We’re going to eat an anteater?” I was incredulous. Then my stomach made a noise like a jailbird rattling a tin cup up and down my rib cage. Anteater it is.

“No, Meester Bob. Not ahnt-eeter! Ahnt-eeter ees too streengy.” He rushed at the anteater and shooed it away with an abrupt shout. “Look! We eat dee ahnts.”

We fell upon the ants with a reckless abandon. If there had been a camera among us, there would have been a video montage of anteating.

We grabbed ants hand over fist, stuffing them in our mouths, then licking them off our fingers like cookie dough, laughing. We grabbed ants and threw them in the air, catching them on our tongues like snowflakes, laughing. We threw handfuls of ants at each other in mock snowball fights, laughing. Occasionally, the video would have cut to Pepe standing to the side of the fracas, laughing.

“Hu wd av thort ants wr so tasty?” Timmy looked right where the camera would have been in what would have been the money shot, laughing.


The thing about ants is that they are not very filling. By the time we were satisfied, it was too dark to continue.

“I can sing! To pass the time, I mean,” said Smith-Christie. “I know both kinds of songs — Woody and Arlo. Did anybody bring a guitar?” We all looked off in different directions silently shouting to one another, “Don’t encourage her!”

“Meester Teemy,” Pepe said to break the silence, “How deed jew come to be here?” He winked at us as we all sat back patting our ant-filled bellies contentedly.

“OK. IL tel yall bout me,” he began, “Uno my parNts wr poor. N deffo nt d sharpest knifs n d drwr.”

He went on in the same incomprehensible manner, but here I relate the story as interpreted by Christy Smith-Christie.

“My family has always been in syrup,” Timmy told us. “My great-grandpa was one of the wealthiest molasses moguls in Boston. His molasses was eaten by the well-to-do and common folk alike. His molasses was praised by President McKinley and the crowned heads of Europe. By the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t a country biscuit or an upper crust that wasn’t dripping with my great-grandpa’s molasses.”

Wham! My stomach again.

“He was quite prosperous already, but during the War Against the Hun he began producing molasses for munitions. His profits rose ten-fold. After the Armistice was signed and with Prohibition looming on the horizon, he ramped up production again. He was on the verge of becoming the richest man in America. Richer than Carnegie, but not nearly so generous.”

“Then, one afternoon,” he continued, “his fortune was wrenched away in a heartbeat in the Great Molasses Flood of 1919. Twenty-one people were killed and hundreds more were injured as an industrial accident sent an eight-foot wave of molasses running through the streets of Boston in what must have been the slowest disaster in history. Public sentiment turned against molasses overnight. My great-grandpa was forced out of the business, but he still had to make good on the contracts he had with the bootleggers. He lost everything.”

The Pole Cat made a sympathetic tsk-tsk-tsk noise.

“He left Boston for New England where he eked out a living tapping trees for maple syrup, an occupation taken up by my grandfather and my parents in turn.”

He sighed mournfully.

“Unfortunately, neither of my parents had ever studied botany, so they were at a marked disadvantage when compared to their competition. They were as likely to tap a pine as a maple; they’d go after any old tree — without rhyme or resin. I was in second grade before I knew that none of the other kids ate turpentine on their waffles!”

My stomach made a sound like a lone wolf baying at a MoonPie.

“The business looked like it might actually turn a profit one year when some local artists learned that some of my family’s syrup made a pretty decent paint thinner. Then my mother heard someone say that ‘Fir Kills’ and they stopped making it.”

The pig went to Timmy and began to nuzzle him gently.

“I’m next in line. The business goes to me next. But you can’t make any money in maple syrup. Not anymore. Pharmaceuticals. That’s where the money is. And there are plenty of undiscovered trees in the Amazon with medicinal uses. So, I saved 100 square feet of rainforest …”

I knew the kid spent too much time on Facebook.

“… and I’ve come here to see just what kind of medicinal trees are growing there. If fate is kind, I’ll be able to tap a tree for cough syrup and reverse my family’s luck.”

“D Nd,” he finished.

It had been a hard day for all of us. We all turned in, lost in our own thoughts. I drifted off to sleep rubbing the pig briskly, hoping the friction would somehow conjure the smell of bacon.

Poor Timmy. I felt bad for the kid. I hoped everything would work out for him.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Paradise Lust: An Eco-Friendly Journey Into the Heart of the Amazon - Chapter Three

Chapter Three: The Co-Ed’s Tale

If music be the food of love, then the bulb horn is, without doubt, the salty snack of malice.

We had awakened the next morning to a gentle, but persistent, rain, eaten a disappointing breakfast of tree bark and shoelaces, and resumed our hike to the bits of rainforest my companions and I had saved by virtue of our (Lil) Green Patches on Facebook.

Each step was a study in misery. It was made worse by the clown and his deplorable horn.

“Should we go left, or right?”


“Do you want to stop a while and rest?”


“Are you going to eat that shoelace?”


The clown was genuinely beyond the pale. If I had had a weapon of any sort, I would have brought it to bear on our friend, Geo, swiftly and with a purpose. No regrets.

It was odd that, despite “rain” being right in the rainforest’s name, I was the only one who had thought to bring an umbrella. I had given this early in our march to Ms. Christy Smith-Christie, our co-ed from Berkeley, because the garland in her hair was beginning to droop.

Our native guide, Pepe, set the pace, leading us clumsily but steadily toward our own square footage of the Amazon. Smith-Christie and the boy, Timmy, followed close behind, she singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and he listening to his iPod. Roy “Pole Cat” Leary, our acrophobic lineman from Indiana, and I were next in formation, matching each other obscenity for obscenity in time to the throbbing of the blisters on our feet, I in four-four time and he in three-quarter. Occasionally, the Pole Cat would catch his toe on a rock or a tree root and shout a string of staccato invective in half-time until we were back in sync.

The clown brought up the rear. I hoped there were bears.


We stopped briefly sometime mid-afternoon to gather pebbles to suck on.

“Eet help jew from getting thirsty, Meester Bob,” Pepe explained.

Faced with such logic, we each put a few pebbles in our mouths. Smith-Christie cleaned hers first with a small bottle of Purell she had squirreled away in her macramé handbag. I accidentally swallowed one, and it was, incidentally, the best meal I’d had since we’d set out.

Shortly before what was likely dusk somewhere above our leafy ceiling, we were worn nearly to exhaustion. We all wanted to rest for the night, but the thought of sleeping on the sodden, wretched ground evoked such feelings of despair that we agreed to continue just a few minutes more.

It was at about that time that a group of native tribesmen, clad in the briefest of garments woven from local plants and festooned with sharp sticks and bones which had been forced, one way or another, through every protrusion on their faces, leapt from the foliage. They had us surrounded immediately. Each one stood no taller than my shoulder, but the spears they had leveled at us increased their personal space eightfold.

We stood toe-to-toe with their little band, no one exactly sure what to do next.

O.K. I’ll bite. … “What is the meaning of this?!” I shouted with all of the bluster of someone who has just been seized after his archenemy has commanded, “Seize them!”

The tribesmen lowered their weapons. They smiled and talked among themselves. “Walla walla walla walla …” was all I could catch. Finally, one of the gentlemen stepped forward and extended his hand in friendship.

“Ees freendly tribe, Meester Bob!” Pepe assured me.

He engaged the tribesman in an elaborate handshake — they were both Masons, as far as I know — and they spoke to each other in a sort of guttural, Creole pig-Latin/pidgin Portuguese patois. Occasionally laughing in French.

“Hounh hounh hounh HOUNH! We are so dee lucky ones!” said Pepe. “Dees meen are Waiayotta tribe. He say dey want us to veesit dare veellage. Dey eenvite us for supper.”

Now, I’ve seen enough cartoons to know that when a native person with sticks and bones in his face invites you back to his village for “supper,” there is no possible way it can end well. But, I thought, it beats sleeping in the rain digesting pebbles. I gave Pepe the “After You” gesture.

“Lay on, McBuff!” I said.


The Waiayotta village was not far.

It was a bustling community teeming with women and children and old people and warriors as happy as any tribe I’ve ever seen in National Geographic. A crowd of children — some with their first piercing of stick or bone — met us at the edge of the forest. They led us through a crowd of curious onlookers toward a fire pit in the center of a village of native huts.

“Rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb …” the villagers chattered excitedly at each other. A little dog joined our procession, nipping at our heels and trying to hump my leg, just as any American dog would have done. It was somehow comforting to know that even here, so far from home, nature had decreed that Bob’s leg is a fine place for a dog to spill his seed.

We stopped before the fire pit and everyone became silent. From the largest hut came a wizened old man, bedecked in a headdress of ornate feathers in addition to the stick-bone combo which was so common hereabout. I was to learn later that this was Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk, the headman of the Waiayotta tribe.

“Yassin … sassin … snazzum frazzum!” intoned the headman, clapping sharply. Once. Twice.

Whatever he said, the result was that each of our party was shown to a hut to freshen up before being escorted back to the fire, now blazing magnificently.


We all sat around the fire, Indian style, as several bare-breasted maidens brought around covered baskets of what I hoped was edible, although I was not especially particular at that moment. I couldn’t see what was in them, but, as I had fully expected to be devoured myself, I wasn’t about to scorn a potluck.

I made eye contact with Smith-Christie and the Pole Cat. I think they were as eager as I to get at whatever was in those baskets. A brief word from the headman, and we would dig in.

“Rooby … rooby roo!” he chanted.

Oh, boy! Supper, come to poppa! I opened the basket.

Frogs. It was a basket of live frogs.

Eh! You gotta eat, I thought, and made to gnaw off a drumstick.

“Walla!” shouted the headman.

“No, Meester Bob! We not to eat dees frogs,” Pepe informed me.

“Wh— ?” I said.

“No … we leek dees frogs. We leek dee frogs and we tell stories.”

“Wh— ?” I said.

So, the tribesmen took it in turns to tell tales of rainforest derring-do of some sort or another. While we all licked frogs.

I’ll admit, they did know frogs and their psychotropic properties! Lick a green frog at the slow parts, lick a brown frog for the fight scenes. Lick a yellow frog for slow motion, and lick one of the little red frogs for rewind. It seems strange to me now, but I think they even have had a frog for subtitles, because those tribal tales were a hoot!

To tell the truth, I could have just sat there licking frogs all night, but before we knew it, the Waiayotta turned as one, their rheumy eyes beseeching us to tell them a story. My companions and I looked at each other helplessly. It was Christy Smith-Christie who rose to the occasion.

“I’ll tell you a story …” she began.


“I was born a small, rich child,” she said. “I wanted for nothing. My parents were the healthiest, wealthiest, most cordial parents any child could ask for. They even gave me their private number as a child so that when I was feeling especially frightened or vulnerable, I could call and leave them a complete and detailed message including my name, date and the exact nature of my fear.”

The Waiayotta must have all licked their subtitle frogs, because I could see they were getting into it.

“My parents had been hippies once. Flower Children. And they made their fortune feeding Flower People’s unsophisticated tastes. If you can strap a bag of oats to a horse’s face for a nickel, why not slap a psychedelic label on it and strap it to a hippie’s face for ten times that much? ’Tis a gift to be simple and ’tis a gift to be free, but to be seen paying top dollar for simple and free at the co-op is a really good ROI. By the time granola prices peaked when the Yuppies came around, my folks were pretty well-to-do. Hemp hemp hooray!”

“Watermelon cantaloupe watermelon cantaloupe watermelon cantaloupe,” the tribesmen murmured.

“And they taught me kindness. When I was a little girl, I collected Barbie clothes. Not the dolls … just the clothes. And every Christmas, my parents would pack them up and take them to Goodwill for the little girls with less fortunate dolls. How do you rebel against that as a child?” she asked. “Put bacon and mayonnaise on your Loveburger?”

My stomach leapt as if it were being assumed bodily into Heaven at the mention of bacon and mayonnaise, but I wanted to hear more.

“I’ll tell you how I rebelled. I started eating white bread and Miracle Whip.”

Again with the stomach.

“… I drank water from the tap and dressed in polyester blends. I ate Velveeta and gave the brie to the dog. I ate salads of Iceberg lettuce with French dressing and croutons of crumbled Saltines. … I wore fur and ate steak. Lots of steak. Rare.”

She droned on and on. I’ll confess, I sort of lost interest for a while.

“… and it was while I was in Mother Jones’s Rehab Facility, I finally realized my mistake. That’s not me! That’s not who I am! If only my parents had lived to see that day!”

“So I used every bit of power and influence I had and saved seven square feet of rainforest. Then I saved two more so the math would be easier. It is my most fervent wish that my nine square feet hold the widest tree in this forest so I can hug it. For my parents. To let them know … to let them know … that I love them. I even brought this piece of chalk in case I don’t make it all the way around on the first hug. See?”

The Pole Cat put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

“Natter natter natter …” said the Waiayotta moving as one toward their spears. They were obviously still waiting to be entertained.

“Ohh! Meester Bob … we going to die now.”

I feared Pepe may be right.

But, suddenly, Geo jumped up and grabbed the tribe’s attention.


Nyuk-nyuk-nyuk stayed the warriors with a wave of his hand. It seemed he wanted to see more of the clown.

Geo fished what seemed at first to be a tangle of worms out of his pocket. He put a yellow one to his lips and it grew into a stiff, yellow snake. He picked a blue one, and it grew as well. The same with a red one. Then he took the three snakes and twisted them ’round squeakily until they became — a dog!

“Ooooh!” said the Waiayotta women.

He took a red balloon, a green balloon and a yellow balloon and — squeak-a squeak-a squeak-a — made a hat which he gave ceremoniously to the headman.

“Aaaah!” said the Waiayotta warriors.

The headman then stood to his full height — about as high as my shoulder — and called earnestly, “Sassafrassarassum … rick rastardly!”

Several warriors stepped in and we were again held at spear point.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He theenk dee clown ees a god, Meester Bob. He want to keep dee clown. He say he geev you a peeg for dee clown.”

“Give him the clown,” I said.

“He say he want dee girl, too.”

“No deal!” the Pole Cat and I said, in unison, then eyed each other warily.

“He going to take deem!”

“Not if I have anything to say about it!” I said, “Run!”

I threw a basket of frogs on the fire, then we all ran, followed closely by the Waiayotta tribesmen who were all the more enraged because the blue balloon in their headman’s hat had already popped.

We reached a wide stream, swollen with the day’s rain. A straw bridge which the tribe had constructed had washed away without a trace. We ran further, the warriors quick at our heels. A sturdier bridge made of sticks had also washed away.

“Come on!” I said, “Next bridge!” and started to run.

Pepe grasped me firmly by the arm to arrest my flight.

“No, Meester Bob. Eet ees over. The Waiayotta never learn to beeld weeth breek.”

And then, as I live and breathe, Geo the Clown pulled a handkerchief out of his sleeve. Then another and another and another.


He tossed one end of the handkerchief rope over a branch and made it fast. We all swung across the stream to safety just as the tribesmen caught up to us. The Pole Cat was the last one — other than the clown — to swing across.

“The pig! Don’t forget the pig!” I screamed.

The Pole Cat grabbed the pig and swung across the stream with it. I looked back at the far side and watched as Geo was overpowered by the natives who revered him as their god. The last I saw of him, the clown was borne away as if on some native mosh pit. I swear he winked at me. I couldn’t help the little lump I felt in my throat.

I looked at the pig we had gotten in exchange for Geo, our companion.

Oink-a! it said, and I had never hated the clown more.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Paradise Lust: An Eco-Friendly Journey Into the Heart of the Amazon - Chapter Two

Chapter Two: The Lineman’s Tale

As it turns out, sleeping by the eaves of a rainforest is not nearly so restful as sleeping in the city.

In the city, I’ve always been comforted by the constant sounds of humanity. The growl of airplanes and buses carrying people about from here to yon; huge tractor trailers rumbling through the night delivering the goods that keep our nation thriving; the wail of sirens assuring me that, though someone may be in a tight spot, help is on the way. These and the numerous car alarms and the loud, drunk people across the street together lull me into a quiet, contented slumber.

This was certainly not the case in Saint San-Don Pueblo after dark. I huddled on Pepe’s miserable little cot, wrapped tightly in my shower curtain blanket and tried to sleep, despite the rainforest’s cacophony just beyond my window.

At first, there was a deafening silence. No automobiles, no sirens, no drunk people. Then, other sounds — scary sounds; the sounds of monsters — were borne to my ears on the hot breath of the forest.

I became aware of the awp-awp of what may have been some kind of frog and the eep-eep of some restless primate. There was the hoo-hoo cry of some bird which had spent all day trying to impress the female of the species with his plumage, and the disappointed why-why from the female who had just learned the crushing truth that even pretty birds are all the same in the dark.

I swear I heard the sound of distant drums deep in the forest. And I would have heard the crash of falling trees all around me too, no doubt, if anyone had been there to witness those events. Much closer to home, in the next cabin, the clown was snoring. Wheeeee-honk-a! I hated the clown.

I was finally able to drift off into a fitful sleep, knowing that somewhere out there among the sounds of the night was my square foot of rainforest and I would soon see it for myself.


I awoke to Pepe’s unrelenting clamor outside the cabin door.

“Meester Bob! Wake up, Meester Bob! The sun ees shining and de girl need choor blanket to take a shower! Rise and shining, please, Meester Bob!”

I grudgingly handed over my blanket and went to join my traveling companions as they scrambled to prepare a breakfast of powdered eggs and Bac-Os.

We made small talk as we ate.

“Quite a ruckus last night,” said Roy “Pole Cat” Leary, the telephone lineman.

Honk-a! agreed Geo, the clown.

“What you think, Meester Bob?” Pepe asked as he handed me a Dixie Cup of freeze-dried coffee and powdered milk.

“I could have done without the monkeys,” I said. “What kind of breakfast is this?” I asked as I regarded my powdered provender with thinly disguised loathing. “Do I eat it or snort it?”

The Pole Cat looked at me as he licked a mouthful of egg off his plate.

“It’s really not bad,” he said. “Really. Know what the worst part is?”

“Powder burns?” I asked.

Just then Timmy, the New Hampshire kid, pointed out a peculiar bird that had just emerged, scratching and pecking, from behind one of the cabins.

“WTF kind of bird is that, Mr. Pepe?” he asked our stalwart guide.

“Ah! Dat ees de macaw. Very nice bird. Very tame. He like you.”

“That’s not a macaw,” Pole Cat said. “That’s a chicken that somebody spray painted red!”

“Why don’t we eat it?” I asked.

“No, Meester Bob! Macaw is protected!”

“You can’t protect a chicken!” I said. “It’s the most common bird in the world!”

Before I could bolster my argument for eating the red chicken, Christy Smith-Christie, our co-ed companion, joined us after her shower. We quickly finished our breakfast, grabbed our gear and prepared to enter the forest to see the square feet we had each saved with our (Lil) Green Patches.

As we turned to leave the cabins, I trailed behind for a moment and scattered my uneaten breakfast to the wind, as I am sure would have been its final request.


We all — five people and a clown — clambered into a narrow canoe with a tiny outboard motor which hardly seemed up to the task of transporting us all upriver. With Pepe steering, we putt-putted our way into a minor tributary of the mighty Amazon beneath the rainforest’s ominous canopy just as the little bark boats from the “Tales of the Okefenokee” at Six Flags before did before Uncle Remus was deemed too un-PC and replaced by the “Haunted Mansion.”

We traveled upriver for about five hours, until our little motor sputtered to an unsurprising halt. As we began to drift back the way we had come, Pepe opened the housing to see what inside the little motor might be jiggled to coax it back to life.

“Ah! Ees chust a problem weeth thees gaskeet! I can feex! I can feex!” He pulled on the gasket for a minute or two until the motor reluctantly released its grip. “See? Ees easy! I can … ohhh! …”

That last was Pepe’s stunned reaction as the gasket somersaulted from the motor and into the river with barely a second’s layover in his hands.

“Ohhh ! …” he said again, in case we had missed it the first time or in case we had not fully comprehended the depth of his remorse. “We going to die now.”

To a man — or girl or clown — we all gave him the Stank Eye with as much conviction as possible as we drifted slowly downstream. This lasted a few awkward minutes until we heaved up on some object sticking out of the water.

“We’re saved!” shouted Smith-Christie.

“Yippee!” the boy exclaimed clapping his hands in delight.


“Now, all we have to do is swim to shore and go the rest of the way on foot, right?” asked the Pole Cat.

“No, no! Look!” Pepe pointed at the water surrounding our little canoe. “Ees piranha. Dey eat jew qweek!”

“Throw ’em the clown,” I suggested.

I was really only half serious, but, surprisingly, the others agreed. It only took two of us to hoist Geo over the side, and, once the piranha were preoccupied, the rest of us grabbed what we could and high-tailed it to safety.

Now, I don’t want you to think I was thoughtless or unkind in suggesting we throw the clown overboard, because he was O.K. The piranha went straight for his oversized feet and nibbled them down to just regular feet size. He was only a few minutes behind us as we pulled ourselves ashore and began to take stock of our situation.


Wet and bedraggled, we sat in uncomfortable silence as, somewhere above the forest canopy, the sun set. Pepe provided a supper consisting of a bouillon cube apiece, and I chewed mine lost in solitary thought.

“I wish we had a fire,” said the Pole Cat.

“Oh … wood here too wet to burn, Meester Pole Cat,” said Pepe.

We were facing a grim, miserable night, when Christy Smith-Christie, our co-ed companion from Berkeley, really stepped up to the plate. “I’ve got something we can burn. It’s from Colombia."

I love coffee!

Hidden in her gear was a bale of ... something ... which we lit and huddled around for warmth and comfort just like our ancient ancestors must have done ages ago. As the fire guttered and sparked, the eyes of the forest watched from the darkness as we explored a newfound camaraderie.

It was Pepe who asked what we had all been thinking. “Why haff jew come here? Why did jew leef choor country to see our rainforeest, full of heedden dangers?”

“I’ll tell you,” said Roy “Pole Cat” Leary, and all eyes focused upon him.



“My family was one of the pre-eminent families in the early days of telecommunications,” he began, wistfully. “My Great-great grandfather was Patrick O’Leary Leary, the inventor of the telegraph pole. He was in the final stages of development of a telegraph pole tall enough to stretch a cable from North America to Europe when the Transatlantic cable was laid.”

“I remember reading about that,” I said.

“His brother went insane designing a way to send Braille in Morse Code, but dammit, he did it. He did it!”

“I saw that on Discovery Channel,” said Smith-Christie.

“My great grandfather invented the Verbal Answering Automaton — the answering machine — ten years before Bell invented the telephone.”

“IDK WTF you’re talking about,” said the ten-year-old.

“My grandfather, Timothy Leary, was one of the original T’s of AT&T when it was still ATT&T.”


“But I …” he turned away, his face half in shadow, “… I have let them all down. They blazed the trail. They set the standard. The best I could do is become a lineman. A common lineman.” He buried his face in his hands and began to weep softly. “A lineman. …”

“But that’s something, isn’t it?” I asked.

“I’m afraid of heights!” he said, and began to sob in earnest.

“Dat’s not so bad, Meester Pole Cat,” said Pepe. “I theenk.”

“So I used Facebook to send as many plants and anthropomorphized vegetable-children to all the friends I could, hoping that I could save just one square foot of rainforest. On that square foot, I hope, is the tallest tree in this forest. And I’m going to climb it and take this kerchief,” he showed us a kerchief, “this kerchief which was given to my great grandfather by Ma Bell herself — yeah, she was real … as real as Aunt Jemima ever was — and tie it to the topmost branch. Because I'm not afraid. Not afraid. And I’m worthy … worthy …” He really broke down then.

We all turned away and left him to his thoughts. Not because we cared, but because we were embarrassed. And the fire slowly went out. Because bales of coffee only burn for so long.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Paradise Lust: An Eco-Friendly Journey Into the Heart of the Amazon - Chapter One

Chapter One: The Eager Have Landed

Back in the ’70s when trash on our highways was making the Indians cry, I put litter in its place. I followed the words of Ranger Rick and Woodsy Owl as if they were Gospel. I gave a hoot and didn’t pollute. When aerosol hair sprays started poking a hole in the ozone, I laid off the Consort and went with the Dry Look.

In the ’80s, I just said, “No!” to drugs. When Bobby Sands went on his hunger strike, I skipped dessert for a week. I stood by the Polish people and their Solidarity movement despite how they spelled it. I said unkind things about Apartheid. When President Reagan invaded Grenada, I chained myself to a Hispanic person.

I bought a Guatemalan child for pennies a day in the ’90s. When Global Warming came around, I left the door open with the air conditioner on because, yes, maybe we can cool the whole outdoors. I think it’s up to every one of us at least to try!

And now, I’m on Facebook. In the past nine months, I have single-handedly saved — yes, SAVED! — a square foot of rainforest with my (Lil) Green Patch. I know one of my friends has said, “Pshaw! How can sending a cartoon plant to a friend on Facebook save the rainforests?” Well, Gloomy Gus, it just does, that’s all. We’re mean, we’re green, get used to it!

I was so proud of what I had done and that all my hard work had not been in vain that I decided to go have a look at my square foot of rainforest with my own eyes. I wanted to make sure that it was thriving and maybe make a few suggestions to whatever indigenous peoples live nearby as to how it might be tended in my absence.

So, after a quick trip to the Circle K for snacks and the Garden Center at Home Depot for supplies, I packed my G.I. Joe backpack and my My Little Pony lunchbox and set off for South America and my square foot of rainforest.


I arrived at Saint San-Don Pueblo, Brazil by seaplane, which was unfortunate because we landed at a crude, dirt airstrip about five miles inland. As my gear was being removed from the plane, Pepe, who was to be my guide out to my square foot of rainforest came and introduced himself.

Pepe was a sporting lad of no more than 19, with the haircut traditionally worn by the nearby tribes and Moe Howard. He was dressed in a well-made breechcloth and a KISS T-shirt, which he likely gained from outsiders in exchange for some tasteless native baubles or primitive cave painting. Like begets like. This jungle-boy get-up was set off by a hat which would not have looked out of place on Goober Pyle or Archie’s friend, Jughead, and a pair of Air Jordans.

“I yam so glad you could make eet, Meester Bob,” he said in an accent almost untypable. “I haff geeven jew a place een my own cah-been for tonight. I sleep outside on de dirt. Jew freshen a beet and come to de beeg cah-been for deener when de deener bell, jew hear it reeng, eh, Meester Bob?”

After Pepe left, I familiarized myself with his little cabin. There was a single cot of burlap stuffed with nettles on the uphill side of the uneven floor, complete with a blanket fashioned from an old shower curtain. There was a dressing table of sorts which housed a hand mirror with the dour warning that “objects are closer than they appear,” a rusty tin-can lid that I was evidently meant to use as a razor, and a Bible which was so old it only went through Genesis.

On the downhill side of the cabin was a bowl which was, unfortunately, meant to serve as both my washbasin and chamber pot. There was a single window with an ecru window treatment from Sears — the only touch of civilization I had seen since my arrival.

After I saw my things safely delivered to the cabin, I washed my face in muddy water, then lay on the cot to wait for the dinner bell.

I must have dozed off, because when I awoke, I was having a dream about “Mosquito Coast,” a movie I have never seen.

I realized with a start that it was no dream. A mosquito the size of a hummingbird was this close (indicating) to poking me right in the jugular with its angry proboscis and sucking the lifeblood from my veins, the malicious buzz of its horrid wings ringing in my ears. I quickly scrambled for the shotgun I now wished I had brought.

A shot rang out and the mosquito flew apart in an explosion of legs and wings. I turned to see Pepe in the doorway, a smoking .45 in his hand. “Is deener time, Meester Bob,” he said. Only then did I realize that the ringing in my ears was the dinner bell.

“Right-o!” I said, “Let’s eat!”


At dinner, I learned that I would not be alone in my journey into the interior of the rainforest. Others had saved portions of the rainforest through their own (Lil) Green Patches, as well, and each had a reason to visit his or her patch, just I had mine.

In addition to myself, to my right at the dinner table was Roy “Pole Cat” Leary, a telephone lineman from Indiana. He came from a long line of telephone and telegraph pioneers. His grandfather had been the 911 operator when Alexander Graham Bell spilled acid on himself. Bell had said, “Watson … come here … I need you!” It had been Leary’s grandfather who said, “Stay on the line, sir, help is on the way.” But I could tell the Pole Cat was hiding something. ...

To my left was Christy Smith-Christie, A Berkeley co-ed and heir to the Smith-Christie granola fortune. Her father had made his fortune as the discoverer of the secret formulas for the Raisin Arizona, Haight-Ashberry, and Willow-the-Crisp lines of trail mix. Secrets which ultimately died with him when he was mysteriously killed in an oat roller.

Next to Smith-Christie was Timmy, a ten-year-old boy from New Hampshire. His parents were itinerant tree-tappers, moving about New England from season to season tapping maple trees for their syrup. Unfortunately, they were not the swiftest people, in body or mind, and the best trees were usually gone before they could get all their sapping gear together. They often had to settle for oak or poplar trees, the sap of which made for pretty crappy syrup.

Then, at the far end of the table, was the clown. Bingo was his name, but we just called him clap-clap-clap-G-O, or Geo for short. I don’t know what his story was, because he communicated only through the use of a loathsome bulb horn. I hated the clown right from the start.

Dinner consisted of whatever Pepe had been able to “borrow” from our packs while we rested. I had two Slim Jims, a handful of granola with maple syrup and a drumstick from a rubber chicken.

Pepe leaned over to me, munching on a Rice Krispy Treat I had gotten at the Circle K back home. “Ees exciting, eh, Meester Bob? You geet much sleep tonight. Tomorrow we go see your rainforeest. I know you like!”

“I’m sure I will,” I thought as I swizzled my Slim Jim in the last of the maple syrup. “I’m sure I will.”