July 3, 2008 Posted by Tahir in Travel


My whole life I have been fearful of jungle. It started when I read Kipling’s story of Mowgli and Sher Khan, his Jungle Book. The more I read, and learned, of the insects and the fantastic creatures, the more afraid I became.

Years passed. And I found myself writing about distant places and people. I used to hope an editor would take something from me from home, but there was no hope of that. They used to want me to go further, to endure more, to push myself and those around me beyond boundaries more terrible that I had ever imagined. I travelled to India and studied magic with its Godmen, to Ethiopia, where I searched for the lost gold mines of King Solomon. I ventured through the Far East, too, across africa and back, and up and down the mighty Andean chain.
The editors liked the work and they liked the sense of wilderness. Most of all they liked the idea of me, someone with no training, journeying where only the intrepid or the mad usually go. They asked me where I was planning to venture next. All I could think of was the notion than primitive man flew, or glided, like the birds. The Birdmen… that was it,. So I told them.
‘I am going in search of the Birdmen of Peru,’ I said.
So it was that finally I arrived at the jungle. I had been in the Amazon once before, a fleeting trip while crossing Latin America. But I had never known it. I will never forget the first night I spent upstream in Iquitos, the Peruvian Amazon. It was a place of joy and of fear, fear of what was all around.
The journey ended up as a book called Trail of Feathers. When it was published I pressed my hands together and smiled. I’ll never, ever have to return to that place, I thought to myself. I was done with the jungle — with the heat and the interminable rain, the insects as big as saucers and with hallucinogenic plants.
But then, something happened. I got talking to a mad pair of Swedish film makers and they urged me to return. It was like leaving prison and going back, voluntarily. So I did.
The idea was to venture to Madre de Dios, the thickest and most fearful cloud forest on the planet. We had almost no equipment, no understanding, a few hundred Pot Noodles, and a map with nothing but green wavy lines. Our mission was to find Paititi, the lost city of the Incas, a place known by the locals as ‘House of the Tiger King’.
We set off. Terrible conditions and a lack of food took an awful toll on the men. There was talk of spirits and of tigers, and of all sorts of stuff that preyed on all our nerves. The porters were mostly Seventh Day Adventists from a small village called Llactapampa. It was there that our saviour, Eduardo was from. He was their leader and he whipped them up into a Bible-bashing frenzy, a frenzy that gave us the energy, the zeal, to find the lost city.
But it is not Eduardo or the porters or the Swedes, or the truly deplorable journey that I want to mention here. It is Pancho, a Machiaguinga warrior whose face is burned into my mind. 
Pancho claimed to have found the ruins while out hunting as a young man. He discovered a golden hatchet buried there and proudly brought it back to his father, the chief. Instead of receiving the praise he expected, he was castigated, ordered to return the hatchet at once for fear of bringing a terrible curse down on the community.
Eduardo knew Pancho and introduced us. Anyone who has seen our film will know of his face… gentle, honest, fanciful… that’s the wonderful thing about him and something that’s always with me. You see, for Pancho (and I say this after being in the deep jungle for seventeen weeks trying to unravel it all), fact and fantasy are two halves of the same thing. 
Pancho found the ruins and the hatchet, of that I am certain. But I am also now certain that he found them not in the world we would regard as ‘real’ but in an equally real world for him — and for all people until the industrial revolution… the world of his imagination.
An evening doesn’t go by without me wondering what Pancho is doing at that moment. He is the most content and honorable man I have ever encountered, and I don’t say it lightly.
I remember that he begged us again and again to take him to Cusco. We didn’t want to pollute his mind, but he would not stop asking. So eventually we agreed. We took him to the city.
He licked ice cream, touched cement, saw cars for the first time, ate in a cafe, touched a llama, and even went to a disco. At the end of three days I asked greedily if he loved what he had seen, if he was happy. Pancho’s ever-present grin had gone. He seemed unhappy.
‘This place, this city, has forgotten nature,’ he said, ‘and it is worthy of you all.’
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