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The Journey Begins
by Kelsey

June 13, 2009

The journey began early. Pedro, the night worker at Amazon Trails Peru hostel, woke me with a call at four a.m. “Kelsey, ya despertaste? (have you gotten up?)” I turned over and replied, “claro (clearly),” as I rolled out of bed and pulled on my favorite, good luck pair of black levi’s. “This is it,” I thought, “the day I’ve been awaiting for six months.” I had to leave the comfort of my private room, warm showers, and breakfast service provided by Amazon Trails hostel (a great place to stay with an awesome staff if you’re heading to Cusco). As I sleepwalked through the outdoor hallways and into the main office my eyes met a new face. The short, dark skinned man who stood before me wore a tan combat vest, green trekking pants, and a pair of brown hiking boots. “Hola! Buenos dias!” He said in a much too chipper voice for how early it was. “Yo soy tu guia, Saturnino, but you can call me Satu." I was introducing myself when Ciro walked in from the breakfast room and greeted me, “Kelseeeeey Buenos dias!” I had met Ciro the day before and learned that he was going to be the guide for my stomach, a.k.a the cook for my first 8 days in Manu National Park. And take my word for it, if you travel to Manu with ATP, you need not worry about “roughing it” as far as food goes. Ciro served up gourmet meals even as we were navigating the winding straits of the Madre de Dios and Manu rivers. I was highly impressed. Ciro and I high fived and complained about how early and cold it was. And with no exaggeration, an early winter morning in Cusco is frigid enough to send shivers down the spine of the thickest skinned individuals.

I grabbed my bags and Saturnino “Satu” led me to the van. There was something magic about that early morning in Cusco. The normally crowded, noisy streets were deserted and so quiet you could have heard a pin drop a mile away. No tourists, no vendors, not even a wandering dog to break the tranquility; just the sound of hurried footsteps on cobblestone streets under the starry, Andean sky. When we arrived at the van, Satu introduced me to the driver, another Saturnino. Now I understood the reason for his nickname. I was the first passenger to board so I had my choice of any spot in the van. I chose a window seat halfway to the rear and we took off. On the way we stopped to pick up six more passengers: three sisters and their friends from Texas and an older woman from London. Satu itroduced us all and broke the ice, although I think everyone was too tired to care. Before embarking on the road to Manu, we stopped at a small panaderia and bought 20 loaves of bread from a stout, round faced woman in a brown dress. It was still only 4 30 and I was baffled that her store was open. Did many people buy bread in the wee hours of the morning on a regular basis? Ciro loaded up the goods and the woman waved goodbye to us as we motored down the bumpy road.

Fifteen minutes went by and we crossed a steel bridge and passed a sign that welcomed us to the path to Manu. “Here we go,” I thought. The peaceful vibe of the Cusquenian streets carried over into the van. As everyone slept I sat awake observing, pondering, and reflecting on my time in the ancient capital city of the Incas. It was still dark, and the Apus (Incan word for mountains or mountain gods) stood black and ominous against the twinkling, star flecked sky. We snaked our way through the roads and all I could see was the passing headlights of other vans floating in the darkness. When daylight finally broke it cast a pale orange glow upon the clouds that shrouded the mountain peaks and revealed the true beauty of the surroundings. The mountainsides were lush with vegetation and lines of trees separated different shades of green like patchwork quilting. Below us, the Rio Urubamba winded gently through the sleepy town.

We made our way into a new type of trail that was filled with small rocks and dust. The latter of which found its way into the van and into my lungs with ease. It was difficult to breathe. After 20 dust filled minutes we came to the breakfast stop. Just in time, my bladder was about to burst! Ciro served us bread with our choice of ham or jelly and black tea. I broke out my personal stash of coca leaves and proceeded to batch up a piping hot cup. At the table, everyone opened up. We introduced ourselves and went over the typical Peruvian tourist script: where we were from, how long we’d been in Peru, and whether or not we’d been to Mach Piccu. Lisa, the girl from Texas, asked me if I was the anthropologist she had heard about. An intense feeling of pride swelled within me. Not only had I been recognized as an anthropologist but people had been talking about what I was here to do! Awesome! We finished up eating and getting to know one another and hopped back in the van to continue the trek.

After a few more hours of driving through rocky hillsides and one town, we reached the beginning of Manu Park, the soggy, grey cloud forest. In the cloud forest there is a perpetual blanket of clouds (hence the name) and a constant mist that fills the air. The drops of mist are tiny, but there are so many of them they can drench you in five minutes. It was there in the cloud forest that I began to learn about the amazing Saturnino “Satu” Llactahuayman Lastras. Coming to the Amazon is a bit like hearing an unknown, foreign language. You may be interested by its novelty, astounded at its apparent complexity, and in awe of its beauty. But if you do not understand what is being said, the true, complete beauty of the language will never be apprehended. And it is for this reason that one needs a jungle interpreter. The Amazon speaks in sights, sounds, feelings, smells, and tastes, and Satu is proficient in Amazonian in every “sense” of the word. In fact, the jungle was the first place Satu saw upon entering this world. Born into the Ashaninka tribe, he lived his first fifteen years wearing a cushma among the plants, animals, and people of the Amazon. I was glad my accommodations were handled by ATP. Satu’s expertise changed the beginning of the trip from astounding to life changing.

While we charged through the cloud forest Satu named every tree (scientific, Spanish, and English names) and offered bits of information about each one; like whether or not they were indigenous, what they were good for, and who used them. Two hours down the road we were speeding along and Satu yelled “stop!” He jumped out of the van and silently motioned for us to follow. He crept forward cautiously and whispered, “This is our first monkey, the wooly monkey.” I raised my eyes to the towering trees overhead and spotted a brown fuzzy patch I assumed to be the monkey. It skitted around the branches and eventually came into view as Satu mimicked its call by making a kissing noise with his lips and the palm of his hand. Needless to say I was astounded. First of all, he spotted the monkey from inside the van, which was easily doing 45 mph. On top of that he cajoled it into a perfect viewing spot so everyone could take pictures. We continued to drive through jungle greenery for hours and hours until we came to the riverside town of Atalaya at twilight. There we picked up a boatman, Cristiano, and a helper, Darwin. We loaded our gear into a boat and after a quick, cold trip down the river we arrived at our first lodge and rested for the night.

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