Nine times out of ten, if I’m saying “books” and “Amazon” in the same sentence, I’m talking about the kind with free super saver shipping. But this time, I just finished a double header of books about the Amazon jungle — and the horrors I encountered therein have convinced me to keep my ass planted firmly on the couch for the remainder of my sedentary but not-eaten-by-crocodiles life.
First I read Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, in which a team of research scientists studying a native tribe’s miracle fertility drug disappears into the jungle for months, then years. The pharmaceutical company funding the expedition sends an American scientist to locate the team and get a progress report, but when he dies of a sudden fever, they send another: Dr. Marina Singh, a former OB-GYN who abandoned her career after a tragic accident. Marina battles through the jungle to meet up with the team, but when she does, things only get more complicated. Faced with conflicting loyalties, ambiguous ethical dilemmas, and horrific life-0r-death choices, she realizes that nothing about the expedition — or her life — is what she assumed.
I followed that up with The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, by Scott Wallace. A seasoned journalist with experience in Brazil and the Amazon, Wallace is assigned by National Geographic to write about Sydney Possuelo, a Brazilian sertanista or “agent of contact” liaison between the Brazilian government and the isolated, “uncontacted” Indian tribes of the Amazon. Remorseful about the harm done to the tribes’ traditional way of life by civilization’s encroachment, Possuelo has made it his life’s work to preserve the sanctity of their indigenous lands by creating a government-mandated protected area, safe from loggers, poachers, gold miners, and drug lords. Paradoxically, in order to assess where the tribes’ hunting grounds are, he has to penetrate their habitat, mapping the territory they need while scrupulously avoiding the contamination of personal contact — quite literally, considering the fatal illnesses that have decimated other native populations. Wallace joins Possuelo and a team of three dozen Brazilians and indigenes from various tribes, embarking on a grueling and unbelievably hazardous trek into the land of the fierce and warlike flecheiros, or “Arrow People.” Over several months, facing death literally every day, they endure flooding and mudslides, plagues of lethal insects, fierce predators, dysentery and malaria, and starvation, but the greatest danger may come from their leader, the volatile, tyrannical, discord-sowing, self-loathing Possuelo.
I was impressed to see how accurately State of Wonder portrayed the grim hardships and murderously dangerous conditions of life in the Amazon; Patchett clearly did her research before embarking on this fantastic tale. Yet the really jaw-dropping tales were from the nonfiction book; I couldn’t resist reading choice bits aloud to whoever was in earshot because it was so incredible. Rivers boiling with piranhas! Thirty-foot-long anacondas that can sink a canoe! Tribes who pierce their noses with bamboo sticks to imitate a jaguar’s whiskers! While it convinced me that I can never, ever go to the Amazon myself (my severe allergic reactions to bug bites would not be a good match with their malaria-bearing mosquitoes), these juicy, page-turning grippers are every bit of exotic jungle adventure I need.