by Emma Lee Mueller
In the United States, the 21st birthday is one of the big ones. When one of your friends turns 21, you bring them to a bar and get them totally shitfaced. That’s just the way it goes. It’s the American way. But on my 21st, I found myself not in a bar, but in a peke peke canoe, thrashing down the Alta Madre de Dios River in the Peruvian rainforest-at Midnight. Not exactly what I expected for my big day, but it was certainly memorable.
The day began at my friend and guide Santiago’s* home, a tiny bamboo house on stilts with views out over the river. This accommodated a bedroom and a small dining area. Nothing more.
It was a typical hot and sticky day in the jungle, so much so that the pattern on the plastic tablecloth was temporarily tattooed on my arm. It was the perfect day for a few cold ones, but I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I mean, where were we going to find beers in Atalaya, which is a small town on a big river? I reluctantly resolved to wait until I was back in civilization to celebrate my big day.
What I should have known is that in Peru, no matter where you are, high in the Andes or deep in the jungle, you can always find beer. When Santiago walked over to the edge of his balcony and started to whistle, I was skeptical. But then, literally out of nowhere, a little jungle boy with no shoes came running over to “take our order.” Sure enough, after five or six minutes, he came running back with two 32 oz. beers and one little plastic cup.
Cups must be a rare commodity in Peru, because each time I’ve drank in a rural setting, I needed to share that one cup amongst everyone in the group. In the Peruvian jungle, you don’t leisurely nurse a beer; you take shots of it. I didn’t really get the concept until I drank with José, a seventy-something jungle man who I guessed could not only outrun me, but also pick me up and toss my body over the village.
As I tried to enjoy my turn with the cup of beer, he stared me down with disbelief and ordered me to “Sécalo! Sécalo!” Finish it! Or, literally translated, dry it! So I did. Perhaps you’re familiar with the “power hour,” a popular frat-boy pastime where participants take a shot of beer each minute for an hour. My birthday party in the jungle was like four power hours in a row.
As you can imagine, the events of the day are somewhat blurry. That said, I do remember taking a break from drinking for a hearty bean soup with boiled yucca. I also remember frequently running outside to squat in the woods and pee, while simultaneously shooing away curious stray chickens.
We couldn’t stay at Santiago’s house that night, as there wasn’t nearly enough room for all of us. Instead, we needed to get back to the river lodge where we had been staying upstream. Because of this, I found myself on the Alta Madre de Dios, in a wobbly river canoe with an extremely drunk man at the helm.
As the motor fought to push us against the current, the rapids caught the front edge of the boat and twisted it back around, sending us whirling in a circle-as if my head weren’t already spinning. I watched as a drunken José tried to steer the rickety boat with a big, wooden tube of bamboo that he kept putting too much of his weight upon, causing him to continuously fall back over himself into the boat.
A trip that typically took ten minutes lasted double the time. I was scared I was going to be flung from the boat and have to float the Amazon Basin of Peru at night. Luckily, I never had to test my swimming skills. The landing upon the beach was less than graceful, but we made it and I was happy to have my feet on the ground again.
When we got back to the lodge, Santiago spontaneously cooked up some spaghetti before passing out on a slab of rock just outside of his bedroom. The rest of us ate what we could, which was a lot, and left the remainders for Matilde, a giant toad with a taste for Italian, and Pikachu, the resident jungle kitty.
When I woke up at dawn to use the restroom, I found José sitting outside with yet another 32 oz. bottle of beer. “Tómalo!” he offered, Drink! I stared at him in disbelief and declined. And I thought my college friends were hard-core!
*Names have been changed
Emma Mueller is a writer/editor from the NYC area with a passion for travel and adventure. She recently returned from a seven-month stint in Quito, Ecuador, where she worked at a start-up travel guidebook series. Her life plans include saving the rainforest, writing a novel and opening up a beachside juice stand in the Caribbean.