There’s a chase through the jungle in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” that incorporates the giant, terrifying Siafu ants. It’s over-the-top and kind of silly seeing them essentially devour one of the characters; but watching actual footage of them in a nature documentary, working as a horde to eat an animal, now that’s scary. However, it’s not until you’re actually in the jungle and the forest floor is covered in ants that will bite you to hell that the panic sets into your heart.
But not all the ants here are intimidating. Right now I’m looking at a busy mass of tiny black ants going to town on a dead fly on my cabin floor. The first day that I saw three or four groups like this in my room I freaked and stomped them out like Godzilla, but now I let them be. Observing leafcutter ants on a trail is actually inspiring to see, as creatures so small carry materials so much bigger than them and work together with such efficiency.
But the frightening ants have left a more lasting impression on me. A few days ago as we walked on a trail deep in the jungle, we came across the notorious Bullet Ant, which is longer than a fingernail and has the most painful bite (of any insect here?). Professor Chaboo was bitten by one a previous year and said the pain sears like a bullet wound for 10-15 minutes. We took a few pictures as it sucked sap from a tree, until it began crawling down toward us, and we knew it was time to move.
Shortly thereafter, we entered what we’ve dubbed “The Gauntlet.” Rains from the night before flooded some underground ant nests, so the trail was covered in roving ant colonies. One stretch was so fully lined with ants that we were afraid to simply walk through it, so we each composed ourselves before making a terrified, expletive-heavy dash across it. As far as I can tell, I made it through without ant bites, but my ankles fell victim to the merciless chiggers instead.
One of the biggest surprises for me on this trip was how different Wayqecha, the first field station, was from my expectations of the rainforest. That’s because Wayqecha is in a cloud forest: high in elevation (3000m), cool, and relatively dry. However, we still got soaked on our first hike when the area received its first rain in three weeks.
When we left Wayqecha, we travelled down the Kosñipata valley from the clouds to the tropics, spotting waterfalls along the road and dense vegetation that grew more vivid in its green color. At Villa Carmen, the second field station, I really felt like I was walking into the jungle, as this area fit my expectations of the rainforest.
While I had prepared for the heavy humidity and higher temperature here, I wasn’t ready for it after living in the comfort of Wayqecha. It took me several days to adjust. But the much greater density and diversity of beautiful plants, flowers, and insects make it worth it.
The almost daily rains required a change in routine as well. Sometimes they come late morning or early afternoon, giving us a siesta period to rest after lunch before returning to fieldwork around 2-3 p.m. Other days a downpour begins in the middle of the night and continues until late morning, which limits us from hiking the trails until the afternoon. We wake up too early here for my taste, so I’m not too upset about the extra rest the morning rain provides.
On our second day in Lima we went to several fascinating museums, spending most of the day at the Museum of National Anthropology and Archaeology and the Larco Museum. Our extremely knowledgeable and well-versed guide, Fernando Benaducci Otayza, particularly enjoyed explaining the gritty details of how two Incan warriors from competing communities would fight each other and the humiliating and brutal death the loser would suffer. Since I’m the only male in our group, he used me as the example for the defeated warrior throughout the day at each of these displays.
Both warriors wore extravagant outfits and began their fight with a warrior dance. What I found most surprising about their rules of engagement was that they wore helmets and if one fighter’s helmet was knocked off, that meant his opponent won. The loser was then stripped nude, tied up and taken into the winner’s village, displayed to his people before being killed and defaced in some extremely gnarly ways. As Fernando detailed this process to our group as if it was happening to me, they found it funny at first, until he got into how the losers were grotesquely murdered and their body parts mutilated for practical uses and/or touted as trophies.
The faces of Sarah and Haley immediately switched from laughing to shock and terror when Fernando gleefully talked about the loser being decapitated, his head being shrunk and put on a belt with other heads, the heart being cut out and either offered sacrificially or eaten, and more. After hearing about how the winner would remove the skin from the loser’s back and make a drum from it, we saw one of these drums, as well as the knives the warriors fought with, their armor, and even a couple of shrunken heads. These artifacts really grabbed my attention for their craftsmanship and the hardcore violence associated with them. I’ve been bewildered by shrunken heads since learning about them from Ripley’s Believe It or Not as a child, so I especially got a kick out of seeing the ones on display here.