Colombia, days 3-5: On Dangerous Ground

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts?

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Blog post 2 camping amazon
The guide and I were camping alone in the jungle last night, and he had a literal potboiler of a story.

When he was 10, his childhood friend was kidnapped, and eaten, by a local indigenous tribe.

“Why was he eaten?”

“Because he was white.”

We unwrapped the palm leaf parcel that had been roasting on the fire. It was a delicious local river fish known as arapaima, or by locals as “the other white meat”.

Aside from being eaten by cannibalistic tribes, what other dangers lurked in these parts? The daily offer of activities around the camp gave a fair overview.

Piranha fishing
Piranhas are legendary for devouring whole carcasses of cows within minutes, much like the Polish tour group that arrived that night. In reality this only happens in exceptional circumstances. Tempting fate, we took a motorised wooden boat into a mangrove forest close by the lodge with a handful of bamboo fishing rods.

The guide cut up a large fillet of fish into bite-sized pieces, which we threaded onto hooks and cast into the water. To attract the piranhas you slap the bamboo rod repeatedly on top of the water. This is said to simulate a chicken – though what a chicken might be doing slapping around in the middle of a mangrove forest was not explained.

After 2 hours the guides had caught 2 piranhas and a small catfish. I had caught nothing, but had singlehandedly fed the fish at least half of the fillet. It was not a good return on investment for those in the group wanting to eat fish that night.

Night walk
In the land famed for its jaguars and anacondas, what beasts of the night were lurking in the shadows? “Look there!” said the guide, within seconds of starting up the moonlit trail.

“Where? What is it?” I followed his finger. Not to any large shadows in the trees or the forest, but to a frog half the size of my thumbnail sitting on the step outside my cabin. Tiny, but incredibly poisonous. I made a note to wear shoes for my nightly pee.

The tarantulas were all hiding that night. But I did see some rats, and a cool phosphorescent leaf litter that made the whole place feel like Upside Down world (for the Stranger Things fans among us).

Jungle camp-out
I decided to up the game. A night in the jungle, just the guide and me, what could go wrong? The weather, for starters. Due to torrential rain, what was planned to be a day-long hike to the deepest darkest forest was scaled back to a 15-minute hike to the rear campsite over the ridge behind.

The guide showed me the rubber tree, the popularity of which led colonialists to enslave thousands of young boys to work in rubber plantations. The type of shitty job you never bounce back from.

He showed me the telephone tree, which sends a booming echo audible across the valley when you strike it with a stick – and is for emergency use only.

And he showed me the traditional way of lighting a fire with damp wood – burning a plastic bag to kick-start the kindling.

That we slept in hammocks, slung between two trees under a tarpaulin and mosquito net. And I was lulled to sleep, not by the exotic sounds of the Amazon forest, but of a thousand mosquitos attacking my body like locusts on a wheat field. Malaria takes two weeks to kick in, so there’s every chance I will always remember this special night.

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Day walk

Perhaps it would be easier to see beasts and critters in the day, lacking night vision as I do.

We set out towards a known Harpy eagle’s nest, one of the largest eagles in the world, which feeds on monkeys, opossums and sloths.

This reminded me, sloths were very close to top of my animal bucket list.

“There’s lots of sloths around here,” said the guide.

“Can we see one?”

“Sure. Just be at the campsite around siesta time. You’ll see Brazilian sloths, Germans sloths, Australian sloths…”

I’d very slowly walked into that one.

As we headed back to camp, a sudden rustle in the trees above and a hard nut the size of a grapefruit whizzed down in front of the guide’s nose.

If you thought sagging balls were something eventually to be scared of, the falling nuts of the Amazon can be a life-ending event.

The menace of Venice: Americans on holiday

Venice during the Biennale.

There are definitely a lot of Americans; mainly those ones made famous in Woody Allen’s later films (you know, the ones even French people hate), congregating in groups around exit and entry points to restaurants, hotels and bridges.

The girls are all called Mea-ghan, the boys wear fluroscent backpacks, and the fathers wear comfortable shoes, chinos and tucked-in polo shirts nabbed from corporate trade fairs. The mothers always seem away buying gelati.

Then there are the ones from the Square States, typically younger, who stumble around trashed and yelling, their first time abroad (excluding armed service): “I’m a modest guy; I’ve killed a guy or two,” wailed one outside my window at 4.30am.

Well, he was murdering my good night’s sleep.

“Go home buddy or I’ll call the police,” threatened an older New Zealand gentleman, standing in his hotel doorway in the national uniform of pyjamas and a Hawaiian shirt.

“Scuzi, szuzi,” the suddenly quiet American said, scurrying away to his modest digs – though the police should probably check the canal in the morning to be sure.

Yesterday on the plane, the attendant asked if I’d had the cast on my arm for a long time.

“Oh, it shows, does it?” I asked, aware the once-luminescent fiberglass now resembled a dirty white basketball sock.

“No. But we’d have to cut it off if it’s new, or your arm might blow up,” she replied humourlessly. No-one wants to make a bomb joke now…

Saturday morning, outside the Hotel Agli Alboretti a busker was attacking a violin. It’s said that busking is the best way to get paid to practice, but in this case, he could have done a bit more behind doors.

We head to the Peggy Guggenheim museum. It’s the Biennale, but even so this perennial fixture is always worth a look.

Virtually every artist – who. was. anyone. – from the 20th Century is represented. I did my usual gallery routine of standing silently in front of each work for 30 seconds, waiting either for something magical to happen, or get swarmed by a group with a tour guide.

Out back you can see the gallery’s most famous member: a horse carry a boy with a brass erection.

For locals, Venice must be either an exhilarating or demeaning place to work. Exhilarating to have a job in Italy, but demeaning to be forced to wear a costume, be it the striped T-shirt and boater of the Gondoliers, or the 17th Century-esque polyester Snow White dress worn by the woman promoting the Accademia di Belle Arti.

The Piazza San Marco at night? Think a place with as much soul as a 9th century Bourke St Mall in Melbourne though without the Christmas windows. A village meeting place overrun with touts selling roses, glow-in-the-dark toys, and flashing glasses that you never see anyone wearing BUT SOMEONE MUST SOMEWHERE, BECAUSE THEY ARE ALWAYS BEING SOLD.

There we walk to the aid of a horrifically drunk woman who was so completely out to lunch that it impossible to determine her nationality or hotel address; but easy to see her lunch.

Nightlife? Try the ubiquitous hotel bars for a glimpse of what life could be if you’re rich and don’t play your cards right.

The Hotel Gritti does a mean Long Island Iced Tea – “for 20 euros, make mine longer, thanks”. With an authentic black rat only adding to the grittiness.

Daniele’s Bar is still opulent: once the accommodation for liberating US troops, and today accommodating only to the middle-aged wishing to be seen farewelling their youth.

At 6pm, the canals are brought to a standstill as the Norwegian Star bellows silently into town. At more than 300 metres long, watching it pass is akin to watching the evil star ship at the start of Spaceballs.

Witnessing the incongruous cruise ship bearing down on millennia old canals can squeeze the life out of you like the panini toaster in the artisanal “snack bar”.

Later, off the beaten canal, I see a mini-golf course where players must navigate the ball around the upturned hull of the Costa Concordia. No guessing what the locals think of the cruise ship culture, then…