An Ugly American (Couple) Goes To the Amazon Basin: “More Should Have Been Done”
December through April is annual flood season in the Peruvian Amazon. Just ask anyone who was there in 2017 how bad it was. There was widespread devastation, lives lost. Even though these floods are seasonal, predictable, and Nature most assuredly is prepared for the increased water, changes in the world climate have caused some of the flooding to increase significantly.
As the Andes’ snow melts, the subsequent water flow ends up in the Amazons, causing everything that lives on the ground to head into the trees. With rare exception, getting around is largely by canoe. Where you might normally hike, you paddle. It’s frankly wondrous.
Not only are you subject to the occasional, completely reliable massive downpour, you also have to contend with the fact that as you paddle, you are working your way through branches that would otherwise be way over your head. Anything in your canoe or on your head could be, and will be scraped off into the water.
These conditions, even if they aren’t of the kind that wipes out villages and towns along the Amazon River, are easy to research. Anyone joining an outfit that either has a lodge or takes trips down the Amazon is well -informed in advance. You’re expected to dress appropriately and expect extremes. At the very least you’re warned to protect yourself and your gear from the rains.
Besides, the Amazon is still a very wild place. Plenty of critters and creatures that can bite, some deadly. The truth is that we still know very little about the vast numbers of animals, insects and plant life that countries are burning down at appalling rates, or handing over to oil companies to rape, as they force natives out of their villages. But I digress.
Let’s just agree that the deep Amazon is not Disney World.
In April 2016, I had signed on to visit the Tahuayo Lodge (https://perujungle.com/). Formed in the1980s by Dr. Paul Beaver, who is one of the world’s foremost experts on the Amazon, the Lodge provides uniquely intimate experiences of the river by putting you right in the jungle in relative comfort. Relative means no air conditioning. You hear everything, smell everything, feel everything. If you stay long enough you can go visit the research center which takes you to an even more remote spot. There, real work is being done to better understand a world that is all too quickly disappearing.
Let me put it this way: it’s a privilege to see a place like this. This is not a little backyard excursion. This is a serious adventure, with real potential costs if you’re not careful.
The day I arrived, Neddy was my female guide. Tahuayo Lodge was the first Peruvian adventure company to hire female and lesbian guides. They threatened to fire any male employee who complained. They did exactly that, and that was the end of that argument. Neddy picked me up along with a few others and we headed some six hours out. I settled in my room, where I found a dry, lockable cabinet. All the rooms did, for anything that needed to be locked away or protected from the conditions. As the staff is famously dependable and honest, you can leave anything out and it will be there when you get back.
Almost as soon as I sat down in the main dining room to wait for the evening dinner bell, I was accosted by a woman in her sixties. She’d overhead I was from Colorado, and as it turned out she was barely a neighborhood away.
She promptly launched into a bitter tirade about Tahuayo. That afternoon, a guide had taken her and her husband out to see the forest by canoe. Apparently, as they were exploring, one of the branches, many of which hang in the water and have to be moved aside, pushed her backpack into the water. Or, at least, knocked her iPhone into the water.
The phone was retrieved, but now it was ruined.
“More should have been done,” she spouted, with venom.
I watched her quietly.
“Why did you take your iPhone out onto the river?” I asked innocently. Well maybe not so innocently, but still. “You can’t even get a signal this far out. What are you going to do with a piece of extremely expensive, non-waterproof technical gear in the middle of the boondocks during rainy season?”
She stiffened. She was expecting a righteous ally. Here I was asking her hard, obvious questions.
I asked again. “ Did your iPhone have a protective, waterproof cover? Even a ziploc bag?”
“Was your backpack waterproof?” (You can get excellent waterproof bags from places like Sea to Summit and Pacsafe. Of for that matter, your kitchen drawer, if you’re too cheap to really invest in your gear.)
“Did you even consider using the locked cabinet in your room to stow your gear to protect it?”
“Did you read the book that Dr. Beaver recommended before the trip that talks about the conditions of the Amazon?”
NO. By this time the Littleton Lady had gotten a right nasty scowl.
“Did you read the pre-trip instructions that said if you brought technology, which wasn’t recommended, you were on your own?”
Of course not.
“Did you even insure your luggage?”
Well hell’s bells, why would anyone do that, who is bringing a thousand-dollar, very delicate, non-waterproof phone into the Amazon during rainy season without protective gear?
By this time, she was spitting mad.
“MORE COULD HAVE BEEN DONE.”
She shoved her chair back and stalked off. I nearly laughed out loud.
That was just the beginning.
And Now, Let’s Lie About It
I found out later that she and her husband had written, called and harassed the mild but firm Dr. Beaver at his home in Tampa. Neddy told me that this couple had also spread the rumor that they were going to accuse their guide of theft.
That’s libel. It’s also fraudulent. In my book you don’t do that when it’s your fault. Besides, this far out of Iquitos, who on earth would steal a waterlogged iPhone, which doesn’t work, and besides, nobody out here has the money to repair it? Stupid. Just….stupid. Downright mean and manipulative in and effort to be right.
That did it. I penned an email during the narrow window in the evening that wi-fi was thinly available. I wrote Dr. Beaver that I’d met with the woman, and that if he needed me to back him up, I was right there. In the meantime, the couple went around complaining bitterly to anyone who would listen.
I See Your Point.
A Delta pilot, traveling with his two young sons, had been swept up in the controversy. One morning he sat across from me having coffee before the day’s activities began. He took the woman’s side, saying that the Lodge should pay for her iPhone.
“With respect,” I eyed him across the table. “This is a couple who failed to read the book as instructed, failed to plan for rain during rainy season, brought an expensive iPhone into one of the wettest places in the world, didn’t bother to buy a cheap protective sleeve or box, didn’t put their iPhone into the dry cabinet in their room, didn’t buy a waterproof backpack or carrying bag. They didn’t even insure their luggage. And now they want to make the Beavers responsible for their poor decision-making, their poor judgment, their lack of research. This is a Third World company (the Beavers had handed over management to Dolly’s family in Iquitos) and these people want Tahuayo Lodge to subsidize their stupidity? I don’t think so.”
The pilot thought for a moment. ‘“I hadn’t thought about it that way. I see your point.”
Pardon me, but damned right. I despise tourists who abuse their hosts like this.
How to Ruin a Great Trip: Be Perpetually Pissed Off
The couple went after Beaver several times a week. All throughout their South American vacation, they were relentless. Vicious and angry, they threatened him. He stood firm. He’d sent instructions. They weren’t followed. End of story.
After I returned to America, I was in Florida where Dr. Beaver and his Peruvian wife Dolly lived in Tampa. I was invited to visit. At that point I heard the rest of the story.
This angry, self-righteous couple had gone so far as to enlist the help of a well-known consumer advocate here in Denver to go after the Beavers. Tom Martino, a consumer advocate on KHOW’s “The Troubleshooter Show” got involved, and called Dr. Beaver in Tampa. Martino is a bulldog, but he also does his due diligence, which can’t be said of this couple.
It took about two minutes to end to investigation. This couple had done everything wrong. Period, full stop. Dr. Beaver, one of the most gracious and gentle men I’ve ever met, had done all he could to set folks up for success. If you ignore the instructions, bring inappropriate gear and don’t bother to protect or insure it, you are on your own. And that was the end of that.
By that time I’d already reviewed The Tahuayo Lodge, penned an email to Trip Advisor about this couple, and included a story about their behavior so that anyone who read the reviews had the whole story.
These two people, in their sixties, wove bitterness and anger into every single day of their South American trip. It’s hard to imagine enjoying yourself when you’re waging war. Based on their remarkably vindictive behavior, I suspect that years later they are still bitching and complaining about the incident to anyone who will listen. This is the classic Ugly American. Entitled people who want others to pay for their own mistakes.
On the other hand, I got invited back to the Amazon to do a series of stories on Dolly Beaver, who is a miracle worker on the Tahuayo River. I now consider the Beavers personal friends.
This is YOUR Job
The moment we buy a ticket to head to a remote, off-the-beaten-path spot like the Amazon, we are buying into an experience. The wilder the place, the more carefully we have to plan. That means seriously researching the conditions, what to bring, and how to protect your gear. I never, ever travel without comprehensive insurance. I have used that insurance a lot- most especially when traveling to extreme climates and locations. I have watched otherwise moderately intelligent people try to approach wild animals, complain about not having a McDonald’s nearby, and behave like cretins in front of some of the most kind and polite people on Earth. It’s hardly limited to Americans. Rudeness is widespread. I remember a Russian screaming obscenities at a very kind Thai man near the Bangkok airport because his ten-dollar-a-night hostel room didn’t have an ensuite bathroom. It’s a hostel, you moron. On top of that, he was furious that the Thai man didn’t speak Russian. English is the lingua Franca of the world- in this we are supremely fortunate.
Pleading ignorance in the world of Google is a pretty weak excuse. Saying “we didn’t know” simply underscores a brutish unwillingness to do the work to make one’s self a competent traveler. Then to try to make a small, local company pay for that ignorance is an insult. I had to learn these things, too- the hard way, long before the Internet had been invented. I paid for those mistakes. That’s how we learn. It only takes one big loss to underscore whose responsibility it is to watch your sh*t. For example, see http://ipfactly.com/top-15-dangerous-animals-amazon-rainforest/
In a country where the word “adventure” is often used to used to describe pretty mindless, uber-safe activities, it’s understandable that people can be lulled into believing that all hippos wear tutus, all bears are friendly, and you can touch, pet, take a selfie with or otherwise do genuinely stupid, ridiculous stuff in some of the world’s most dangerous places. The problem I have is that when that pit viper bites you in the cheek when you insist on a selfie, you blame the guide, who had carefully instructed you on what NOT to do. You did it anyway. Now it’s her fault?
More could have been done. That’s absolutely right. You could have done your research. You could have shown up fully prepared. You could have…well, you get my drift.
There aren’t many truly wild places in the world left. They deserve both our respect as well as our protection. They aren’t meant to be safe. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to be able to see them at all. That’s the very definition of “adventure.” You want tame, kindly go to my alma mater, Walt Disney World. I was there on Opening Day 1971, selling Mickey Ears to the masses on Main Street. Very safe. Very predictable. But it does rain like a banshee in Orlando. Whaddya gonna do, sue Mickey?
Be my guest, as the dishes sing in Beauty in the Beast. For travels to the real work, kindly do your homework.