CONWAY DUO TRAVEL THE AMAZON
By FRED PETRUCELLI
SPECIAL TO THE LOG CABIN
Few places on the planet offer such a dizzying array of sights and sounds as the Amazon River jungle where a pair of intrepid Conway travelers drank in its wonders recently.
Scott Markham and George Vickers, boyhood friends, are not swashbuckling adventurers, but people who thirst for knowledge about the world and its indigenous people. Markham is a former professor of marketing at the University of Central Arkansas, and Vickers earned a high-ranking job with Riceland Foods.
To say they were thrilled by their exercise in tracing portions of the magnificent river and the people who subsist by its provisions only touches the edge of the story.
One traveler summed up the passion that awaits visitors by this comment:
“The first time I came to the Amazon jungle; I thought I’d found paradise. I still think it is as close as we’re apt to get.”
Our Conway adventurers felt inclined to agree after flying from Little Rock to Miami to Bogota, Columbia, then to Lima, Peru where they spent the night. The next day found them on a short flight to Iquitos and from there on a van driving 62 miles on the only improved road in the Amazon to Nauta, where they boarded a ship which was to be their home base for the next week
Each day, after breakfast, they would explore tributaries in a 22-foot skiff equipped with outboard motors.
“We saw Black Kites with white wing tips, orapindulas, buzzards, kingfishers and egrets similar to those we have in Arkansas,” Markham said. “And the pink river dolphins were amazing to see. When several surfaced at the same time in calm inlets near our skiff, feeding on small fish, it was a breathless sight.”
Our plucky travelers learned that there are 134 ethnic groups of native peoples in the Amazon rain forest, the Cucomas being the natives that accommodated the Arkansans.
Substance living is the norm in the Amazon, with fishing mostly done by nets, gathering of fruits and raising crops, even corn, rice and, surprisingly enough, blackeyed peas.
Treks though the jungles provided sights of various edibles and medicinal plants and vines. “We saw ficus trees like the ones we see in Arkansas homes and patios, except these were over 100 feet high,” Markham pointed out.
The natives were said to be jealous of their environment, worried that the possibility of destroying endangered species was acute. Tropical forests and their medicinal plants have been falling to the rancher’s torch, the miner’s pick or farmer’s plows. Even the influence of the shamans, tribal elders who use plants for healing, was said to be diminishing. In effect, the shamans are the rain forest’s most endangered species. “Every day our guides impressed upon us the importance of preserving as much of the Amazon region as possible in its natural state. We were thankful that the area in which we traveled had not experienced any clear-cutting for raising livestock as had happened in many area of the Amazon,” they said.
About 10 percent of the shamans are women. One visited with the Arkansans through an interpreter. She was cognizant of the names and properties of all the plants and animals in her area of responsibility.
“She was in charge of the health needs of four villages which she walked between on a weekly basis, accepting no pay as most of the villagers have little money. There are no doctors in most of the areas of the Amazon.
Fishing for pirannahs was a titillating event for the Arkansas compatriots. “Many villagers issue warnings about taking them off the hook if you are able to snare one. The method of catching a pirannah involved circling a pole in the water several times to attract them. The guides said this made them believe there was an animal or another fish in trouble. We would drop a piece of raw meat in the middle of the circle and then ‘Wham!’ It definitely was not like catching crappie on Lake Conway. On one trip we saw Tamarind monkeys, iguanas, egrets, kingfishers and anahingas.
One of the memorable parts of the journey was found in a “developed” village where beautiful children — well-behaved and healthy looking — staged a show singing and dancing. Their mothers spread out their homemade crafts for us to buy if we chose. There were dirt floors in the huts with many chickens making their presence felt,
“Meanwhile the guides kept emphasizing our differences.
‘You are rich with money, houses and cars, and we are rich with this beautiful land and our river.’ ”
One of the most significant thoughts is that environmental protection involves everyone — the natives of the Amazon and the people of America — because of the impact on potential medicines in plants and animals, climate change, and the sting of pollution.