June 30, 2006

A song left in the jungle

Mother Nature’s been taking the U.S. on a wild ride lately. Drought and wildfire in the Southwest and flooding rain here in the Northeast. The kids are out of school now, and they’ve commandeered the computer in my office, so I’ve set up my laptop in the kitchen, which has two glass doors and a large arched window. I write a little, but mostly I stare out at the rain. It’s become a permanence, a fixture. The rare sunny day feels odd, unfamiliar, something you vaguely remember but need time to get to know again.

I sit and type and watch the sheets of water fall beyond the kitchen door. Sometimes the sheets are faint, gray, quick cascades of small, staccato drops. Sometimes they're denser, whiter walls of fat water. These make an eerie but pleasingly fulsome sound as they wrap around the house and build to a thick, wet crescendo.

The kind of crescendo we listened to from the thatch-roofed verandah and open-sided gathering room of our jungle camp on Peru’s Momon River, an Amazon tributary. We’d made it back from a late afternoon nature walk seconds before a pregnant beige sky let loose a rain so heavy it made the brown Momon boil and the piranha jump and flip and the hammocks strung on the verandah twirl and spin into gnarled knots.

We watched the rain for hours. In the jungle, you make your entertainment, or you take it from the nature around you. The whipping, deafening skywater kept us rapt.

With rain still falling at dinnertime, we gathered around the long, wooden communal dining table and shared a pot of monkey stew. Afterward, the camp’s full complement – a group of some dozen tourists, guides and camp staff – stayed gathered on the verandah. We shared stories over bottles of local beer.

One of the cooks had a guitar, and he sang a few gentle Peruvian ballads. Then he asked, “Can anyone sing an American song?” I took the guitar and played “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

Before I finished singing, the cook left the room. He returned with an old cassette tape recorder. “Please,” he said. “Please play again. We would like to keep your song here.” I reprised, and after I strummed the final chord, the cook rewound the tape and played a bit of it to make sure he’d captured the music. He then clicked the machine off and held it to him like a treasured thing.

Sometimes, when the rain falls heavy, I think of that wet, wonderful night and marvel that I left a song in a faraway jungle. That my voice might still be heard from time to time above the swooshes and rushes of the brown Momon is an honor. A treasured thing.