Lost in the Amazon
On day 315 of Stafford's trek along the Amazon, he encounters a flooded forest near Pevas, Peru.
Credit: Peter McBride
Sore and scraped up after three more days of hacking our way through maze-like jungle, we finally reach the next village. Porvenir is an idyllic scattering of thatch houses on stilts set on a bluff above the Rio Ampicuyu, another small tributary of the Amazon. From here we must temporarily leave the route of the expedition to rendezvous with Pete McBride, a photographer from Colorado. We spend five hours in a dugout canoe, motoring downstream to the ramshackle market town of Pevas, right on the Amazon itself, where we meet up with McBride, resupply our stocks of tuna and ramen noodles, and return to the spot where we'd left off.

This is one of the self-created regulations of the expedition: Whenever Stafford leaves the route, he sets a GPS marker so he can return to the exact spot and pick up where he left off. It's what makes the game of walking the Amazon fun, a stickler of a rule that presents all sorts of logistical challenges. There is, of course, nobody to enforce this except Stafford and Cho, but the idea of cutting corners is unfathomable to them. "I wouldn't bother suffering this much if I were going to cheat on the small things," says Stafford. "If we're going to do this, we're going to do it right."

Mario returns home to his family and village, and for the next leg of the journey we will travel with a guide named Bernobe Sancha, a 38-year-old Ocaina Indian. I wake up in the morning to find Bernobe standing perfectly still, perched on a root above the edge of the river, holding a machete. With a quick flick and a splash, he hacks downward. A fish, its head surgically cut in half, drifts up to the surface of the water. We gut it and split it for breakfast, five ways.

When we walk out through the fields behind Porvenir, I stumble across a well-tended little plot of coca bushes. We are only 50 miles south of the Colombian border, and a huge amount of drug trafficking passes through the region. Peru is the world's second-largest producer of coca, whose leaves are refined into paste before being trekked to drug labs across Colombia's border for further processing. En- counters with nervous traffickers, the vast majority of them poor Peruvians, will be a serious risk as Stafford and Cho approach the "Triangle of Death" at the Peru-Brazil-Colombia frontier. In Pevas I read an account of a Peruvian village that had been burned to the ground in a turf war between rival drug gangs. It was right along Stafford's planned route.

The jungle life is beginning to wear on me after 10 days of trekking. As my willpower flags, my astonishment at Stafford's determination grows. My feet, soaked for 12 hours a day, look cadaverous. I long for water that doesn't taste like an iodized puddle. I am covered with ant bites, and my ankles are embedded with parasitic fleas. At one point Stafford stumbles into a swarm of wasps, and the four of us sprint in a panic back down the trail. Then, while crossing through waist-deep water, McBride looks down and shouts, "What the hell is that thing?" This is not something anybody wants to hear while standing in an Amazonian swamp.

The creature has a huge whiskered head like a catfish, but a bright red mouth and a tail that winds off behind a stump and breaks the water six feet away. It swims slowly toward McBride and then vanishes below the surface in the murk. Bernobe tries to explain in broken Spanish, repeating the word anguila, but none of us knows what it means. Only later do we realize that the thing was an enormous electric eel, which could have generated enough of a shock to knock us all unconscious, facedown in the water.

On the day McBride and I are to leave, we have to make our way to the bank of the Ampicuyu to meet with a boat down toward the Amazon. According to Stafford's GPS, the river is 800 yards away. We strike out toward it, hacking through vines and undergrowth, but after just a few yards there is nothing but flooded forest as far as I can see. The only way to the river is straight ahead. We are knee deep, then waist deep, and then the dry bag in my pack begins to float and the weight is lifted off my aching shoulders. Our footsteps are silent, and we glide around enormous root buttresses in the light-dappled water. The flooded forest is otherworldly, literally: an exact replica of the forest, the sky, and our- selves moving in reflection over the still black water. When it is too deep we load our bags in the pack rafts and push them through the water, swimming in our heavy boots, laughing, spiders and ants on every branch. The water is too murky to even see a hand below the surface – or an electric eel.

The flooded forest is the epitome of all childhood nightmares, and yet I'm not afraid. I now understand the realization Stafford came to while crossing the Napo delta: He learned to let himself float, to feel the tranquillity of the moment he was in. Stafford has a long way to go, perhaps 18 more months, but you can't rush an expedition like this. It will take as long as it takes.