By SARA MANNING PESKIN
Four days into our honeymoon, my husband and I faced the end of our marriage, the end of our lives. Large bruises marred my thighs and shins. A corrosive leaf had burned a fiery triangle into Jeremy’s neck. Mosquitoes competed for space on our pocked flesh.
I married a brawny Canadian, an amateur naturalist with an adventurous spirit disguised by a law degree and a 9-to-9 job in Times Square. Early in our relationship, I caught a glimpse behind this facade when I found his iPhone filled with close-up photos of bizarre insects and obscure reptiles. Later, I discovered his recent Google searches included “white capuchin monkey howl” and “tardigrade mating habits.”
Our honeymoon began with a three-day camping trip in the Amazon rain forest. Jeremy booked the expedition through a lodge outside Iquitos, Peru, the only tour operator he could find that offered overnight stays in the open jungle. I agreed because it would be an opportunity to see Jeremy in remote wilderness, his most beloved environment. It would be like visiting his hometown together for the first time.
We flew to Lima and then Iquitos, where we met our guide and traveled with him by boat to a small inlet along the Amazon River. The dilapidated lodge stood partly submerged, victim to the season’s unusually fierce flooding.
The rising water had washed away our trekking path, too. At Jeremy’s insistence, the lodge hired a local trapper, Arnold, to lead us through uncharted territory with the lodge’s own guide and tracker. Arnold lived alone in the jungle for weeks at a time. Towering foliage and oversize insects were his home territory; he would guide us through his backyard.
At the outset, you could tell we were amateurs by our Osprey and Kelty backpacks. The lodge’s guide and tracker slung giant potato sacks over their backs, while Arnold carried only a pink polyester girls school bag.
I admired Jeremy in his jungle get-up. His dirt-crusted pants were tucked loosely into knee-high rubber boots. I watched the glint of his wedding ring appear and disappear as his hands swayed, a reminder of the lavishly joyous party we had thrown in Boston. Stomping along behind him, I wore a floppy-brimmed navy hat that I intended to look rugged but instead appeared quintessentially “middle-age gardener.”
After five hours of hiking, we arrived at a clearing. Our companions quickly worked their machetes, building a shelter from tree trunks, netting and tarps. It was just enough to protect us from the rain, mosquitoes, bullet ants, scorpions, coral snakes and cacophony of other perilous creatures that fascinated Jeremy and terrified me.
The lodge had sent our guides off with minimal rations: a bag of rice, two cans of tuna and a dozen eggs (10 of them broken). To supplement, we set out on an evening hunt. Our guides found a bird sleeping in a tree several meters up, then cut down a second tree and used it to club the bird from its perch. Dinner.
Jeremy awoke in the middle of the night to pee. Despite our efforts to keep the mosquito net closed, half the jungle flew in the moment a corner was lifted. Jeremy ducked back, bladder unrelieved, to commence killing the cloud of insects one by one.
By the next day, Arnold was lost. To avoid the flooding, we had left the path and followed him into swampy backwoods where each step looked identical to the next.
Nearly out of food and dependent on our confused guides for survival, we suggested hacking our way south until we hit the Amazon River. Yet our guides had not packed a compass, and the foliage was too thick to track the sun. Instead, we walked aimlessly as Arnold scoured the undergrowth for remnants of a footpath. There were none.
We awoke the next morning to a rifle shot. Arnold dragged a bloody peccary to our campsite. It was an Amazonian wild boar, and like nearly everything in the Amazon, it was larger and more vicious than its North American relative. With precision and a hint of showmanship, Arnold skinned and gutted the 90-pound animal. He cut down large palms and briskly wove them into a backpack, which he stuffed with the dripping meat and strapped to the outside of his girls backpack.
The kill caused a split in our ranks. With speed we could not possibly match, Arnold and the tracker pushed ahead, leaving our guide, Jeremy and me with a single machete to bushwhack our path. Our guide shouted ahead before turning heavily to us. “I think they have left us,” he said, “to find a way home before the meat spoils.”
At some point, Jeremy and I would transition in our guide’s mind from clients to baggage. Having grown up in the jungle, he could feed himself for days on plants and rodents, but he could not support the three of us for long.
Resigned, we set up camp. I could no longer feign being outdoorsy, so I made the only contribution I could: I became an Amazonian homemaker. I wiped dirt from the tarp, then laid out the flat sheet and ran my hand over the wrinkles. I placed our After Bite at the top and a bottle for urinating at our feet. I put Jeremy’s book on the right and mine on the left, an echo of the sleeping arrangement we developed on our plush Sealy mattress in New York.
We donned our sexy honeymoon evening apparel: quick-dry underwear and a headlamp. Jeremy read “The River of Doubt,” about Theodore Roosevelt’s traumatic expedition to map one of the Amazon’s tributaries. I read “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
“Are you scared?” I asked.
Jeremy squinted, raising his hand to block the beam of my headlamp. “Of course not,” he said. “Worse comes to worst, we get back a few days late and a bit hungry. There’s probably enough information in my book to find edible food.”
It wasn’t until days later, as we drank pisco sours next to open windows at Restaurante Fitzcarraldo in Iquitos, that he would admit how scared he’d been. Scared that a venomous snake would bite me, and we’d be too far away to get treatment. Scared that we’d starve to death, because there wasn’t anything in his Roosevelt book about how to forage for food. “It’s more,” he said with a grin, “about people dying in gruesome ways.”
Lying on a tarp in the jungle that night, we felt entirely useless and infantile, unable to eat or walk without a guide. So we stitched together a false reality where we played important roles as comforter and protector, as receiver of comfort and beneficiary of protection.
We talked about our lives. At a time when our future felt tenuous, we went ahead and created it, chattering about how many children we would have and what we would teach them. How we would instill a love of adventure and an understanding of the difference between risk and recklessness, something we were just beginning to grasp.
“Make me laugh?” I asked.
Jeremy folded his wrists back and held them up to his ears. “Who am I?”
I giggled, a welcome moment of relief. “The dog.”
“Now your turn,” he said.
Outside, we heard a muffled hum in the distance.
“A boat!” our guide exclaimed. We could not be more than eight or 10 hours from the Amazon River. Tomorrow, we would follow the sound southward looking for a path to the river. From there, we could find a boat back to the lodge.
Come dawn, that’s exactly what we did.
Our first step on the dock that evening was joyous. We threw down our packs and muscled off our wet rain boots. We sat in awe and silence and exhaustion until we regained the strength to drag ourselves to the honeymoon suite, a large room that had running water but lacked electricity.
We showered. Lying side by side on a lumpy mattress, we counted our bruises. We were safe, together. I had paid my dues for my nature lover of a husband, and we were all the better for it.
On the morning of our departure, we opted for one last short trek with our guide. Along the way, he called us over, pointing a stick at a coral snake resting under a large leaf. We crowded around.
Jeremy confirmed the beauty of the animal and explained that its poison was neurotoxic. You could die within hours of respiratory arrest as your lungs failed to expand and your major organs wilted from hypoxia. There was a whole section on it in the Roosevelt book.
With another poke, the snake lunged at us, lifting most of its body a foot in the air. “Run, run, run!” the guide shouted.
The snake slithered away. So did we, first to Iquitos, then to a four-star hotel in Colombia, and finally, armed with our newfound survival skills, into the disorienting wilderness of married life.