The Sapo Diaries
In the Amazon rain forest, there lives a very special frog called the Phyllomedusa bicolor, otherwise known as the Sapo. Traditionally, the Mayoruna tribe uses this frog’s gooey secretions to gain superpowers.
Hamilton naps in between alternately puking and shitting.
I have arrived in Tabatinga after days of traveling. It’s an impossibly humid rainforest city built by drug traffickers and sandwiched between the borders of Colombia and Peru. I feel like I’m being gangbanged by vegetation; every visible surface is coated with growing plants. The streets are overrun with motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds. Everything is crumbling and I saw a plucked chicken walking down the street as if nothing were wrong. Next to our hotel there is a store that exclusively sells plastic flowers. It’s a refreshing sight.
I go out to dinner and meet our guide, Juan. Before we exchange a word he looks at my long hair and starts laughing hysterically. He says the Mayoruna Indians are going to think I’m a woman—they’re going to kidnap me as a wife. He repeats the joke a hundred times throughout the meal. I gorge myself on a giant meat platter, drink caipirinhas, smoke JWH-018-laced cigarettes, and get unspeakably stoned. Juan starts to shimmer.
Juan lived with the Mayoruna Indians for five years but has never used the frog that they call Sapo because he has a bad heart. He says the Amazon is full of creatures scientists know nothing about. Deep in the jungle he encountered a fur-covered beast with only one eye. He and the beast exchanged a glance, and as a result Juan suffered a five-month-long fever. Another time a jaguar was attacking him, so he sliced open its belly with a machete and 50 cubs spilled out of her womb. I am too high to be skeptical and instead opt for extreme fear.
For breakfast I eat eggs and some kind of pale yellow juice that tastes like nail-polish remover. Before leaving, I am taken to Juan’s office, where I sign a pile of incomprehensible Spanish waivers. Apparently if I die (or more likely go insane) it’s not his responsibility. I go out to see our boat, which is a 30-foot-long canoe with a wicker awning in the middle. I meet the other crew member, a man introduced as “The Captain,” who will run the boat’s small motor. I throw my bag on board and we go to pick up a giant block of filthy frozen river water, which we drag out of a freezer through a heap of bloody, gutted catfish. Juan proceeds to violently smash up the ice block with a rusty machete and throw the chunks into a couple of Styrofoam coolers that hold our minuscule food supply. Juan says the ice will last six days, but that seems totally impossible.
The rainy season is when the Amazon River swells over the land, and life hemorrhages out of everything in sight. The anacondas mate, the mosquitoes lay their eggs, the pink river dolphins anthropomorphize and rape virgins. There are trees growing on trees, ants crawling on ants, and candirus swimming up the urethras of other candirus. It’s exhausting to watch. We take detours through the flooded jungle. Juan stands at the head of the boat, hacking every branch in reach with his machete. I’m not sure if it’s necessary or if he’s just in the mood to hack. The Captain sits silently at the back of the boat, navigating in a black cloud of diesel exhaust while chain-smoking cigarettes. He stabs open up a can of wieners with a giant chrome hunting knife and pours the wiener water into the Amazon. I eat a few and they taste like wet toilet paper.
The sun sets, and we dock at the home of some strangers. The river surrounds their home and reaches their doorstep. Apparently, families living on the river are obliged to take in travelers. We give them some coffee and rice. Their bathroom is nothing but a long gangplank, which extends a few yards from their kitchen. They raise their chickens in a floating coop, and children merrily swim circles through the currents of piss and shit. Dinner is surprisingly tasty: greasy noodles, chicken bits in a plastic bucket, yucca chunks, and big sweaty cups of Coke. I piss by candlelight and lie in my hammock under a pink mosquito net. Mosquitoes inside the net are squealing past my ears.
Later, I watch a cat kill a bat.
We wake up at 5 AM and eat tangerines and flavorless white cake for breakfast, then get back on the boat, eat more soggy wieners, and go through more spectacular flooded forests. Around noon I have to shit off the side of the boat while everyone films me. Not fun. I was defiantly poisoned many times over by the piss-fed floating chickens. I sincerely fear that I may shit my only pair of pants.
I recently learned we are on this expedition illegally—without a license. Additionally, it’s illegal to use the frog venom if you’re not an Indian. Fantastic. The homes along the river are becoming farther and farther apart, and we dock early today with a small family living on the shore. The air is vibrating with swarms of mosquitoes. I have never seen anything like this in my life. The insects are impossibly bloodthirsty, and they remove a round plug of flesh when they bite. I’m told that the Brazilian government can’t even sell this land—they have to give it away. In minutes my hands are covered with bleeding, swollen sores. Our host is crippled by malaria. His daughter thinks we’ve come to eat her and that our camera is a gun.
Their bathroom is an ominous black hole 50 feet into the jungle. I get a flashlight and walk down the path as dozens of eyeballs shine back at me through the dark. I shit a torrent of hot terror while hungry dogs bark at me. Our dinner is a big glistening bowl of meat hunks that we eat with bare hands by candlelight. A giant tarantula crawls across the room and Juan tells me that the bites would not kill me but would “hurt a lot.” I bet. The air is so thick with insects that the base of the dinner candle has a ring of fried exoskeletons around it almost an inch deep. The mosquito net and the bug spray are only formalities at this point. There is no escape.
I wake up totally massacred by bugs. It would be much easier to describe where I don’t have mosquito bites: my hair, my fingernails, my asshole, and inside my mouth. We take a Polaroid of our hosts, give it to them, and get the fuck out of there. Today we are scheduled to arrive at the Mayoruna village—the ancient village of the frog.
We see the Mayoruna around midday. They live on top of an orange clay cliff that juts straight out over the river. Children peer over the edge at us and then run to our boat to carry our bags up the cliff. The clay crumbles under my feet. If I fall I am three days from the nearest hospital. The Mayoruna village is a collection of huts spread across a large, dusty clearing. The insects are prehistoric. We walk into the hut of our host, a man named Petro. His face is covered in tattoos he gave himself with a tree-thorn needle and black fungus ink. Juan asks Petro if he thinks I’m a woman. Petro shakes his head no. Juan looks defeated. In Petro’s kitchen a hunk of meat the size of a suitcase lies on the ground, crawling with insects. Juan explains to me that it’s from “a small jungle rodent.” He wipes away the bugs and starts gnawing on it.
I am told that until recently the Mayoruna Indians practiced cannibalism, breast-fed monkeys, and stole white women as sex slaves. Petro sees me apply bug spray and indicates he wants some himself. I hand him the spray bottle and he looks at it like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. I do the spraying for him. Across the room a ten-year-old is stomping around with frosted tips and a K-Swiss t-shirt. This is all very puzzling.
The chief’s son takes me to his pharmacy, which is a hut stockpiled with a modest supply of antibiotics. Still, it’s nice to see a pharmacy. Outside the pharmacy a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman is breast-feeding a half-Indian child. I’m totally in awe—they really do steal white women. We set up our hammocks and rest, listening for the Sapo, which they tell us does not sing until the early morning. A little bit before dawn Petro hears the song and calls back to the Sapo, imitating its bark. He runs out of the hut into the jungle and out of sight. He returns half an hour later, empty-handed. Now what?
The accumulating mosquito bites have started to cripple me. I can barely hold this pen, as every inch of my hands is covered in red bumps. I count 52 bites on my left hand and 51 on my right, which is so swollen I cannot make a fist. I’m going to munch a bit of Tramadol and try not to move until the sun goes down.
Petro takes me out in his canoe. We paddle through flooded forests, weaving through low-hanging vines. The setting sun filters through the leaves. I am alone in a canoe with an ex-cannibal during the height of anaconda-mating season. He looks back at me and I give him a thumbs-up.
Night comes and we sit half-awake listening for the frog’s song. These South Americans have an insatiable sweet tooth, and when the Coke runs out Juan mixes a concentrated red powder into our drinking water that turns everything into a sweaty Brazilian Shirley Temple. Around 2 AM the Sapo sings and again we all rush into the jungle. I follow Petro as he stalks through the trees for almost an hour but again he returns empty-handed. I go to sleep defeated and dream I am Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Frog Secretion.
This is our third day with the Mayoruna Indians. I have mosquito-induced shell shock and swat constantly at insects that are not even there. I give Petro a copy of Vice and he indicates it would make good masturbation material. We hand out batteries, pens, notebooks, t-shirts, and other trash. A girl grabs all she can hold and stuffs her bra with D-cell batteries. We have officially run out of food and buy a chicken from the Mayoruna before leaving. A child kills the chicken for us by swinging it around in circles until its neck breaks.
I can’t believe we are leaving without the frog. Juan keeps the crew’s spirits high with his signature tomfoolery: spanking and ball-taping the unsuspecting, rocking the boat while we pee, and calling me a mujer, chica, or niña about 100,000 times a day. We start heading toward the floating home of a shaman downriver. My skin glows with inflammation. I feel like I’ve just IV-injected a kilo of itching powder.
We dock on the shaman’s doorstep and walk inside. The shaman isn’t home but a toucan is standing on the kitchen table totally aloof. On the floor next to a pile of rotting bananas there is a little baby monkey with a head no larger than a lemon. Wide-eyed, he is howling, gurgling, and gasping, pink lips curled open. I am told the monkey is only three days old and that the shaman just ate his mother for dinner. He coils his tail tightly, wraps his shiny brown fingers around a soiled panty, and shakes it at the stars. Next to the monkey, a human baby cries. His face is ravaged by mosquito bites. They howl at each other.
We drag nets through the water before dinner but keep catching candirus, aka penis fish. These parasites are a truly horrifying sight, with razor-sharp retractable fangs that whip in and out of their faces in a split second. Apparently they like to swim up assholes. I think I’ll avoid bathing for a bit. We eat rice and river fish for dinner. Since the shaman’s home has everything from toucan to penis fish, I am confident we will find the frog here.
This morning the shaman returned from his trip. He has a gold tooth and a black mustache. I ask him if he knows where to find the frog and he says he does not, but welcomes us to look ourselves. Then I ask if he can help me find ayahuasca. He said he can and leads me into the jungle. There is an inevitable confusion when discussing ayahuasca because there are about 150 different names for it. It’s not just one specific thing—it’s a mixture of plants as well.
The shaman goes into the jungle barefoot and starts macheteing a path through a solid wall of vegetation. He says it will take two minutes, and for some reason I believe him. Forty minutes of machete-slashing through thorns and nettles and ankle-deep mud later, we arrive at an uninteresting brown nodulated vine no thicker than a hot dog. He starts hacking with a machete. The inner flesh is bright yellow and then turns brown on exposure to the air. He tells me it’s a “male vine” and will have no effect on women should they chose to drink it. I nod.
The vine alone does not produce the psychedelic experience. It activates a DMT-containing plant, but by itself it’s not especially interesting. I ask for different DMT-containing plants, but he does not have access to any of them. So that’s that, a week of pain and terror and I’m frogless in the Amazon with half the plants needed to make ayahuasca. We eat a single egg for dinner and I lie in my hammock as the shaman’s family futilely attempts to tune a radio. Sliding down a band of broken Portuguese. Sizzling electromagnetic slide whistles, a moment of music. Zap.
In the middle of the night, Juan and the Captain find the frog perched in a tree. The Captain starts climbing the tree but sticks his hand into a beehive and has to paddle away. Are we getting closer?
And then, early in the morning, the shaman goes out and is able to pluck the frog off its branch and bring it to us. Easy as that. It’s a giant neon-green hamburger of a frog. I pick him up, and he immediately climbs onto my head. Frog hat. Eventually I pluck him off and sit him on the kitchen table. Just holding him in my hand caused my broken skin to tingle and burn. A little girl comes over and touches one of his big slimy eyes. I tell her that it’s a bad idea.
The frog is totally still, resigned to his fate. Juan and the Captain tie grass ropes around his arms and legs as if he’s about to be drawn and quartered. The frog is strung up vertically, and they start jabbing his sides with a sharpened stick to encourage him to secrete the venom. It’s being done for my sake and is making me a bit queasy. One Indian keeps yelling, “Jab his asshole! Jab his asshole!” The frog starts to glisten with psychoactive jelly, which is gathered on a wooden pallet.
The Captain volunteers to go first. He’s the only person who has used the Sapo in the past, and he’s the only person besides myself who intends to use it now. Juan lights a stick on fire and gets it glowing orange. He jabs it into the Captain’s arm. The Captain does not react. He takes two more burns the same way, and then Juan begins to rub the jelly into all three wounds. The Captain stands with a far-off look in his eye. Then he sits down and puts his head in his hands. He says that everything is spinning and he can feel it in his gut, then he goes silent. Just looking at him makes me have to take a shit. While I’m in the bushes, they pour a bucket of water over his head to “counteract the venom.” The Captain jumps into the piss river, looks at me, and says that he’s fine. Now it’s my turn.
I sit down on an overturned boat and remove my shirt. Juan lights a stick on fire. He extinguishes the flame and blows on the stick to make sure it remains red-hot and spitting smoke. Then he drives it into my bicep. I scream, and the shaman and his family laugh. He jabs again, and I tell him two will be enough. Then he starts rubbing the frog jelly into my wounds.
Nothing at first, then slowly an opiated high creeps over me, a drunken-headedness—it feels good. I ask for another burn. I scream. More jelly. A tremor begins passing through my extremities and wells up in my hands and feet. Wile E. Coyote earthquake-pill archetype. I request a fourth burn—more Sapo than the Captain. Who’s the mujer now? My blood pressure is climbing; my hands are going numb. Burn. Scream. More jelly. I close my eyes and feel myself collapsing into two dimensions, only to be stretched back into 3-D. Colors look desaturated. I am very high and need to lie down. The people surrounding me fan me like I’m an emperor. I lie shirtless on a plastic tarp, my stomach in excruciating pain. The frog and I exchange a glance.
The Captain insists that I submerge myself in the shit river in order to sober up. I say I don’t want to. I’m weak and have no energy for their drug superstitions. There is no pharmacological reason that getting wet would clear the venom from my bloodstream. But he insists, so I let him pour gasoline jugs of piss over my head and then we boat into the middle of the river where I shit liquid and swim around until I feel a sea monster tickling my foot. The water does not make me sober, but it cools me off. The frog, still alive and doing just fine, is returned to a tree. I lie in my hammock feeling dissociated, high, and nauseous for the next three hours. Aspects of the experience were euphoric and I would consider repeating it, but I’m pretty certain you could achieve the same effects by rubbing the jelly inside your nose.
I wake up today feeling like shit. I do not have supernatural powers, nor do I have a resistance to thirst or hunger. How these drug rumors get started I have no idea. Indians, right? I eat an egg for breakfast and stroke the monkey orphan’s little head one last time. We give the shaman’s family some coffee and rice, as well as an erotic porcelain statuette of two pigs making love, which they seem to cherish. I grab my 20-pound bale of fresh ayahuasca vine and we head back to Tabatinga.
Juan goes to the tip of the boat, unzips his pants, and starts to piss. The Captain revs up the engine to full speed, sending a fine mist of Juan’s urine downwind into my eyes and mouth. Returning to the city fills me with incredible joy. My mosquito bites become less itchy, my sunburns less peely, and my intestines less colonized by parasites. The skies are clear and the banks of the Amazon are monotonously beautiful. Tomorrow I will prepare the magic brew. Tonight I rest.
I wake up early to go to the home of an ayahuasca shaman in Tabatinga. I am surprised to find the shaman is a wizened old woman wearing a pink jumpsuit. She leads me through her garden of medicinal plants and brings me to a small tree with lush green leaves. The tree is called chacruna and its leaves contain about .5 percent DMT. She insists that I also buy some basil, saying I will not experience visions without it. Sure, why not?
Our hotel is nice enough to let me use their kitchen, where I brew ayahuasca for the rest of the afternoon. The attitudes toward psychedelics here are totally different—everyone drinks ayahuasca. While the vine and leaves boil, I walk around the city and buy myself a strawberry ice-cream cone. The woman at the ice-cream shop tells me I have “the eyes of Jesus Christ.”
Around sunset I start drinking the vine. It is truly the most awful-tasting substance on the planet, and each sip takes me within a nano-gag of vomiting. Sip. Gag. Sip. Gag. The vine hits me like a tsunami of warm milk. I’ve never been so drowsy in my life. I’m totally paralyzed. I drink the chacruna leaves, fall asleep, and have strange apocalyptic dreams. I foresee the death of Alicia Silverstone.
I eat some Ritalin and attempt to stand. Inflatable origami vomit Methuselah. I stumble out of the hotel into the Brazilian night, making eye contact with ominous déjà-vu-faced travelers. I am a thousand years old. I walk to the plastic-flower store to find it’s closed. Sleeping plastic roses, sleeping teddy bears. I lie down on the concrete in front of the store and close my eyes. It starts to rain. I walk down overgrown streets of impossible familiarity, walk through the Massachusetts Amazon. I walk to the ice-cream shop again.
I order two scoops of bubble-gum ice cream and the woman with eternal cleavage calls me Jesus. I thank her while licking my hands. She asks me to say “bubble gum” in English, but she can’t say it herself. “Blahboo-gahm?” I slowly start to realize the ice cream is filled with gum. I’m swallowing mouthfuls of gum. She looks at me and says, “Real gum!”
“Real gum?” I ask.
“Real gum!” she replies.
This ice cream should be illegal—it encourages the wanton consumption of gum. Frog, monkey, ice cream, jungle. How long can a man survive eating nothing but gum?
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