The Pink Dolphin
Beneath the river
lie mysterious treasures,
Deep in the murky waters of the Amazon River, feeding on catfish and piranha, live the mysterious pink dolphins. Known as Boto, or Bufeo by the locals, these mammals are the largest and most intelligent dolphins. Locals believe they lure children who make the mistake of swimming alone, into their magical underwater city. At night, they morph into handsome men, and seduce the beautiful women of the villages that line the shores of the river.
I arrived in Iquitos, a colourful harbour city in Peru, on the shore of the Amazon River to find my sister Anna. The last I’d heard from her, she had been on a quest for the perfect photograph of the elusive pink dolphins.
A huge mural greets visitors arriving at the Iquitos airport, of a handsome man with a mustache and fedora; the pink dolphin personified. The man is surrounded by smiling children, some swimming in a river. Laughter is on all the faces in the painting, yet it left me less than joyful. The hairs on my neck stood on end as I gazed at it. I was mesmerized by this man, and the gaudiness of the painting.
I have spent my life worrying about my sister. Anna was always chasing rare species of animals and cultures through the lens of her camera. She has scaled the highest mountains and explored the deepest jungles. Now she’s gone missing. I find myself traveling deep into the flooded Amazon jungle, to a remote research station on the Tahayo River, looking for her. I walked outside and found a line of 3-wheeled tuk-tuks waiting to carry tourists into the town. The driver spoke no English so I sat silently in the back, watching the foreign landscape go by. The driver deposited me in front of a harbour hotel and I held up a few Sols for him. He took what he wanted, “Gracias, seniorita”. Anna would have admonished me for not bartering. I probably paid too much.
I didn’t know what to expect out there so my first task was shopping for supplies. I wandered through the lively market with its raw chickens and stinking fish, tables full of unlabelled powders and pills, exotic fruits and vegetables and stall after stall of street food. Anna always had stories when she came home from these adventures. Suddenly I found myself living one of them. I finally understood the allure. I found what I was looking for – water, a rain jacket and a pair of jungle boots. I spent one last luxurious night in a warm dry bed, with a view of the harbour from my patio. Tomorrow the adventure would begin.
The Amazon delta was experiencing one of its worst floods on record. Anna had come because of that, to photograph both the devastating flood and the dolphins. I had hoped the waters would have receded by now, but when I arrived at the dock in the morning it was still raining. The flood was so severe that my boat driver cut hours off our journey by leaving the river completely, navigating directly through the jungle. I hoped he knew where he was going. Occasionally we passed a home or a small village, only rooftops visible. I was surprised to find that people had not abandoned their homes, but were instead just living on top of them. I imagined Anna instructing the boat to stop in her perfect Spanish, photographing these vivid scenes of hardship.
We arrived just as the sun was low over the horizon. Javier was waiting for me. Anna had sought out Javier because he was the world expert on pink dolphins. I had found their emails in her computer. If anyone could help me find her it would be him. He took my hand to help me out of the boat and the moment we touched he felt familiar. “Have we met?” “I don’t think so, Seniorita. You are Debra, si? Anna’s little sister?” “Yes, that’s me.”
When the boat sped away, the lodge was plunged into darkness. Anna would have felt comfortable here, but I was terrified. The solar collectors that would have provided electricity were now buried deep beneath the floodwater. In fairer times, tourists would come here for an adventure holiday, but now the 6-metre-high walkways were under water. A raft had been set up for a makeshift dining hall and venomous coral snakes swam into the kitchen, around the feet of the cooks, feeding on scraps. I balanced along boards set over raised walkways knee deep in jungle water, and made my way to a flooded bunk house. I would be sharing this room with Javier. I stood ankle-deep in water and placed my knapsack on a top bunk to keep it dry. I silently cursed my sister and her risky lifestyle.
Despite the meanness of the lodge, there was a meal waiting for us. It was surprisingly delicious and had been harvested from the surrounding jungle; manioc, yucca, plantains and grilled piranha, caught fresh that morning. After dinner, Javier and I plotted our first day’s expedition. We planned to visit a Shaman who lived in a nearby village, who had a special relationship with the pink dolphins. Anna had spent much time with him and Javier believed he might know where to find her.
After an exhausting day, the two of us found one dry spot at the back of the lodge and carried chairs over. Javier found some wine in the kitchen and we sat together in the darkness, listening to the jungle. The fish feeding in the water beneath our feet sounded like upside down rain. Only the glowing yellow eyes of the bats were visible as they flew under the eaves. When Javier shone his flashlight onto the ceiling, hanging right over our heads was a baby boa constrictor. When it was time for bed, Javier’s presence in my room was a surprising comfort.
We woke to rain, the kind of rain that only falls in a true rain forest. The flood should have been receding by now, but instead the water rose even higher. I took a shower in the communal bathroom, leaving only my jungle boots on, to protect my ankles from the snakes. I was already growing accustomed to my new surroundings. When Javier joined me in the next stall, I decided to live Anna’s life for a change and threw caution to the wind. Boldly, I did not hide my nakedness, but instead admired his fit body, his deep brown skin accentuating his rippling muscles. I wondered if Anna had made love to this man. She was never shy.
Despite the rain, we boarded the lodge’s canoe and paddled to the village. The prolonged flood was devastating, but these people were resilient. I spied three children paddling a canoe, one clutching a baby and worried for their safety. We passed a floating raft with several chickens and an unhappy dog on it. It was obvious why Anna had come here, this was a photographer’s dream.
The Shaman was expecting us. He was a third-generation medicine man who spoke 14 indigenous languages, English and Spanish were not among them. I had to trust Javier’s translations. He had prepared a smoke ceremony and we all sat cross-legged on a raft, odd-sized bottles of tinctures surrounding us. He rolled a cigarette and lit it, then blew the smoke over us, around us and directly into our faces. He chanted and sang and meditated. Anna had been to visit this shaman, many times. Anna had drunk the ayahuasca here, a traditional spiritual medicine, several times. Through Javier the Shaman tells me Anna experienced hallucinations from the drug, that she saw the pink dolphins right here on this raft. The ayahuasca is said to tell only truth. He tells me Anna had found the Bufeo and was with them now. They were together at a place called Lake Charo, about a five-hour paddle away from our lodge. “Your sister is happy now, she has found what she was looking for,” he told me through Javier.
The Shaman’s response to Javier was quite different. He glared at him, his eyes piercing. He spoke animatedly, either angry or frightened, I couldn’t tell. Javier did not reply, just looked sadly away. He would not translate the Shaman’s words to me. We paddled home in silence. The experience with the Shaman had encouraged me, provided great hope that tomorrow we might find Anna.
That night Javier and I ate dinner alone, to the light of a candle. We talked about Anna, and today’s visit to the village. “The Shaman is a very wise man,” he told her. That night, before we climbed into our upper bunks, Javier took me into his arms. I turned my face up, willing him to kiss me, but he just held me closer. I went to sleep that night dreaming, of pink dolphins and of Javier.
The next morning the rain abated and the sun rose to warm our journey. We left at dawn in the lodge’s canoe. I took the spot in front, with the machete, alternately paddling and chopping though the jungle. Javier steered the rig from the stern. Howler monkeys screamed from the trees above and brightly coloured macaws watched us from perches high above the river. A sloth swam by our canoe, a rare sight. Sometimes we paddled directly through the jungle, high above the flooded ground. I couldn’t believe I was really doing this.
When at last we arrived at Lake Charo we paddled slowly around the entire shoreline. I don’t know what I was looking for, a tent, a shack – any evidence of human life in this wilderness. Suddenly Javier stood up, stripped off his clothes and dove into the murky water, leaving me alone in the boat. He dove deep, but he surfaced with a smile. “I have found the pink dolphins.” Anna must be near. I scanned the shoreline, and the surface of the water. The pink dolphins surrounded our little boat, circling from a respectful distance. Some were gray, some slightly pink but the largest ones were bright pink, almost flamingo. I could watch their colour deepen as they moved closer. I felt what Anna must have felt on this very spot, intense love for these beautiful creatures. Javier reached his hand out of the water. “Come, they want to swim with you.” I was scared, but felt compelled to follow him.
I removed my clothing too and stood in the canoe. I hesitated, but Javier was waiting. The dolphins were circling far away. My heart was drawn to these beautiful creatures and I had to get closer. I took a deep breath and dove into the river.
Javier was right, the dolphins closed in around me immediately. They came so close I could touch them, caress them. I could see their expressions, playing and welcoming me. I wrapped my arms around one. The closer I got, the pinker and more beautiful they became. I had never felt this way before. I felt Anna’s presence. I was completely smitten by these beautiful, playful creatures.
Javier held out his hand and I took it willingly. Together we dove under the water. Gently he pulled me down, down deeper under the water. Slowly I realized what was happening. I remembered where I had seen him before. The giant painting in the Iquitos airport. Javier wasn’t Javier anymore. His skin was soft and wet and bright crimson, as if on fire.
My lungs began to burn. I looked up and saw the dusky evening sky, now far away. I looked sadly back to Javier, no trace of the man I’d followed left. My eyes were looking upon the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Unlike Anna before me, I turned back and swam to the surface. My sister had indeed found what she was looking for.