Three months after packing up my life and moving to the Peruvian city of Cusco, my childhood friend Pete came to visit. We were in the mood for a serious jungle adventure and had loaded up on typhoid vaccinations and malaria pills. We were ready for the Amazon.
By way of a Lonely Planet guidebook, Pete* and I decided to pony up for a four day, three night group excursion to Manu National Park, a biosphere reserve in the Amazon River basin. There we would drive up winding mountains past dozens of waterfalls spilling over dirt roads, boat to a private lodge with catered food, and trek through paths slick with mud on the hunt for tarantulas and tapirs.
The morning we left Cusco and headed into the wild, we stumbled into our tour van and found ourselves sitting near a nebbish man and his nearly mute college-bound son, along with four twenty-something University of Florida alums who were on a fraternity reunion trip. Said crew was made Chris, Jared, Brad, and Myles, each bearing their own distinct marks of bro. Jared sported a backwards hat like the rest of his brethren, though he had a thick beard and talked about squirrel hunting and his job transporting yachts for millionaires in the Florida Keys. Myles, whose manner of speaking was particularly lifeless, was like a low-budget doppelgänger of Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. Chris, the most outwardly friendly of them all, brandished a piano-toothed grin and a personal trademark of saying “hashtag” about every possible mundane activity. Eating a plate of chicken and rice? “Hashtag delicious.” Spotting wildlife with a pair of binoculars? “Hashtag monkeys.”
And then there was Brad. He fooled me the most with his quiet demeanor. He had come down with altitude sickness and spent most of the first day sleeping in the van as it slowly ascended the winding hills, taking us deeper into thick wooded brambles with fanned leaves the size of our arms. Butterflies made of incandescent colors flapped past us, and the air hung thick with humidity as we pushed onward. After several hours of navigating our way up dirt roads and stopping for the occasional monkey or macaw sighting, we finally made it to our first stop: a small set of cabins not too far from a coca leaf farm, constructed from rainforest wood and outlined by wildflower sculpted paths. Although the cabins themselves didn’t have plumbing or overhead lighting, the surrounding area had fairly new bathrooms, an open-air hut stocked with lazy hammocks, and a communal dining area for the whole group.
We spent the first night listening to the fraternity brothers regale us with their tales of parties past as they offered cups of Sprite spiked with home-brewed chicha. Pete and I both did our best to join in, though there was only so much we could add to their conversation about the bar scene in Jupiter. But whatever. I was cool, I could hang.
The group woke up early the next morning to hike through a trail spotted with jaguar tracks; we used machetes to bushwhack through overgrown vegetation and showered ourselves in Deet. Our knee-high rain boots suctioned out of deep puddles of mud and we waded through murky streams. We caught sight of toucans and a couple wild boars on the move, though we never saw any of the wildcats whose footprints were fresh in front of us. After a sweaty foray back to the cabin area, some of us decided to laze around the hammock hut. Pete went to take a shower and the father-son duo went off to their cabin. As I settled in and swung back and forth, Brad and Chris began to talk about their ideal girlfriends.
“I don’t know, I think it’d be pretty nice to have someone clean my clothes and do my dishes. Just be a wifey, you know?” said Brad, assuming we’d totally understand what he meant.
I laughed loudly, certain that Brad was joking. Except he wasn’t. He was being totally sincere.
“That would be nice,” Chris agreed. “But you can always just get a mail-order bride or something. They’ll do whatever you want. Hashtag fuck yeah!”
After watching the men exchange their requisite high fives, I realized it wasn’t typhoid I needed to be worried about—the real threat was incessant male posturing.
Later that day, we took the van a couple hours further out and boarded a motor boat that would transport us closer to the heart of the Amazon. We stopped mid-way at a natural hot springs area tucked behind towering trees on the shore of the river. Cold spring water and a run-off warmed by volcanic heat flowed together, resulting in a perfect water temperature that could rival any spa. I popped into a dirt-floored stall to put on my swimsuit, then let out a big sigh as I got neck deep in the toasty waters.
“You know, we would swim naked, but there’s a lady here,” Brad told me with a thinly veiled stare of condescension.
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” I shrugged. “It’s your vacation, you can do what you want.” But another one of the guys made a similar comment before I exited the pool, and yet another said something to Pete as well. The humid air was heavy with resentment.
My heart sank. We were in such a small group that it was impossible for me to totally ignore these dudes; the four of them dominated our entire group and set the tone. I had tried to play along and be cool—but now I realized my vagina was a strike against me that could not be overlooked. Even if I consciously tried not to be a feminist buzzkill, the buzz was still killed. This was their retreat in the jungle, and I was the unwitting gatecrasher who couldn’t escape, trapped beneath a mountain of red solo cups.
We continued on by boat to our guide’s second lodge, which was outfitted with more cabins and only a short walk away from the riverside beach. We slept soundly in pitch black darkness that night, then donned some swimsuits the next day and tried to fish with a massive net that spanned the river’s width. Spreading it out across rushing tides, the rocks dug into our feet and people’s legs kept getting stuck in the net. It was no surprise that we didn’t catch anything.
We waded back to shore, where our tour guide found a mud patch on the beach that provided ample clay to cover ourselves from head to toe. He started spreading it on his face and arms. “This is very therapeutic,” he told me. I couldn’t resist and after enjoying a good old-fashioned mud bath, we returned back to the grounds and decided to relax in the cabana on the hammocks again. As I settled into my spot, Pete told me, “I can’t lie, that mud mask kind of looked like blackface.”
“Oh God,” I cringed. It was a dumb thing for him to say and the bros had overheard him.
“I don’t get it!” Brad had piped up from a corner of the cabana. “Why can’t white people wear blackface but black people can wear whiteface?” His friends all grunted in a chorus of agreement, adding empty stock quotes about equality and fairness.
“It’s historical context,” I started, in a sincere attempt to explain. “Like, slavery and dehumanization and...”
Crickets. Really, really loud jungle crickets.
After some quick glances they changed the subject. Silence, a lack of acknowledgment—these non-responses were often brandished as the most powerful tool to keep me quiet.
As for Pete, he let me pick my own battles with these guys, actively staying out of it. (I can’t blame him for not wanting to pick a fight.) I avoided sharing my frustration but as the days wore on, I felt like a toucan trying to swim in the Amazon with a pack of piranhas. All I could do was keep quiet and stay in these dudes’ good graces; at least that would protect me from a feeding frenzy. It was my vacation too, after all, and I didn’t want to make things worse. I was determined to enjoy myself no matter how these guys acted.
As the day sunk into evening and the sweltering heat abated, Pete pulled out his set of Monopoly cards to play together in the dining hut. The game had all the quintessential elements of Monopoly (gouging people for money), but with a few twists and a simplified rule set that made the game last only 30 minutes instead of an eternity. With a few too many people, Chris and Brad teamed up and Myles partnered with the high schooler. The overhead lights flickered near the end of the first game as Brad threw a “Just Say No” card on the table, denying a rent power play from one of his opponents.
“You don’t get those in real life,” Brad commented. “What was that phrase again, Jared?”
“Oh yeah: ‘No means yes, yes means anal!’”
They all broke out into raucous laughter. Pete exchanged a knowing glance with me, and mentally and emotionally drained, I wordlessly retired to bed early. As I crawled under the mosquito netting, I realized that in an effort to keep my vacation peaceful, I had opted for flight instead of fight. I wasn’t the jaguar, I was the turtle retracting into its shell for safety.
On our final morning hike, somewhere between Jared gleefully pointing out a tree that looked like a bunch of penises and Chris holding out a selfie stick to record himself walking for a quarter mile (“Hashtag Amazon!”), I began to count down the hours until I could officially be alone in my room back in Cusco.
Before I could get there, I faced a daunting 13-hour drive and boat ride back to town. It was during that drive that Jared took a more direct approach to shut down my lady opinions for good. As they chose the music in the van and I cheerfully made a playlist suggestion, he interrupted, “Excuse me, ma’am. Ma’am. Don’t make me come over there. You need to calm down now.”
For the next four hours, anytime I spoke — no matter what I said, no matter who I was speaking to — Jared would interrupt me with the same refrain, and the bros began to join in on the fun. “Ma’am, calm yourself,” they chuckled together, repeatedly.
After the third or fourth time, I whipped around, blood boiling. I barely composed myself and responded with narrowed eyes, “I think I can say what I want, thank you.”
Chris bellowed with laughter, raised his fist in the air, and said, “Yeah! Women’s empowerment, am I right?”
I gave Pete a glowering look and he gave me a little nudge. “We’ll be back soon,” he said, trying to calm and reassure me. That was the last I would engage with anyone for the rest of our drive.
Several hours into this endless ride, as we were all zoned out and fantasizing about our beds, the van suddenly slid out of control on a patch of mud. The driver slammed the brakes, stopping the van right at the cusp of a stark cliffside. After a frozen moment of terror, the driver laughed off the incident, backed up, and continued to speed down the road at the same pace. We had been an inch away from plummeting to our certain deaths, and all I could think was, “Holy shit. I almost died in a van full of assholes.” Not a good way for anyone to go.
Three hours later the van stopped near my apartment in Cusco. Pete and I hopped out as I muttered a half-hearted goodbye to the group (they barely reciprocated), and I watched with unbridled glee and a newfound sense of freedom as the van sped off into the distance, gone forever.
For the first time in days, I felt like I could take a deep breath. Never again would those bros rain on my jungle parade.
*Name has been changed.
Image via Shutterstock.
Kristin Hoppe is a Denver native and regular contributor to the Skirt Collective. When she’s not blogging or eating a copious amount of hot wings, she enjoys guilt-watching The Bachelor (preferably with a group of friends). You can follow her on Twitter: @KristinHoppe.
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