Following the outline of the Madre de Dios river on the far outskirts of Puerto Maldonado, our tour group trekked through eight miles of a jungle so thick it was right out of “Planet of the Apes.” Spider monkeys and other primates in Caesar’s family swung along the Rio, mocking us non-natives below. Overgrown brush and dangling vines framed the entrance to our final destination where an invitation to die was warmly extended. Juan, our native Amazonian tour guide said with a court jester’s smile, “It’s lunchtime. The piranha fish are hungry. Who’s jumping in with me?”

In the one hundred-plus-percent humidity, everyone froze. We all looked at each other, scared and bewildered while Juan cannonballed into the murky waters. Waters that resembled the cocoa river that chubby kid fell into in Charlie’s chocolate factory. After Juan made a big splash, nothing but a trail of effervescent bubbles remained as evidence of our leathery-skinned guide.

Glurb, glurb went the river until it spit him back up to the surface, “Don’t worry, the piranhas are full. We fed them a tourist yesterday.”

Gulp, gulp was my response.

The water…was equally tepid and terrifying. I was wading there like chum. When a leaf brushed against my leg or arm, my nerves jumped.

As Juan heckled us from the bottomless, brown ripples, the thick air nudged us closer to the swing rope tethered to the limbs of a rubber tree. Standing there at the edge of the river, I recall the picture from the camera on Juan’s phone. Apparently, the other band of tourists caught a dozen piranhas the other day and was rumored to have had a delicious dinner. As a consolation prize for not having caught a single bite that day, Juan’s photos were proof to us that we not only do we suck at fishing, but that these fish are more than Hollywood’s sick imagination. They actually exist. Those nasty-looking creatures with jacked-up, jagged teeth are any orthodontist’s worst nightmare. Without a doubt, those suckers could chew through anything—tires, wood, steel blades, aluminum cans, and small children.

So what if Juan wasn’t kidding after all? What if I was secretly lured into a reality show where the last survivor standing finds out they’ve been on television for the world to ridicule? I pondered the probability of that: Unlikely. However, the probability of one of those razor sharp overbites nibbling off my little piggies: One in ten. Before I decided which of my ten toes I’d bid farewell to, Juan came back up for air. (Incidentally, I’d choose the littlest of little piggies. After all, we’re in Darwin territory now.)

Juan pulled himself out of the water and confessed, “The waters are safe. Piranhas are very shy.”

Piranhas, shy? We must not have been thinking of the same little vicious-looking, flesh mongers. I’ve seen plenty of B-movies and summer blockbusters to be skeptical when people say it’s safe to go into the water.

“Unless piranhas pick up the scent of blood, they are more fearful of you. Jump in unless you have any cuts. No bandages, no scratches can be on you. Ladies, if this is your lunar cycle time, you need to stay on shore, sorry,” advised Juan.

He then grabbed the rope and without a care, swung into the murky unknown yet again. Lucky for Juan, he didn’t have to worry about his lunar cycle or having the scent of bait linger around him amid anacondas, caimans, Chupacabras, and other blood-sucking creepy crawlies. Juan could be stupid-brave because even the mosquitos feared his machete-bearing limbs. We tourists, on the other hand, had been marinating in bug spray to avoid becoming appetizers for Amazonian mosquitoes the size of hummingbirds. Nevertheless, the thought of washing off all that humidity, sweat, chemicals, and fear suddenly sounded amazing. I even rationalized this as an opportunity to rack up some travel creds.

Looking back, I’d blame it on the one hundred-plus-degree sun and humidity that steamed my brain cells like chicken, rice and peas in a banana leaf over a bed of hot coals. Maybe it was the pestering thought that my life had grown dull from the lack of excitement. Or perhaps it was in earning the bragging rights of being able to swim with piranhas and then walk and tell about it. Admittedly, it was all of the above. The brown hue of the ripples beckoned me to swim with the fish. Feeling mushy and sticky, I became seduced by the fantasy of a refreshing splash of brown river water.

With slight trepidation, each of us in our small group of 8 stepped up to the rope. All but one of us swung in. After the third sway over the bottomless brown waters, “Piranaha-mo!!!” I cried before releasing my white-knuckled, GI Joe, kung fu grip.

It was refreshing. It was exhilarating. It was everything but the most graceful jump. I got enough water up my nose we might as well call it a brainwash. The water, on the other hand, was equally tepid and terrifying. I was wading there like chum. When a leaf brushed against my leg or arm, my nerves jumped. My toes huddled together as if there was safety in numbers. Silly digits, you can be so dumb sometimes.

Fifteen entire minutes passed. I treaded water and was careful that my feet not touch the bottom. The clay mush I mistaken sank into once tinkered with my imagination of what else could be lurking in here. I didn’t want to get my brain started. It could easily turn into an erotic, foot-fetish-murder fantasy. Okay, so no one wants to read about that unless you’re Sid Sicko and Nancy Twisted. (Email me on the side if you do, and I’ll be sure to keep it our little secret 😉

Our playtime in the death cove was up. As I crawled back to shore, glimmers of sun peeking through the trees brushed my shoulders. Feeling somewhat liberated, the river helped shift my mood on this trip. The heat and humidity of the jungle air were much more agreeable now. My newfound sense of comfort meant that this was the first time during our trip that I felt good all over. I would soon find myself open to so many new things. I could go streaking and not give a care. Would I? Maybe. If Juan had me eat a live worm that tasted like coconut ice cream, I’d agree to that, too. I’d even believe that an Amazonian tree uproots and moves about a hundred feet a year in search of sunlight. If some fish can fly, some trees can walk, right? As I loosened up even more, I’d even allow the thought of a spider monkey running off with my boyfriend. Sure, take him and save me the trouble later. (But that’s another story for another time.)

Later that night, we retreated to our raised cabins. Mesmerized by fireflies dancing in the shadows of the jungle’s rhythm, I sat on my porch and listened to tapirs and capybaras scavenging for scraps in the dense darkness. The evening was warm and balmy and my heart-center glowed. It was then, at the moment, I knew my soul had been cleansed in the mother river. By facing fear and wagging my tongue at death, I felt more alive than ever before. Taking a breath of hot, one hundred-percent-humid air was now refreshing. It was then that I finally agreed with Juan—piranhas truly are shy fish. I still have all ten of my little piggies to prove it!

Photo by lcrf

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We paired Emese Simm's story with a yummy recipe inspired by the tale. Go to the next level & eat where Emese Simm been...wait, that sounds a bit off. But you know what I mean! Bon Appetit.

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