Some say it´s a myth, born from rubber barons in the early 1990´s, claiming it was spread by ¨savage natives¨ who would shoot any intruder with a poison dart, rendering them insane for the duration of their stay in the jungle. However modern day explorers know this is not the case. Jungle madness, as the name suggests, is acquired from extended periods of living in the jungle. It is also contagious, being passed on from those more affected to newer recruits. Some people are more resistant than others, yet everyone succumbs in the end.
The Puerto Maldonado Dictionary of Common Jungle Terms describes jungle madness as: alternating between mental states of normality and delirium, whereby a person will laugh either for no particular reason or at situations he/she would normally find very frustrating, and/or making strange noises as a way of communicating between individuals. Jungle madness grows stronger by the day, I´ve only been here a week, this is my story.
Arriving at the bustling metropolis that is Puerto Maldonado International Airport, the heat and humidity hits you like a ton of bricks. I collect my luggage from the carousel, wellingtons strapped to the side of my backpack, ready for action. As I exit the airport, Sofi is waiting for me with a big smile. Sofi is the head intern, this is her third year with Fauna Forever, I don´t know it yet, but will soon realize that a large component of my jungle madness will be contracted from her…
A couple of days are spent at the Fauna Forever house, meeting everyone and visiting the market to collect any last minute forgotten things. At this stage everyone seems quite normal, conversation is polite and everyone is excited to head into the jungle the next day. Things are about to change.
A 2 hour bus trip and 40 minutes by boat later we arrive at Las Piedras Biodiversity Station. The boat is unpacked and we carry everything about 2 km to our accommodation. Our walk is relatively easy, except for 2 of the new volunteers who for some reason decided to bring a suitcase to the Amazon. With beads of sweat dripping off their foreheads, they finally manage to wheel their suitcases to camp. The jungle just gave them their first test, no doubt they will break soon, the jungle has them now.
The next day we split up into bird and mammal teams. Tom, the self-proclaimed winner of…. everything, heads up the bird team. Tom takes great pleasure in irritating people, which, for those who are more susceptible, will cause jungle madness to set in quicker. Tom claims he has never contracted the ¨disease¨, yet rumors in camp abound about how he reached breaking point during the previous phase. Alas, I was not there, and to be honest have yet to see any symptoms. It appears he is stronger than most, yet again a winner, for now.
I decided to join the mammal team, headed up by Lucy, who we now refer to as Master, or Sensei. Lucy has spent several years in the jungle, and it shows. She handles a machete like a lumberjack handles an axe. With precision chopping at the perfect 45° angle, she can hack her way through anything the jungle throws at her. I deduce from her demeanor that she has contracted jungle madness several times before, the effects aren´t as strong as would be in a rookie, yet she still sometimes displays obvious signs, unusual laughter and strange noises being most characteristic. Suzy and I are the only two new volunteers on the mammal team. I´d say we are the most normal of the bunch, still fresh from our relatively tranquil lives back home. The rest of the mammal team consists of two Irish, Fiona and Anna, and Sofi. Fiona and Anna have already been in the jungle for several weeks. This, along with the fact that they were with Sofi for the majority of this time, explains why they have a rather severe case of jungle madness. Uncontrollable laughter is commonplace with these three, broken up by circular conversations which never seem to lead anywhere, probably because these conversations largely consist of random noises which do not belong to any language that I am aware of. To an outsider, these three must appear to be a bit loony.
Today is day 7 in the jungle. My machete skills have vastly improved. Sensei has helped me refine my technique, and I can now hack my way through almost anything, aided by a few well timed karate noises. My close proximity to the mammal team over this past week means that I too have now contracted the ¨disease¨. Greetings take the form of a monkey-like screech. I find myself laughing for no particular reason, joining in on conversations which have no meaning and indeed do not require a grasp of any known modern-day language. I worry too that I may appear insane to the outside world, but for now that doesn´t matter. It appears that jungle madness helps you cope in this unforgiving environment. It turns frustrating situations into funny ones. It turns your nemesis, the mosquito, into a more bearable jungle co-habitant. It allows you to accept the millions of other insect bites you receive as being part of the daily routine. There is no time for wingers here.
In general jungle madness makes the whole experience a more pleasant one. Since I contracted the ¨disease¨, I feel the symptoms growing stronger by the day. I´ve only been here a week, got 30 more days to go, and I can´t wait to see what the jungle has to throw at me. With my trusty sidekicks and a bit of jungle madness to boot, I´m pretty sure I can get through anything.
-David van Beuningen