I’m a little nervous, frankly. Tomorrow night at this time I will be in the air twenty-one minutes on my way to Lima, Peru. And from there into the wilds of the Peruvian jungle on the Ecuadorian border, deep in the heart of the Amazon River basin.
So, I’m not nervous about that place, because, you know, I suspect that this is one of the fabled parts of the world. By fabled, I’m talking about a part of the world where there are probably more myths, more rumors than most other spots on the globe. And I mean truly in a mythological sense. Most of the ideas about those places are truly myths. For example, practically every other day somebody sets out from someplace to head for the Peruvian jungle for a famous lost, golden city.
Somebody’s illusion of the mythical “El Dorado”
You’ve probably heard of that. Or they go there looking for the lost emerald mines or, like my father, who always planned to go to equatorial Africa to hunt for the lost elephants’ graveyard.
And this, for me, is an exciting thing. Not so much because travel is a novelty. But I will say this, I think travel—and I mean real big-time travel—I don’t mean getting in a car and going to Trenton—big-time travel never becomes routine.
It is something that is never ever something you can take or leave alone. It’s always there and there is always this sense that invariably shows up about twenty-four hours before you’re about to leave. This peculiar sense—this vague feeling of being sorry for yourself. On the one hand, people say, “Oh, wow, are you lucky! I’ve always wanted to go to the Antarctic. Holy smokes! Wow! Gee, Shep, how do you get away so often? You’re the first guy I know who actually visited Hell. How do you get there? Gee whiz, wow!” And at the same time I’m saying, “Let’s see, that’s the price you pay for being intrepid,” but deep down inside of me there is a little violin playing that says, “Yes, why, why me? Why am I a Flying Dutchman, forever sailing over the seas, the seven seas of this benighted globe? Always looking, always searching, always hunting—and never finding?” Nevertheless, off I’ll go.
Ask yourself this question: “Will Shep find adventure in the Peruvian jungle? Will the Peruvian jungle find adventure in Shep? Yes, ask yourself this question: “Will he come back? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!” Ask yourself this question: “Does he want to come back? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!”
One guy wrote to me and said that the reason that I asked people about whether I should go or not is because I showed a notable lack of enthusiasm for going! One guy wrote, “The reason you’re going is because you gotta get more material for your show—so you can just tell more stories about when you were a kid and forget about the trip.” All these people, of course, are totally missing the point.
Let’s formulate vast generalities here. If you were to take any individual, like an onion, you just peel through and you’ve got all different kinds of layers. Each one of these layers often contradicts the layer before it. That the peace-loving man on the next layer is a wild, aggressive savage, and then you peel that layer off and he’s a peace-loving man again.
I feel however, that in the travel-world there are two kinds of people. There are the kinds who say, “I don’t know why one has to travel all around. Lemme tell you this, son. If there isn’t everything I want in Hessvile, Indiana, I just say the hell with it.” And there is this other kind of guy—I don’t know whether it’s good or bad—that guy always has a little thing down inside of himself, a little spark, a little blue flame, a little acetylene torch that says, “Go! Go! Go! Yes, go, go, go! And that guy ain’t easy to handle.
Now I’ll ask you for one favor. I don’t ask old listener-types many favors, but tomorrow night, I will be taking off at Kennedy Airport and I would like to have at least three people out there. Just three people out there who have signs that say:
SHEPHERD, IF YOU DO ANYTHING,
BRING YOUR CRUMMY HEAD BACK.
I’d like to have one big sign with somebody holding it up! Either that, or somebody says, “Shepherd, if you’re going to have your head mounted, have it done well. Because there are a lot of bad taxidermists down there in South America.“
Shrunken human head.
[New York’s American Museum of Natural History has a couple of shrunken heads on exhibit along with a detailed description describing how to shrink a head. See small foreground case here. It’s part of the large, permanent Hall of South American Peoples that I designed over a period of years in the 1980s. This exhibit is in the Amazon half of the hall, which was curated by Dr. Robert Carneiro, a listener, who wrote to Shep about his upcoming trip.]
By the way, speaking of myths, I received a letter from one of the museums locally and the writer happens to be an expert on South American matters, both flora and fauna, and he sent me a long note telling me about various myths. He says, you know, one of the best things he ever found in the jungle was to walk around in street shoes. He says street shoes in the jungle, and he says when he was walking across streams he wore tennis shoes.
He said, don’t worry, Shepherd, about the electric eels and the piranhas. He says, don’t worry about the crocodiles. They’ve got them down there, but don’t worry about them. He says, what you should worry about are the amoeba. He says there’s an amoeba—you order this salad in this restaurant in this town in Peru—and he says you’re going to be in that town. (By the way, that’s the town we go to after Lima.) He says, you order the avocado salad there and he says you’re going to get a dose of this amoeba. And if you think Epsom salts—well, let me tell you! He says, so don’t worry about the piranhas, dad, worry about the amoeba.
[Regarding the letter which Shepherd received from an expert at “one of the museums locally,” the present author worked with that expert for years designing and overseeing the Hall of South American Peoples, the first half of which is about pre-Columbian Peruvian cultures, the far half about peoples of the Amazonian jungle. Years before I designed that hall, in a small, temporary exhibit based on one of Dr. Carneiro’s research trips to the Amazon, he and I installed the hammock he had used there, still stained with his own dried blood, extracted by vampire bats while he slept.]
Dr. Robert Carneiro,
Jean Shepherd listener and an
ethnologist of Amazonian cultures,
sent me a copy of the letter he wrote to
Shepherd fifty years before.
With his permission I reproduce
its contents here:
Before you buy your ticket for the Peruvian Jungle, I suggest you forget all about boa constrictors, piranhas, and electric eels. If I were you, I’d start worrying about the amoebae you’ll meet in your palm hearts salad at the Gran Hotel Mercedes in Pucallpa. The world’s record for bowel movements in one day is 28, and you’ll get your chance to break it.
Curare, by the way, goes on blowgun darts, not arrows, and they’re used only against birds and small mammals. Also, since your head, whatever else it contains, is devoid of arutam soul, the Sharpa aren’t going to give it a second thought. And a beard, as far as they’re concerned, is only a place to raise lice.
You can leave your heavy leather boots home, too. In the jungle I found street shoes most convenient except when I had to wade across streams. Then I switched to tennis shoes.
If you don’t chicken out, and prefer not to carry a headful of myths with you into the jungle, come on up one of these days.