Marking Territory

From No Definite Plans: Eleven Stories of Laughter, Love, Travel |Townsend 11
Honorable Mention, Second Annual Solas Awards

Marking Territory
by Jacqueline Yau

My bladder is about to burst and I’m on a boat in the middle of the Madres Dios River surrounded by jungle. Beads of sweat pop up all over my brow under the brim of my 45 SPF adventure hat. My arms have gone numb and I’m shaking like a junkie deprived of a hit.

“Binoculars everyone,” commands Ricardo, our jungle guide. He sits on his king-of-the-hill perch in the covered, flat-bottomed boat, elevated ten inches above the rest of us, clutching his giant binoculars. I’m one of seven tourists being led by Ricardo and his three male crew members into the pristine Manu Biosphere Reserve in Peru’s Amazon jungle. My fellow travelers include the Robinson family from the Yorkshire Dales with doctor-father Simon, doctor-mother Jane, 14-year-old son Tim and 11-year-old daughter Kate; South African-World Bank honcho Chris; and another Kate, an American law school student from Yale.

cover_VOL3_360_480It’s the last leg of a five-day trip. Each succeeding day has stripped away more and more of my inhibitions and the need to “look good” as I battled incessant insect bites, high humidity, and compromised hygiene. But even observing the surrounding wildlife marking their territory so freely—woolly monkeys letting loose with golden showers or green winged macaws releasing their droppings in mid-flight—I’m still not ready to lean over the side of the boat and give everyone a show while I answer nature’s call. I don’t need a port-a-potty; I just need a discreet spot. And I’ve already asked once if we could stop.

“Look, at three o’clock. Sulphur butterflies near the bank. Blue, yellow, and white.” Ricardo’s mellow voice with its rolling Rs and big, easy cadence reminds me of lovers salsa dancing and gentle island breezes. I think of rolling waves washing ashore…of sloshing water, and damn it, of the pulsing, tortuous pressure against my bladder. That’s it. I can’t listen to Ricardo’s voice anymore.

“Humans must have taken a ‘break’ there,” Ricardo continues, blissfully unaware of my now violent reaction to his voice. He adds another fun factoid: Butterflies gather where people urinate. Apparently, they’re attracted to the minerals in the urine. That distracts me for a nanosecond. Let’s stop. We’ll be doing a service to the other groups coming after us. They’ll view a colorful butterfly spectacle: “The dance of the butterfly brigade on the mineral sandbar.” I’ve got a wealth of minerals to share.

“Ah…Ricardo?” Simon, the proper English physician dares to interrupt this serene and contemplative tableau with his clipped and proper tones, “Can we take a break?” He’s a man after my heart. Brilliant idea.

“Soon. We need to dock where the animals won’t be distracted by our presence.”

What? I internally shriek. What’s wrong with doubling the minerals in that spot?

“We don’t want to disturb one area too much,” Ricardo clarifies perhaps sensing mutiny on the boat. By my count, we’d been searching for that special spot for t-w-e-n-t-y minutes since my initial request.

My bladder is the size of a pea. I should be inured to urinary pain after days of practice holding it. Not so. I take deep, slow breaths through my nose, counting five beats in and five beats out. I scan the panoramic wildlife kingdom around me, trying to separate the dull ache settling low in my stomach from the beauty of the jungle.

A Black Skimmer, a gull-like bird to my inexperienced eyes, gracefully executes a low fly-by over the rust-colored river and dips its long curved bill into the water. The rustle and flap-flap of a Cucoi Heron with its swan-like neck arched forward in flight strikes me with its grace. I follow the antics of sand-colored turtles sunbathing on a log, all sandwiched against each other at 45-degree angles. These yellow-headed sideneck turtles draw their own groupies—another band of brilliantly-hued aqua, sulfur-yellow, lemon-lime, and white butterflies. These flittering Tinker Bells dart here and there above the turtles’ leathery heads, ready to land and lick the salt off the turtles’ eyes. Even spying the largest rodent in the world, the Capybara (something that looks like a cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a pig), lounging on the shore cannot take my mind off the geyser building within.

“There’s our spot,” Ricardo finally announces and points to the sandbar to the left. A collective sigh sounds through the boat. We scurry into our hiking boots and sandals, and rub on more military strength, DEET-full insect repellent. The Robinson family walks the gangplank first from our long flat boat to the shore and Chris, Kate, and I scramble right behind

“Where are you going?” Jane asks Simon.

“The men will go right and you go left.” Simon motions in the air with his hands.

“Right then. Ladies?” Jane focuses her sky-blue eyes on us and inclines her head up the embankment, to the left. We clamber after her, climb over felled logs lying on the mushy brown sand and head up the slope. We notice our mistake immediately. The brush is dense. Even dressed as we are in full wick-away exploration gear, pushing through this dense shrubbery to answer the call of nature seems impossible.

“I forgot my machete,” I wisecrack.

Jane cocks her head and appears to ponder that for a moment. She swivels around and points toward the river. “No need. We’ll go right there.”

In unison, young Kate, senior Kate, and I all chime, “There?!” Jane hops over a log.

“Yes, there.”

We follow, scrambling back down the slope and sink into the sand. We are within four feet of the river, the boat barely a rowboat length away with Ricardo and his three-man crew on board, in full view. We can easily see Simon, Tim, and Chris already in position to our left, facing a large log attending to their business.

Jane says, “The men won’t watch. They’ll keep their backs turned.” She looks sharply at the smirking crew who are trying to stifle their guffaws at Jane’s brisk, no nonsense tones and our looks of uncertainty. In response, our crew smile and turn away obediently.

“Mom, here?” young Kate looks around unconvinced.

“Yes, here.” After six weeks of tromping through Chile, the Galapagos, and Ecuador, Jane apparently has no inhibitions.

She faces downhill, toward the river, drops trou and squats to my left. And like dominoes, I stop a few feet from her and young Kate and law-school Kate stop a few feet down from me and each other.

“I can’t go in front of our crew. They’re descendants of the mighty Incas,” I moan. But, my greater need wins out and I yank my pants down with trembling fingers and sigh with relief.

A loud and pert fart explodes from my right, startling me. I almost topple over. The unexpected sound sends all of us, even Ricardo and his men, into gales of laughter. A firecracker explosion of smaller farts lets loose and now we’re wailing. Tears stream down my face. I can’t even look at my fellow travelers. All semblance of peeing with dignity is gone. What the hell, at least we’ll get a butterfly show afterwards,” I bark out between giggles.

We look ridiculous. The men facing inland at regular intervals on one side of the beach while the women are squatting toward the water on the other, rocking in laughter with our pants at our ankles. Humanoids marking territory.