Before attacking a human, an anaconda gives a loud horrifying shriek.
KGB Manual for agents operating in South American jungle
When I was attending an elementary school, my mother was asked to visit it more often than other parents. I'm sure the only reason for that was the sadistic pleasure my teachers got from watching her worry about her only son, an innocent little angel. One particularly heated conversation took place in presence of the entire school administration (I was six at the time). Our deputy director was a woman in her fifties, who happened to have a wrong job in a wrong time. She would've made a much better career in the late 1930-s as a concentration camp guard. She told my mother:
"If you showed less kindness and were more aggressive in enforcing your demands, it would probably break your son's vicious nature and his obvious tendency to antisocial behavior. I doubt he'll ever become a fully useful citizen of our Communist society, but you might still have a chance to prevent him from becoming a criminal. He might even be able to graduate eventually."
"I don't think I can graduate," I said. "I can't survive ten years of this."
"A soldier is not good if he doesn't want to become a general," she shouted, waving her fist in the air.
I had just finished reading Fidler's Call of the Amazon and Durrell's Three Singles to Adventure, so I answered honestly:
"I don't want to be a general, I want to go to South America."
My timing couldn't be worse. Two boys from our class had just emigrated to USA with their families, so the climate at school was as tense as it would be in some American school after a mass shooting. I don't know how my mother managed to save me from being listed as an enemy of the people.
All bad things come to an end some day, and so did my ten-year school incarceration. At the graduation ceremony our director asked me:
"What about you, Vladimir? Even you should have some plans for the future."
"Yes," I answered. "Ten years from now I'll organize an expedition to South America."
At that time a week-long guided tour to Bulgaria would be the journey of the lifetime for most Soviet people. South America seemed to be as accessible as the Red Spot on Jupiter. So I didn't mind the director's reaction:
"Well, apparently our teaching efforts were wasted on you. You'll never be normal."
My teachers were right. I never became a fully useful member of the society. Instead I spent the next few years of my life traveling around and working for some unproductive structures like private publishing houses and environmental non-profits. But my prediction was correct, too. Nine years and eleven months later I had enough money on my hands for a trip to the land of my dreams.
I decided to take my girlfriend Julia with me, in part as an emergency food reserve. It was her first trip far from Moscow, but she proved to be an excellent travel companion.
Our plan was to travel from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego along the Pacific Coast, then follow the Atlantic Coast north and fly home from Cuba. But because of problems with visas and money, we had to start from Nicaragua. Julia returned home from Ecuador, while I got all the way to Tierra del Fuego and then had to fly home from Brazil. We visited the Galapagos, Juan Fernandez, and La Plata Islands, but had to skip Easter Island, the Folklands, and the West Indies.
A few weeks before our departure, my mother visited the famous Institute of Tropical Medicine in Moscow. She was given a 200-page document called Safety Instructions for people who have to spend time in the tropical zone of South America. Its opening paragraph read:
"Complete protection from deadly infections can only be achieved by wearing a Full Protection Suit. It can be purchased from our Institute. It is a lightweight version and weighs less than 25 kg. The most dangerous activities are swimming, walking barefoot or in light shoes, getting in the vicinity of lakes, rivers, and forests, or contacting with any kind of animals or plants, especially insects."
It was followed by hair-raising descriptions of fevers, tumors, ulcers, and worms. You can imagine what my mother had to go through while reading all this. During our six-month trip, we didn't have any health problems to speak of, but may be we were just lucky.
One of my relatives consulted his friend who had been KGB resident in Colombia for many years. "It is a very dangerous place," the ex-spy said, "but they can survive as long as they stay away from the jungle." Just imagine that: he spent two decades in the country, and never had a look at the most interesting thing there was! He also made a bet with my relative, claiming that we'd not be able to get anywhere past Nicaragua, not even to Costa Rica. He lost the bet, and the bottle of vodka my relative got from him was our only income from the trip.
From what little literature was available in Russia, we expected South America to be a continent of unexplored jungle. Instead, we found most of it converted to cities, fields, and pastures. Despite that, we saw more interesting things than most people see in their entire life. After this book was published online, a few dozen travelers from Russia managed to get to that wonderful land, but for most Russians it is still no more than a dream. Getting visas to most countries is even more difficult than before, and making enough money to cross the ocean is not easy either. Good guidebooks are still difficult to find, and this diary is the only source of information about many areas currently available in Russia or in Russian. (Its Russian version is about five times longer than the English one).
On May 17, 1995 (it was my best birthday ever) we entered the airport. We had about half of needed visas in our passports, a hundred Spanish words in our heads, and moderately heavy backpacks. Our faces were pale from working almost 24 hours a day for the last month. In my inner pocket was a letter from my company, written in three languages, asking everyone to help two famous Russian zoologists. (I'll call it Indulgencia for convenience). We were dressed in camouflage: it was supposed to make it easier to approach wildlife and to sneak into various places without paying entrance fees.
"Are you going to a war?" the border guard asked.
"Worse!" we said.
The flight lasted 26 hours, with landings in Shannon, La Havana, and Panama City. Somewhere above the Bermuda Triangle Julia's ears began to hurt mysteriously. I was very worried about her. We were planning to climb an active volcano immediately after arrival. At last we got to Managua, and dove into blood-warming tropical sunshine.
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