The Jungle is Hot, Don't Burn Yourself
Piano notes floated like velvet cloth across the clearing, harmonies trailing in the wind, before receding into the darkness of the jungle. Only once had I caught a glimpse of her, flowing hair masking her face, as she merged into the valley. Yet, each morning now, her Augment would slide through the Gore-Tex-Chrome fusion Pod, brushing me out of another hallucinogenic dream. This morning, as the Pod hatch whirred open, I caught a last melodic echo, before it was drowned out by the chattering of macaws high in the surrounding trees.
“La selva es caliente, no te quemas”: I breathed the Reserve mantra as sweat bubbled up across my chest. The phrase had first appeared to me splayed across T-shirts along the streets of Iquitos. However, as we made our way 120 kilometres down the Ucayali River to the potataorsa reserve, where our group became a buffet for the giant mosquitos, la selva es caliente, no te quemas became our mantra. La selva es caliente, no te quemas – the jungle is hot, don’t burn yourself.
Inside the Pod, I grabbed a snack from the cooler. A month’s supply of vacuum-packed ceviche, guinea pig, dragon fruit… pretty much anything that grew or breathed in this region without, as the website boasted “having to reach up a tree to grab it!” Three weeks into Pod life, was the infinite loop of trips to Tesco Metro fading? Around my age, some take up hot yoga, some cleanse themselves with gong baths or spend their nights wanking off to webcam models; I chose The Reserve. I must have watched its promotional video, where a beautiful boutique couple arrive at their Pod, over 1,000 times before typing in my card details. The Reserve promised harmony. Drowning in the discordance of the city, I realised I had completely forgotten how to listen to myself.
The Augments were the edge. The thing that drove The Reserve above 5* ratings and into the realms of a second mortgage. Much of the programming was still in beta development – the visual stuff, the texture – but the way it dug deep into your cloud data, releasing chords, notes, rhythms, voices and echoes from thousands of sensors embedded in trees, in the rock and the ground – that was all I needed up here. Everything in your digital memory could be massaged into the atmosphere. Already, snatches of Roy Ayres carried along on a passing wind or tinny, Autechre-like polyrhythms amplified off the backs of passing insects signified home life.
Back in the clearing, I let my fingers slide under the red leathery skin of the fruit and into yellow flesh and as I bit in, a chorus of minor-note harmonies Augmented into the morning heat. I wondered who, in any of the 300 other Pods embedded in the ground, up trees and attached between wooden bridges meshing across the 4,475 hectares of valley would notice them as they drifted into the clouds and if they’d be able to tell me if it were Fleet Foxes or Unknown Mortal Orchestra. With Augments, what you’d actually hear was more texture, more suggestion than actual music and then they’d evaporate. Just another ghost in the jungle, joining those of centuries-deceased conquistadors racing deliriously from malnourishment into the lacerating mouth of the crocodile-infested river. Ghosts I can deal with. The sonic traces of other Reserve guests, I keep my distance from.
From the short, oscillating bleeps of their Augments, I recognised my neighbours Sam and Elba. They were OK. I mean, they often partied for days on end along the Ucayali, bringing back cane liquor, sharing tales of orgies amongst the galleons. With our bare arses sat on camp chairs, we’d listen as they’d describe how individual Augments could merge into whole new synaesthetic textures – beyond sound, beyond vision and flesh. I think Sam may have originated in Brisbane and Elba in Devon but now, like so much in The Reserve, they had fused to the point where I often couldn’t tell them apart. Still, I enjoyed their occasional company and how they’d get me so shit-faced I’d fall asleep with the hatch open.
“Say hello to Nick Nolte”: Sam came crashing through the clearing, a crocodile under his arm.
“You like him? We fucking love him,” shouted Elba “Totally synthetic. We picked him up from river traders at the base of the valley.”
“He’s definitely a Nick Nolte; just look how gruff his facial expression is!” said Sam.
The couple were covered in mud from their boots up to the fading tattoos along their hips. They never wore clothes, but you quickly got used to that in the valley. Sam held Nick Nolte in a bear hug; he opened the crocodile’s long, pointy mouth and mimed a “hello”. I was unable to tell how realistic his teeth were or if the river traders had just shot a real crocodile and passed it off as synthetic. Shacks along the Ucayali banks were full of these. Crocodiles, hogs, anacondas, anything supposedly roaming the jungle hung from hooks with neon price tags, bought by Reserve guests and used as bags, storage units, the insides hollow and warm enough to sleep in.
Sam and Elba had been to a party in one of the galleons, partially banked further down the Ucayali, and as we sat and drank cane liquor from a flask, I wanted to ask them about the woman with the piano Augments, whether they too heard her in the mornings, if they maybe knew who she was, but they were still high from the galleon party turned orgy.
“It was fucking mental!” said Sam. “Everyone set their Augments to connect with each other. It started off with just this huge mash of sound, everything you could possibly think you could hear, like… all at once. But then through this fucking wave, it all starts to fit in together.”
“Then you got the visuals kicking in,” Elba said. “Honestly, that was a super weird crowd. I mean like, obviously Reserve guests but also flown-in, mega-rich, weird fuckers, all together on this crazy 17th-century fucking galleon and then, after the sound melts together, you get the really horny stuff…”
“It’s like a spirit thing; it’s not so visual, it’s more…y’know, you don’t really see people as people, it’s just…” Elba was lost for words, “just really fucking hot.”
“Yeah, like sometimes you could feel like, ‘oh, that’s an asshole around my dick,’ but it’s more …” Sam shrugged, mind blown.
They both started laughing before Elba looked down at her pussy and asked: “Did anyone other than my baby come to play with you last night?” She shrugged. I went for a nap and as I heard their oscillations dissipate, I recalled that Huffington Post piece, accusing places like The Reserve of creating a form of sex tourism for the yoga mums and dads of Stoke Newington, as if the sensuality of being part of a jungle was in itself tantamount to roaming Laos for ladyboys.
At night, from my spot tucked away near the summit of this hidden city, wind carried the Augments of wealthy graduates cheering their hallucinatory path along the river, where rubber traders ferried them to the party Pods of Iquitos. Further up The Reserve: the nostalgic chords of hen parties, the waves of sleeping families, all hidden deep within the trees connected along a grid under neon striplines that repelled botflies and anacondas and lit the whole place up, like electric blue netting draped over the valley’s chest.
I lay in my Pod, fantasising about this woman who could conjure the dust of ancient chapels entire oceans away up into the thick, Peruvian air. Her textures, were they for me alone? I sweated and twitched until that echo I craved returned through my dreams once more. This time, it appeared as a red glow shimmering across the river, a jungle ghost carrying the scent of stained glass until it got so close I sneezed. She was outside. With my heart beating against my ribs, my fingers circled the hatch release button and once again, I climbed through into the early morning. Once again, she had already left the clearing. I was greeted with a trio of piano notes scattering towards me like pebbles skimming the sea.
“And a good morning to you, too,” I said, as I felt the notes form into a loose melody. She was still here; I could feel her breathing, just beyond the unnameable flora. And so I stood unbothered by my nudity, letting the piano notes arrange themselves by my feet.
“Will you come out?” I said, but by then the notes had started to fade. I knew I had to head now, into the darkness. And then, the panic hit. I could not move. The sole time I tried to leave the clearing, setting off with Sam and Elba down the central light strip which carried Pod dwellers safely through the jungle, we had clambered just a couple of hectares before I heard Elba shout, “What the fuck is this? Vangelis?” The grid had begun to fuse our Augments into one thick, arpeggiated synth that shook out from the trees, firing bright, electronic triangles towards us. I tried to cover my eyes as the yellow shapes erupted, releasing the harsh stench of burning televisions. Stumbling and nauseous, I grabbed onto a branch that no longer looked like anything except a blurred arrangement of pixels. That paralysis, that panic – the same anxiety that came over me in the city as I felt London boil like an unstoppable sea of intolerance and fear. I’d catch myself gasping for air, telling myself over and over: We’re all falling through the cracks here, we’re all going through this, we’re all just fucking humans. By the time Sam and Elba got me back to the Pod, I was frothing at the mouth. Now, as I took a tentative step forwards, the piano ebbed away.
La selva es caliente, no te quemas – the jungle is hot, don’t burn yourself.
Later that day, storms hit. I thumbed a quick webtorial, its advice: stay in the Pod. I spent a few hours staring out of the 4x2 metre space and down over the valley as the storm lashed mud, insects, bullfrogs and the unknown across the window. Reaching into the fridge, I unzipped a portion of ceviche and decided to finally nail The Sopranos. Occasionally, I’d get jolted by something hitting the Pod. But I felt completely safe within it. The bed had different settings: siesta was my favourite, soft oceans of duvet you could drown in as you let lazy sounds immerse you. There was even room for a compact toilet and shower unit, locked to the left of the hatch. Everything The Reserve created with the Pod was tuned to reassure. And I felt safe. Miles safer than that two day stopover in Iquitos. Buildings, limbs, the entire city and everything in it felt as if it was being constantly dismantled and reassembled in ever more precarious arrangements. La selva es caliente, no te quemas was graffitied on the wall outside the hotel, La selva es caliente, no te quemas adorned denim patches sold on top of ancient surfboards converted into makeshift market stalls by white-haired western hippies who, at some point in time, had forgotten to leave.
“Forget the woman,” came a voice. Initially, I thought it belonged to Tony Soprano. “The woman is not what she sounds like.” The voice, as ancient as the ghosts of the conquistadors, reverberated across the Pod. I paused The Sopranos and looked around. Maybe this was some new Augment? Maybe the latest much-blogged-about update was taking effect and I just had to strap myself in and prepare for my senses to alter.
“I’m outside, you fucking idiot,” came the voice again. Outside the window, two dark eyes glowed like evil half moons, oblivious of the storm around them.
“Who are you?” I said, as the luminous green eyes, wider than any human’s, hovered in the darkness.
“Forget the woman,” the voice hissed. “She will lead you deep into…” Lightning struck, illuminating the night. Staring at me with an expressionless face was a hog, its nose against the window. Eyes glowing so green they hummed a trombone chord deep into nothing. A second bolt of lightning jolted the hog and sent it running into the undergrowth. La selva es caliente, no te quemas.
I slept till midday. When I woke, the storm had passed and with it the piano. Had I missed her? I cursed myself, distraught. I spent hours chain smoking in the clearing, Augment turned off. Everything in the fridge felt indigestible. I felt I’d lost my future wife, all down to a storm and a stupid fucking hog.
That night, I dreamt Elba had become my bride. She slid onto me, muddy white wedding dress around her, her brown nipples rubbing into my face, her hands digging into the Pod roof. Sam was outside, banging on the window, Elba pleading with me to ignore him, insisting that he didn’t mind, but as Elba and I slid into a frantic rhythm, I could hear Sam shouting “beware” over and over again, in the hog’s voice. “Beware.” Elba joined in through her sighing: “Beware, beware” over and over again, until it turned into the “b” of a piano being thumbed, thumbed harder and harder, lower down the keys – “beware”, “beware”, “ba baa”, “ba baa”. I opened the hatch; it was storming again. Piano notes bounced towards me like huge globes of rain.
She was there. At the far end of the clearing, standing straight, her arms outstretched, red velvet swimming with a life of its own around her body, rain missing her as the trees frantically shook in the wind.
“I missed you,” I shouted, “yesterday.”
“I….” she started to say, as if it was taking everything she had to speak. Her lips quavered and folded wordlessly. Instead, she released long, sonorous vibrations towards me. Those far-out podcasts which claimed some Reserve guests were so gifted with their Augments that they were reviving pagan traditions, calling themselves gods – maybe it wasn’t Vice shit-stirring after all. Maybe she was one of these, already in part a spirit of the jungle.
She removed a swathe of material that had formed around her hand like a glove and fluttered the cloth into the air like the most delicate of piano cascades. She was the one, I was sure. This woman. This ghost, whatever she was. I wanted to spend a month of sleepless nights laying together, running my finger across her belly as we smoked cigarette after cigarette and exchanged stories of the things we stole as teenagers. I could taste that harsh tang rising up in our throats over the careless mention of an ex partner. We’d dance our way half-cut across 1,001 indoor markets, across 1,002 weekend breaks across Europe. Yes, she was the one. She was the one and I had found her amidst the eastern slopes of the valleys of Peru, 10,000 kilometres from home.
And as I felt sure, a tremendous force ripped from my chest, sending leaves of violins towards her. We watched together as between us, strings danced around piano, delicate layers of violin cushioning her vibrations like feathers as they glided together in harmony towards the ground. Our symphony. Briefly, her hair parted enough for me to make out a smile. She reached behind her neck and pulled three sharp piano notes towards me, faster, almost violently. They crashed through my violins.
"Enough!" she shouted, releasing another angry, even more crashing note, like every part of her body was bearing down as heavily on piano as it could, sending the pebbles in the clearing jumping in the air. She darted back behind the giant yellow leaves and out of sight.
“You shouldn’t follow beyond here!” Her voice sounded like a tape recording winched high in the trees above, like it could never be hers.
“Why not?” I screamed. I couldn’t not be with her, now that I had found her. I thought of the dream, the warnings. But she was the one, I knew. And with that, I stepped over the electric grid and into the darkness beyond.
Photograph by Sergi Reboredo / Alamy