It’s dinner time and after getting my canoe stuck in a treetop (actually multiple treetops) in the flooded forest, I am famished. Food in the jungle has been both delicious and abundant and we all gather together at mealtimes to sit at a large table above which hangs a light fitting made from the scales of the Tambaqui (a large, delicious fish that has human like teeth which are good for causing nightmares, or apparently, crushing nuts).
The first time I sat down for a meal, I spotted two unusual looking substances, the first is the colour of sea sand and it is held together in rough clumps and the other is almost garishly white and resembles tiny polystyrene pebbles. Neither inspires much action on my part, but our guide Mateus, as well as Antonio, the owner of the tour company, can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. “I eat this with everything, this is how people in the jungle can have many children. Manioc makes you strong, it’s a jungle aphrodisiac!” is the playful response my look of surprise elicits when I see Antonio pouring the pebbles into his coffee. Antonio wasn’t kidding about eating Manioc with everything, later that same night I saw him sprinkle it over his ice cream and although the crunchy, nutty taste of this ground cassava was unusual to me, it was far from the weirdest thing I ate on our trip.
I smell the dish before it is placed before me; a fragrant broth fills my nose and I anticipate the fresh taste of some new jungle wonder. Massimo, a slightly podgy middle aged Italian man sprouting grey wiry hair from his unbuttoned shirt is the first to ask the question, “What is this dish?” and when our hostess replies with an everyday nonchalance “It is piranha soup”, Massimo’s lover, Roberto looks physically ill and edges himself away from the table. Perhaps it was the calmness in which the words “piranha soup” were said, perhaps it was Massimo’s flair for the dramatic or the fact that Antonio often took great pleasure in spinning elaborate stories to scare tourists, because I struggled to believe that anyone was serious about piranha soup. Standing up, I peer into the large serving dish, my curiosity peaked. “Okay seriously, what is this?” It is now Mateus who springs to life “Piranha! See the teeth” as he uses his fork to open the mouth of the larger of the two piranhas in the dish. It is almost as though Massimo is spurred on by my shock and in a show of bravado he deftly breaks a piece flaky flesh off one of the piranhas and ladles the broth into his plate. I cannot speak or move, I am transfixed by Massimo and the scene plays out like something from a movie; the fork moves to his lips in slow motion and for some reason “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background. Will he die? Will I die from watching him? I blink furiously in attempt to remind myself that staring is not polite but this is too good to look away. When he finally speaks, I am disappointed to say the least, apparently piranha soup is quite tasty. No ghost piranhas burst forth from the afterlife, angered by the tragic desecration of their notorious reputation. What a grave dishonour to the piranhas and their flesh devouring forefathers to be called tasty, but yet everything continues as before. Well, on the plus side, at least Roberto looks like he can breathe again.