The Accidental Extremist
Because bad trips make great stories.

I Fed Myself to the Rainforest [Human Sacrifice]
Tuesday January 19th 2010, 8:21 pm
Filed under: Human Sacrifice
Will you scratch my back please? (photo: Bill Hatcher/Outside)

Will you scratch my back? (Shown: the author's; photo: Bill Hatcher/Outside)

First law of adventure-travel survival: Heed not the blasé reassurances of locals when you raise issues of life and flesh.

Case in point:

I was headed to the Amazon rainforest of northern Peru to do a survival trip with a local guide. We’d live off the land, forage for food, build our own shelter. I’d report for a feature article for Outside magazine.

What would I need to bring?

Nothing but a machete, per the cheery owner of the jungle lodge who set up the trip for me.

Uh, but what about bugs? Jungle = mosquitoes, no?

“There’s a marvelous natural repellent that indigenous people use,” said the lodge owner. “Moises (the guide) will show you.”

So I didn’t include more than a dram of bug juice in my cheat bag, which also included a toothbrush and iodine tablets. If the locals have survived for eons without DEET, I could last a week.

By the second day of the trip, I found myself constantly waving off an ether of flying bugs. I’d sweated away my tiny bit of 100-proof repellent in short order. “You drink too much water,” Moises informed me. But I wasn’t sure that dehydration was the best prophylactic for biting insects.

“Hey Moises, what about that natural insect repellent Paul told me about? Think we could scare some up?”

Moises nodded. And not soon enough, he paused and pointed to a giant carbuncle growing on the limb of a tree. A termite nest. Here’s the drill: You stick your fist inside it and wait for a steady queue of termites to scuttle down your arm, shoulder, and neck. Then you rub the critters into your flesh. That’s right—simply squash them into your pores.

The result is a pleasant-smelling, woodsy cologne. Termites, after all, eat nothing but wood. I smelled like freshly gnawed tree. Nice.

Next logical question: “Hey Moises—how long does this stuff last?”

“Oh, about 10 minutes.”

And he was right. The truth is, indigenous people only use termite juice to disguise their scent while hunting. Insect repellency is a short-lasting side effect.

I spent the rest of the week at the mercy (none) of the bugs. Or in the river. (Piranhas were preferable to mosquitoes.) Or covered inside long sleeves and trousers while surrounded by the desperate din of airborne cannibals. I.e., rainforest-sauna hot.

I stopped itching after two weeks. —Robert Earle Howells

Robert Earle Howells’s website is Surefire Writing: You can read the full account of his rainforest experience at The film he made about it can be viewed at


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