It is 11:30 at night – later than I’ve stayed up in a little more than two months. A course from a university in Pennsylvania has just wrapped up their last night at CICRA and bought two cases of beer for everyone from Boca Amigo, the settlement just downriver that keeps illegal miners supplied with alcohol and prostitutes. After the group of students finished their beers, they headed off to bed, leaving the researchers to sit and ponder and finish off what alcohol was left. To one side of me, there is an intense discussion about body image and advertising. To the other, there is an equally intense discussion about potential raunchy Spanish nicknames for a member of my team. The owl monkey bounces along the table across from me, curling up on the arm of a researcher studying primate seed dispersal and I stifle a yawn – ashamed to be so sleepy that I can’t fully participate in any of these possibilities.
Conversation continues to swirl around me – how to market ecotourism, kissing in Bollywood movies, so on, and so forth. By about 11:45, the gathering begins to break up to head bedwards. On our way out, we see light flashing in the sky over the cliff, and everyone heads towards the boardwalk outside the Concrete Dorm to see what is happening.
The sky is completely clear above us. We can’t see the moon, but the Milky Way is stretching right overhead. After a few minutes of looking straight up, several people have seen shooting stars. What’s really amazing, though, is the foothills of the Andes. 70 km south of us, the mountains are obscured by clouds stretching along the horizon. An immense lightning storm is spread across the sky. Horizontal strikes of lightning split the sky and illuminate the clouds. Like an appreciative crowd at a fireworks’ show, everybody Oohs and Aahs at each fork of lightning. I don’t think I can really describe how beautiful it is, standing at the edge of a cliff looking out over the Madre de Dios River, across a huge expanse of forest, and into the Andes, watching this storm approach us.
We stand on the cliff watching for maybe 15 minutes. The ant queens flying around and biting my ankles somehow take a little bit of the magic out of the night, but it all returns when I fall asleep in my bed to the sound of geckos hunting crickets on the screens above my head.