A bird flies across the evening sky some distance away; Miguel calls out to Jairo and revs the outboard motor, steering the canoe towards the tree where the bird landed. Another of the birds crosses. In silhouette, it looks a little like a small, heavy-billed stork, but the identification doesn't click until Jairo tells us — it's a white-throated toucan, the largest of the toucans in this area. Another first for me; not just the species, but the group — the first toucan I've ever seen.
But I wonder about what it means to say I've seen a white-throated toucan. The silhouettes of birds flying in the darkening sky; a few seconds during which I didn't even know what I was looking at? This is an aspect of the birds, but not the same as a protracted period of watching, noting the shape, the colours, the behaviour; listening to the calls, watching them feed. Sometimes the brevity of an encounter's inevitable — I remember the momentary glimpses of botos (freshwater dolphins) breaking the surface of the river, and the second or two as the otter slipped into the water (a sighting, Jairo says, about as rare in this area as seeing a jaguar) — and perhaps this is bordering on semantics — I saw the bird but don't know it — but the substance of my frustration remains.
Sometimes, however, second chances arrive. At the laguna I finally get a good look at Greater anis, after missing the earlier sightings of these strange, long-tailed, heavy-billed birds. We see botos again, too, as we start fishing for piraña (I catch eight, and try to put them back with as little harm as possible to the fish and my fingers) but if we hadn't seen the documentaries, we'd have no idea what these river dolphins looked like. For us, they're a splash, a gasp, a glimpse of a pale greyish-pink hump, ripples spreading; nothing more. Later we move to the middle of the lagoon and swim in the murky water, with much nervous joking about swimming with pirañas. I'm glad I've seen the documentaries and read Richard Conniff's excellent book, and in truth I don't feel at all apprehensive, even when Jairo tells us the lagoon's also home to stingrays and electric eels. I assume he and Miguel wouldn't be swimming if the risk was worth considering. Besides, the water feels lovely. The laguna has a distinct thermocline, a layer of warm, almost bath-like water over much colder water. After the first few people have stirred it up, the water becomes a patchwork of cold and warm — a curious sensation.
By the third evening I realise I'll miss these swims — the feeling of being in the water, the knowledge I'm swimming in one of the innumerable headwaters of the giant, wonderful Amazon, surrounded by everything from caimans and pirañas to monkeys (we've seen five species: squirrel monkeys, white-throated capuchins, woolly monkeys, sakis, and a pair of night monkeys), gorgeous tarantulas and countless birds, including the weird hoatzins that fascinated me almost from the time I developed an interest in birds, meaning almost as far back as I can remember. I'll miss the social aspect of larking about with friends, too. I've been lucky with this group, some of whom I've known only for a few days, the others a few weeks at most.
That question again — what does it mean to say you know someone? People can go for years without getting past the stage of saying "Hi", yet strong and lasting friendships can develop within a matter of days. Circumstances can influence this; the intensity of the situation can forge friendships remarkably fast, and in the same way, the intensity of an encounter determines what one sees. I could have looked at white-throated toucans in a zoo, but could I justifiably say I'd seen them? The tendency to think of things — animals, in this case — as objects in an environment seems to miss the point: they're part of their environment and when they're removed from it, they're incomplete and so is that environment. Perhaps this is a rationalisation of not having seen white-throated toucans close up and in detail, but for me it's a consolation. I've seen white-throated toucans, not as specimens or objects for inspection, but on their terms, as an integral part of their environment: flying in the warm dusk over the Laguna Grande.
1. "Jairo" is pronounced, roughly, "HAI roh". Our guide for the whole four days, he speaks excellent English, has a degree in ecology, and did an excellent job.