01 May 2020
If you want to know how to survive radical uncertainty, you need to talk to the people who chase uncertainty down for fun. Whether you live in New York or New Zealand, we’re all now inhabiting the strange and uncertain world of adventurers and explorers. A world where no-one knows what is going to happen next, and for once, no-one is even pretending to know. In the words of Paul Rosolie we’ve reached the point where there’s no boat coming. And it’s time to build your own raft.
Paul is a conservationist, explorer and writer, who’s spent the last 14 years of his life deep in the Amazon jungle, where his mission is to protect more habitat than anyone else on Earth. And in case you don’t get it from the photos, Paul is also a badass – this is a guy who wants to be thrown out of a helicopter and eaten by the jungle animals when he dies. We talked to Paul about the mindset and approach you need in the face of radical uncertainty, how the lessons from the Amazon work back in civilisation, and why the number one rule is if things haven’t gone wrong yet, it hasn’t started yet.
If you want to go on an adventure with Paul after reading this, his company Tamandua Expeditions provides expeditions and research trips in the Amazon. Or if you want to read more, the Amazon forms the backdrop to his two books, Mother of God and The Girl and the Tiger.
So at 18 did you just decide you were going to go to the Amazon?
I was born obsessed with the jungle, literally I’d just go and get those rainforest books or watch David Attenborough stuff. Jungle is like porn to me – I managed to get those pictures of big green canopy and vines and all that stuff and I’m just like “Oh my god, I want to go there.” And now, it’s a case of the deeper, the darker and the more remote the better.
So, I never got on in school, I always fought with teachers, I was fighting with my parents. And then one day, somebody handed me a piece of wood and made a joke about how it was probably mahogany from the Amazon and I was like, my whole life I’ve been following streams and tracking animals and stuff and I was like, why don’t I go to the place where there’s more wilderness and more wildlife than anywhere else. And that was it.
When I got to the Amazon, it was like The Matrix. I just plugged in and knew this is what it’s really about.
If you drop a normal person in there, what’s going to happen to them?
The reality is everyone is physically different – like I know guys that will go to Alaska all day in the cold and their fingers still work and they feel great. You put me in the cold, I will curl up into a ball and cry myself to sleep. I’m just not built for that – it’s kryptonite for me. So in the jungle, I like it when it’s hot, I don’t mind being wet all day.
I thrive off the heat and everything and of course I love how much life there is there. But for a lot of people, the first thing that goes for most people is their clothing. The first problem they encounter is their gear. Because they come down with all the wrong shit, they come down wearing hiking boots, they come down wearing long-sleeved shirts, they come down with like a rain jacket. In the jungle, if it starts raining and you put your rain jacket on and then the next morning when it’s cold out and you need something, your only really insulating layer is your rain jacket – and it’s wet and they don’t want to put it on, so they start getting uncomfortable, and then it’s like rotating three pairs of jungle gear becomes a science.
As a guide, it’s the first thing that goes wrong. I’ll say “Guys let’s go out to the jungle” and they’ll say they can’t because their pants are wet, but it’s a case of “Yeah well, you’ve got to wear wet pants or no pants, let’s make a decision.” It’s the first thing that starts really bothering people: “Oh no, it’s overwhelming, everything is wet, and I can’t be wet.”
Even if you’re dry, in ten minutes you’ll be wet. When I orient people on the first day I do the ‘never go out alone, always check your shoes before putting them on’ speech – and I say if you really want to be smart, check your shoes every day and dip them in the water before putting them on, because if you’re trying to have dry shoes you’re just never going to get there, you’re just going to be pushing that boulder up the mountain your whole life. You’re going to have wet feet, enjoy it.
I do the same thing when I run, because what are you trying to avoid? What’s going to happen if you get wet and cold? Are you going to die? You’re going to have more psychological pain from trying to avoid it every time.
Exactly, so that’s the thing in the jungle – when it rains, our group mentality is you embrace the discomfort. A lot of SEAL teams and special forces have the same mentality. If it starts raining, we just tear off everything, we’re just in our boxers. You get wet, you enjoy it and then you take it from there. If you’re cold you do whatever – you make yourself some tea, you do push ups. It’s the people who think, ‘it’s raining so I’m going to try and stay dry’ – those are the people that suffer.
So when people have got through the clothing battle, what’s the next thing that’s going to hit them?
If you’re really remote, for a lot of people it starts playing with their head, thinking about what if something happens? We were on an expedition two years ago and we had a National Geographic photographer with us, and it was funny because we went four or five days up this river and then the motor broke on the boat, and then the river dropped. You’re kind of isolated up there – you can’t get the boat down, so we had to jump out, push the boat and get it over obstacles. We’re in rapids, the boat almost went over – every two minutes something would happen. And he was like, “I can’t work like this, I certainly can’t take pictures, I can’t concentrate with this much crazy shit going on.”
You have to be out on the boat the whole day or you have to be deep in the jungle because if you’re at the riverbed you’re going to get destroyed by sand flies. It doesn’t matter how hard you are, if you take two days of that you’re going to be in bed. So for us, in the boat, you have to keep travelling from sun up to sun down, and if you stop the bugs will get you. When you hit the beach, you’ve got to make a fire, put up your tents and get food going. All that before night-time, and then you’ve got to make sure the boat is proofed. One time we decided to leave fish in a pot for the next day, then at night a 6 metre black Cayman came and ate the fish, the pot and the research equipment all in one, and just chewed the shit straight down.
The most important thing is that on a true expedition, on a true wilderness experience, the number one rule is if things haven’t gone wrong yet, it hasn’t started yet. And I think that goes for everybody.
You can be following your bearings for six days and then you realise your calculations are all wrong, you’re actually way off where you thought you were. Most people will think, “‘This is the end, what do we do?” but experienced people feel yeah that’s a normal day – let’s start navigating back, let’s start finding food. You might as well pour a bucket of water over your head at the start, get yourself lost and enjoy it.
So you must be pretty comfortable with uncertainty and risk – the idea that you don’t know what’s going to happen in the next minute, the next hour, the next day, the next week?
You have to be. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be doing this work. First of all, just being in the Amazon in Peru, it’s the sense of time. You say, “Look I’m going to come out on the river on Tuesday, meet me in the boat.” They’re not going to do it. They’re going to show up when they feel like it. So right there, there’s no certainty. Then it’s who are you going to run into? Loggers, drug traffickers, uncontacted tribes. There’s fallen trees, wildlife, changing weather conditions – and in the jungle it can literally be so hot that you’re at risk of overheating and dying from that. And the next day you can have air blow in from the Andes and it gets to the point that reptiles are falling out of the trees because it’s so cold. And you can actually get hypothermia in the jungle. So you have to be ready.
You’ve got to know the little local tricks, like water retains its temperature for a long time – much more than everything else – so if it’s cold out there, get in the river. Sit in the water, you’ll be warmer in the water if you’re too tired to hike.
It’s a whole other system of thinking.
I’ve got lost and spent a whole day climbing the tallest tree I could find, but even then you’re still looking out onto the tops of the other trees. You’re not going to see physical features, so you don’t know where you are. But you have a few hours every morning when you can follow the sun – the sun is in the east, or in the evening the sun is in the west. After that the sun is above you and a lot of times you can’t see it because it’s through the clouds, through the canopy. Compasses get spun around by some of the trees there – apparently there are heavy metals running through some of the sap. Your compass will do some weird things, it gets a little ‘blair-witchy’ out there.
You have to accept that in the jungle there are absolutely no rules. People will come on trips with me, eco-tourist trips, and they’ll say, “How come the itinerary isn’t itemised? We don’t know what we’re doing each day.” And I’ll say yeah, I don’t know what we’re doing each day either.
There have been times where I’ve said we’ll explore this tributary tomorrow. Then it rains at night, the river goes up 15ft, there’s no way you’re going to get people walking – are they going to swim? So I have to say we’re not going to do that tomorrow, we’re going to focus on species data collection instead – we’ll do it in a few days if the river goes down. Whatever your plans are, the jungle can just say “yeah, nah.”
Having grown up in New York, you must have started with a mental architecture of a New York existence, but now presumably your mind is built differently? Has your own system of thinking evolved over time?
Yeah absolutely. Your brain gets conditioned from where you grew up, so when I first went down there I was super excited to see the jungle, but everyone at home had told me whatever you do, don’t go in the water. So that’s the mindset I went with. And literally on the first day one of the local guys said, “Yo, let’s go check out that snake I just saw on the bank” – and he jumped in the river. I actually said to him, “You can do that?” Now I swim in the river every day, and you just realise piranha is not something to be scared of – piranha is something that you think about because you want it for lunch.
There’s just so much bullshit. Like people are scared of jaguars in the jungle – but good luck seeing one. They don’t associate with humans. They know how to attack a deer and bite its neck, not something that’s standing tall and smells of bug spray and conditioner and all the other crap we smell like. For a jaguar, it was never taught to eat that by its mother. They won’t bother you so you gradually become free. You start actually learning about all the shit that they tell you to be sacred of.
When Teddy Roosevelt went to the Amazon he said if you dip a finger in the water, the piranhas will eat you to the bone. But no, they won’t. And the jaguars won’t hunt you. Nothing out there is trying to hurt you, unless you’re talking about thorns or plants, some of which you know, are big enough to kill you.
What does it feel like when you leave that system and come back to ‘civilisation’?
In general, when I come back to New York, I look at it like a weird little aquarium or something. All your trash is taken out for you, all your food is brought to you. All you do is go to the store, you give them money and they give you food and it’s so easy. And having been in the jungle, that no longer makes sense. There we have to carry the boat and we lug it on our own shoulders to the base. Or we’re fishing, or we’re harvesting fruits from the trees around us.
When I have college students with me in the Amazon, I give them a few days of vegetarian food which they love but eventually they’ll say, “We’d love some chicken.” So I’ll say cool, I’ll ask the local guys to get some chickens brought in and you can kill the chickens – but these kids can’t do it. Even if they eat chicken most days at home, they can’t kill one, and they’ve never seen one being killed – it just shows up in plastic like it was born that way. So when I come back to a city I see everything from that other perspective.
I look at Manhattan Island which used to be a forest and now you have these giant buildings and the crazy thing to me is that it looks just like a termite mound. It looks like a really efficient thing and they’re all really worried about it, and they’re all talking about what did Donald Trump say today, and what did the mayor say about what Donald Trump said? And everyone’s really, really excited about who said what, and what a bunch of guys are doing with balls in a stadium. It seems like such an alternate universe that I no longer fit into.
I’m coming back from a place where you’re totally connected to nature. You can see the clouds of moisture coming off the trees, forming the rain clouds in the afternoon and then raining back down. You’re literally watching the moisture cycle move through you: it’s in the river, you’re drinking it, you’re sweating it. Then I come to the city, and people are buying plastic bottles of water, which just no longer makes sense to me. And of course in the jungle, anything I bring, any gear that I bring, plastic or metal, you can’t just throw it away. Throw it away where? Where’s away? Where are you going to put that bottle? That bottle’s not going anywhere. But for most people it’s out of sight, out of mind. You throw it away in the recycling and it goes and you never see it again, even if it does show up in a seagull’s stomach. When I come back I feel unhinged because I look at society like it’s absolute madness.
And then I guess the other thing, which is maybe more comical, is I feel like when you’re used to living out in the wild you wake up and have to check that the boat didn’t sink during the night, you have to ready your gear, you have to break down your tent, you have to find out a bunch of stuff and prepare your food. But when I’m in society I wake up and think: now what? I have nothing to do. I mean I have my work and everything else, and I have to write and I have to run my company, but in terms of survival, it’s so much less fulfilling.
You wonder why people are freaking out in modern times and don’t know what to connect to, but it’s like the basic laws of nature no longer apply to us. You wake up, and you can get water from the sink, there’s food right there in the refrigerator. You don’t have to do anything. It’s so easy, we have so much convenience that we’ve literally been stripped of the meaning of doing things for yourself. So I get a little bit disorientated. I get up and think, I guess I’ll go workout… yeah that’s what I’ll do. But in the jungle, there are absolute necessities you have to do to survive. And I think there’s comfort in necessity. That’s what nature gives us which I think we don’t really have anymore.
I’ve been in nature where it feels alive, not in the sense that the creatures are alive but that the whole thing is alive, like it has a personality. Do you feel that?
We all talk about it in hushed voices, man. Because the jungle has its own personality, and the more remote you go, the more that comes out.
There was an expedition we went on years back where the local guys were like, “Oh we shouldn’t go there, this place is a sacred place.” But there were going to be huge anacondas there so I wanted to go check it out. We went up this tributary for a few days and everyone started getting freaked out, but I still didn’t believe in it – the jungle is just the jungle. No, no, no no. We got this crazy thunderstorm, the river went up and we had to move camp in the middle of the night. Then the ground became a river and as we’re trying to sleep in our tents there’s suddenly water rushing over our faces, and then bullet ants which apparently have the most painful insect bite in the world – and we had thousands of bullet ants. Usually when you see bullet ants you see ten at a time, but they swarmed our camp. Then our gun went missing – completely gone, evaporated. The locals were saying, “This is what we were talking about, the forest spirits don’t want us here.” There was no controlling it, after two nights of that shit we had to pack it up and go down. The jungle just said “No.” There’s a lot of that.
How do you think off-grid survival in the Amazon compares to trying to do this in other places? From your descriptions, it seems like a relatively plentiful place where self-sufficiency is achievable.
Oh yeah. If you told me I had to leave New York right now, I’d get a flashlight and a machete, and I could survive in the Amazon just with the clothes I’m wearing. There are literally so many fish in the streams, there are small cayman. You can eat to your heart’s content in the Amazon because there are so many animals around, and once you know what you can eat in terms of plants you can find food everywhere. If I had to survive in the wilderness in upstate New York for a month, I’d treat it differently – I’d be dehydrating all my food, making sure I was hiking along a water source, and making sure I had warm clothing. Although starting a fire would be much easier here than in the Amazon – back there you’ve really got to know what burns, because everything is wet.
So how do you do start a fire there?
You’ve got to plan ahead for it. We use our machetes and we strip a bunch of fibres off bamboo which dries incredible quickly in the sun. But you’ve got to dry that and throw it in a ziplock bag or something, or wrap it in clothing that’s actually dry. And then at night when you’re making your fire, you use that as kindling. But you have to have your fire game so on point. And it’s a two hour ordeal sometimes.
Do you believe that the jungle reveals to people who they are? And do you think that’s comfortable for people or painful?
All wilderness does that. I remember when I was a kid at a wilderness summer camp, we’d go on expeditions and I remember the moment that I transitioned from being a follower to being the expedition leader. We arrived somewhere, and we’d been lost, we’d been wet, we’d been hiking for eight hours, and we pulled out our food. And everyone was grabbing the food and just eating it, and someone said to me, “You good?” And at that moment it occurred to me that the leader eats last – and the reason for that is because the leader’s done this stuff before. What’s going to happen if you get wet? Nothing. What’s going to happen if you get hungry for another hour or another day? Nothing.
For a novice, crazy hunger can feel like panic, and they’ll get in a bad mood about it and they might start a fight that affects the whole expedition. And that’s where it reveals people’s nature. But at the same time, you can take those same people and if you bash them through the wilderness enough, they start to learn it’s okay. It’s okay that it’s wet. I won’t get good sleep tonight, but I’ll get good sleep tomorrow night or next week. And you just get that supreme patience. I’ve seen it happen a million times.
I have a friend who describes this time he was lost on a mountain and he was so cold and so lost and so stressed out. Then he was sitting against the rocks in the wind and all of a sudden, he plateaued, thinking, “Wait a second, I’m cold but I don’t care. I’m lost but I also don’t care. What’s going to last longer, me or the storm?” And he was just sitting there feeling borderline invincible, sitting there like a wolf with glowing eyes. You get to a realisation that you are all powerful and then you realise you can take it back and apply it to everything else in life. The jungle immediately reveals who’s soft, who’s worried, who’s neurotic. Someone might be saying “We were meant to leave by two o’clock, the boat should be here by now” – but you know it’s the Amazon, for all we know that boat has sunk. Start building a raft motherfucker.
If we ever get to a point where civilisation is failing, we’ll all need these practical and mental survival skills. How quickly do you think people would be able to learn this stuff again?
I actually think people are really tough. The trick is that they can’t have an option. As soon as people understand they don’t have food, they don’t have a fire, and they have to figure it out, then they will. And I think there are enough people who are still learning and studying all these wilderness ways – all the stuff that we would know from way back. I think it would spread but it would be pretty brutal. I think that if civilisation collapsed that would be a really brutal thing because imagine people fighting over the last packet of chicken legs at the grocery store. That’s not going to be fun at all.
But also as a conservationist I’m out in the Amazon filming the fires, filming the deforestation, and thinking we’ve just got to stop this, we can’t keep letting it happen. Eventually it’s going to reach a point where it’s going to be too late – and this has been my whole career.
People are writing books and doing PhDs, and philosophising about how we can save the planet. Not cutting down trees isn’t rocket science. All it needs is a consensus for us to agree that it needs to happen. And that same thing goes for endangered species. Just stop killing them, stop cutting down their habitat. They’ve always been there. It’s so, so simple. My primary goal is to put myself out of business as a conservationist. I want everything to be okay and I could go surf and do normal things. I don’t want to have to be doing what I do, but I must.
So do you feel like primarily you’re a conservationist?
Yeah, I would say usually say I’m an author and conservationist. We’re currently protecting 30,000 acres of Amazon rainforest which sounds like a lot but that’s a drop in the ocean out there, it’s nothing. So we’re trying to protect an entire river and I’d say there are a million heartbeats in there, but it’s probably more than that. And there are so many animals out there, there are uncontacted tribes, there’s medicine running through those plants. Man, you have an ear infection they know how to cure it. You have toe fungus, they know how to cure it. You have a cough, they know how to cure it. And this is not mumbo jumbo magic stuff, there are powerful medicinal compounds running through those trees and the local people know exactly how to do it. So, a lot of the jungle medicine is crucial too.
The cure for malaria came out of the Amazon originally. The blood pressure medication Captopril was developed from bushmaster venom, from the largest viper on earth. I mean we get all kinds of stuff from the Amazon. So, my job, my calling is to protect as much of it as I can. On my headstone – I don’t actually want to be buried – but I want it to be known that I protected more habitat than anybody else.
That’s an incredible mission. Why don’t you want to be buried?
Oh, I’m claustrophobic – I’d rather be thrown out of a helicopter in a biodegradable bag and let the jungle animals eat me and then I get to be in the jungle. That is so much cooler. And you get to skydive; the last thing your body does is fall out of a plane. It would be great.