We had decided to join our Tai Chi instructor Jeff Pinkus and his wife for this trip to the Amazon six months ago. Since making the decision, we’ve been preparing by reading, getting our visas and convincing ourselves that this was a safe thing to do. We were told that we’d see few if any mosquitoes, we’d be safe swimming in the river with piranha and that we should not worry about all the other strange and exotic wildlife.
It would be warm. After all, we’d be within three degrees of the equator. But our sleeping accommodation would be air conditioned. It would be an adventure for us. Of that we had no doubts. In spite of the apprehension, we were excited to make the trip. We’d be living on a boat nearly 100 feet long with 17 other guests. We’d get all our meals prepared on the boat as well. The leader of the trip spoke English, but the rest of the crew spoke Portuguese and could handle only a little English. (Of course their English was better than our Portuguese.)
We packed carefully and headed for Miami airport after leaving our dog Maddie with my sister in West Palm Beach. We hadn’t been flying for a few years, so all the technology was a surprise. We got through without incident. The flight left at 5:30PM and got us to Manaus, Brazil by 11PM. The contrast between the two airports was dramatic. In spite of a population of nearly 2 million, the airport was nearly empty. All went well until we got to customs, and we learned that our visas were” inactive”. After a delay of several minutes, they finally decided we could be allowed into the country, since they determined that the issue was a glitch at their end.
We then loaded into a small bus and were driven to the boat. All went well there, and we quickly got settled in our room. Soon we gathered for introductions of the crew and our fellow passengers and were offered what was described as the national drink. Don’t remember the name, but it included a whole, crushed lime, some rum, sugar and ice – well received by most all of the weiry travelers.
By the time we got to bed, it was 2AM, so they let us sleep in to about 6AM before our first canoe trip. Most every morning after that we were aroused earlier with the singing of Pavarotti over the loudspeaker. A canoe trip generally happened before breakfast to avoid the midday heat when possible. Because we did most of the traveling at night, we explored a new area each morning. Occasionally there would be an additional daytime trip and on other occasions we’d go out after dark to see our nocturnal neighbors.
The trip changed our view of the Amazon. Movies and National Geographic films gave a single impression, but for us, every day was different. We were on the Rio Negro, one of the major rivers that makes up the Amazon. As the name implies, the water is dark and not muddy. In one area the water was more acidic than vinegar and looked red. We saw steep embankments and broad, sandy flats. The shoreline was at times thick with growth while at other times showing little undergrowth. Some trees were not more than 30 feet tall while others nearby rose up more than 100 feet with most branches forming a ball at the top.
Another new perspective related to the animal life in the Amazon. Again movies gave us the impression that it was alive with animal noises, and animals and insects would be nearly ever present. What we found was that, like animals in more northern areas, they hide well and live in specific niches. Our guides knew where to take us, so we saw a wide variety in our ten days on the river.
Many birds did not hide well, so we saw nearly 100 different species including hawks, parrots, kingfishers, herons and songbirds. The pink river dolphins didn’t hide much, but they spent so little time getting each breath, that we got no photos. We also saw caimen (alligator family), giant otters, monkeys, electric eels, pirahna and lots of other fish, some of which we ate, bats that were described as the smallest mammal at a mere 3 grams, snakes (no anacondas), a sloth, and surprisingly few insects during the day. (plenty attracted to the light at night). We also saw some spiders and undertook an after dark hunt for tirantulas.
We visited a few small villages, a town of about 10K residents, and also spent part of a day in Manaus. We found the people in each setting to be friendly even though we couldn’t speak the language. At one stop a group from a tribe way up the river demonstrated examples of their dances. They also offered snacks. I tried the popcorn termites – not bad.
Throughout the trip the boat crew was terrific – helpful, friendly and always seem to know what was needed. Junior, their leader, displayed his sincere love for his homeland.
In ten days we saw a great deal of a very small portion of the Amazon. Although we traveled nearly 300 miles, by looking at a map of the Amazon, we realize that we only touched the smallest portion of this emence treasure. This recounting includes a glimpse of what we were able to see. We returned tired but also having gained a new appreciation for this part of the world.