Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Four days on the Amazon

After a night in Manaus, Dave and I spent four days and three nights in the Amazon. Dave did a lot of research ahead of time to find the right tour company to take us into the jungle. Many of the companies seemed to offer very similar packages, and Dave was frustrated trying to differentiate between them. Finally, he settled on Gero Amazon Tours because our guidebook credited Gero for giving back to the community and for being very conscientious about the environment. When we got to Manaus, one of the guides picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel--we were booked to spend one night in town before heading out into the jungle. One of the first things we learned about the operation was the Gero was a man, the owner of the business, and that currently he was away from the area, visiting his parents. Later, it came out that he went to visit his mother in another part of the Amazon--in the process of getting his business off the ground, he hadn't seen his mother in over twelve years.

In the morning of our first jungle day, we got picked up at the hotel and driven to the port of Manaus on the Rio Negro. From there, we took a boat to the "meeting of the waters," the place where two great rivers, one that originates in the mountains of Peru and another that originates in Columbia, come together to form one great Amazon. The rivers are so different in their current, depth, temperature, and consistency that they flow side by side for six kilometers before the waters mix together. The line in the water is very clear, it's like stepping from a shaded area--the dark Rio Negro--into the light, the mud-colored Solimões river. Solimões carries more sediment than Rio Negro, and therefore supports more biodiversity within its waters and in the surrounding jungle. From this cross-over point, the boat took us upstream on the Solimões, to a small village of about hundred familes. There we boarded a bus, and our guides drove us for about an hour down a paved two-lane road--an Amazon highway--before at some point turning onto a dirt road for another twenty or so minutes. The dirt of the dirt road was of bright red color--thick clay, and the scenery was mostly family houses surrounded by plantations and farms (not at all the jungle the way we'd imagined it). Most of the houses in this area stood on stilts because in the high season the river rises about 12-14 feet. In the river itself we also saw houseboats--houses built on top of giant logs. These logs, we learned, are quite expensive and anyhow, cutting down big trees in the Amazon can now lead to very large fines and/or jail sentences. The farms that we passed varied from multi-hectar banana plantations to cattle farms to patches of land with overgrown fruit trees. The level of income seemed to vary significantly. On the way, our guides delivered passengers they had picked up in the village--a woman with kids and groceries, another single woman, coming back from work in the village or on the plantation.

At the end of the long bus ride we reached another river port, this one even smaller than the one before--it took us a few days to realize that it was a different river that, perhaps, connects to the greater Amazon in high season, but not necessarily. From that point on, another twenty-minute speedboat ride deposited us at the lodge at the end of what the guides called "a lake," but to us looked like a thin water channel hidden in the grass. There are two seasons in the Amazon, the wet and the dry. It started to rain bigtime on the day of our arrival, but the water had been rising steadily for a few weeks already. It reaches the high point at the end of June and beginning of July. Then it slowly starts to dry up, and in October-November, the guides told us that they had to walk for about a mile down the clay path at the bottom of the lake to get to the lodge.

Altogether our trip to the lodge took about four hours (no walking required). We were about 100 kilometers south of Manaus. We arrived to the lodge two days before Christmas. Gero was away--for the first time since the lodge had been built--and everything the guides did had a slightly improvised quality to it. Not because they didn't know what they were doing--all of them grew up on the Amazon, and some even came from this very same lakeside community--but because they regarded Christmas as their biggest holiday of the year and were preparing to party. Gero's absence clearly shook them out of their routine and added looseness to everyone's mood. Christmas was the guides' favorite holiday of the year, and they were ready to party.

It took us a few trips up and down the river to understand something about the spirit of this lakeside community. At first, focused on trying to spot all the toucans, hawks, vultures, and colibri flying around, caimans hiding in the grass, and in the muddy water dolphins, piranhas, and flying fish, we hardly even paid attention to the houses that stood high up on the shores, each on stilts, each with a motor boat or two pushed into the mud at the makeshift dock down below. Returning after an evening dolphin-spotting trip, we noticed that some of the houses had Christmas lights lit up. A few months before, the government had connected this community to the power grid by running a line from one of the central villages. Before that, some of the houses--although not all--used generators for power. They had electric light, fridges, TVs, satellite dishes, cell phones (although cell phones don't work in the jungle, but they still use them to store pictures and videos), but no computers yet because no Internet, and no power tools of any significance that we noticed. (Of course, these will come in short order).

The shores of this lake seemed to be populated by various members of the same family--or maybe a few several families. Our guide pointed out two churches standing on opposite shores, one Catholic, one Protestant, both looking quite new. There's a small school for the little kids and Gero and the guides are planning to build a bigger school for the community this year. To get to school, the bigger kids right now have to take the boat to a village about 30-40 minutes away, and they only can get there when the water's high enough (approximately January to September).

On the second day (or was it still the first day?), trying to hide from thunder and lightning that hit us in the middle of another monkey or sloth-spotting expedition, we took cover in a "jungle bar"--a floating house, whose owner runs a bar and something of a general store for the village. Our guide led us in the purchase of beer and proceeded to play a few rounds of pool with the bar owner and a couple of other guys whiling away the rainy hour. The general store carried corn chips, baby powder, deodorant, products of feminine hygiene, jars of Spam, breakfast rolls, frozen hot dogs, instant coffee, tape, raisers, band-aids, and in addition to beer also sweet wine and rum. In the corner of the room stood a TV set covered that day by a cloth, but on Christmas day--on what became an obligatory stop-over at the jungle bar for our guide--we saw it uncovered and playing a DVD track that seemed to go along with the music.

Christmas in Brazil is celebrated by a big family dinner on Christmas Eve and a public show or a party (in Rio) on Christmas day. (The Christmas Day spectacular in Manaus was, oddly enough, produced by an Orlando, FL-based entertainment company, Hardrive productions). Because the guides were partying--and our guide, the charismatic Lucivaldo, best of all--we got invited to an after-dinner Christmas Eve party at another local bar, in the middle of what is quickly becoming a new village--right next to the new school and the Catholic church. The family who runs this bar was also celebrating the birthday of their mother, grandmother, and probably a great-grandmother, who turned sixty-six. The centerpiece of the party was a giant red and white Christmas/birthday cake and crazy dancing to the music off a CD that contained about five or so tracks, repeated on a loop. An hour before midnight, the family members started to toast the matriarch, and it immediately became clear that to reach the age of sixty-six is a very significant event in this community. Lucivaldo told us that she was among the five or six oldest women here. She was crying the whole time as she was receiving congratulations, any several of her family members broke down in tears in the middle of their speeches.

It's hard to remember in retrospect what we'd expected coming to the Amazon. Probably, the endless jungle. The crazy cool and scary animals. The great river, as big as the sea. The tribal people living deep in the jungle and drinking ayahuasca. There's lots to say about all of that, and in much greater detail than I'm able to do at the moment. It's clear that the Amazon is changing rapidly and unstoppably. After leaving the jungle, in Manaus airport, we met a man who works for an American company that's drilling for oil in the Amazon. On the other hand, the guides who grew up in the area, told us that as of seven or so years ago, the new government created stricter laws targeted against people who were messing with the old growth jungle, and not only did the government establish the laws, but they also started to follow through and prosecuting people on the environmental charges. Yes, we spotted as many empty beer cans and plastic bottles on the sides of the river as caiman and sloths and monkeys put together, but Lucivaldo told us that every year in the dry season he and Gero's other guides survey the grounds and pick up all the metal and plastic that they can find. It was weird to me, by the end of the third day, how much at home I felt in the jungle--and that despite the heat and humidity, and the rain and the constantly damp clothes, and the mosquitoes, ants who found their way to pieces of candy and chocolate at the bottom of my purse, and the potentially dangerous animals. The Amazon felt not altogether different from the Russian countryside where I spent my summers growing up. But this is a topic for another time.

For Dave's experience of the Amazon and Brazil, please read his blog here: He's got more stories to tell and he's also got photos!


  1. Hello, I really admirable the valuable information you put in your blog. Amazon is most beautiful & attractive place for the visitors. The Amazon is made up of a mosaic of ecosystems and vegetation types including rainforests, seasonal forests, deciduous forests, flooded forests, and savannas. Thanks a lots!!!

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  2. Olga, thank you for your wonderful description of your visit to the Amazon. You felt at home there, despite the ants eating your chocolate, and helped your readers to feel a little of that too. Question - "negro" means black but do you know what "Solimões" means?

  3. Thanks, Karen! And great question. I can't figure out if the word "Solimões" has its own independent meaning, but this is what in Brazil they call the upper part of the Amazon river. For everyone outside of Brazil, Solimões just means "Amazon," but in Brazil this part of the river (before it joins Rio Negro) has a separate name. For a few more details, here's the Wikipedia article: