The flight to Manaus actually went off without a hitch, except that it turns out that I had purchased two separate tickets for my flight, and they could not refund me the money for either one at the airport. It is nice to see that customer service is as much a contradiction in terms in South America as it is in the States. I have an ongoing skirmish with Verizon that at some point may turn into an all out dogfight, but that remains to be seen. Sometimes, you just don´t want to ever go home. Manaus is a city of 3 million people at the meeting of the Rio Negro from Colombia, and the Rio Solimões from Peru, which the Peruvians call the Amazon, but the Brazilians do not. Not until the two meet do they use the word. Suffice it to say that both rivers are large. And by large I mean, “Holy shit, where is the other side? Can they really call this a river?” There were only a few points where you could not even see the other side without trying, but more on that later. The river apparently leaves a trail of brown fresh water 200 kilometers into the Atlantic Ocean, and enough water passes out daily to provide the city of New York with drinking water for 10 years. If you live in New York, though, I wouldn´t drink it. Don´t ask me why. Just trust me. Getting out of the airport in Manaus, the jungle could not really be seen, but it could be felt. It was immediately thick, oppressively hot and sticky. The air alone made you feel heavy.
Our cab took us by the ports first, and getting out and looking around, I was surprised to realize that despite being on a river in the middle of the jungle, this was definitely a port town, with drunken, shady sailor types, and the sort of men who looked at you like they were hungry, like they were deciding whether or not you were digestible. Sizing you up not to see if they could take you, as that was assumed, but to see what you were worth. I did not spend too much time around the docks at night. Maybe next time. The town is a pretty steady mix of rundown colonial buildings, all of which seem to have been painted bright, pretty colors at some point in the recent to distant past, interspersed with buildings that were just run down. All in all, however, the town was quite pretty, especially when the lighting was right. We decided to do the tourist thing, and pay a guide to take us into the jungle itself. This started with a three hour bus from town, followed by over an hour in a boat up the Rio Negro, which got us to base camp.
After eating, we hopped in a canoe, and paddled our way through a forest of trees all covered two meters up the trunk with water. The fortunate thing about the Rio Negro is that its water is slightly acidic, so the number of mosquitoes is greatly reduced. Nonetheless, I managed to get bitten. After paddling around for about an hour, we stopped toward the side of a stiller part of the river, and from a distance saw dolphins jumping in pairs. Although I did not get a good picture, the crazy thing about these dolphins is that they are pink. Yes, pink. It was a trip. We tied up to a tree, and hooked some raw chicken onto fishing hooks, which we then spun around our heads like slingshots and attempted to release far into the water. Far turned out to be a matter of opinion, but by the end of the afternoon, I, representing the US, had caught two piranha, one of which had to be thrown back for being too small; Lexie, representing the UK had caught one, and helped to reel in another; our guide Francisco (he said, “like the American city.” me: “I live there.” him: “oh”), representing Brazil, had caught about 15. This would not be the last time that Francisco would prove that he was manlier than us. He was a native to the Amazon, about 8 inches shorter than me and half my weight, and had grown up in a tribal village and spent all of his life either in the jungle or nearby. He had malaria three times, he said, which made me want to look up exactly what I bought as malaria medication in Buenos Aires, but still, I think it is better not to know until later. Much later. Francisco’s heart was also on the right side of his body, I shit you not. How often does that happen? I don’t know, but I bet not that often. Back at the camp, everyone thought it was amusing that I did not know how to properly clean a fish, but for the record, I don’t like fish. Although I can tell you that piranha, despite being somewhat bony, is fairly good fresh. If you like that sort of thing.
That night, after dinner, we hopped back into the canoe with the cook and caretaker of the camp, and having seen some toucans and a sloth before, decided that a night hunt for alligators was required. The way you find them at night is to paddle around in the dark, into the banks of the river, shining your flashlight every now and again around you. If you can see a red reflection shining back at you, what you have is alligator eyes. How far apart they are tells you how big the beast is, although they come in three different species there, one of which when adult is about as big as my leg is long, head to tail, and one of which can be about twice as long as I am tall. So, there can be some variety. We rowed along for at least an hour or so without getting close enough to any to actually see more than their eyes, but on one stop Francisco did prove his manliness again. We saw a bass swimming under a log, and sort of looking at us, and Francisco, apparently missing his spear, took the paddle from the canoe and threw it at the fish, stunning it long enough that he could grab it with his bare hands and throw it into the boat. Still alive, of course. Manly moment number three of the day was when we finally found an alligator that was in shallow enough water (found being a relative term, I didn’t see it), and Francisco hopped out of the boat and caught it with his hand around its neck. He intimated that this was harder than usual, seeing as the alligator was above water when he caught it, so it could have bitten him. When they are underwater, they are loath to open their mouths, so he can catch them without making a sound, then bring them back to the boat without showing what he was holding until, bam!, there is a two to three foot alligator in the boat. All things being equal, I was okay with how it happened.
The next day, we took a hike through the jungle, where Francisco pointed out all of the plants and their uses; some vines you could drink, some were poisonous, some roots were for treating malaria, some plants were for something else, certain ants served as mosquito repellent, others would destroy you. We saw monkeys, more birds, and many other things. After a short break back at camp, we packed up some food for the night, and hiked a couple hours into the jungle to camp. There was a shelter of palm leaves, and we set up for the night, got a fire going, and roasted some chicken. While we were eating, seated around the campfire, Francisco was in the middle of telling a story about something, possibly the time he had been robbed and mauled in Manaus, or the time that he had caught what turned out to be a baby alligator of the species that gets large, and had to really haul ass away from its charging mother with two touristas (what they call us), one of whom was rowing, the other of whom was screaming. Or maybe it was one of his many snake stories, but in the middle of it, he half jumped, half fell, and shouted something at the top of his lungs in Portuguese, that ended in “Cobra!” Confused as to what a cobra would be doing in the rain forest (I thought they were African or Asian). I got the picture when he got back to his feel and ripped Lexie away from where she was sitting. I never saw it, but apparently a fire snake (not as deadly as the four kinds of snake in the Amazon that will kill you nearly instantly, but still quite a problem if it bites you) had slithered its way between us and eventually right through Lexie’s legs and away from the camp. We looked around for a while, but never found it, and seeing that Francisco was visibly shaken, we decided to call it a night and hop into hammocks, tied our shoes above our heads (Francisco had earlier found a scorpion in his bag), and tried to sleep. We had originally wondered if throwing the leftover food from dinner into a bush right next to the hammocks was a great idea, “Won’t that attract animals?” Francisco laughed slightly, gesturing around and saying, “Jungle. Animals are here.” So, how much we actually slept is questionable, also partly due to the deafening amount of noise the jungle makes at night, with the insects, birds, and whatever else all screaming at the top of their lungs about something, but the next morning, we awoke, and after hiking down to the camp and swimming in the river, we hopped in a boat, having survived.
Now, two nights in hammocks not being quite enough, back in town we bought hammocks and rope and boat tickets to Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon river, 5 days and four nights away. More of that to follow…