The Wild Wild… North

January 4, 2010

This article about the lawlessness in the Amazon is crazy.

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Amazon to Enwa

January 2, 2010

We just saw Avatar.  I sort of went into it not expecting much–I hadn’t read any reviews and I didn’t know the story, I just knew the technology was supposed to be amazing. It was incredible.  A natural skeptic of sci-fi, I was totally won over.  The scenario and Avatar world was fully created and my disbelief was fully suspended for all three hours.

I know this is overwrought, but it was interesting to see this movie just coming out of the Amazon–where there is sort of a terrestrial version of the Avatar world, where the earth is the lifeblood of everything, and it’s still all connected in a largely unbroken web.  The people who live in the jungle know every cricket chirp and leaf rustle.  It’s not animated, but it feels almost as pristine.

The Amazon

January 1, 2010

The Amazon was one of the most unbelievable places I have ever been.  It’s a time warp–many of the villages still don’t have electricity, and the ones around where we were staying just got it a year ago.  There are no roads, the region is only accessible to the rest of Brazil by water and by air. The sheer volume of the river is unbelievable, looking more like a sea than any other river that I have ever seen.

We stayed at the Ariau Towers, a sort of bizarre, but amusing complex of huge towers on stilts, connected by catwalks.  We were greeted by a woman wearing a plastic coconut bra with the Brazilian flag painted across each boob.  She handed out necklaces, Hawaii-style and we went inside the main tower for juice.  Everything was painted green, the doors were carved with parrots and other animals and brightly painted and small squirrel monkeys were everywhere.  Any piece of the hotel seemed like it could pitch or fall or break, at any moment, but now it all seems charming rather than dangerous.

The Araiu Towers is on the Rio Negro, or Black River, which joins up with the Solimões just east of Manaus to form the Amazon.  The Rio Negro runs at two kilometers an hour, allowing all of the leaves and organic matter that falls into it to settle and decompose.  The water is clear and nearly black (hence its name) and the decaying material makes it acidic and inhospitable to mosquitoes (a huge plus).  The Solimões on the other hand runs at six kilometers an hour and picks up all kinds of sediment.  It’s said that between 5pm and 5am, the air is so thick with mosquitos that you can’t talk outside without getting bugs in your mouth.  Because they have mosquitos there, they also have the frogs that eat them and the snakes that hawks that eat them and up and up the food chain.  Where these two rivers meet, they run parallel for seven kilometers before fully mixing.  It’s wild to see, two bodies of water that won’t blend.  We learned that Roberto Burle Marx got his idea for the famous Copacabana sidewalks from visiting the Meeting of the Waters.  We all loved this detail.  It’s such a perfect emblem of this country–that something so famously displayed on the most well-know beach comes from this amazing natural phenomenon in the heart of the country.

I wish I could remember all of the statistics we learned about what percentage of the world’s wildlife lives in the Amazon, and how much water the river holds, all of those things, but the numbers escape me now.  Opting out of the hotel’s planned group activities, we had our own guide, motorized canoe and boat driver each day.  Edi, our guide, was fantastic–loud and quick to laugh, full of information and stories.  She was like the mayor of the jungle, waving hello to everyone.  She had been a guide for twenty-five years and had hosted everyone (she said) from the crew that shot Survivor: The Amazon, to Arlen Spector and Jean-Michel Cousteau.  Along with our boat came Antonio, the most useful, fearless, adept driver we ever could have imagined.  We even started to play the game “Antonio vs. __________.” Some of the things we were sure he could beat in a fight included Hulk Hogan, a race car driver with his car, and a jaguar.

With Edi and Antonio we explored the little tributaries of the Rio Negro, where both had grown up. They were both Caboclo–part Indian and part Portuguese.  They spoke easy, jungle-time Portuguese.  We went pirana fishing– we caught a few, watched Antonio clean and gut them on the flat part of an oar with a machete, and ate them fried for dinner. We trekked to an inland pond in the pouring rain to see gigantic lily pads two meters across with intense vein systems underneath.  We saw pink and gray river dolphins loping in and out of the calm waters, and countless birds.  On a night boat ride, Antonio captured a caiman–a reptile that looks exactly like a crocodile or alligator–with his bare hands, after spotting the creature’s red eyes poking out of the water with a flashlight.  He brought the animal, totally calm, back to the boat, resting it in his lap.  With his hand securely around its neck, I guess cutting off whatever adrenaline glands are there, Edi and Antonio pointed out its teeth, how strong its scaly, pointy tail was, how the eyes are double lidded for land and swimming under water.  It was wild.

The last afternoon we were on the Black River we took a boat ride into the open water.  That morning had been the lily pad expedition, where it rained continuously (we were in the rain forest, after all).  During lunch the sky had cleared, and coming out of the tributary, peaceful river stretched on all sides.  The air was fresh and clean, and after a while we pulled up to a deserted, empty beach.  It was a stretch of fine white sand with a small hut on it.  Apparently in the wet season the beaches don’t even exist. The water covers them.  It was mystical.

From there we went to visit a local family.

Pulling up to their dock (again, there are no roads, everyone gets around by boat), we all felt a little uneasy about seeing “natives in their natural habitat.”  It wound up being okay, I think.  The family was welcoming, and we learned later than they only get visitors about once a month.  They were close friends with Edi, and our skepticism quickly turned as we learned about the family.  The father was sixty, with the build of an in-shape twenty-five year old, all wiry, mahogany colored muscles.  He and his wife, who was beautiful, if a little wrinkled from the sun and weary from daily life, had seventeen children.  They had lost count of how many grandchildren they had.  We only met a few of the daughters and three of the small children, who were totally captivating. The youngest that we met was named Nataniel, and his mother was only about fifteen or sixteen. He was already an agile climber, clinging to a pole of the thatched roof structure, and a more agile soccer player than any 14-month-old I had ever seen.

The other little boy was shy, and Edi told us he liked to spend time by himself, walking among the trees and hanging out with the animals.  Scott got him to engage a little.

On their land, we saw the wife’s medicinal garden, a collection of raised beds and filled pots with aloe, and herbs that create seeds that you put in your eyes to make them clear, and other things that solve indigestion.  There were spices and a large space in the back planted with manioc, the staple of Amazonian diets.  We learned how farofa is made–the manioc tuber is peeled (with a machete) and put through a sort of grinding machine, powered by a giant wooden wheel cranked by two people at a time.  The pulp is spit out the other side and then put into long cylindrical baskets to dry.  The meal is separated from the manioc juice (which is also collected and bottled in reused water bottles) and then toasted on the surface of a giant wood-burning clay stove. They also served us freshly cracked open Brazil nuts, and a huge tapioca pancake.

While there, we came back from where the manioc was planted to the stand of açaí trees. Antonio was standing there with a loop of plastic burlap.  He tested its soundness as we stood looking at him, wondering how the piece of material was going to help him climb a stick straight palm tree.  He looped the band around one foot, twisted it, and stuck his other foot in the other side.  He put his arms around the tree, kicked his legs up against the trunk and shimmed all the way up, and then slid down.  Emily gave it a go, too.

It was really special to see a piece of the family’s life.  The generations, and how they spread to form a village of their own.  Their self-sufficiency was pretty inspiring.

Later that night, sitting at a table near the Araiu bar, we recapped the day.  Washing down my Malarone with a sip of capairinha in the middle of the Amazonian jungle, it just all seemed so surreal.

Manaus

January 1, 2010

From Rio we went to Manaus.  At 1am, after missing the guy who was supposed to pick us up from the airport, we walked into the lobby of the Tropical Manuas, the city’s premiere hotel, at 1am.  It was dirty.  In the bar area, a full ash tray had upturned and the water and cigarette butts had splayed across the floor.  It took the person at the desk an hour to check us in, for no reason, except that every action was in slow motion.  It was incredible.  We walked down the long, erie hallways to our rooms, in the basement.  It was something out of the shining.  The hotel was built in the 1950s and it hadn’t been updated since then.  The carpets were original, as was the transistor radio in the night table.  The beds and bathrooms were disgusting.  Exhausted, I put on leggings, socks, and a hooded sweater and climbed into the bed.  Scott and I lay awake for a long time, unable to sleep.  I guess eventually we did, and at six thirty in the morning, bleary we made our way to the breakfast.  A little while after we boarded a boat and went into the Amazon.