I arrived yesterday in Manaus, a city of one million improbably placed in the geographical center of the great forest, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes, which form the Amazon. I arrived by boat from Belem, at the mouth of the river after a six day journey.
It sounds exotic, adventurous, does it not? Six days on the Amazon. I am not, however, Paul Bowles. The boat did not make any calls at Corazon. I did not meet Kurtz. I may have traveled through the Amazon but I have yet to see any forest. The ride consists of slowly chugging up a wide, brown river. On the distant bank (the river is five or more miles wide in places) one can see a thin strip of green between the blue of the sky and the brown of the river.
The river barge is roughly 30 feet wide and 100 feet long, wood and painted white (given it a resemblance to riverboats of yore). It has three levels. The lower two levels are packed with hammocks with incredible density. The upper level has an open deck, a bar, and some private cabins. In more adventurous days I would have slung my hammock up with the masses down below. I have grown soft in my age and now pay double for the comfort and privacy (and security from theft!) of the cabins. The days and nights consisted of sitting on the deck, drinking beer, and gazing vacantly at the banks, occasionally spotting a riverine dolphin. More active types on the boat played dominoes or danced at night to the jumpy Forro that was blasted out on the bar's stereo.
The Amazonas may be Brazil's least populated region, but they all live on the Amazon. Every few hundred meters along the shore is a small wooden house raised on stilts (the annual variation between low and high waters on the river can be up to 50 feet). Canoes would approach from the side, loaded down with a cooler full of beer, paddle furiously and with a crowbar hook themselves on to our boat as it sped by. Not only was this a marvelous sight, but it also temporarily broke the bar's monopoly on drinks.
Just before Manaus is the famous confluence of rivers; the Rio Negro which comes from Venezuela and Colombia and is black from tannin leached from the trees and the Rio Solimoes (which the Peruvians and most of the world calls the Amazon) which is brown from all the sediment washed down from the Andes. At the point where they meet swirling eddies of black and brown water mingle in fascinating fractal patterns.
From here in Manaus I will be heading straight to Venezuela tomorrow, to the highland plane of the Gran Sabana, famous for the Tepui and Angel Falls. I could be criticized for traveling right through the Amazon and seeing no more forest than what can be seen in the botanical garden in Belem, but tropical rainforests are entirely too sticky and bug-filled for my tastes. I need to head for higher altitudes soon.
Instead I shall entertain you (I hope) with vicarious tales of others. This first from my brother who visited Manaus roughly earlier this month:
One day I took a canoe, a machete and the GPS (which I used constantly in the Amazon) and headed off for the day. I tried to get lost and knew that I had succeeded when, an hour later, I arrived back at my canoe thinking I was miles away. There is something very appealing about hacking your way through the jungle and there is something absolutely terrifying about being in the Jungle alone.
And this amusing story from my friend Jesse who shames me with his adventures and makes me realize just what a wuss I am when it comes to adventure travel:
I was in the middle of the Ecuadorian jungle in a community that had seen tourists only once before. I wouldn't`t leave the shaman alone. He was an old drunk and gave us AYAHUASCA, some hallucinogenic root that boiled all day in the cauldron...I asked him to cure my headache. He said he would "suck" me. (does this get any better?) He sucked away at my forehead with more screeching noises, lots of smoke, and spitting on the dirt floor. The next morning, I had no headache, but I did have--for the first time ever--a huge hickey right between the eyes! And from an 80 year old man!
On the front page of the main Manaus daily yesterday read the headline, "Dengue claims it's first victim of the year". Apparently they are predicting a very bad summer all over Brazil for Dengue fever. Upon checking into my hotel room I discovered a swarm of mosquitos swirling out of the bathroom. I asked for spray and they gave me this foul-smelling tube which I used to fumigate the room, generously. I may die of cancer but goddamn it, I am not getting any mosquito bites. I suppose then my "Amazon Experience" is reduced to dodging mosquitos in this once-elegant, now rat infested city on the river.