Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block
am a hiker. But at home, no one uses a machete to blaze the trail prior
to walking on it as Souza, our Amazon guide, did, creating a path in
the overgrown rainforest step by step. Slicing, swatting, swooping,
chopping, no branch, bush, vine or twig was safe.
The hike was one of four daily activities during our
8-day adventure exploring Amazonia. Calling the Tucano, a 16-passenger
river yacht home, we traveled over 200 miles along the River Negro where
the only other waterborne human we saw was the rare fisherman in a dugout
canoe. For our daily excursions, we clamored aboard a small power launch
which took us hiking, bird-watching, and village hopping, and on night-time
outings that dramatized the allure of the river not experienced in any
other way. But more on that later.
Souza demanded quiet during our launch rides, using
all of his senses to read the forest, listening for the breaking of
a branch or a flutter through the trees, sniffing for animal odors,
scanning leaves above and below for motion, or the water for ripples
and alerting us at every junction of what he has discovered. On our
own, we would have heard, felt and discerned nothing.
Souzas most amazing talent was his ability to
identify the multitudes of birds traversing the river and forest, many
of whose calls he could replicate precisely. What to us was a dot on
a limb was declared a green ibis. Then a snow egret, crane hawk, red-breasted
blackbird, jacana, snail kite - so many I just stopped taking
notes. So confidently did he identify the inhabitants, we would have
believed: Thats a green-tongued, red-beaked ibirus with
one brown eye and a pimple on his right cheek
He could imitate more birds than the most gifted comedian
can impersonate movie stars. He carried on such intimate conversations,
that halfway through a lengthy discussion with a blackish gray antshrike,
I think they became engaged. Then Souza, fickle male that he is, romanced
a colorful azure blue-beaked Trogan perched upon a dead branch high
in a tree. Birds have a surprising preference for dead tree parts. As
one of my travel companions observed, If you dont like birds,
you might as well take the next flight home.
Back to Machete Man. Our forest walks also were a time
for observation, not conversation. On a stop to view teca ants swarming
over the bark, Souza wiped his hand across it, proceeding then to rub
the ants over his forearms. Instant mosquito repellant - handy
tool in the Amazon.
At one point, I looked down and saw a long brown twig
draping a log. Souza saw a snake. I looked again and still saw a twig,
albeit one that now had an eye. I stepped more gingerly.
We learned of the many medications the forest supplies
to the natives; of vines for baskets and brooms; bark for strong rope;
plants providing poison for arrows. As we heeded orders to be quiet,
the dried leaves below screamed in protest at being trampled, the buzz
of the horsefly the most persistent sound.
And then there are the leaf cutter ants! A long assembly
line of tiny leaves paraded up a hill, as organized as a marching band.
A closer look revealed leaf cutter ants to be the burly carriers. Hard
to believe something so fragile can carry so large and unwieldy a load
as much as half a mile to its colony.
Surprised at how much he learned about himself on the
trip, Ritesh Beriwal, a 23-year-old worn-out Wall Street trainee, noted:
I didnt realize how interested Id be in the little
things, like how insects such as the leaf-carrying ants build homes.
Before it was just an ant; now its an ant with an entire life
and work history.
Each day brought new revelations and insight into our
surroundings whether on land or water. Our visits to several villages
only reinforced that impression.
Commonalities among villages: a dance hall where residents
party once a month; a soccer field where youth exercise once a day;
a school room where students of all grades learn; a clinic that caters
to the medical needs of the community, 2-3 requisite churches where
parishioners of different persuasions pray - and a generator.
And thats about it. But the differences are notable as well.
I found the contrast particularly interesting between
one village of no more than 30 families producing one farm product and
a larger company town in which thrives an asphalt industry.
In the larger village, there is a convenience store, a small café,
a bakery. Each hut has its own outhouse and there are several satellite
dishes throughout the community.
The entire economy of the farm community revolves around
manioc - a product made from grain that is the mainstay of the
Amazonian diet. If there is no manioc on the table, there is no
meal, explains Souza.
There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes,
and there are no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village
as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had
ever seen. On the other hand, the men dont have to worry about
remembering to put the seat down.
Although every day was an adventure, nothing compared
with the nighttime jaunts. Our post-dinner sojourns, beginning around
8 p.m., pitched Souza and his searchlight against the dark horizon,
scanning shoreline and trees desperately searching for something to
entertain his charges.
An all-pervasive quiet loomed, yet everything, including
the sounds, seemed magnified: dolphins snorting, fish jumping, caimans
slithering, monkeys howling - all vying for attention.
Eventually the flashlight, seemingly darting randomly
above, below and beyond the trees, alighted (so to speak) on a caiman
in the brush, his whole snout protruding for a moment before slinking
away. Or perhaps instead the light reflected off a kingfishers
eyes, temporarily blinding him so that we could drift in almost close
enough to touch. Then for an encore, we watched a spider grab a dragonfly
from a crack in a tree directly in front of us - and diligently
devour it. Did I mention it was pitch black?
Once again, the refrain in my head: How does Souza
do that? Either he has a seventh sense about the animals, or the
Amazon Tourist Board set them up ahead of time.
Whereas during the day, the trills, tweets and twerps
of the birds dominate the landscape, at night its the croaks,
caws and throaty outpourings of the frogs and caimans.
In between our first launch at 6 a.m to our final return
sometime after 9, we pretty much spend the rest of the time eating.
The native foods, beautifully prepared and presented, are a surprise
this far from civilization.
As much as that is a typical day, so are the exceptions.
One particular day we got to sleep in until 6, still early enough to
watch the sun pull itself over the forest, and late enough to feel the
already oppressive heat seep into my lightweight, washable. anti-bug-treated
blouse (though overall, the weather was much more comfortable than anticipated).
We were going fishing.
I sat with my Tom Sawyer fishing pole thinking the Amazons
a long way from the Mississippi. I attached the chunks of beef to the
end of the line thinking this was strange bait until I remembered our
prey. Watching Souza rattle the water with his pole, I remembered that
being quiet was the order of the day on most fishing sojourns. Still,
I followed his lead - make the quarry think theres a wounded
fish thrashing about -- and within a minute I knew I had snagged the
big prize: at the end of my line was the famed carnivorous predator
- a 6 piranha.
Souza held it up to a tree and used it like a scissors
to cut a branch in two. Just looking at its imposing teeth, we knew
it came by its reputation honestly. Still, piranhas get a bad rep. The
truth is unless theyre starving, or youre bleeding, were
really not in their food chain. Nonetheless, the fried piranhas we had
that night as appetizers were scrumptious, their tiny bones crunchy
and the meat flaky, proving the wise adage that more people eat piranhas
than piranhas eat people - at least in Amazonia.
If You Go
How to go. I flew United, one of several airlines that
go nonstop from several U.S. cities to Sao Paulo, then transferred to
TAM for the hop to Manaus. TAM airlines also has daily non-stop flights
from Miami to Manaus.
When to go. The January to June rainy season brings
heavy but relatively brief downpours. Rivers rise dramatically -
often as high as 45 feet. The high water enables small boats to reach
areas inaccessible at other times of year.
During dry season, roughly July to December, rivers
run shallow, and while white sand beaches - excellent for a refreshing
swim - appear, most of the area is more arid and less lush. Best
time to visit is April to September.
For more information, call Latin American Escapes at
800-510-5999 or log onto latinamericanescapes.com.
- If youre looking to see a lot of four-legged wildlife, go
on a safari.
- If taking hot showers are important, stay at a hotel (although the
river water is tepid enough so as not to be too uncomfortable).
- Although we didnt experience any, the pre-trip information
warns of glitches, inconveniences and delays and advises to bring
along a lot of tolerance and patience.
- Post-hike showers are required, including the need to wash out your
clothes to prevent any insect mishaps.
- There is a certain sameness to the daily activities.
- There is also a 5 day/4 night option.
Tour, Ecuador; Maracaibo,
Rica Adventure; Dominica