In the Amazon Jungle, four hours north of Manaus, Pieter-Jan, intrepid Belgian explorer, sat on the front bench of our slowly failing craft, tossing scoopfulls of water overboard into the piranha infested river. Behind him I did the same, scraping half of a two liter bottle against the wooden boards. Cristobão, our guide, pressed onwards through the reeds. Behind me Magda sat still and balanced, any movement from side to side let in a wash of river. The prow of the little motor craft floated an inch above the still, black surface. Two inches of the same river water sloshed around at my feet.
I did my best not to panic.
A day earlier we’d lugged our backpacks off of Manaus’ floating docks and up into the city. As we neared the exit we found a tall, thin, blonde man with startling blue eyes and a sunburned nose, wearing blue shorts and a Russian sailor’s shirt, two sizes too small. He was standing in the hall, observing some point in the distance.
It was Pieter-Jan, and I think he missed us. He’d reconsidered wandering into the jungle alone, and it seems he preferred the company of aging, cynical backpackers like ourselves. Together we cut through the bustling city center on our way to the same hostel.
By the time we got there I was dripping sweat like I’d taken a bath. I was clamped between two heavy packs, and felt not unlike a vertical tortoise being boiled alive. The rest of our friends from the boat had chosen the same hostel and were already crowded around the attendant behind the counter, peppering him with questions in at least three languages.
We wandered Manaus, once a bizarre, gilded city shining like a jewel in the forest. Out first stop was the opera house which remains a stunning example of neo-classical opulence. Along with Pieter, we took the English language tour and confounded our guide with obscure questions and irrelevant observations. In return she invented facts and embellished reality. When we asked if we could see the locked governor’s box seat, she attempted to force the door.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of entering this city after days of river travel through the jungle. It feels alien. During the rubber boom, fortunes were made and lavished on the architecture of the city, carved out of one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Hundreds of European artisans were employed to create a little Paris deep in the jungle, and they appear to have worked with some enthusiasm until the money ran out.
At the end of the rubber boom, the eggs spilled from Manaus’ single basket. Like the other booming cities in the Amazon, Manaus atrophied and then slowly started to decay. Since the end of the boom Manaus has been designated a tax free zone in an attempt to spur the growth of more diverse industries. This has helped save a few of the treasures of its gilded age, but time, the climate and the 80’s have stripped Manaus completely of its former glory.
Despite the distance from the era of its wealthy aspirations, Manaus continues to grow, creeping outwards, chewing away at the surrounding forest. Unfortunately the forest is its most attractive aspect. The tragedy of the destruction of the ‘lungs of the world’ isn’t only environmental, its psychological: the Amazon is one of the last vestiges of wilderness mankind as yet hasn’t been able to destroy. But every day, Manaus tries to change that.
In order to fully appreciate the forest before civilization fulfills its destiny of wrecking the earth, we signed up with a tour company at our hostel, one that promised various prepackaged spontaneous experiences. Being on the budget side of jungle tours, the next morning we found ourselves on a public bus, driving north from the city to the Urubu river. After three hours on the bus, we boarded a flimsy outboard from a wooden plank that served as a dock. With Pieter, Magda, myself and two Australians aboard, we chugged slowly upriver until any sign of urban encroachment had fallen away.
As travelers who take pride in not following the most touristy route (or trying not to), we felt a little uneasy about this trip. Photos of Europeans smiling next to captured caimans haunted my thoughts.
We’d planned and executed our own trip to Fordlandia, this seemed like an excursion for anyone with a yearning for a neatly presented version of the wild. What I didn’t fully grasp yet though was that there’s nothing neat about the Amazon. It isn’t just a photograph. Nobody can package it. It’s alive and it wants to eat you. Or at least lay eggs in your skin.
The river was as still as polished obsidian. The only disturbance was our long dugout canoe cutting a ridge of wake through it. Cristobão seemed completely unconcerned that the water was pouring in faster than we could scoop it out. Or that piranhas could well have been swarming in the dark waters beneath us. He was a man of the jungle and its rivers, and he knew what few of us gringos do: the legend of the piranha has been slightly exaggerated, which is the reason we were off to eat them instead of the other way around.
It turns out that counter to our idea that piranhas instantly reduce to a skeleton any and all creatures who dare enter the water is a little incorrect. They rarely attack humans, only if you happen to be wounded. They do smell blood, and they do eat everything they can with their powerful little jaws, but mostly they hang around under trees, waiting for fruits to drop in the water. That is correct: the infamous man-eating fish prefers to sit under trees eating fruit. And nuts and dead fish and hatchling alligators and the occasional wounded human. They are also suckers for raw chicken.
The boat still sat uncomfortably low in the water, but now that we’d stopped moving we had a chance to overtake the deluge. We floated amongst sunken trees, a flooded forest where we sat in the gathering twilight holding primitive fishing poles, chunks of raw chicken dangling in the water. The first spot hadn’t yeilded anything greater that a few spiders dropping from the branches so we’d broken out the paddles and pushed ourselves further into the flooded thicket. At the next clearing, near where a tree was losing its fruits into the river, we stopped again, threw in the chicken, and waited. Something tugged on my line within seconds. I pulled backwards and out popped a glassy eyed piranha, is jaws clamped tightly around a morsel of flesh. It wiggled and jerked, but was firmly stuck on the end of my line.
I had no idea what to do with it. I sensed that very soon, this piranha would give up on the chicken and leap onto my face. Thankfully Cristoboã grabbed the line, smashed the creature over the head, and then nonchalantly tossed its corpse into the puddle at my feet. He repeated this with the other catches, until five or six mostly dead creatures were floating near my toes. I examined them and came to realize they looked a lot like normal fish. One that hadn’t been killed quite enough came back to life and thrashed around my bare feet, I danced them out of the way, mindful of the delicate boat’s balance, and asked Cristobão if I could borrow his machete. I drove the point into the flesh eating fish zombie’s little brain and he died again.
I asked Cristobão if any of his guests had ever been bitten by a Piranha. In his usual, monosyllabic manner, he replied, “Yes.”
And then allowed himself a little smile.
Cristobão had been raised in the jungle, like most of the guides working for the company. He knew every tree, every sound, where to find food and what to avoid. Unlike the other talkative Brazilians we met, Cristobão preserved energy by staying very quiet. His father was a Peruvian Indian, his mother was Japanese-Brazilian. In the evening, after walking three hours into the jungle, we sat around a crackling fire and asked him more about his life. Without an ounce of emotion he told us his father was an itinerant rubber tapper who was killed by a jaguar when he was young. My mouth opened and closed like a dying piranha. I have a habit of attempting to respond to a person’s troubles by offering a similar story, as if to demonstrate shared experience and thus, understanding. But after a tragedy of such dramatic impact, it was better I follow Cristobão’s lead and keep my mouth shut.
Our trek yielded no big animal sightings. Unlike an African safari, the dense forest hides everything. It’s impossible to say what we passed. Occasionally Cristobão would gesture for us to stop and we’d all stand still and silent, listening. Whatever he’d heard had usually just left. Once, something large jumped into a stream near us creating a big splash and a lot of ripples. But the bush was too dense to see what it was. The jungle was full of sounds. Monkeys, parrots, parakeets, toucans, frogs, woodpeckers, cicadas, crickets and a half a million other insects all chimed in to create a pulsating chorus unlike any other song. It never stopped, just changed pitch with the night or a sudden downpour. On top of it all was the tinny whine of mosquitoes. Our repellent was working, it better have, it was 100% toxic and capable of melting plastic. The mosquitoes stayed just out of its range, repulsed but desperate for our blood all the same.
Our little camp was by a stream bubbling with fresh, sweet spring water. But it was the color of tea, containing the acidic tannins of a hundred different trees. Mosquitoes preferred to nest elsewhere because of its acidity, leaving us mostly unmolested in the night. With a layer of repellent on, I slept in my hammock without a mosquito net and slept just fine. Except at one point I must have rolled in a manner that exposed just one cheek of my backside and the waiting beasts attacked mercilessly.
The longer you are in the jungle the more fascinating in becomes. Fueled with unlimited fresh water and the blazing sun, the concentration of life astonishes. It is in fact far too dense, so rich with life that every species inside lives life locked in an unending battle for resources. The tall trees shade the forest floor, sucking up as much sun as possible above, a vast root system borrowing for water and nutrients from the soil below. Vines that are themselves as thick as trees fight the monopoly by creeping around the mammoth trunks, reaching for the sun and strangling their competition in the process. Amidst this scaffolding mammals, reptiles, birds and insects avoid the tight competition on the forest floor, living their whole lives in the canopy. The forest floor is left to the omnivores and predators, the aardvarks hunting for ants, the armadillo hunting for insects, the anaconda and jaguar hunting them all.
Into this natural struggle wanders the tourist. Unequipped on even the most basic level it is likely we would die within days of being in the forest on our own. Not just from lack of food, which is surprisingly hard to find, but from the incessant attacks from insects like mosquitoes, biting flies, larvae, and worms. After enough time, you’d crave the sweet sleep a jaguar, alligator or anaconda might deliver with relative swiftness. And yet, when we walked out of the trees back into the sunshine, I was disappointed. The forest sounds were gone. The comforting shade was gone. We’d been bitten by more than mosquitoes and ants, the jungle itself had infected us with the romantic notion that something giant, untamed and untamable still exists. It’s an idea that effects humans like the smell of blood to a mosquito. The jungle’s extreme danger its only repellent, and its lure.
As we made our way back to Manaus, the jungle receded, replaced by tract housing and warehouses. Once in the city though, it was possible to see a host of vines, shoots and roots threatening to demolish civilization the minute it turns its back.
Our last night on the Amazon River, back at the hostel, we hugged Pieter goodbye. My hug was half-hearted though, since I suspect we’ll find him again sometime very soon, waiting just around a corner sporting a bright red nose and his indomitable smile, ready for our next adventure.
Type in “Urubu River – Amazonas” into google maps, the point that comes up is probably an hour southeast of where we stayed. From the river north, the jungle stretches, unbroken, for a long, long time. The Amazon basin, meaning all of the areas that drain ultimately into the Amazon River is as large as the contiguous United States. This is almost impossible to fathom. Much of it is unexplored. In some parts, tribes of indigenous people live without any contact from modernity – apparently by choice because it would be impossible to miss airplanes or the occasional Brazilian wandering past. The fact that it is possible to live un-contacted in the Amazon is a testament to its size, density and its abundance – for those who know how to access it. Some anthropologists have declared the jungle a “false paradise” meaning in its extreme clamor of life, all sustainable methods of survival have been snuffed out. This theory is counter-intuitive and most likely wrong. Archeologists are finding evidence of the jungle having supported not just thousands, but millions of indigenous Americans. This topic is covered compellingly by Charles Mann’s books, 1491 and 1493, essential reading for anyone interested in Pre-Colombian history or the history of the Americas. The Lost City of Z by David Grann is also a gripping, heartbreaking tale of the Amazon and the obsession it inspires.