The aerial view of the Amazon rain forest is probably the single most spectacular scene I have ever laid my eyes on. One cannot comprehend its vastness nor its beauty. What captivated me most, was not the endless incredible green canopy, but what beauty lay hidden beneath it. My arrival in the Amazon was bitter sweet, no matter how much time I would spend immersing myself here I would never in my lifetime know all of its majesty.
I am a window seat girl. I have flown a lot in my lifetime and have always enjoyed watching the changing landscapes below, forehead pressed to the window. Due to a very early start back in Sao Paulo to catch my Azul flight to Manaus, I dozed off right after departure and missed the approach to the Amazon rainforest perimeter all together, something I had hoped to record on video. In stead, I woke up halfway into the four-hour flight to find the incredibly vast and captivating jungle canopy below stretching as far as the eye can see in all directions. I decided before this journey started that planning every detail ad infinitum was not going to serve or inspire me. I didn’t want to be imprisoned by deposits, cancellation fees, strict departure times for pre-booked buses, boats and trains. I sought to strike a balance: I wanted unpredictability, allowing the channel whereby synchronicities and serendipities occur to remain open. In the back of my mind though I knew I was going to end up in the Amazon somehow.
I played around with the idea of setting off in Belem, the closest city to the Amazon mouth adjacent to the South Atlantic Ocean. Having no time constraints made it feasible, but my budget said no. I would have to fly to Manaus and skip Belem entirely. After my arrival I spent a few days acclimatizing, finding my way around with some very poorly enunciated Portuguese. Enjoying everything came naturally, from the bustle of the streets at night to the panicky driving of the locals, the faded graffiti downtown and the stifling humidity. I changed my accommodation three times, having arrived at what looked like a fresh crime scene at a hostel on the wrong side of the tracks, to another funkier hostel for the ‘on-trend’ independent shoestring traveller, to a cute little boutique establishment, its open-air rooftop area surrounded with stunning views of the city and historic quarter.
I had never been to South America before. The Amazon seemed an unlikely place to start this journey which made it a clear winner to the part of me that still sought to keep refining its identity by choosing roads less travelled. A few days into my visit I woke one morning ready to take on the jungle. I knew through some research I had done a while back that to reach the Tres Fronteiras, the Amazonian tri-border area where Brazil, Colombia and Peru meet, one could either travel up river on the local passenger ferry, or get a flight from Manaus to the city of Leticia at the southernmost point of Colombia. I decided to take the most immersive route. I knew from my research that these boats left twice a week so I had a few days to explore Manaus before moving on. Organized day trips were expected to be hit and miss considering the luke warm reviews from travellers on the popular review sites, so I decided to pick one and hope for the best. I told myself that the goal was not to see the sight, but to read between the lines of the experience.
On this particular tour, we were taken to see a native tribe (a re-enactment of the way tribes used to live 100 years ago), swim with the famous pink river dolphin, see the giant lily pads and to observe the ‘Meeting of the Waters’, a natural phenomenon caused by the confluence of two of the Amazon River’s largest tributaries – the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes. These rivers never merge resulting in a very clear and visible line in the water due to the contrasting density and colour caused by differences in the sediment and viscosity of the water.
The entire experience had an unfortunate but totally expected layer of theatrics around it, from the overcrowding of the boats to the hasty ushering of one ‘experience’ to the next. I was momentarily swept up by the tribal chants and felt obliged to join in the dancing when the actors beckoned the applauding crowd to join the circle. I also sampled the feast of freshly barbecued fish and roasted insects outside the ceremonial hut. As I was doing so, I was fully aware that there were young children roped into the show the adults were putting on for us and that if they had a say they probably wouldn’t want to be half naked having their picture taken with strangers all day long. I also happily got into the luke warm river and spent five minutes treading water in close proximity to ten other people in the hope of getting within reach of a pink dolphin. This too I did knowing that the propellers of the boats used to travel to this popular spot hurt the dolphins, and that the reward based feeding system was unnatural and may hamper their ability to fend for themselves in nature. It was what modern and affordable tourism had to offer in these parts.
I reached my hotel somewhat frustrated and exhausted after the day’s activities. This wasn’t immersion. Although I was thankful that I had the opportunity to have the experiences I had earlier in the day when many others couldn’t, it didn’t feel good. It was five pm and all I wanted to do was shower, eat and get to bed, but right before I stepped into the foyer of my hotel the shape of a familiar figure caught my eye. The same man who had a few days earlier approached me at Manaus airport and greeted me in perfect Afrikaans, was now sitting on a plastic chair outside a small non-descript office across my hotel. He had had a friendly way about him – he helped me with some directions at the airport – and as I turned to walk towards him he recognized me and waved. I knew back at the airport that he was a salesman looking for first timers to the area to sell package tours to and I had dismissed him quickly back then, but today another part of me felt urged to give the man an opportunity to speak. Maybe there was a wonderful experience waiting around the corner if I would just give the universe half a chance to get through to me.
I briefly relayed to him what the tour had been like earlier that day and what I was actually hoping to achieve – something authentic, unrehearsed, non-exploitative and affordable. I listened to what he had to say and ten minutes later I said yes to joining a small group of four people on a four day trekking trip into the jungle. You have got to take these chances in life, sometimes the ace is at the bottom of the deck. I only asked about the departure date and when we would arrive back (I had a ferry to catch to Peru) and left the rest to chance. I didn’t want to create any expectations, which rewarded me richly in the end.
Satisfied that I had chosen the right path, I settled in for the night after having ice cream for dinner (it’s my thing). Tomorrow would be an early start, a new day with new experiences. I lay awake listening to the sounds of the historic teatro square until I could no longer discern between reality and dreamland, and in the early morning hours succumbed to the beckoning slumber that had been lulling me all night.