In the historical quarter of the Amazonian city of Manaus is a town square where you will find the Teatro Amazonas opera house and a hive of activity day in and day out. A light sleeper would not survive here. The live band shows up daily around sunset, picks up momentum around eleven pm and carries on into the early morning hours. It seems my absorption rate had increased with each kilometer of travel, the further I travelled away from home, the more annoyances of old turned into stimulation as I slept like a child for the first time in years.
After having had arrived in Manaus by plane from Sao Paulo a few days earlier, I was ready to head into the jungle having spent a few days exploring the city. It wasn’t long before I found the right group of people – or they found me – and we were setting off to trek the jungle come what may. We started out early one morning, a little car collecting us from our respective accommodations to get us to the working harbour where we waited to depart. An hour later I was in a small speed boat with five strangers on the way to the flooded forests of the Rio Juma – a tributary two hours’ travel from Manaus. There was perfect synergy in our group, it seemed our intentions were all the same: we were here to receive whatever the experience would offer and we were grateful for it (even the two young Dutch men suffering heavily from their pub crawl the night before).
The guides were amazing. Eduardo Tenhave, a Maraa native, was a particularly skilled young man. Our forays into the thick of the jungle were always slow and mostly silent, so as not to scare away any wildlife we could potentially come across. In this day and age deforestation activities, increased consumerism and illegal hunting makes spotting wildlife a game of chance. Many a disillusioned tourist leave the State of Amazonas disappointed and irate when they do not get to see any wildlife, claiming refunds on the (lack of) experience without consideration for the bigger picture.
Our guides would patiently steer the canoe for hours on end, day in day out, looking for wildlife high up in trees. These days could get quite long, so stuck in a canoe for hours in the heat swatting mosquitos and straining to see signs of life I would divert my gaze to our guide, observing his body language and his approach to the search. You can easily pick up when you are just a meal ticket to a guide or whether they are passionate about their environment even if it means being out in the hot and humid bug ridden jungle for hours on end for tourists who all ask the same questions.
Eduardo’s movements were slow and calculated, his approach graceful and fearless. Both he and Fransisco were respectful of their surroundings and attentive to their guests. I noticed after a while that we had waded into densely thick brush, and just as I thought we had come to a dead-end I saw what Eddie was looking at; to his right, about 10 centimeters below the water surface, was the head of an anaconda peeking out from a large dark hole in a submerged tree trunk. After a few seconds staring each other down, and a few seconds’ worth of wonder for the moment I was finding myself in half way around the world, Eduardo’s bare hand swooped into the water at great speed and he swiftly pulled the three meter ‘baby’ snake head first up into the air, its body curling wildly at the thin air trying to find something to grab onto. Finding Eduardo’s arm in the process it started coiling around the guide’s torso and legs for security. What an incredible moment?! What a beautiful animal! What luck! What skill! That day the beautiful Josiane from Montreal truly ended up getting her money’s worth by confronting her extreme fear of snakes. Eduardo steadied himself and the canoe. After what seemed like half an hour of admiration (I could have sat there until night fall!) the reptile was released. As we rowed back to base camp Eddie beamed, the adrenaline clearly visible in the trembling of his limbs for the remainder of the journey.
Some days we canoed in the glaring sun and some days in the warm pouring rain, the weather changing every half an hour. After the rain subsided we would dive from the canoe into the bottomless black water down below to warm up, the same area where moments before grey and pink river dolphins had been swimming. Over the following days, we heard and saw toucan and Saki monkeys; and experienced sloths, caiman and piranha up close.
We trekked through the jungle on foot hell bent on hunting giant tarantulas, fortunately only coming across abandoned nests, walking trees and the beautiful electric blue caterpillar famous for the poison it carries. Most of the stories I have heard from travellers don’t compare even closely in terms of the abundance of sightings we had, and as Eduardo who has guided hundreds of visitors through these waters would say, in his experience the number of sightings are directly related to the type of energy on-board the canoe, which comes from the true intent and humility of the tourist. I knew what Eduardo was talking about, he was touching a nerve as to where I also was on my journey and in my life. For a moment, he was speaking my language and I knew that my instincts back in the tour operator’s office in Manaus had been spot on.
Moments like these (you know, like having anacondas thrown in your face) have made me eternally grateful for travelling solo for they are so intimate and amplified when you are traveling alone. I headed back to Manaus one day earlier than the planned return date, hoping to experience the not-so-straightforward journey back to my hotel without the rest of the group. Some might find it concerning how much I enjoyed the challenges we had on the way back, engine seizures and misunderstandings it seems were as common place as breathing, and as entertaining were the full-on conversations the natives were having with me in Portuguese which did not understand a word of.
The magical, stunning sight of the Amazon rainforest during the flight to Manaus and my experiences in the tributaries surrounding Manaus can simply not be translated into words or conveyed with any photo (one sufficiently sad minute of silence for all the spectacular original footage that were lost to the jungle humidity please #macfail). It just doesn’t do it justice. I pray that the memories will stay with me forever. Arriving back in Manaus just as the sun was about to set, I had to scurry to get the last few things in order before boarding the Rei Davi the next morning. The river was calling.