February 17 - 25 2007 / Brazil: On The Rio Negro: A Week Along the Rio Negro
A tiny riverboat takes us 200 miles up the largest tributary of the great Amazon.
[Large sections of this journal were either scrambled or dropped in the process of transferring it from the tiny machine I used on the trip to the big machine at home. So it is going to be a long process to more or less reconstitute it, but I am determined to, since I think what there is of it is pretty good.]
Arrival last night in Manaus, Brazil, after a long long time. We in the north country do not appreciate how very far away South America is. After all, Boston and Manaus are in the same time zone, so, like, how far could it be, you know? But it takes almost twelve hours to fly there, and it is 3200 miles away. We fly through the night, and as we make landfall, and fly on, I see fires below, in the dark, the fires of Amazonas that burn the irreplaceable rain forest, and there they really are.
In the morning there will be a city tour, but for now, we sleep sweetly.
Our delightful city guide, Francisco, takes us round to see some of the sights. Manaus has been through several incarnations, the most significant of which was as the center of the great rubber boom from 1890 to 1920. Vastly wealthy Europeans came, enslaved Indians and others, made huge amounts of money and did extravagant things (we understand they sent their laundry back home to be done properly). Then synthetic rubber was invented and large rubber plantations were established in Southeast Asia, and the whole thing here collapsed.
Among the most famous things to see in Manaus is the astonishing opera house, built at the height of the rubber boom in 1896. Everything in the interior was imported from Europe, a sort of fantasy of Europe, and it took fifteen years to finally complete. Many famous singers performed here and in the lobby are plaques commemorating their visits.
Everything’s marble, gold, crystal. There are murals of Amazonian scenes—jaguars, ornate birds, and the river. Performances are still held here, some of them free as I understand it. Goodness, those superrich rubber barons would not have liked that!
On the streets, I see many colors of people. The folks here are descendants of Europeans, black slaves, Asians and Indians, and every conceivable mixture thereof. A great rainbow of humans.
At the crowded waterfront, kids on a moored boat wave at me to take their picture, and I do. There is little in the way of roads leading out of Manaus, and so a multitude of ferry boats take people up and down the river. It’s a great place to take pictures.
Then on to the markets, the fish market with all of its gleaming wares, banded, striped, ruffled, whiskered, mottled, silvery, darkly glowing, ready to swim away but alas it will not happen. Mountains of bananas, huge stalks swung and thrown from the heaps on top of trucks. Bags of oranges. Rows of pineapples. Vegetables, limes, papayas, bags of farinha. Pans of shrimps of all sizes.
People don't hassle us and don't really pay much attention to us. In the fish market a man pulls the sleeve of another to move him from my picture.
Tomorrow we board the small boat, the Tucano, and upriver we will go. On GoogleEarth I saw with my own eyes the countless squares of red earth punctuating the forest, hereabouts. Most of the Indians are gone, their way of life inundated by other ways. We will carry almost all of our ways with us on this trip. It's a fantasy, really, but I'll enter into it and keep my eyes open.
The more we travel the harder it is to see things anew. I am always saying to myself, Oh this is like this other place, remember? The hotel reminded me of the one in Egypt, really for tourists only with lots of fancy stuff only a few centimeters deep.
This morning having a while to kill before boarding our river boat, we went to visit the "mini zoo" here at the hotel, which I had read about online. A tourist complained about how awful it was to see these animals caged. I agree. How can a jaguar in a cage, no matter how artful, be anything but tragic. Monkeys, surely years past being bored with their toys. Even the birds, with no where to fly. And a lovely ocelot, his marvelous face staring into nothing. Still, as we watched, the jaguar looked fixedly into the near distance: some people barely visible through the trees. You can take him from the jungle but you cannot take the jungle arts from him.
Our hotel is right at the edge of the Rio Negro, and to board our boat we just walked a few hundred yards to it.
The Rio Negro (Black River) begins right at Manaus, and it is the longest tributary of the great amazon. The Amazon has the greatest volume of water of any river in the world—more than that of the next eight longest! It is the second longest river in the world, about 4,000 miles long (the Nile is the longest), and it is navigable for 2,300 miles. Manaus is about 900 miles upriver of the mouth of the Amazon in the Atlantic. We are a long way from—well, from practically everywhere.
A tiny ant just crawled down the edge of the Palm as I am typing.
And where am I, typing? On a little river boat, the Tucano, chugging along away from Manaus, with fourteen other people of little interest, a couple of guides, the crew. On the Rio Negro, the black water river, a great tributary of the Amazon. I suppose you always have to say, the Mighty Amazon, and it's certainly true. At 900 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the thing is still miles wide. The greatest river in the world.
Oh, the tiny tiny world now.
So up this great river. We are given a thorough briefing by our main guide, of Portuguese ancestry, and he shares with a man of indeterminate age, partly Indian, partly I don't know. Languid graceful gestures, soft wrists, soft voice. Modest posture.
Our cabin is paneled in dark woods, nice little beds, a tiny bathroom, and windows on one side. I love to sleep on a boat even if I don't sleep.
Late in the afternoon we are loaded onto two long launches or canoes, with comfortable seats, and I have my book and my camera and my binoculars and we are shown a large number of birds. Edivam our Portuguese-descended guide is a great spotter though his direction-giving skills need work, but I manage to find everything he finds.
I didn't count, but I would say we saw about forty species maybe, including a couple of fine toucans, various parrots, two kinds of kingfishers, and many others. Tomorrow we are to rise at 5:30 and be out on the water at 6:00. And later there will be a forest walk.
We passed, at the start of leaving Manaus, a few little homes, with their boats drawn up high on the land, waiting for the rains. Some had tv antennas. We have seen no other boats except for one with one of those rat-tailed engines that we saw some other place.
Now it is dark, and it is dark over the people who live here. They may have battery-powered lights for a while. This is their home. It has been thus for a long, long time.
All these different parts of the world, the people the same species but living so differently. I feel disoriented and lost. The crew on this boat do this same thing every week all year long, but I am disoriented and lost.
I did not sleep last night, we are I think directly above the generator that provides the air conditioning (which I could do without anyhow), and although the boat was at anchor, the generator was on but not in a consistent way--so I ended up with maybe twenty minutes of sleep.
Before bed last night there were two lovely moths in the open area in the middle of the boat. One a leaflike russet creature, the other with delicate markings on its hind wings. I took pictures of them, they sitting there so stoically it seems. All these creatures.
The night is very, very black. The water is black, the sky has only a faint glow of starlight, and the very air seems black. How desperately you would want your fire, your family round about, your weapons. Your familiar trees, ground, riverside. Your familiar smells and sounds. You would listen for sounds and smells that are different, and be always watchful. But--just as I learned so very long ago and far away now, in my life, in Africa, if it's your home territory you know it well and are not afraid.
There are tiny ants, like the ones I saw in my room in Andros Island, Bahamas, here around. I think I was thinking of them and not sleeping.
This morning early up, before 5:30, and we go out in the nice green launches or canoes as they call them, and we see the black water in the early light. It rushes deep brown by the side of the boat. We hear the birds calling their morning songs to each other. We see the emergent trees, the ones that grow so tall above the rest of the forest, and there are almost always birds in them.
There are yellow flowers floating on the mink-colored water, and pink ones, here and there. A sheen of pollen floats on the water. At home the pollen only floats at certain times of the year, but here the cycles are continuous, continuously rolling through the months. So that there is always a supply of fruit for the animals.
Back at the boat, we eat breakfast and then off we go again.
This time we go for a walk in the forest. Our guide is the part Indian man, who is talking to me now, he really likes to talk. He has a sweet smile and knows a lot, but it is hard to listen to him since his English is not very good.
It is hot, but not too bad, and humid, but not too bad. Some of the people were not used to this. I stayed in the back so that I could make pictures. I did not see too much of great interest. But we were shown a nest of the giant ants, at least an inch and a half long, that I have learned are among the most dangerous or at least painful things in the forest.
One of the women found a large brown grasshopper sitting on a leaf. I asked to hold it and was pleased when there was a murmur at this. Then I found that it had been parasitized just as the beetles and larvae at home sometimes are, with some tiny red eggs, one on its head and one on its wing area. I was pleased to be able to point this out.
It was good to be in the forest, a forest is a forest no matter where you are. There were fruits of all kinds, and some tiny flowers, but as always I am struck by how opaque this all is to me. This time, however, I did ask our guide, so what is it about this vine, or this tree, that tells you what it is. He showed me, and then I knew and could recognize these plants again. I was very excited by this new knowledge, in this strange place.
In this kind of forest, there are never groves of just one kind of tree, but here one kind, next to it another kind, and so on. This forest is the largest tract of continuous forest in the entire world, and there are to be found one hundred to three hundred different species of TREE per ACRE! What glorious extravagance of nature!
One must where one puts one’s hands, since the thorns, and ants, and other defensive things.
Here’s a fine defense—a lizard tail, no lizard, just the tail. When attacked from behind, the lizard’s tail comes off easily, wiggles a bit to distract the predator, and off goes the lizard, tailless but not for long. We learn that around here half the lizards are found to be regrowing tails, and snakes have been found with bellies full of tails only.
At the end of the walk, hot and sweaty, crew from the boat greet us with frozen towels! Luxury indeed.
After dinner there is a night paddle. We spend much of it up a tiny slough, just listening. Chirps and gulps and clicks and tings and thunks and trills and many assorted tones and timbres and textures of sound fill the air around us. The moon is approaching half, and so relieves the darkness with a bright gray light. But once we get well into the slough, the moon is no longer visible above the steep sides of this bowl, and we are purely in the dark.
A moth landed and sat on my hand and arm for a while, and then was seen no more. Bats, flying excitedly around us.
Our boatman is spot-lighting with his big flashlight, moving it round slowly in line with his eyes, to catch the eyeshine of whatever’s around, and we surprise a Great Potoo bird. They are nocturnal, have huge eyes, and a big wide mouth which they open in flight to catch bugs, guided in, hopefully, by the whiskers around the potoo’s great gape.
Perched in the spotlight on a low-hanging tree branch is an Amazon Rocket Treefrog, who forages at night.
Aguinaldo the Indian guide caught a 6-foot Spectacled Caiman—a kind of small crocodilian. He is precise and deft in his movements—Aguinaldo that is—and catches the animal expeditiously. He shows it round, the boatman shining his light on it. Carefully he transfers it to the two hands of the teenage boy, who is no end thrilled to be holding this toothy thing in the dark on the Rio Negro in Brazil. A fine story for his buds at home.
I slept well, with these things around me in the dark.
This morning up at five thirty for the morning canoe ride. I can't even remember now what we saw, but being abroad in the morning is enough. There are a few clearings round about, where a family ekes out a living from the poor soil and sheer persistence.
Edi took us, on this morning ride, into a narrow narrow entry waterway into the forest, paddling skillfully and the plants shushing by us on either side. Finally we arrive in a place of dark water and black tree trunks submerged in the water, with strange growths on them that he calls sponges. Amazed we sit there as he explains them. The two guides then miraculously turn the long boats around and we emerge. A great piece of paddling.
Lunch, and I am eating far too much from oh, I guess boredom in a way. And we go off to the "forest walk" of the afternoon. It's at an actual place, a family's clearing, where they have their shed in which to process their manioc, and their clearing of fields--haphazard planting of manioc and bananas and some other fruits, and their stilted home, open to all sides. We first walk in the forest, after a long talk on the way the jungle works, and of course this is all the stuff that I teach all the time and know all about and so it is difficult as always to stand there while someone else does it.
But I see a couple of good butterflies and some fungus, and of course the tangle of plants, so it is good.
We walk through the man's plantings, in the searing heat, on the way back, and learn about the painfully complex multiple steps to render manioc edible. How did people learn to do this? And they are still doing it. The manioc can't be that nutritious but it is all they eat except for fish and fruit. You must plant it, dig up its tubers, peel them, grate them, soak them (in a submerged canoe), strain the resulting mass, press it (to remove the prussic acid!), toast what’s left or grind it to make flour. I repeat: how did people learn to do this?
In the open-walled home, we sit on low benches on two sides and are introduced, the man, his wife, their eleven year old daughter and fifteen year old son and his friend. The man made the dwelling in two weeks, of wood he felled and shaped himself, of course, and woven palms. The children are in school but many grades behind. The wife sits on the floor and slowly, slowly picks through cotton bolls to remove seeds. Her eyes are dull and her manner listless, no surprise. The girl is shy beyond shy, but the boys are both listening attentively.
Girls learn early to be--to be nothing.
I buy some fans they have made, and ask some questions. How did they meet? The man blushes a bit. Well, there are parties that everyone knows about, and there are chances to go in the boats up and down the river fishing or trading or selling bananas or manioc or whatever. But it is all over for this little girl, though probably not for her brother and his bud (who has amazing bright blond hair).
The parties the man describes sound exactly like those described by the naturalist Walter Henry Bates, when he wrote about the amazon in the 1850’s. Each village or gathered place has a patron saint, and on his or her day you throw a multi-day worship and party festival, to which everyone up and down the river is invited—thus mixing up the genes. Thus they doubtless did it in prehistoric days.
We wait there a long time because the other group does not appear. Edi seems unconcerned though the rest of us are beginning to worry. Finally we decide to leave, and then they turn up. They got lost. There is much grumbling about Aguinaldo the Indian guide. Yeah, guess what. He's not an American, folks. He’s here for the very first time. It will make a good story at home, and quit bitching.
At night there is another canoe ride into the seething darkness. I can tell how much the people love to do this, the mystery of the night and we perfectly safe in it, really. The boatmen so skilled to find their way in the dark. The pair of spotlights sweeping the shoreline, trees, canopy for whatever's to be surprised.
Here's another frog, there a bird flutters frantically from limb to the safety of its nest in the unexpected light. The red eye of a caiman is found, but not caught successfully. Edi takes it into his head to lead us up a narrow passageway, and I have leaves in my lap. Twenty people are totally silent and there is nothing to hear but a faint slip of paddle through water and the constant rain of nuts and leaves and fruits from above. In one place it's quite a steady fall, and they look up for a long time for the eater but he is not to be found.
As we are on our way out, Aguinaldo, in whose boat we are riding, urgently signals Edi's boat ahead: something found. He's spotted a caiman, and we come in as close as we can to see. John and I are in the very back, though, so all we see is a jagged sideways tail through the brush, and a toothy mouth ajar, and the steady gaze of protuberant eyes. Nobody tries to catch this one.