The Amazon feels primal. There is a sense that this is true Earth. Colours pure and basic. Dried blood red earth and a thousand shades of green. Blue sky. White clouds. Black water. Bright moon. And the energy of constant growth underfoot, all around. I wish I could describe the smell, vegetation and the garden in summer just after it’s rained maybe, but much more than that.
I left from hectic Manaus port with fishermen selling the fish I would later catch for myself, and bigger ones including the Jacuari which, once eaten means in local folklore that you will return again to the Amazon. This told to me by my guide for the river crossing, Elmo. An old man, gnarled looking like twists and bumps on a tree wearing a Bob Esponga cap. We crossed from the Rio Negro, which Manaus city sits on, and paused to view the meeting of this river, the longest tributary on the Amazon, and the great Solimões, or The Amazon River as it’s otherwise known. Here the two rivers mingle and their merging clearly defined due to their separate alkaline levels, sediment and temperature. One like warm coca cola, the other stewed tea.
Passing floating petrol stations we arrived at the other bank of the river into a tiny port and waited for the arrival of Anderson, the driver who would carry us an hour into the jungle. Our arrival was entertainment to the port people, work men in yellow municipal overalls stopping work to watch, lots of comments from the lanchonettes, offers of butter cheese from store holders and caju juice from the suco stand.
On route we stopped to see water lilies and passed parrot colored wooden houses, a tree graveyard with stump headstones and stopped for teeth rotting sweet coffee and to pick up and drop off locals. The tracks were wet in places and the van slipped and slided, red mud splattered in graffiti paint drips all over the back. Anderson spoke little English so I warmed up my Portuguese and he taught me new words and reminded me of old ones.
We stopped to make another crossing in a small yellow and green wooden motor boat. Taking with us bags of cement and floor tiles to be dropped off in a jungle house which was having its bathroom upgraded. Running water from the river and electricity are new arrivals to the area.
This was the Amazon proper. The river curved small and then opens up into huge passages flanked by trees and grasses. The boat making tight ripples on the black surface, like ridges on a vinyl record.
Houses are sparse but located on every bend. Steps lead down from the wooden houses on stilts, perhaps a floating home moored outside which float off when the water rises, taking its inhabitants many miles down stream. I imagine jungle teenagers rowing to moon at their prepubescent lovers like a tropical Dawson’s Creek. Inside they are spic and span and proud of it. Gorgeous hard wood floors you’d pay a fortune for at home felled from the forest, chainsaw scrape marks still visible.
The lodge was a cluster of palm thatched huts and one big two storey hut, dining room below, dorm room, above where I stayed in a hammock, lying diagonally which is the comfiest way.
And then came the real experience. The jungle a gigantic garden, amusement park, natural supermarket, enemy and pharmacy.
We set sail across the river to explore, taking turns and crossing other tributaries. I took the helm one afternoon! The sights are endless. Butterflies as big as two palms, pink dolphins the colour of the inside of your foot, monkeys make a motorbike reving mechanical sound to mark out territory, dragonflies passing like lawnmowers, kingfishers sweeping pasts, bats flying as fast as you can blink, tarantulas frozen still - a bite will blind you, medicine plants, free growing sandalwood, red macaws, black vultures, ospreys and eagles, globe eyed alligators slinking into the water and everywhere a vapor trail of Mosquitos.
I liked the story of one breed of birds, yellow and black in colour. The couples mate for life and the male will build his woman five nests for her to test out to find the one she prefers. If one dies the other will hole up in the best and starve itself to death. Exotic avarian Romeo & Juliet.
It rains once a day in a fury. I was caught in it twice, pelted by huge drops, shivering but the vista is tremendous. The rain clouds make a mist rise ghostly on the water. It looks like an instant dawn, obscured light, a hazy horizon and lightening flashes in a milky blue behind.
There are places to hide. Walking in the Forest during rain is a natural umbrella, once the odd drop making the bouncy downward from the water greedy leaves, you can shield yourselves in the arm pits of the colossal trees.
Now the water is rising and already some are so swollen we sail past the tops of trees up to their necks and chins in water. But a few years ago they had a terrible drought and the entire river in this area ran dry. Then 2012 saw the great flood. Trees still bear a black tide mark high up round their waists.
The forest is a living Whole Foods. As we walk, on a chestnut rug of sodden leaves, we spot Brazil nut trees and crack the cranium of the shell to reveal a spiral of the nuts in shells. Peeled open with a machete the nuts inside are so fresh their oil covers my lips.
And there’s more to eat. Medicinal plants that taste like crunched aspirin and make me spin for a minute with their strength, fruit like a giant pea pod where you suck sweet fluff off a seed, small orange fruits that are dense tasting a little like bread, green mangos small and hard.
The other guests were good people. Two American boys on a scholarship from Hobart studying Portuguese on the American education system’s money for six months jock-like and jovial, the Amazon’s ‘awesome’-ness a ceaseless thrill. A Scouse couple scorched pink with sunburn, he head to toe in camouflage patterned clothes and asking questions about the Brazilian drug quality. A stern Lithuanian woman and her Turkish husband who builds bridges and marveled at every road, bridges and large construction we passed, including the slow moving vessels carting sand and gravel for weeks up the river. A Dutch couple which typified liberalism. Her a gay asylum rights campaigner, him a deep sea rig engineer both avid Euro pop fans. A German from near Munster on the final leg of a life time’s round the world adventure. He’s taken one year off from his job as an economist in Zurich to comple South America, having in previous years done the same to see all of Africa, Asia and North America. And the guides, a mix of local river dwellers and Guyanan tribe natives who go by nicknames like Jaguar, Toucan and Jungle Boy. They laugh and tease constantly and sit back triumphant when the jungle reveals it’s bounty to expectant, camera poised tourists.
At night we fished on the boat catching piranha, cat fish and another breed with a wide mouth filled with teeth. The catfish thrashed on my rod splashing water and looking terrified till be stabbed a knife through its head and dropped it in the water at the bottom of the boat, the German shouting ‘stab it in the head’ the Scousers saying the hungry fish would be ‘wanting for their tea’ and me the clichéd girl squealing as the catfish made a guttural moan and a strange purr when grabbed round the neck. The boat was like a floating Vietnam with bloody water and half dead zombie fish in the bottom.
On the final night we made for the jungle to sleep in a camp on the edge of a silent pool populated by bull frogs. Here I turned chef and homemaker tidying a kitchen area, sliding a cut wild duck and chicken onto wooden spikes and turning them over a blazing fire. The flesh was so hot, after two hours of roasting. I sliced limes on a metal tray and under instruction from ship captain Marco made lethal caipirinha’s which the Scousers loved but thought was made of vodka and could not understand what cachaça was. A boa constrictor was spotted in the trees and the guide poked it down and we took turns to squeeze tight it’s tiny neck and stare at its angry face which resembled exactly a field mouse. It released a rank smell like death and vomit all across our skin and clothes before rearing up, just like a Lawrence of Arabia movie trained animal, to threaten us away, which we duly did.
We all talked late into the night about our lives at home and eventually slept under a candy floss colour red canopy of mosquito nets.
My highlight were my swims in the great river. The water a glorious warm, like the bath when it’s time to get out. It runs orange and looking back on your body limbs look carrot colored. I washed my hair with a blue cake of soap and dolphins swam nearby wondering what the commotion was. Total silence. The view above great sky and tops of trees and birds calling a soundtrack. The shadow of the boat cold and 8ft below fish, me diving in with total jubilation and wonderment at the marvel of this heavenly earth.