My plane landed in Manaus, Brazil at an ungodly hour of two o’clock in the morning. Still groggy from the short nap I had on the flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, I stumbled through customs and immigration and finally out into the muggy night air. By then I had been traveling in South America for about two weeks, visiting the breath-taking ruins of Machu Picchu, exploring the old cathedrals of Cusco and Lima, and working on a cattle ranch in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Now I had arrived in Manaus, a city on the edge of the great Amazon rain forest. I was soon met by a warm Brazilian woman named Grace, who accompanied me on a one hundred-mile drive into the jungle to the Dutch-run eco-lodge that would be my home for the next few days.
The jungle lodge was uniquely situated near three different river systems: the Rio Urubu (a black-water river famous for its under water forests), the Rio Preta da Ava (another black-water river), and the Rio Amazonas (the mighty Amazon known for its rich wild-life). The lodge was also surrounded by lush primary and secondary forests, home to thousands of species of birds, plants, insects, and animals.
Though I arrived at the lodge at nearly four-thirty in the morning, there wasn’t much time to rest before my seven o’clock wake-up call. After a quick breakfast of pineapples, mangos, papayas, watermelons, apples, and other fruits grown onsite or in the nearby native villages, my guide and I were off to the Amazon River. Though June is technically the dry-season, the rain forest is called the “rain” forest for a reason. It rained. All morning it rained, filling the bottom of our small boat with several inches of water. I was completely drenched but it didn’t matter. It didn’t seem to bother the animals any either. Throughout the course of the day, my sharp-eyed guide pointed out sloths (which he called “lazy-monkeys”), howler, capuchin, and squirrel monkeys, many species of birds, and large blue and green iguanas, resting and feeding in the forests that line the Amazon. Joseph, the guide, also turned our boat to a section of the river where there is an abundance of fish, and I was lucky enough to see fresh-water dolphins feeding in this area. The smaller, gray dolphins were familiar, jumping in twos and threes. However, there were also pink dolphins, which are only found in the Amazon and its tributaries. These were larger, less-playful, and had very different facial features than the dolphins I was accustomed to. We then left the dolphins and the main river behind, turning the boat to a small side river where the trees created a shady canopy overhead. The afternoon was spent piranha fishing, with Joseph out-catching me ten fish to two. The piranha meat, used to make a thick soup, was soft, white, and delicious.
Another real treat came at dusk, when Joseph showed me the trees where many of the river’s birds nest for the night. Thousands of birds rested on the bare branches of tall trees whose roots lay deep under the water. By this time, I too was ready for some rest, but Joseph had one more adventure in store for my day on the Rio Amazonas: alligator spotting. Joseph briefly left me alone in the boat to wade out into the water, but returned moments later laughing gleefully and carrying a two-year old caiman in his hands. Though not full-sized, the alligator was still quite intimidating. He swung his tail around ferociously while I tickled his smooth, white underbelly with a blade of grass. He was also unimpressed with Joseph sticking the blade of grass in his eye to demonstrate the dual-lids of the caiman that allow it to see underwater. After much probing, the caiman was returned to his home in the grasses.
The next few days would be just as eventful. On a jungle hike the next day, I met a pair of river otters, a trio of capybaras (at nearly a meter long, they are the largest rodents on earth), and saw more types of trees and was bitten by more types of bugs than I ever had before. Timothy, my other jungle-guide, pulled off the leaf of one plant and asked me to smell it. The smell was familiar, reminding me of my high school basketball games and Ben Gay. When I told Tim that the plant smelled like the rub-on muscle relaxant, he laughed and told me the plant was called “bong-gai” by those native to the area. It was one of many plants that Tim pointed out were used both by local people and by large pharmaceutical companies for medicinal purposes.
After a few days of exploring the jungle, it was back to exploring the rivers. The Urubu River, with its acidic black-water, did not provide much in terms of marine wild-life. However, the glassy surface of the calm water was beautiful. Because I was there at the end of the wet season/beginning of the dry season, the river was at its highest point. Therefore, our boat traveled over what during the dry season was the forest floor. We squeezed through the maze of overhanging branches, pointing out monkeys playing overhead. That day I also had the opportunity to visit a village on the Urubu. Christopher, my Urubu guide, showed me around the village school and church. We stopped for lunch at the home of a man who lived on the Urubu near the village. His 10 children had taken the family boat to the village school that morning. It had been a good day for the man. Earlier, a pack of wild boars, several hundred strong, had crashed through the forest near his home. He had killed three of them and hung the meat to dry in the sunshine, ensuring fresh meat for his large family. He also had a new addition to that family. While in the jungle, he had come across a two-day old capuchin monkey, whose mother had been killed by poachers for meat. The man took in the baby monkey, and holding this small animal was one of the highlights of my trip.
Before I knew it, my stay in the jungle had come to an end. My experiences in the Amazon, and my adventures in Peru, Bolivia, and other parts of Brazil, constituted one of the most fascinating months of my life. My travels to tourist-meccas like Machu Picchu in Peru gave me a glimpse into the country’s indigenous past, satiating a history major’s interest in all-things ancient. Visits to bustling, cosmopolitan centers like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in Brazil provided a glimpse into a strong industrial present and future. However, it was the time I spent off the path well-beaten by countless other travelers, the time spent in a small eco-lodge in the Amazon or on a cattle-ranch in Bolivia, that really allowed me to expand my worldview. In these more intimate settings, where I was forced to speak Spanish (which I minored in at the UA) and try my hand at Portuguese (which I had no knowledge of), I really learned about the people I was living with. Whether it was the fear of the cattle-ranch owner that his land would soon be seized by the new Bolivian president whose platform had a decidedly Marxist flavor, or the concerns of the Amazon guides over poaching in the forest, I was able, for a short moment in time, to relate to people who usually lived thousands of miles away from me. Sharing in their happiness at a Brazilian victory during the World Cup tournament, or their sadness at the anaconda-induced death of the lodge’s pet kitten, helped me feel part of their world. My travels gave me an appreciation for other cultures that I would not have been able to find in any textbook. The opportunity to engage in purposeful travel, enlarge my worldview, practice my Spanish (since I plan on practicing law here in Arizona, this was especially valuable), and collect unique memories and experiences has been one of the most significant advantages of my Flinn Foundation scholarship.