Friday, April 13, 2007

The jungle

This was my first experience of a real jungle trip, though for an experienced jungle person it was probably scratching the surface. It lasted for 5 days, and though I´d like to do a longer one sometime, I´m happy I chose to go for just 5 days.

The beginning was a bit ominous. I woke up early and it was raining heavily. Left my backpack with the hotel and went to meet the trip organizer. The guide, E, showed up late. I asked about the other 3 Canadians who were supposed to come with me, but apparently one of them was sick and they´d backed out. So it was going to be just me and the guide for the next 5 days. Considering it was my first trip to a jungle, and I didn´t speak a word of Portugese (E was fluent in 5 languages though) I considered backing out. But decided to go ahead anyway.

We took a taxi down to the port, bought some food and then hopped on to a speed boat. Halfway across the river, we stopped, and E told me this was the meeting point of two rivers (Negro and Solimoes). It´s unlike the meeting point of two rivers. Rio Negro is black and fast, and Solimoes is brown and slow. So the two meet, but don´t merge and travel side by side for about 7km. It´s quite amazing to see and the boat switched between both rivers to show the difference in speeds. Got off at another point and then E took his own canoe with an engine and we headed off to the jungle lodge. It took about 2 hours to get there, and it rained off and on. It´s the winter here and so it rains a lot. It´s also the low season for tourists, so by the time I reached the lodge I was the only occupant. It was pretty basic, with a few rooms and one bathroom. Had lunch and since it was raining decided to take a nap on the hammock stretched out on the porch.

The rest of day followed a clear plan. Canoeing for a few hours through some creek, Piranha fishing, dolphin watching and alligator catching. Piranha fishing turned out to be deceptively easy, and I managed to catch about 7 of them. The first time I caught one, I got so excited and scared seeing it dangling in front of my eyes that the canoe almost capsized. E decided to refer to me as jungle boy after that, clearly laughing at my ineptness. Went alligator catching at night, and E is quite a daredevil. He´s lived in the jungle all his life and spent a couple of years in the army engaged in jungle warfares. He´s got a reputation of being the toughest and craziest guide around, and loves to show off. Watching him catch an alligator with his bare hands, play with it like a puppy an disdainfully throw it back was entertaining.

The first day had been a bit hectic so I told him at the end of the day that since I was the only one on the trip, I did´t mind skipping out on a few touristy things, but preferred to spend more time just doing a couple of things. They could be touristy or not, but I told him to pick out things he enjoyed. His eyes lit up at the prospect and his attitude towards me changed. We spent the next day canoeing down the river to a small village. He pointed a small piece of land which he´d bought a year ago and plans to build a small lodge of his own. It´s pretty far from Manaus and is a great point for catching both sunrise and sunset. In the distance is a small island which is a meeting point for two species of birds, and his neighbour is a herbal doctor. Also, with a glint in his eyes, not too far away was the house of the woman of his dreams. He showed me the plan, and we spent a while walking around the area where he plans to build it.

Spent the rest of day with his friends, and though I couldn´t understand a word of what was being spoken, had a nice time playing soccer with a few kids. E went out soon, caught a small pig with his barehands, and in front of me, cleaned it and then barbecued it. It was grotesque to watch but great to taste. While it was cooking, we headed out on the canoe in the dark to a few friends of his and drank caipirinhas till late. Thankfully, one of his cousins decided to ride the canoe with us, as he knew E was known to be quite reckless. It was quite eery though, canoeing back in the dark with E pointing out things in his semi-drunken state. Feasted on the pig and then passed out on a hammock in the porch with a mosquito net over me.

Woke up the next day with a bad case of diahorrea. It was bound to happen at some point and I felt foolish not carrying any antibiotics. E´s neighbour went out to some tree, tore off the bark, scraped it on something (the dried tongue of a fish), mixed it with water and gave it to me. It tasted horrible, but in an hour I was fine. I was given a bottle full of it, and am carrying it with me in case of an emergency.

Spent the next 2 days on a trek through the jungle. Since it was just the two of us, E took us to a fairly remote part along the river, through some crazy creeks and we got off. It was part of some forest reserve, and it was thick, dense forest. Just like I´d imagined it to be. The trek was completely different from anything I´d ever done. Instead of a tent and sleeping bag, we each carried a hammock and mosquito net, bugspray, a machete and some food. It was broad daylight, but deep inside the jungle it could have been evening. The light filters through, but to take any pictures I had to use a flash. Even when it rained heavily, I could hear it but not feel too much of it. Felt more like a drizzle. Walking through the jungle wasn´t easy and we had to use the machetes a lot to clear the way. Throughout, E told me about all kinds of plants and trees that we spotted, animal sounds in the distance and about his experiences fighting the Colombian guerrillas. It was a bit like being inside a National Geographic documentary.

Camped at a clearing somewhere, and had to chop some wood to set up the hammocks and plastic sheet for cover. It took a while for the food to cook, and E decided to teach me some Portugese. He dropped out of school at a young age, but has worked as a guide for almost 10 years and has picked up a lot of languages because of all the tourists he deals with. He did a great imitation of some Japanese tourists, who always said - Interesting, very nice. That became our motto for the rest of the trip, and each time he pointed out something, I would bow and say - Interesting, very nice.

The night of the trek was a bit scary though. After being harassed by bugs, I´d decided to sleep early and E also crashed out early. I was sleeping with my bug spray but somehow the jungle sounds kept me awake. After about an hour, I could hear E snoring quietly, and heard something which scared me a bit.

I could hear footsteps in the distance. First, I thought it was some other sound. After 2 minutes, it was clearly some animal as I could hear its breathing as well. There were obviously no humans around for miles, so I called across to E. He woke up, heard the same sound and hissed - stay quiet and don´t make any noise. The next 10 minutes passed very, very slowly. What added to the uneasiness was the fact that I was suspended in mid-air armed with nothing but bug spray. After 10 minutes, E said - Relax, it´s an amadillo. I relaxed, and then asked a minute later - What´s an amadillo? He laughed, and then told me it comes out a night to go hunting for bugs and insects along the river. I guess the amadillo was cruising the jungle.

Woke up next day, and got badly bitten by ants while eating breakfast. Went on the canoe up to another point and for a longer hike. By the later afternoon I was a bit tired with the bugs. Asked E about the boat from Manaus to Belem, and he said there was one on Friday and the next one left on Wednesday. I had no intention of staying in Manaus for 5 days, and the boat takes 4 days, so I decided to take it on Friday. That meant we didn´t camp in the jungle that night, but headed back to the lodge. It took a while, but after being attacked by bugs for 2 days, I was happy to be back in a clean bed.

Woke up on Friday, and headed back to Manaus. Bought a hammock for the ride (the private cabins were too expensive) and am heading off now in a couple of hours to Belem. Should get there sometime on Tuesday.