Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Welcome To The Jungle

Urubu River, Brazil

Manaus is the capital of rainforest tourism in Brazil, so there are a lot of agencies fighting for the tourist dollar. We set out on the town with the intent of shopping for the best trekking package. I figured good deals were still to be had in the lead up to the post-Carnival mini high season. Our first stop was a company some 50 yards from the hotel called Indian Amazonas Tours. We were ushered up the stairs by a friendly Indian guy and into the waiting arms of Suarez (correctly spelling and last name unknown), an older gentleman who runs the show. He explained to us in patient English our options and was not shy to go over details or costs. Something about his calming manor, collection of creepy jarred jungle bugs, and low-low prices sold me right off. I soon forgot any notion of comparison shopping and we signed on the dotted line for 3 nights and 4 days in the shit.

The Indian at the door turned out to be Frank, the guide for the trip. He spent the better part of the afternoon helping us find a few things (e.g. new shoes for Jason) and navigating the surprisingly difficult process of paying for airline tickets with a credit card at a travel agent. (An aside - the communication infrastructure in Brazil is all kinds of screwed up. If you care for a rant, ask Jason about making an international call in Manaus.) Chores completed, we agreed to meet Frank at the very early hour of 05:30 the next morning to start our journey out of town. We spent the rest of the day eating, relaxing, and taking a touristy walk around town video camera securely in hand. Manaus was built during Brazil's short-lived rubber boom and has a faded Baroque glory unlike anything I have seen elsewhere. There really is no reason why there should be an opera house in the middle of the deep jungle.

We took a car out of town to the bus terminal where we joined up with Frank and two Spaniards - Joan and Javier (I think there should be some accent marks in there somewhere) that were joining the trek. It was a sleepy and cold couple of hours before we hopped off at one of the many little villages that hug the main roads. Like all the others, this one was a collection of rickety wooden houses, stray dogs, idle children, and far too many bars featuring lilliputian outdoor billiards tables. They seem like such depressing places, but everyone smiles back and gives the Brazilian thumbs-up when you make eye contact. We trotted down a path to the river and hooped into a speed canoe for the hour trip on the River Urubu (a tributary of the Amazon) to the main camp.

Camp kind of reminded me of Gilligan's Island. There were a couple of wooden buildings made with tree trunks, roofed with palm fronds, and floored with wide planks. Only one was fully enclosed but it was hardly a mighty barrier to rain or wind. Toilets were of the outhouse variety, the kitchen just another hut over a brick stove, and the bedrooms an orderly line of hammocks. Distilled water was available for drinking. Agua for all other purposes came straight from the river. The place had room for maybe 16, but there was only an English couple and another guide around when we arrived.

We took a quick breakfast on arrival and then jumped into a wooden canoe for a paddle up the river shore. Seasonal variation in water level in the Urubu is large and we were there somewhere in the middle of the cycle. Our little boat glided quietly past the middle of taller trees and over the tops of smaller ones. Frank assured us that full submersion in the brown water does not mean death for a plant. Weird. A few strokes later we were back at camp for a bit of a rest and a hot lunch. Unsurprisingly, it was rice, pasta, salad, and some chicken. Afterwards, there was a bit of unpleasantness.

When we first booked the jungle trip, the plan was to spend three nights out in the jungle. I had my fill of "camp" activites (e.g. piranha fishing) in the Pantanal and was more interested in getting deep in the trees and testing myself against the conditions of the jungle. With the addition of two more, things had become more complicated since we all had to stick together. The new plan was to spend one night in camp and then two nights in the jungle. Some residual stink from India has left me in with a deep dislike of getting screwed over. I had a one-sided confrontation with Frank before giving in to the new plan. There was no way I could force our new friends to sleep in the jungle on their first day if they didn't want to. More debate was not leading anywhere. It was not much of a debate anyway. The issue settled, we took off for our first walk in the woods and were back with enough time to bathe in the river before supper.

Immediately after breakfast on day two we struck out. The heaviest thing in my pack was a cloth hammock. Frank carried the bulk of the food with Jason taking the spillover in an ad-hoc sling made from my blanket. We carried only enough water for the 3 hours it took to get to our destination. The jungle camp was more Survivor than Gilligan. The only building was a two-side lean-to made from logs and palm fronds. It was right next to a stream and small waterfall that provided a refreshing shower, pleasant background noise, and drinking water. I was a bit dubious at first about drinking straight from a jungle stream, but I have not experienced the least negative effect. Cholera? Schmolera.

In-jungle meals were cooked in two pots over a small campfire. We had a bit of chicken the first night, but thereafter there was only egg and rice with mixed veg. We sometimes snacked on coffee with salty crackers and there was a good supply of oranges and bananas. Frank did all the cooking and made sure that it was heavy on bulk and salt to make up for the lack of variety and the volume of sweat.

We spent almost all of day two and three trekking. The ground where we were walking was not entirely level. Small rises are broken up by steep sections that lead down to narrow brown streams. Our path was mostly confined to decent trails and with good reason. The pace would have seldom risen above crawl had we had to hack our way through the vegetation. The first couple of meters from the dirt are packed thick with ferns, vines, and bushes. Everything grows on top of everything else in a mad dash to the sun. Woody trees are the foundation for the whole structure and vary from numerous and fairly small (less than one foot in diameter) to very large and fairly uncommon (more than 4 feet in diameter). One one of them crashes down from the weight of rain and hangers-on, it creates an empty space that little green things quickly fill in and restart the process.

The jungle floor was of particular note for me. The only thing that overpowers the feeling of life and vitality you get from the abundance and variety of living green plants is the sense of decay that you get from the piles of rotting plant that they build on. The soil is covered almost everywhere with dark and damp autumn-red leaves. No log can be trusted as a step as it is more than likely to collapse under your weight due to the action of water and termite. In places, the ground is noticeably springy. Anything that can be covered in mossy lichen stuff is. The bottom of the jungle is stinking wet and quickly starts eating anything that comes to rest on it.

For me, walking in this environment had a hypnotic effect. At the start, I tended to concentrate on the ground as there were a lot of things around to trip over or slip on. Once I got my jungle legs, I could look up and take in more of the scenery. We often kept a good pace, so the world was going by at a fair clip and there was no shortage of things to look at. Giant ferns, brightly colored fruits, intricately veined leaves, and Martian trees all competed for my attention. Despite the scenery, wave after wave of biting insect, furious perspiration, and minor cardiovascular stress, my mind would soon wander off somewhere. In this manner, an hour could collapse into minutes and thoughts would fail to become memories.

A sudden stop of our single file often snapped me out of it. Frank was always in the lead and would halt if it was time to rest, explain the use of a plant (e.g. rubber or medicine), or (fingers crossed) point out some wildlife. We were pretty lucky in the animal department. Notable finds included two very big tarantulas, at least two species of small monkeys, three good-sized turtles, and wild pigs. Birds were hard to spot but we heard the calls of tucans and blue macaws among the symphony of jungle sounds. There was no luck in the big cat department, but there seldom is.

On the morning of the fourth day, we rose at 06:00, struck camp immediately, and head out on empty stomachs. It took us maybe 2 hours to reach the main camp where hot coffee and pancakes awaited. We spent a bit of time watching Frank make Indian blowguns and did some speed canoeing across the river to score a few well-earned cold beers. The speed boat came for Jason and I at 16:00 and we were back in the center of Manaus by 20:00 via reverse course from the way in. In the end, our trek was not really the man-against-nature outing that I had hoped for, but that is OK. Everything I own is damp and stinking. It is damn hot out there and they are not kidding about the rain part of rainforest. It frickin' poured like an idiot.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lilliputian? Martian? OK. Maybe you wouldn't sweat so much if you left the thesaurus at home dude.

The latest photo gallery I think is the best. Could've used fewer nasty bug and arachnid pictures though. Bugs are nasty.

Don't get me started on horseshoe crabs.

2/17/2006 9:00 PM gmt

Blogger Mik3 said...

> you wouldn't sweat so much if
> you left the thesaurus at home

My writing style is designed to eschew obfuscation.

2/18/2006 6:00 PM gmt

Blogger jason said...

You would have had a hard time here in Brazil, Nuno. Or, at least, in the wilder parts of Brazil. We were surrounded by nasty insects all day. Little spiders, mosquitos, ants, crickets, etc... You couldn't avoid them. After the jungles around Manaus, I picked no less than six ticks out of my skin.

2/20/2006 3:01 PM gmt

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd prefer not do deal with things with more than four legs. I can bearly deal with things with less than or equal to four legs.

But if it comes down to it, I can manage. I recall a high school camping trip where we had to hike through swarms of these little green bugs that would promptly land on you and suck out your own blood.

I busted through those like a trooper.

2/20/2006 9:25 PM gmt


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