Traveling to the Amazon was only a childhood fantasy until the spring of 2005 when my husband John and I boarded Royal Princess in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and headed for the giant South American river. We explored its mysterious waters for about five days, engaging in some exotic activities such as drop line piranha fishing off the side of an African Queen-like riverboat and visiting some native villages.
On the second to last day of the cruise, we docked at Manaus, Brazil, a city built in the heart of the jungle that can only be accessed by boat or plane. We were about to experience an excursion that featured motorized canoeing in the morning, jungle trekking in the afternoon and cayman (South American alligator) hunting at night.
Boating by day was beautiful. The bright blue sky, the tranquil water, the sunken forest, temperature about 90 degrees…the whole ambience was surreal. Not being a great swimmer I was slightly anxious about the motorized canoes, flat bottomed boats that held about 12 people and two guides. But in the sunlight, I felt safe … except when the naturalists tipped the edges of our watercraft, ever so slightly, to show us various deadly plants and animals.
After lunch at the Amazon Village, we prepared for the afternoon jungle trek that ended just before darkness fell like a nightshade at 6 p.m. In order to avoid becoming prey, we had to leave the trail promptly before the jaguars and giant spiders came out to hunt because at the equator, it changes from light to dark literally in an instant!
After sweating out quarts of liquid during the two hour stint, we smelled riper than we ever had in our whole lives. But our hunger allowed us to temporarily ignore this unpleasantness and enjoy a great dinner at the lodge.
Then, the scary reality began to dawn as we prepared to for the nighttime cayman hunt. What was I thinking when I signed up for this? It would be pitch black with only one large floodlight per boat. I foolishly asked one of the guides how long we would be out there and when he calmly stated “oh about two hours” it felt like my heart stood still. When it started beating again, I noticed all the smart passengers lining up to go back to the ship for a shower, relaxation and perhaps a foray into the casino.
My husband and traveling companions didn’t seem the least bit perturbed by the situation. In fact they seemed quite nonchalant about the dark of night and the recently told story of the dentist swallowed whole by an anaconda weeks earlier. As they gently pooh poohed me, my terror mounted.…..Hello people, wake up and smell the Café Bustello!!!!
But since I was too proud to back out, and I had initiated the whole idea, my inner voice chose “you’re nuts for doing this” as a mantra to fight off the terror as we set out into the abyss. All we could see were dark silhouettes of heaven knows what – black trees, black water and black sky, leaving the rest of the senses to focus on the alternating states of sound and quiet. At that point, I became aware that being afraid and being awestruck are quite similar experiences!
Yet, real panic set in when all of a sudden one guide yelled to the other in Portuguese, and the driver frantically steered the boat into a bunch of trees, literally crashing the watercraft into the branches. What was happening? Was it an emergency?? The dark, the screams, the deadly Amazon … piranhas, anacondas and caymans! Oh my!
Fortunately, it was only a cayman sighting. Our guide bravely leapt from the boat into the river to grab the animal, which was no more than a hatchling. The little critter bit his hand immediately and he began to bleed slightly. As a good nurse and former Girl Scout, I grabbed my band aids and antibiotic ointment from my backpack to treat the wound – an activity that provided a momentary respite from my fear.
“Little Jaws” was passed around for all to see and touch. My husband was brave enough to hold it, but I was content to take the picture. After putting the scaly baby back into the water (before Mama came around looking for him), off we went.
Since we had been hunting for about an hour, I prayed that the guides would get bored soon, but no such luck! They again crashed the boat into a huge patch of floating grass, waking up hundreds of frogs whose frightened croaks broke the dead silence. After poking around in there for a while and grabbing some larger cayman specimens, they finally had enough and we sailed back to the “African Queen” and reality.
Even though I sometimes questioned my sanity during this experience, I am certainly glad I conquered my fears and can now say that not only did I go night boating and cayman hunting on the Amazon, but returned to tell my grandchildren an exciting tale.