Essential
Experience
26

Self Discovery Along the Mighty River

The Amazon River, Brazil
April 12, 2011
As I looked around me I was struck by how different the geography was. The river is so wide in places – sometimes more than 20 miles – that I couldn’t see the banks. … All the while, I was aware that I was sailing toward a beautiful culture that is ancient in origin and entirely dependent on this nature all around me.
Self Discovery Along the Mighty River Beverley (left) and her sister, Jean (right) standing in front of a giant Amazon rain forest tree.

Leaving the late-winter doldrums of my Boston suburb behind, I traveled to the Amazon River basin two years ago in search of something different, a new life experience. I’ve traveled extensively in my life and obviously taken many cruises. I’ve been all over the Caribbean, sailed around the Horn of South America and traveled throughout Europe. But these journeys centered on visiting cities. I wanted to immerse myself in nature’s grand designs.

The idea of traveling to the Amazon had been on my mind for years. I had seen more than my share of Amazon documentaries and I knew one day I had to go.

When the opportunity finally came to sail the Amazon, my sister and brother-in-law, both avid naturalists, decided to join me. We met in Miami, where we took a chartered flight to Manaus, the Amazon basin city, and spent a day there touring around. Manaus was the perfect place to transition from the busy life I longed to escape to the almost spiritual experiences to come.

Manaus was established by the European rubber barons more than a century ago. They had ventured to the Amazon to capture as much of the prevalent natural latex as they could to capitalize on the emerging automobile industry.

Missing their European cities, the rubber barons tried to make Manaus look more like home. They built an opulent opera house there along with other totally-out-of-place structures. It was surreal to see these ornate buildings just minutes away from the open river and dense jungle.

An example of houses along the river.

In Manaus, I eagerly boarded Royal Princess and set sail along the mighty and storied Amazon River.  My adventure had finally begun. There I was, cruising down a river in a 680-passenger small ship, rather than the ocean voyages aboard larger vessels I was used to. As I looked around me I was struck by how different the geography was. The river is so wide in places – sometimes more than 20 miles – that I couldn’t see the banks. When I could, I saw thickets of trees, tree-sized ferns, vines, and exotic blooms. All the while, I was aware that I was sailing toward a beautiful culture that is ancient in origin and entirely dependent on this nature all around me.

To experience the power of nature, nothing beats a rainforest hike. At one of our stops, we visited Santarem, a small market center in lower Amazonia. From there, headed on  foot into the jungle … we knew we were really going into the rainforest when we were told to wear rain gear and bring towels.

Our leading guide wielded a machete to clear our path in addition to educating us on the flora and fauna. We walked among rubber trees, wild colas, fruit trees and Brazil nut trees. Our guide effortlessly sliced open the hard shells with his machete so we could taste the nuts fresh from the trees. We marveled at the vines that twisted around the trees connecting them to one another and the lush outcroppings of orchids and bromeliads.

These thatch-huts are the local "garages" where the residents along the Amazon river park their canoes when not in use. If left uncovered, the boats would sink from being filled with the constant rainfall from the jungle.

The jungle was dark and cool and at times a bit scary. When I looked up, all I saw was a deep green ceiling composed of trees, vines and leaves as big as eight feet long and five feet across. While the thought of tarantulas, supersized caterpillars and snakes did cross my mind, the Amazon is also home to a kaleidoscope of butterfly species. Seeing them fly past was a magical antidote to my concerns. It was unbelievable, like being in Wonderland, to have this incredible, breathing, vibrant jungle completely embrace me.

Everyone in our group was mesmerized, ooh-ing and ah-ing at the incredible beauty, when all of a sudden, word passed down the line from the guide that it had started to rain. I heard the rain before I felt it. First, the rain thudded against the canopy, then, because the downpours are inevitably heavy in the Amazon, the leaves buckled to the pressure and whoosh…I was drenched by a torrential shower. It must have poured for five minutes. That’s why we needed the towels!

After the rain comes the mud. As we hiked our way out back to the bus, I walked right out of my sneaker and I had to pull it out of the mud that was rapidly encasing it. That mud hardens to clay, so there I was chipping clay off of my shoe. In my hometown, this would have been a nuisance. In the Amazon, it was a hoot.

When the sun returned, it reflected the rain drops and that was a truly breathtaking sight. I was elated by the whole experience.

Traveling across the mighty Amazon by canoe.

That afternoon, we took a canoe along some tributaries of the Amazon where we fished for catfish, piranhas (!) and surprisingly big goldfish.  Along the river banks, water buffalo roamed, and herons and egrets posed as they searched for fish. Flocks of rainbow-hued parakeets flew all around us. We were awestruck.

Beyond connecting with nature, I also wanted to forge a bond with the people of the Amazon. One day, we stopped by the village of Boca da Valeria, which has a population of only 75. As we approached the village by canoe, many of the villagers came by raft to greet us.

What struck me was how genuine the smiles of these children were. On shore, these children eagerly guided us around. A young man of about 15 came up to us, took my hand and said, “Come with me.” If someone were to do that in New York City or Miami, it would be, “I don’t think so.” But here, we had no fear.

He was just learning some English and he spotted some sloths and parrots in the trees for us. He showed us where the villagers collected their water and then took us into his grandfather’s hut. He was very proud because it was larger than all the others. The grandfather was prosperous – he had a two-burner butane stove and a stuffed armchair to preside on, along with a couple of hammocks and a cot-like bed. Six people lived in a space that was only 12 by 24 feet. It had no walls, just poles holding up a thatched roof.

The prized globe at the one-room school house in Boca da Valleria.

I was amazed at how humans can thrive with so little. This is a village with no electricity and a simple, one-room schoolhouse. There were no desks, children sat on mats on the floor. A prize feature was a globe, and I wondered if these children of Boca da Valeria, without television or picture books to inform them, realized how mighty their river was and how precious a role their region played in the world at large.

I’m happy to say I achieved my goal: Not only did I experience nature at its purest; I got to spend time in a society completely unlike my own.

In going, I also strengthened my resolve to do everything I can to support and sustain the region and its people. Life is so meager there, as far as possessions are concerned, but it is very abundant in love of family and deep, spiritual beliefs.

Stopping the slow destruction of the rainforest is now a cause I support. This trip reinforced my interest in ecotourism and strengthened my belief that we need to pay attention to our environment. Yet poverty is prevalent and the people need some type of income to help them. It’s a paradox.

After I returned home to my distant Boston suburb and reflected on my trip, I realized that journeys like mine to the Amazon run the gamut of emotions.  One the one hand, I was filled with excitement about visiting a new far-off place.  I felt so adventurous and worldly touching ground in this exotic destination. On the other hand, I didn’t realize I would be so affected by the people, their lifestyle and their livelihood.

My whole experience changed my perspective and opened my eyes to the larger world in which we live and I still actively seek ways to support the Amazon today.  Sometimes, I close my eyes and I can still feel my foot slip out of my shoe as it sunk in mud, hear the downpour of the rain in the jungle and see the bright smiles of the local children.  Then, I know how attached I was and still am to this particular journey. I recognize that no matter where my travels take me next, I’ll go to become connected to the land and its people, just like I was in the Amazon.

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