Brazil, part III, Amazon, Ariau, and Manaus
For the Amazon portion of the trip, one number stands out. 40 feet. For the area we visited, Manaus and then 2 hours upstream to the Ariau Towers, that is how much the water level changes between the dry and rainy seasons. Just think about that. In Boston, what would that cover up? It is truly mindboggling!
The picture above shows the Ariau Towers eco-lodge we stayed at, about a 2 hour boat ride from Manaus (www.ariauamazontowers.com, www.ariautowers.com). Apparently, during Survivor-Amazon, this is where the film crew stayed during shooting. It had two helipads, and a rather extensive network of catwalks. We got into Manaus about midnight, and took a long bus to a very nice old-fashioned hotel (similar to the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe), but it was sort of a waste because we were leaving crack of a** the next day. But it was right next to the dock that the boat left from. After a couple of hours in the boat, we arrived at a dock, as seen above, replete with a scantily clad hostess (coconut shell bra and little else...) dispensing necklaces and a corny little band playing music. Loveboat, eat your heart out. From there, we met our guide, got lunch, and then got out of the furnace for a few hours until our first excursion.
After the beautiful weather we had in Sao Paolo, low 70's (because Sao Paolo is at a high elevation), the Amazon was a hot and humid surprise. It was a mistake to be out in midday up here. Our room was in one of the towers, which had a pretty cool setup. Basically, all the rooms were wedge-shaped, and opened onto a central meeting area. The doors were maybe 3 feet from each other. The room expanded out and there was a bathroom/shower and a little fenced in balcony (because of monkeys and other wildlife) which were effectively open to the outside. The bathroom was outside the air-conditioned environment, so you wanted to make your visits quick.
After familiarizing ourselves with the layout, we went out on our first excursion. Excursions always involved getting into a long narrow motorized dugout, and we were 10 people travelling in this group. The first excursion was piranha fishing. We took off from the dock, went out into a little river area, then turned off the river into the forest (which was flooded) and went into the forest some way before tying off the boat and getting ready to fish. We also stopped by a platform, which they said was used for one of the Survivor tests. The guides handed the fishing poles to each person, which was basically a lenghth of bamboo with a fixed length piece of fishing line and a hook on the end. They then distributed a bunch of small chunks of raw meat to everyone. You were supposed to put a piece of raw meat on the end of the hook, drop the hook deep into the water, and then when you felt the piranha tugging at the meat, give a quick twist and pull up the fish. The guide proceeded to hook a piranha reasonably quickly.
We didn't have too much success at this location, so we moved to another one, and then they started coming. I can't remember who was first, but Georgia ended up bagging the biggest piranha. She was sitting opposite me, and she pulled it out of the water and yelled. I look over, and the piranha is swinging over the boat towards me, so I quickly turn away and lunge, but fortunately she got it under control in time. The guide had already demonstrated the native biting instinct, so I was not psyched to end up with a piranha chewing on my cheek. I ended up also getting one (we threw them all back), but it was much smaller than Georgia's, as she was quick to point out. Strangely enough, the back half of the boat all caught them, while the bride and groom were stuck in the unproductive front half of the boat.
That night was video night. Eduardo (old roommate) had rented a video camera back in 1993 when I was about to leave to go drive around the country for 4 months in between jobs. We were hosting a celebratory party with my and his friends and he waltzed around into the wee hours taking video, interrogating people, etc. He had copied it onto a DVD and brought it on the trip. We took over a TV room (air conditioned fortunately), and proceeded to laugh uproariously for the next two hours. Funnily enough, most of the people watching were represented at some point or another, and 12 years younger. Boy, were we young. And Jim Parinella was there sporting some serious Italian banana curls and a big gap in his front teeth (this is a sop to the frisbee players that might actually make it this far) and looking very guidoish. Not caught on video, but another event at this party was a father/son gun, where Fid, my father, and I all shotgunned beers out on the back deck of our house. Ahhh, memories.
Each meal was a full-on buffet, including breakfast. I haven't eaten so much or so well in a long time. The place was all expenses paid EXCEPT for drinks (including water, naturally enough). There was a 'fountain' at the cafetaria, but otherwise, it iwas pay as you go for everything, including water, guarana (the Brazilian coke), beer, and caipirinhas, naturally.
So, the entire complex was sprawled over at least a square mile (or at least ringed by a track over a mile long). EVERYTHING was built on stilts here. We didn't truly understand why until we went into the souvenir store and saw pictures of what the place looked like during the dry season. And the ENTIRE complex was landbound, with these lodgings sitting 50 feet in the air on top of these wooden structures. Apparently to go on excursions, they had to walk a good distance from the hotel to get to the water and the boats. It was truly hard to imagine, given the water ALL around us. At the far end of the complex, they had set up a very cool pyramid, with air conditioning inside (triggered by a sensor if you entered), right next to a landing platform that basically said (welcome aliens we come in peace) in like 4 languages. But it was a good place to rest. No word yet whether any aliens have visited.
Going to a floating house and feeding pink dolphins, which are only found in the Amazon. These were long-snouted dolphins that came up to eat the fish that you held over the water (while you were in it). We all got into the water, and a guide would swim up to us floating a bucket with chum, and give you a fish. You would splash the water with one hand and hold the fish a few inches above water with the other, and watch the dolphin appear from the murky depths and grab the fish. At times, you could feel them brushing against your feet and legs. It was VERY cool. Also, after awhile, even if you didn't have any fish, you could just splash your hand a few times and eventually one would show up for a few seconds.
Caiman hunting at night. One excursion involved boating into the middle of a side river, looking around with a flashlight, nudging up to a few trees, and then all of a sudden the guide on the end of the boat dove straight off the front into the water, much to our surprise. He swam around a little, and then got into the boat holding a caiman (alligatorish) about 1.5 feet in length. We all got to hold it and got the eco lecture on it. On the way back, they shined a light onto one copse of watery vegetation, and you could see 10's of eyes reflecting back at you, apparently from baby caiman.
We also went on a VERY long excursion to find gigantic lily pads. While the ones we eventually saw were maybe two feet in diameter at their largest (which was STILL very cool), we also saw pictures of these 7 foot bad boys, with children sitting in them. We also went on a jungle walk where the guide pointed out all these different trees, taking various cuttings, and finding a rubber tree, a tree whose sap tasted like mint, plants that had colorful dyes that he put on the women, etc. A little staged (you could see prior cuttings from other guides), but still informative.
Also a trip to a rubber plantation, where they showed us a guy curing rubber and making various things, including a rubber penis. And another location where they showed us how they make manioc flour (tapioca), which was a pretty labor-intensive process, and yet very tasty, for those of you who are gluten-allergic.
Finally, it was time to go on Thursday morning pretty early. Fortunately, we got a faster boat this time, so it was only 1 hour back to Manaus. After a quick health a dramatic union of a black-water stream and a white one where the Rio Negro flows into the muddy Amazon. For many miles the black and white waters flowed side by side in separate, clearly defined streams before they finally intermingled. It was wild to see the very sharp boundary and all of the tour boats that were visiting.
Finally, a quick bus tour of Manaus, and we were on our way to Fortaleza and ultimately, Jericoacoara.
Next: Brazil, part IV, Jericoacoara and a little slice of paradise