Debbie Eynon Finley
Part of our reason for moving to Brazil was so that we could go on an Amazon vacation. It wasn’t enough for us to see the Brazilian rain forest on the Travel channel, we wanted to experience it close up with our digital camera.
Waking up to the clock radio at 4 am, my husband and I kissed our dogs goodbye and headed to the airport in Campinas. We spent six hours flying to Manaus with a connecting flight in Brasilia.
Stopping in Brasilia was a chance to impress our friends and family that we’d been to another city in Brazil. It also meant unlimited legroom and not having to eat at a tray table. We picked up post cards to send them. So, what if we never left the airport.
Arriving in Manaus near Amazon country, I was ready for more eating and souvenir shop therapy. At the luncheonette, I prayed that at least one of the employees would be able to understand my pronunciation of pao de queiro (cheese bread). Usually, after saying it six different ways, I resort to pointing. A Brazilian friend warned me how not to say the pao” part, because then I’d be ordering an erect part of the male anatomy with cheese.
After ordering, there was little time left for souvenir shopping. But, while my husband was in the restroom for three minutes, I somehow managed to fill two jumbo shopping bags with souvenirs.
At the Amazon Encounter Lodge airport office, we were greeted by a very friendly guide, Mickeyo, who never stopped smiling and giggling. I wondered if he was smoking some of the Amazon plant life or was best buddies with the local pharmacist. Mickeyo loaded my husband and me, along with six other jet lagged travelers onto the van. He waved goodbye and giggled like he was Mickey Mouse and we were the Mickey Mouse club going to Disney World.
Arriving at the lodge, two hours later, we headed towards our cabin. I think my husband’s dream had come true – to relive his days at Boy Scout Camp, but, with a wife to share the experience. We would definitely be earning some merit badges.
I plopped myself down on the bed in the cabin. The mattress reminded me of a foam rubber sponge that I’d bought at the Dollar store that disintegrated after three uses. The website had described it as a “queen bed”, which made me wonder if this had been a queen’s when she was a toddler, and they had taken the railings off the sides. The sheets looked like something to make cheese with. I was already missing our 300 thread count sheets at home.
In the bathroom, the shower had one knob for water – COLD. There should have also had a warning label. They must have pumped the water from the Artic. For my husband, this meant “comfortable”. Normally cold water is too hot for him. For me, it meant that I’d have to be treated for hypothermia every time I washed my hair. Every time I took a shower, I felt like I was standing under a giant Slurpee machine at 7-11. A sighting of my shower taking became as rare as a wildlife sighting.
Our first Amazon Encounter Lodge expedition was a boat ride to fish for piranha, see the meeting of the Rio Negro and Amazon rivers, have a barbecue lunch, and return to the lodge. When we arrived at the loading dock on the Amazon river, I had to use the bathroom, again. Inside the bathroom, was a hole in a wooden floor that opened to the Amazon river. No paper products for this eco-friendly gal. And, I didn’t want the kids swimming down river to receive any more surprises than necessary.
On the way back from the restroom, I stopped to pet an adorable goat. He was tied to a pole in front of a wide, open doorway. Then, I looked inside and saw fresh meat hanging from the rafters on ropes. “Guess what we’re having for our barbecue.” the guide said, grinning. I wished that I had ordered ahead for a veggie sandwich like the Indian family. I’d already named this meal, Buddy.
A day on the river meant photo taking, lotion slathering, and voluntary dehydration. I didn’t dare drink any water due to the lack of bathroom facilities on the motorized rowboat. We cast our lines, baited with raw meat, off the sides. I pictured a school of hungry piranhas devouring it, and the ones that we didn’t catch swimming off to snack on a horse or a cow.
The meeting of the waters was a thrill – black water on one side, and beige on the other. Due to the clouds though, it was more like very gray water and gray water. The guide said that nothing lived on the darker side, because it was so acidic. I wondered if he had some how mixed them up, and maybe that’s why we hadn’t caught any piranha. But, three pounds of bait later, someone caught a catfish. And another fish jumped into our boat.
To get back to the lodge, since the van wouldn’t start, we got rides from the local policeman and police chief. My husband and I had never gotten to ride in a squad car before. We hoped that they’d turn on the siren and their whirling lights for us. But, when they pulled up, the cars looked more like Favelho (Brazilian ghetto) cars, one road trip away from the junkyard.
My husband and I squeezed into the police chief’s subcompact compact along with a tall German couple, Franz and Olga. Franz and Olga could have been right out of a magazine ad for a German Big and Tall shop.
Olga started a conversation, “Franz likes vacations at the beach, but, I like the mountains. This year we compromised and chose the Amazon. It doesn’t have either. This way we can both suffer. Franz doesn’t normally go on planes. He has to bring his knees up to my chest, to fit into the seat, like he is sitting now.”
Driving back to the lodge, it started to pour down rain. We noticed that the police chief’s windshield wipers weren’t working on the car. And, the car’s not having seat belts began to bother us more. At least we wouldn’t be fined for not wearing them, since it was the police chief’s car.
As it rained harder, the police chief turned up his contraption of a radio that had wires everywhere to try to drown out the rain. We couldn’t see anything in front of us, and he seemed to be picking up speed to get out of the rain faster and back to the lodge. Franz was digging his hands into the dashboard.
“Franz normally likes to do the driving,” Olga explained.
Preparing for a hike the following day in the Amazon jungle the next day was its’ own adventure. We’d already gotten the required shots at the travel clinic, such as yellow fever, and hepatitis. We were taking our anti-malaria drugs, and had slathered on sun screen, and deet bug repellent. Clothing consisted of hiking boots and totally covering our bodies and head to avoid anything that the deet and sun block couldn’t handle. A burka would have been more practical, but, they were on back order at the sporting goods store.
Going through the rain forest trek, I’d hope to spot things other than trees, green plants, and fungus. We did spot a black ant that was about 20% bigger than the usual North American big, black ant variety. The photography buffs gathered around for a photo opportunity.
Further along the path, our two guides, Marco and Gustavo, pounded on a special tree, which echoed through the forest. They said if we got lost, we could always bang on it and it would echo throughout the woods. Hopefully, the sound would reach the lodge staff. And, if they weren’t too busy playing pool or napping on hammocks, maybe they’d respond. The tree could also come in handy since we had no phone or internet access.
At our lunch spot in the jungle, Marco and Gustavo tried to build a fire with wet wood to cook our lunch. Thirty minutes later the seven men in our group became part of the consulting team, trying to get the fire to give off more than smoke signals. After the missionary couple had us form a circle around it, holding hands and praying, the fire finally got going. Dousing it with alcohol helped too.
Then Marco and Gustavo took out raw meat that had been in their packs all morning and stuck in on sticks that they’d collected in the woods. Then, in order to show their attention to cleanliness, Marco rinsed the plastic meat container in the creek, wiped it out with some leaves, and used it as a serving dish for the cooked meat.
Our side dish was sliced cucumbers in mayonnaise. It had tangy bite that made it taste more like a middle school science experiment than a salad. The meat was smoked and charred on the outside and still mooing in Portuguese on the inside.
As we picnicked, our friendly guides joined in the mealtime conversation, “Have you either of you ever had malaria or dengue fever?” we asked.
“I’ve had dengue fever three times,” answered Gustavo, the younger guide in his mid twenties, squatting at the swarm of mosquitoes.
“I’ve been hospitalized twice for dengue fever, and just recovered from malaria last week,” Marco, who was about the same age, replied, pounding his chest and pulling out a tick on his arm with his teeth.
“Well, I’ve been bitten by a tarantula six times leading these hikes,” Gustavo boasted.
“That’s because you’ve worked here six months, and I’ve only worked here three,” Marco argued in his own defense.
After that the group got quiet. We arose in unison from our leaf picnic mats and nosey, neighboring insects. We opened our deet bottles and added a few more lawyers of bug repellent. I dropped the mosquito netting down from my REI baseball cap, making me the envy of the group. The two couples that had previously signed up to spend the night in the tree house in the hammocks, changed their minds.
After lunch, on the hike back to the Amazon Encounter Lodge, Marcos and Gustavo showed us how nature is really our friend. They each demonstrated how to turn a large, green leaf into a cone shaped Dixie cup and dip it into the stream to get a fresh, cool drink of water. It did look refreshing and tempting. But, I couldn’t get past the mental block of my childhood in New Jersey, where my best friend drank from the creek next to the chemical plant and grew a third leg.
When we returned to the lodge, my husband and I stopped at the bar for a fruit juice. My normally Teflon coated tummy didn’t feel so good. I couldn’t finish my melon juice and wondered if I’d be able to make the five-minute trek back to our cabin. Keith pantomimed my situation to the cook who pantomimed back that she would brew a tea type concoction that would make me feel better. But, it would take about 45 minutes to brew after she went into the forest to forage for the ingredients.
As, promised, the cook arrived at our cabin with a thick, brownish green concoction in a teacup. Sitting on the bed, I took one sip and felt like I was going to vomit. This “tea” tasted more like sticks and dead leaves mixed with an herbal tea bag. I decided to take the third sip on the front porch, which was lucky because I ended up heaving up my innards over the railing.
I didn’t go to dinner that night. I didn’t leave the cabin period. A day later, I ventured to breakfast only to throw it up again on the way back to the cabin. It turned out that most of the other hikers were in their cabins recovering too, but without having the benefit of the cook’s concoction. The ones who were able to walk, did an exchange of antibiotics, aspirin, charcoal pills, and herbal tea for the rest of us who were bed ridden.
Like our trip to Costa Rica, I’d hoped to see groups of wild monkeys swinging through the trees. The only monkey that we did see was a black spider monkey named Preta. She was chained to a tree. The rope around her waist was so tight, that it dug into her flesh. I asked if it was okay to loosen it. I must have loosened it a little too much. Twenty minutes later, Preta was free. She was swinging from the rafters of the lodge restaurant, and sucking the juice from the fresh fruit cornucopia.
Since we had a mango tree by our cabin, Preta would feast on mangoes, and then stop by for a visit on our front porch. She was even more cute than she was annoying. She’d make herself at home, swinging on the hammock, sitting on the railing, and seeping things off the table with her tail. Preta wasn’t shy or inhibited about where she went to the bathroom. So, we had to watch our feet and our seat. Her stint of freedom ended, when the cook caught her in the lodge kitchen, sitting on top of the refrigerator throwing eggs. Then, poor Preta was tied to a tree again.
The last night of our trip when my husband and I were getting ready to go to sleep, he asked me why I was crying.
“I’m worried about Preta,” I sobbed.
Keith exasperated replied, “I don’t know what to do Deb. I take you on this relaxing vacation, and all you can do is cry about a monkey. Our next vacation is not going to have any animals.”
The next morning, when we returned to the Manaus airport, Mickeyo greeted us again with the same level of enthusiasm. Keith and I sat to chat with him in the Amazon Encounter Lodge office. He told us some interesting facts about Manaus.
“In Manaus, the ratio of women to men is seven to one. For instance, my neighbor has four daughters. No sons. They even have women gas station attendants here. Hee hee. This is because there are so few men,” Mickeyo whispered, widening his eyes, like he was revealing this secret for the very first time.
“How do you like living in Manaus, Mickeyo?” my husband asked.
“Oh, I like it very much! I try to enjoy every minute, every single minute of my life to the fullest! To the absolute fullest it can be. Even if I am feeling pain, I want to experience that because it is part of life, part of my life, part of the experience. And, every time I talk to my mother, I make sure to tell her that I love her. I say, ‘Mama, I love you. I love you so very, very much. You are so special to me. I am so lucky to be your son. I love you Mama.'”
I asked Mickyo, if he ever stayed at the Amazon Encounter Lodge or only worked at the airport office. “I did stay at the lodge once.” he replied, trying not to grimace in pain. “Yes once (giggle). Once. Never agai. Oh, but it’s a beautiful place.”
I looked at him hoping for a more detailed explanation.
“I got my degree in ecotourism, and developed a fear of insects and hammocks,” he whispered. His face started to twitch. I sympathized with him.
We said our thank yous and goodbyes and headed for our plane. Mickeyo headed outside for a cigarette break.
After our Amazon trip, I wondered if we were ever in the same place as the Travel Channel had shown. Where were all those monkeys and hoards of wildlife?
A few weeks later, my husband and I visited a couple who live on the edge of the country in Sousas, São Paulo, Brazil. It’s about thirty minutes away from our house in Campinas. I asked them what the squeaking was coming from their backyard.
“They’re the monkeys that come to our yard every afternoon.” she replied. “The chattering is from the wild parrots.”
We opened the back door to go outside, and saw a medley of wildlife. A green lizard with wings flew out of the tree and onto another. In another tree there were little monkeys with striped tails and white fur around their faces swinging about. Green parrots were perched on branches and chatting.
“Wow, this is amazing!” I exclaimed.
“Yeah, pretty cool,” she said. “The Travel Channel was just here filming.”
Copyright Debbie Eynon Finley 2005.
To read previous articles by Debbie click below:
Brazil Life: Keeping Track of My Purse
Debbie Eynon Finley has been living in Campinas, São Paulo with her husband and two dogs since November 2004. She is also a graphic artist and has a website, http://defDesigns.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.”