Christine Axsmith Travel Writing
Sailing the Black River of the Amazon - Before They Pave It
The Black River in the Amazon is a really big river in Brazil. Like BIG.In South America it rains a lot for part of the year, and the Black River gets bigger, about 14 miles across. In the dry season, it is about 10 miles across. All that rainfall stays in the Amazon Valley because the height of the Andes Mountains keeps the clouds from carrying the moisture to the western side of South America. But only the top few inches of the valley is soil. Underneath that is sand. If it wasn’t for the height of the Andes Mountains, the Amazon forest would be a desert. The idea that this is fertile land waiting to be cultivated is a myth. In fact, the Amazon valley has been ocean floor several times.
I stayed on a tributary to the Amazon River called the Black River, or the Rio Negro in Spanish, because the water is so dark that it is almost black. In fact, it looks a lot like tea without cream in it.
I enjoyed a sushi dinner at the airport in a last hurrah to food safe to eat. There were strict warnings about the acceptable diet for Brazil. No seafood, no milk, no unpeeled fruit or vegetables, eat only cooked food, and then only if it was still hot when it was placed in front of you. The upshot of this is that there was no escape from the jungle heat through comfort food. Now I understand what previous generations meant by ‘people who lost their minds in the jungle.’ If I was in that heat for a month, with the food making me sick and the heat and not one familiar plant, it could happen to me. Maybe it already has.
When I ran across a McDonald’s in a mall in Manaus, Brazil, I eagerly ran to it and ordered a burger and fries. It’s hard to appreciate here, but that is one place where the food is always safe no matter where you are in the world.
I also packed a large bottle of Gatorade for almost every day of my trip and some anti-bacterial soap at the behest of my mother. Good old Mom was prophetic once again. I developed a small infection on my big toe in the jungle. In the US, it would be nothing but a slight redness on the side of the toenail, but in the jungle it became swollen and throbbing. The soap I took to appease Mom came in handy then. Eventually the big toe scare died down, the ramifications could have been serious. I could see the Foreign Service officer at the embassy telling my parents that a virulent toe infection caused my doom. I’m sure it happens all the time, and in that jungle heat, you really start to believe it. Even the diseases are more alive.
I didn’t realize that my last hurrah to American food was also a last hurrah to airports as I knew them. People were wandering around, no armed guards were visible. The people working the X-ray machines acted out their class resentments in the usual surly manner. It was scary going to Brazil, let alone the Amazon, alone. Suddenly, all sorts of minor decisions took on the significance of the last round of the World Open Chess tournament. I was puzzled and confused. What should I do next? Am I in the wrong place? I was seized with a conviction that I must immediately RUN to the other end of the terminal, and yet I was frozen in place. On baggage security guard signaled me over. “Give me your bag.” I complied. She gave directions to the proper gate, while pretending to do an in-depth search of my carry-on luggage. “We’re not supposed to help people like that. We are only supposed to check bags.” I had mistakenly dashed from terminal to terminal looking for my flight, never noticing the steak knives or the lemons being sliced before my very eyes.
After the airplane, I sailed in a boat for three hours away from the city into the jungle.
At the dock, the boat was loaded with passengers. A bunch of Texans who suddenly realized – yes, I am going into the Amazon jungle. They were all salespeople for some computer company who were the highest sellers in the country. As a prize, there win a surprise trip to somewhere exotic. This year was the Amazon. You could see the realization sink in. They dashed into the convenience store at the dock and grabbed handfuls of candy and armloads of beer. The clerk tried hard to keep a placid face. The rank puzzlement of the Brazilians was openly displayed as the candy bars began to cover each other in piles on the counter. Man cannot live by chocolate alone, however, and there was a commensurate amount of beer to accompany them. Munching and slurping were not entertainment enough it seems. “Hey, anybody up for a quick round of poker?”“Yeah.”Yeah.”“Yeah.”“What can we play on?”“How about this thing?” the man thumped some protrusion of the ship.“Yeah.”“Yeah.”“Yeah.”
And so they began. As we puttered deep into the jungle on the wide, dark water, perhaps the vicious beasts of the forest were alerted to us by ceaseless pointless jokes and the very loud rankling. All I know is they didn’t attack.
Imagine – sailing into the unknown and exotic to experience untouched wilderness, danger, and excitement. These trees may become extinct. In ten years the ecosystem may have collapsed. All that will be left are documentaries and tourist brochures. But how could that compete with popping a brewski and winning a few dollars on a card game?
Our guide sang disco songs as the boat pulled up to the dock at the hotel. Local legend has it that fresh water dolphins swim around the hotel during the rainy season will come to greet you if you sing to them. So we all sang a Gloria Gainer song as our boat glided alongside the dock.Monkeys!
Monkeys were everywhere. They crawled all over the place. You have to keep an eye on your belongings, as I found out when the monkeys stole my cookies. Then they took my water bottle. It gave a real feeling to the place. Scores of monkeys lounged on the deck, on the tables, in the trees. They chased each other and jumped on people lying in hammocks.
Look! Aunt Christine climbs a vine, just like a monkey!
The vine I’m climbing is called a ‘monkey ladder’ by local Indians. The monkeys use it to escape being killed by the jaguar. Since the jaguar can climb a tree as fast as a monkey, the monkeys use this vine because they can climb it faster than the jaguar. Three or more monkeys will climb down the monkey ladder to look for food. One of the monkeys will be on the lookout for the jaguar. If a monkey sees a jaguar, a shout will warn the other monkeys of the danger and they will all run up the monkey ladder to escape death.
The jungle is a dangerous place. You don’t realize how dangerous until you are there. There is no such thing as animals peaceably hanging out. Each creature has to fight for its life daily. You don’t think of monkeys and their lives of danger. So much can kill in the jungle. A person couldn’t sleep on the ground. How did the first human inhabitants figure that out? How long before they invented the hammock? The Amazon Indians are short and slight. All the big ones, who would be slower and require more energy to live, were phased out of the gene pool.And Birds!!
There were plenty of exotic jungle birds, too. The hotel puts out food to encourage the birds to hang around. They strategically placed the catwalks so the birds could eat in peace, away from pesky tourists.
The Rio Negro
The water is very dark, and piranhas and Anaconda snakes live in the water along with weird amoebas that swim up your urinary tract. If you put your hand in the river up to your elbow, you will barely be able to see your hand.
This dark river water results from dry leaves mixing with river water heated by the sun to form a sort of tea. A few miles from the location of the photo above the Black River will merge with the Amazon River and the two will be visibly different colors for eight miles, although they share the same river bed. The Black River moves more slowly than the Amazon and the waters don’t mix for eight miles.
The darker water is highly acidic, keeping down the local mosquito population and the incidence of malaria. The Brazilian government has taken steps on behalf of the health of the local Indians. There hasn’t been a case of malaria in that part of the jungle for six years.
For the jungle you wear long pants and hiking shoes to ward off the mosquitoes and other bugs. I wore a long-sleeved cotton shirt and a hat to prevent sun poisoning.
To the annoyance of the rest of my expedition, I also used a cheap umbrella as a parasol. Drifting in the canoe with my parasol and generally irritating those around me, I felt very much like Katherine Hepburn in “African Queen.” Of course in my excitement to prevent skin cancer, I used a lot of sun lotion, which leaked into my eyes when I sweated. Then it looked like I was crying just in time to meet the canoe maker in the village. Naturally I did the same thing again the next day.
We looked at trees that are used as medicine. The tree bark of native Amazon trees is used in making Pine Sol and Vicks VapoRub, and in fact was ‘discovered’ in the Nineteenth century. This fact about healing was learned by European explorers stomping through the jungle from the natives. The sap from the trees provided healing properties and they took the roots and made a business from it. The entire story reminds me of movies whose plot details how the cure for cancer or AIDS is dying right now in the jungles that are being savagely cut down by evil corporate interests.
A local young woman ran the hotel’s museum of dead dried creatures from this area of the rainforest. It was only a small room with cases of dead piranha and spiders and bugs. I didn’t really hang out there. I guess the purpose of the display was so all of us eco-tourists could tell stories later of the large spiders we saw even though they were dead. We could then snort with derision at untimely roaches making appearances at fundraising cocktail parties. “Oh, is that it? I became immune to such things in the Amazon,” and we urbanely finish off our scotch and change the subject before being asked for too many details.
The management of the Jungle Lodge certainly chose the right woman to stand watch over the insects and arachnids in the display case. Her affinity for deadly spiders was compelling. Her space was an unofficial healing place for big hairy tarantulas. You had to look closely, though, to see the patients crawling on the ceilings and the floors. The spiders hid in the corners of the display room that showcased their dead brethren. I wonder how they felt about that? Several of them had pieces of legs missing. She had names for them. Spider Lady rescued the injured spiders, fed them, and generally nursed them back to health. Maybe so they could bite one of the guests. She was a cold woman. When they were strong enough, she let them loose into the jungle again. I wonder how many come back to visit?
“People think they are mean, but I don’t think so. To me, they are nice. They are my friends,” she explained to me.
Completely unaware that all the furry spiders in the room were not dead, ecotourists from many lands tapped at the glass cases. Spider Lady answered their questions politely. She works every day for a few weeks and then gets about a week off. She likes it.
We stopped at an Indian village. One of the Indians makes canoes out of trunks of jungle trees. He is a famous canoe maker and people buy his canoes from very far away.
Village children are taught jungle survival skills from early childhood. A six-year-old from the local tribe could survive alone in the jungle for a few days. There is so much to know: which plants are poisonous, where to sleep to be safe from snakes, what plants act as a balm, what animals are edible and which ones will eat you; the list of necessary information a small child must know is as formidable as it is critical. On our canoe rides on the river, we could see little children diving for fish in the river. They are taught to swim as soon at they can walk.