During my first trip to Rio, I went to the Amazon...

(a true story)

I arrive in the Amazon

My third day in Brazil, I took a trip to the Amazon. The first day was spent in a deluxe tourist hotel owned by VARIG Airlines. Lots of boring tourists playing tennis, and animals kept in cages in a little zoo out back. I didn't know whether to be horrified or depressed. I got out of there fast...

Jungle lodge

...and booked a night in a "jungle lodge" across the river right in the Rainforest. The tourist agency had assigned me a guide, who turned out to be an amazing young man named Marlon (pronounced something like Mah'loh, but not quite). The only other people there were an Arab environmentalist named Aziz who'd come to Brazil for the Environmental Summit, and two nice Japanese tourists named Jun and Sakimoto. Actually Jun was from Sao Paulo, which has the biggest Japanese community in the world outside of Japan.

Aziz told us all about the summit. He said that the American President was not very popular there, but I guess we all knew that. Marlon explained to us that the Japanese word "arigato" comes from the Portuguese "obrigado" - brought by the Portuguese traders to the Far East in the Middle Ages. Portuguese words seem to pepper the Japanese language. For example, "tempura" comes from the Portuguese "tempero" (spice).

But I want more

I told Marlon I wanted to go further into the heart of the jungle. So he proposed to take me to his jungle lodge deep in the Amazon jungle - I was going to be his only guest. It was an hour drive by car, followed by another hour down an Amazon tributary on speedboat. Well, not really a speedboat. Sort of a rowboat with an outboard motor in back. We had to bring the motor with us from town, together with provisions and a flashlight. We rode in the front seat, the outboard motor and my guitar riding in the back seat. Everything else got to ride in the trunk.

The drive in Marlon's car was an adventure. To get to the road you take a ferry across the river - car and all. There are only two ferry trips a day, so you don't want to miss it. After that there's this incredibly messed up road. Some of the potholes were almost as wide as our car.

It was a pretty wild ride. Marlon took it really really fast, because, he said, he wanted to get to the tributary by sunset. I considered that very thoughtful of him, under the circumstances. There were, of course, no seatbelts.

We got to the tributary just as it was starting to get dark. We were way in the Jungle now, but it was still sort of "civilization". When we arrived all these little kids came out and stared at us. The city was long gone. It felt great.

Which is always, of course, when things start to go wrong.

getting the boat to start

We carried the outboard motor into the boat and Marlon hooked it up to the rowboat (which was thereby promoted to speedboat). While this was happening we drifted ever so slowly from the shore. At about this point we realized that we should not have brought the motor into the boat without first putting the paddles in the boat. Naturally there was no gas in the motor, so we helplessly drifted from shore while all the kids watched us, smiling. Marlon shouted for somebody to row out and hand us a paddle, which they did.

Trying to recover our injured dignity, we transferred everything into the boat - gasoline (and paddles!), food, flashlight, my bag and my guitar, and of course us. Then Marlon hooked up the gas to the motor, pumped up the hand siphon, and - nothing happened.

This nothing continued to happen for about fifteen minutes. Various village guys rowed up to our little boat, and one by one they looked at the siphon, pulled the motor starter, looked and the siphon again, nodded something in Portuguese, and then let the next guy on to do the same thing. No go. Finally, a big fat guy in a little boat piloted over to us.

"That's the Mechanic," said Marlon in reverent tones. "He'll fix it!" I think every town since the world began has had a "Mechanic", except once upon a time they used to call them magicians, and you and I now call them computer gurus.

Sure enough, the mechanic saw right off that the siphon was switched backwards - Marlon had been trying to pump gas FROM the motor INTO the gas jug, which turns out to be not nearly as useful as going the other way. In one quick motion the Mechanic unplugged the gas line, flipped the siphon valve, sucked into the line to draw out the air, replugged the gas line, and in about ten seconds we were on our way. No charge.

we journey down the river

Soon we were speeding down the Amazon on our little rowboat/speedboat, the wind in our hair, the tail end of a very beautiful sunset at our backs. That's when Marlon explained why he was so keen on not missing the sunset. It seems that in order to get to our destination we had to find and pass through a little channel. And you can't see, much less find, anything alongside the river once night falls. So if it's dark when you get to the channel, you'll probably just pass by it. And then you could be really, really out of luck. Oh. And here I'd thought he'd wanted me to see the pretty sunset.

Fortunately, we had remembered to bring a flashlight. And batteries! I put the batteries in the flashlight, feeling very relieved and useful, all at the same time. Quite a little scare for a moment there, I thought. But nothing to worry about now!

Of course the flashlight didn't work.

Trying to stay calm, I took apart the flashlight, made sure the batteries were in the right way, put the flashlight together. Still didn't work. Then Marlon did the same, with no better luck. Altogether we did this about five times. No use. Now we were in trouble.

A few minutes later we were speeding up the by now extremely dark river in a very somber and worried mood. Just for the hell of it I picked up the flashlight (which was still stubbornly refusing to work), unscrewed the back, glared into it really fiercely, and rescrewed on the back. Then it worked just fine. Hah! Guess I scared that flashlight into business. Must have been the jungle coming out in me.

The night is filled with alligator eyes

I happily spent the next half hour or so shining the flashlight on the shore. The best thing about shining a flashlight at night is that you can see all the alligators. They hang out along the banks and when you shine the beam at them their eyes glow back at you as two bright orange spots.

I kept seeing lots of alligators, in fact we were surrounded by alligators! This made me very happy at the time, but in retrospect I suppose it could be seen as not entirely a good thing.

a few tense moments

This was the life! Stars in the sky, alligators on the banks, the wind in my hair. Then we ran over a tree. Literally. A tree was growing right out of the river, its branches sticking about four feet out of the water. One moment it was rushing up in front of us in the dark, and the next minute we were sliding up and then flying over it. As we landed on the other side with a splash, Marlon said "That's strange. There isn't supposed to be a tree here."

I started to wonder at that point where exactly "here" was. Were we (dare I say it) lost? But it turned out that the problem was just an unusually low water level. That particular tree was normally under water.

Of course this meant that our little channel might very well turn out to be above water, and therefore impassable! With this new worry firmly in our minds, we reached the channel. Just as we turned into it, and I felt the boat scrape against the bottom, I spotted another alligator.

"Give me the flashlight," Marlon said. Somewhat oblivious, thinking he wanted to see the cool alligator, I handed over the flashlight. But as he took the flashlight he stepped out of the boat.

"I've got to see if it's deep enough for the boat to get through," he explained.

"But aren't you afraid of stepping on alligators?" I asked.

"No, not alligators," he said. "Snakes."


Nervously I watched him make his way slowly in about a hundred feet, then slowly wade back. Fortunately, he did not step on any snakes, but he did not have good news. "No good, we'll have to go around." Turns out there was a deeper channel much further down the river. Soon we were on our way again.

The last leg of our journey was through an enormous and beautiful lake. Suddenly the stars in the night sky opened up above and around me, and I was aware of the universe stretching out in all directions from our little boat. I felt very big and very small all at the same time.

at last we have arrived

Marlon's little lodge was on this lake. As we approached, about five raggedly dressed little boys, some standing on the shore, some hanging out of the windows of a little wooden houseboat, all started shouting "Boa noite!" I felt like I was meeting the Lost Boys from Peter Pan, only in Portuguese.

We had arrived. Firmly grabbing my bag in one hand and my guitar in the other, I stepped out of the boat. And promptly slipped and fell flat on my back, right back into the boat. So much for great entrances.

Marlon works with a man named Chico who lives with his wife and five sons in a little house next to the lodge. None of Chico's family has ever been more than a few miles away from here. The lodge itself has several little rooms, and can comfortably hold about nine people, but he said he once housed thirty for a one night party. Presumably they were very small people. There are outhouses and showers, a clothes line. The view of the lake is magnificent, especially from the hammocks on the front porch. Right now I was the only guest.

We discuss women

We had dinner and hung out on the hammocks for several hours, catching the breeze off the lake, and talking about all the important things - life, women, the Amazon, women. Marlon is one quarter each Spanish, Italian (father's side), Portuguese, and American Indian (mother's side). He's thirty, but he looks both younger and older, if that makes any sense. He used to be married to a tall Blonde Belgian woman who spoke french. Now he has an Italian girlfriend who wants him to go to Italy to marry her. But after listening to him talk I think he is still in love with his ex-wife. I talked a little too. Won't say what I told him though, or who I talked about. It's personal.

under the watchful moon

The way there by boat was magical. The moon was out full now. An entire forest grows right out of the lake, and the reflection of the trees by moonlight created a another fantastical and inverted forest beneath our boat.

The moon seemed to rule here. At one moment a huge bird was silhouetted against the moon, and in the next we passed under a dead tree with a beautiful cobweb draped gracefully over its many branches. As we paused to admire it, drifting slowly, the moon passed right behind the dead tree, and I could see the delicate patterns of moonlight rippling through the web to bathe our little boat.


how to catch an alligator

How To Catch An Alligator (this really works): You go out in your little boat, and point your flashlight on the shore until you see those two glowing little orange circles glaring back at you. Then you glide the boat forward, lean out on the prow, and while the alligator is playing dead (which is what they'll do if you're quiet) you quickly grab it right behind the head.

If you get it just behind the head you're all right, because then it knows it can't reach to bite you, so it just stays quiet until you loosen your grip. But if you miss, or if it had already started to move so you got it by the middle, then you have to pull your hand away real fast. Alligator bites are incredibly bad for you - they inject every bacteria in the Amazon right into your bloodstream. Marlon says he's only been bitten once. In a few hours his arm had swelled up like a balloon.

Marlon said you should only catch the little ones - up to about two feet long. The big ones you leave alone.

Alligators are immensely cool creatures. They look just like their pictures. If you rub them firmly on the nose they will slowly open their jaws while you hold them, and you can examine their impressively sharp teeth.

Alligators do not have tongues (fact!).

Now here's the best part. You lie an alligator flat on its back in your rowboat. You gently rub its stomach for awhile. Then you tap with a slow and steady beat on the floor of the boat. At this point the alligator will close its eyes and go to sleep.

You can let go of it then, it won't go anywhere. It will just lie on its back with its eyes closed and nap peacefully. Marlon says they'll stay that way as long as he's ever waited.

To wake it, you grab it just behind the head again. The alligator wakes up instantly, but right away it realizes that you've got it, so it quiets down immediately (but now with its eyes wide open) and waits to see what your next move will be. When you're done bothering the poor little critter you just put it back in the water and let go. It'll swim away faster than you can blink.

my first Amazon party

After the hunt we went straight to a party that somebody was giving on the lake. This was my first real chance to see the countryfolk who live deep in the jungle. Most of them have spent their whole lives here, and have never been near anyplace that we would call a town.

It was Saturday night, and there was a dance. It was in a barn in a field by the lake. The barn was up on stilts because the lake floods sometimes. You had to watch where you stepped in the dark - by day the field was a cow pasture. We thought for a moment that the guy at the door was there to take entrance money, but it turned out he was just checking the men for hidden knives, in case anybody had had too much to drink.

On the way in, Marlon said hi to everybody. Everybody here knows Marlon, and I think they look up to him. He introduced me to them as his Americano friend, so nobody would expect me to speak Portuguese. One young woman gave me a big smile and called me something in Portuguese. Marlon told me afterwards that she was saying in a kind of off-color slang that she thought I was cute. He said that the women here are very aggressive (it's usually the women who make passes at the men), and that she was basically saying she wanted to sleep with me. I suppose I could learn to really like this place.

Once inside, the party was nothing like I'd expected. There were people of all ages, from about eleven to about fifty. Everybody (and I really mean everybody, except for me and Marlon) was dancing the lambada. It was funny to watch the eleven year old boys and girls who obviously didn't like each other yet, but who were swiveling their hips together along with the big folks just to show how grown up they were.

It all seemed strangely familiar. Suddenly it occurred to me how this was exactly like neighborhood gatherings anywhere, and that when it comes to people hanging out together having a good time, cultural variation doesn't come into it all that much. I guess that's obvious, but it's still a great thing.

Our host came over and Marlon introduced me. He said something and Marlon told me he was inviting us to have a beer, which I thought was swell. On our way to the bar he said something else, which turned out to translate roughly as "by the way, the beer is 3000 cruzeiros." But it was ok, because the beer was really good. Besides, the bar was out in the field, there was a great breeze from the lake, and the night was fine.

As long as you watched where you stepped.


At dawn

The next morning we woke up before five to watch the dawn. We went out in the boat and sat in the middle of the lake while the wonder of a new day began. At first it was deathly quiet. Then the light began to break. First the birds started singing, then other birds, then the frogs. Way off I could hear the roosters waking up. The morning sun on the lake was crimson and yellow. A cluster of dead trees stood starkly outlined against the deep blue sky, their branches filled with white birds. As we drifted passed, all the birds took to the sky at once and filled the air. A nearby tree was filled with hundreds of singing yellow canaries.

We drifted for about ten minutes more, watching the forest awaken around us, then we headed in for breakfast.

I take my first jungle walk

After breakfast we took a walk in the jungle. Chico is a skinny wrinkled little guy with really bad teeth who looks like he's about 55. Like most people here, he speaks no English. Marlon says that Chico claims to be 38, but neither of us believe it (it would be too upsetting if true).

Chico, who knows everything about the jungle, led the way. For the jungle walk he wore shorts and a tee shirt and big black rubber rain boots. He carried a Machete. We stopped along the way while they showed me all kinds of things about the jungle. To get drinking water, even in the dry season, you can cut off the end of a fat hanging vine. If you jiggle the cut piece fresh cool water flows out. It's delicious. After we drank our fill, of course we all took turns swinging on the vine (they are amazingly strong).

Then I watched in awe as Chico squatted down to chop a big leafy plant in three places to get two equal lengths about two feet long each. He wove together the leaves of the two pieces, and then cut and tied on two thin vines to make shoulder straps. In seven minutes he had made a really strong and light carrying basket, which I happily volunteered to carry on my back in case we found any neat stuff.

My cuisine expands in unexpected directions

There are all kinds of things to eat in the jungle. If you're really in trouble you can always find a palm tree - cut it off just above the bulgy part and eat away - the bulgy part is heart of palm. I tried it - it tastes great, and Marlon says it's good for you. Then Chico picked what looked like a nut, and Marlon opened it and handed it to me. It wasn't a nut, it was a big fat white insect larva. "These are also really good," he said, "try it. It tastes like coconut." He put it in my hand, and it just lay there, all curled up.

"You've got to be kidding," I thought. But they were both looking at me, and here I was in the Amazon Jungle, and I had already played with alligators. I guess this felt like a moment of truth. Sure I could catch an alligator, anybody can catch an alligator. But was I willing to cast aside my city ways and take the plunge into the very soul of this wild and beautiful place? Was I ready to eat a bug?

I ate it. One bite and it popped in my mouth like a grape. Tasted like coconut. I recommend them highly.

I enjoy the lake one last time

We got back, had an awesome lunch of fresh fish from the lake (the best meal I'd had so far in Brazil), then we headed for the hammocks and I played my guitar. I even sang a little. Marlon claimed he liked my singing very much, and then he promptly fell asleep. I decided to take that as a compliment - if my singing were truly awful it would have kept him awake.

Then we got in the boat, headed out to the very middle of the lake for a long refreshing swim, after which Marlon took me in the boat to show me where the school will be.

You see, most of the children here (or adults for that matter) can't read or write. Now that civilization is making its inexorable way to this little village, Marlon thinks these kids had better be prepared for the world they are about to be plunged into. So he has been going around for the last year raising money for a schoolhouse, getting support, talking to builders. A friend of his has agreed to donate a piece of land by the lake. Construction is going to start the next month, and will be finished by September. Like I said, he is an amazing man.

the pink dolphins dance

Finally, we headed back. For part of the way leaping pink dolphins kept us company (they like to hang out and play in the deeper parts of the river). I had many things to think back on, but there was one thing I was most curious about. Who, I asked Marlon, eats insects; the native Indians? No, he said, only the Americano tourists eat insects.