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A Trip to the Amazon

November 28th, 2008

Written by Jim Smith

The Startamazon1

Even from Brasil, getting to the Amazon isn’t always easy. From our home in João Pessoa, we had to go to Recife, two hours away by car, to get a flight. Then we had a “local” instead of an “express” flight and it stopped at every place with an airport so it was over six hours on one airplane. When we arrived at Manaus, Brasil we didn’t see anyone from the hotel holding up a sign with our name on it as expected. Very fortunately, “O esposo á muito inteligente” and I spotted a young woman with a Tropical Hotel sign. That was our hotel, so we did get on the right bus and were soon checked into a very comfortable room in this elegant establishment.

Tropical hotels are a chain in Brasil and there is even one in João Pessoa, the Hotel Tambau. The one in Manaus was built in 1957 and has wide corridors, beautiful wood trim with polished tile floors in many areas. With the several food locations, pools, displays of local flora and fauna, and a double row of small shops, one could stay there for some time without leaving the grounds. Breakfast (café da manhã) is included and other meals are very reasonably priced with excellent quality and variety.

The first day, we kicked back, relaxed, and enjoyed the ambiance. The next morning, we had a city tour of Manaus. Because all of the guides spoke very good English, I had little opportunity to practice my Portuguese; but that was to come later on the boat. Manaus today is a city of about 1.5 million and its revenues are mostly from tourism and shipbuilding. Formerly, it was the center of the latex industry and many fortunes were made and then lost when the industry collapsed. Perhaps that’s where the phrase “rubber check” originated?

amazon11We toured the waterfront where we saw the multitude of boats of all sizes, mostly for taking tourists on cruises. Then we toured the native Indian museum where we saw examples of baskets and pottery very similar to some I have seen in the American Southwest.

Most impressive was the famous Manaus Opera House, built in 1896 during the height of the rubber boom. This very beautiful structure, still in use today, has floors and paneling of exotic woods and marble from all over the world. Carvings and woven wall coverings abound. An interesting feature is that, before air conditioning, it had a cooling system that drew air in through underground passages and blew it up through openings under the seats in the main room. All of this was for an audience of only 700 people; obviously rubber barons before their checks started bouncing.

The Amazonian River Systems

While many people think of the Amazon River as extending across the width of South America into Peru and even Chile, the Amazon proper begins just east of Manaus, Brasil. The two main rivers that create the Amazon are the Rio Negro and the Solimões. The combined systems of these and the many other rivers involved contain about 20% of all the fresh water in the world and drain an area about the size of the USA and Europe combined.

While there have been some ecological mistakes committed in the past, particularly during the latex boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unrestrained logging, burn-offs for farming and grazing and mining abuses are largely being halted. In their place are a growing ecological awareness and a desire to protect one of the most complex and important set of ecosystems on the planet. The Amazon is not just one ecosystem but possibly thousands. Areas only a few miles apart can support a vastly different set of plants, insects, and animals. The interaction of these systems and their importance to each other and to humans is not yet fully understood.

Fortunately, there are different groups working to preserve and learn how this area affects all life on the planet. The emergence of ecotourism is helping to educate more people and encourage the wise use of what may be our greatest natural resource. It is true that there is much room for improvement, but it is apparent that the direction of thought and habit is changing and there is hope that previous mistakes and damage can be corrected.

O Barco (the boat)amazon2

That afternoon, we boarded our boat for the river trip. We were a bit surprised at the size of the boat as pictures we had seen had shown a larger, newer boat. It turned out that, the day before we arrived, they’d had the worst storm in 70 years and our boat, which was at the dock, had been blown ashore by the 80+ mph winds and damaged. The boat was only three weeks old, so the owners must have been more disappointed than we were. The boat we boarded, the Dona Selly II, was older, but very comfortable. The smaller size permitted us to get to know the other passengers (16) and crew (8) much better, so we were not too disturbed. Especially when we had R$600 (about $225 USD) returned in cash.

Even though most of this boat crew spoke English to some degree or another, I used my Portuguese with them as much as possible. It must have been OK, because no one laughed when I would order, “Uma Caipairinha, por favor”.

That first day we started upstream (west) on the Rio Negro, you’ll remember from above is one of the two main rivers that create the Amazon. The river was quite black and we were told rather acidic with a pH of 4.5. Unfortunately, not enough to dissolve bathing suits, as I learned later.

amazon3The first night we tied up to a large group of trees in the river. This month (January) was about halfway through the flood season, the water was pretty high and there were many channels and small islands that were not there in the dry season. The most reliable navigation system was local knowledge, just as in the old Mississippi steamboat days. Mark Twain would have been at home here.

Dinner was served to all in the main cabin area. I later was able to see the galley and meet the cooks. They were making an amazing quantity of very good food from a very small workspace. Most meals were more of the Brasilian variety with rice, beans, vegetables, chicken, and fish. The passengers were one couple from New York, a Canadian couple, five Austrians, a French couple, an American woman from Scottsdale, AZ, a couple from Manchester, England, and other from South Africa, and us, the Americano and Brasileira. With this diverse group catering to special food interests was not practical; no problem for me as this is what I am used to eating anyway. If anyone else complained, we never heard it.

The second day, we had some rain but not enough to dampen anything but our skins. Because the top
deck had a cover for the weather, we wereamazon4 able sit there and give our binoculars and cameras a workout.
The crew kept us supplied with soft drinks, beer and Caipirinhas, but not so much that anyone fell overboard. Considering that the Rio Negro is home to the occasional bull shark as well as Piranhas, this seemed to be for the best.

As part of the trip, there were numerous “canoe rides” to villages and special stops along the way. The “canoes” were actually narrow power boats about 25 feet long. We could fit most of the passengers in one canoe. These boats also served as gangways when we stopped along river banks or places with no real docks. This was most places as there are very few towns of any size west of Manaus.

The first town where we stopped, we had a “city walk.” This was a pretty large place for the area, meaning most of the streets were paved. Even though this was a reasonably remote village on the Rio Negro, it’s significant that the first structure one sees on leaving the boat is a gift shop. Nor was it the only one as there were others scattered along our walking tour. When we stopped at an even smaller place (about 300 people) there were three souvenir shops within 50 yards of each other. Free enterprise is alive and well in the Amazon! When we were at the last village, we saw a demonstration of latex harvesting, Casco (canoe) making, and an interesting carving of a Boto Vermelho. There is more on that legend later.

amazon6This was advertised as an ecotourism trip; perhaps mostly because that sells well these days. We did learn that the boats have no holding tanks for toilets or showers and everything goes overboard into the river. I didn’t participate in the river beach swim. Dora and others did and said, “The boat is on the other side of the island. What’s the problem?” They were conveniently ignoring all the other boats cruising up and down the river.

Even though there were no holding tanks as required in the USA, the boat was very well equipped with air conditioning for the cabins at night, a large TV with DVD player, and an apparently bottomless refrigerator full of Coca-Cola, beer, and Guaraná, a popular Brasilian soft drink. In addition, there was a well-stocked bar that served almost anything but mostly Gin and Tonics for the English and Caipirinhas for the rest. For those not familiar with them, Caipirinhas are a popular Brasilian drink made with crushed lime pieces, sugar, ice, water, and Cachaça, an alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, very popular in Brasil. They are very good, but sneaky. After two of these, you start thinking you can Samba.

One thing this boat did not have was heated water for showering. What they did have was river water that, while not salt and lukewarm instead of cold, was not safe for drinking or brushing your teeth. Mineral water was provided for all that. I suspect the newer boat would have had hot water and larger cabins, even though ours was very comfortable with private bath and shower.

amazon7We saw a lot of birds, including flights of parrots, a monkey or two, a couple caymans, and the famous Boto Vermelho (Red Dolphin) that lives in the Amazon Basin. We actually saw quite a few of those although I never was able to get a picture due to my slow reflexes and their erratic diving patterns. I found some on a web site to include, though. It is a strange-looking dolphin as it has a very long narrow beak, a hump on its back and can be from mottled grey and red to a bright pink color. There are many legends about it, too. Mostly about them mating with human women who claim an unexpected child is “um filho de Boto” (son of a dolphin). Ha! Likely story! At the end of this piece there are a few more things about these fresh-water dolphins that were gathered from various web sites.

amazon8

Our last day on the boat we traveled to the confluence of the Rio Negro and Solimões rivers to what is called, “The Meeting of the Waters” where they combine to form the Amazon River. The black waters of the Rio Negro and the brown of the Solimões are so different they do not blend well for miles and the line between them is very well defined as you can see from the picture.

Hotel Time Again

We docked back at the hotel on Saturday at about noon and were soon enjoying the hot showers and large towels of true civilization again. Dora and our new friend, Judy, had discussed going on a shopping expedition in Manaus at the large duty-free center there. Instead, it seemed everyone slept Saturday afternoon. Days on the river started early and ended whenever, so there was no doubt a sleep deficit to be paid.

Sunday morning, I woke with an intestinal disturbance of classic proportions, so most of the day was spent being emptied from one end or the other. Dora, ever faithful, stayed with me even though I know I was terrible company all day. She also made at least one trip to the Farmacia for me. Fortunately, I was much better on Monday because we had our flight home starting at 1 PM. Naturally, this meant we had to be at the airport at noon and the hotel bus left at 11 to ensure we’d be on time.

Fly Away Home

I’d thought the flight there was long, but we didn’t arrive in João Pessoa until after midnight. We were able to get a flight to there from Recife, but had a two-hour wait there first. If anything, the flight home made more stops than the one over. I wondered if we’d somehow missed some little town on the outward leg. This was easily the most take-offs and landings I’d made in one day since flight training with a friend in the 1970’s.

In retrospect, this was a really nice time and we don’t regret being on the smaller boat. As a result of that, we probably were able to stop at smaller places and see different things than would have been possible in a larger boat. The interaction with the crew and other passengers was probably better, too. The hotel was all you could ask with fine food, excellent service, and beautiful rooms and facilities.

About Those Dolphins: (Assembled and edited from various web sites)

amazon9The Amazon River dolphins or Botos are usually born grey and become more pink with age. They have a long powerful beak, small eyes and are slow swimmers. When excited, they will flush to a bright pink temporarily. They are unique among dolphins for having molar-like teeth and can chew their prey. Although the Boto can see well, it can also rely on its sonar as it swims through a murky flooded forest. Its bulbous forehead ends in a long, tube-shaped beak bearing sensory bristles that allow it to feel for food in a river’s cloudy depths.

The Boto is the largest river dolphin, weighing up to 180 kg (400 lb) with a length up to 2.6 m (8.5?). Most adult Botos are pink, although some have a darker back or are partially gray. An interesting habit is they rest on the bottom of the river. They are mostly solitary animals, and are found in the main rivers of the Amazon and Orinoco river systems of tropical South America. They inhabit muddy stagnant water, and during flooding will move onto the flooded forests leaving them at risk of stranding. They are however, extremely flexible so they can weave through the obstacles of trees as they search for their prey. They are a completely freshwater species, never venturing into salt water. Their habitat is threatened by pollution, damming, boat traffic, and by man; although local custom dictates bad luck for anyone harming a Boto.

The Boto uses fresh waters of all types as habitat but is not found in estuaries or other saline waters. It appears to favor areas such as confluences, sharp bends, and sandbars, particularly the deeper waters in these areas. In the central Amazon basin, large changes in water levels affect the local distribution of Botos. A significant increase in water level during the flood season leads to the inundation of large areas of forest. Botos move out of the main river into channels and small lakes and then into the forest itself, swimming among the trees, as the rising waters flood the forest.

The Boto is a generalist feeder. Its diet is known to include over 50 species of smaller fish, as well as freshwater crabs and river turtles. Feeding is usually done close to shore, in shallow bays, in flooded forests, or at confluences. The Boto is a slow-moving animal that usually swims at 2.4 – 5.1 km/h (1.5 – 3.2 mi/h) with bursts of more than 23 km/h (14 mi/h). Its dives usually last less than 1 – 2 minutes. The Boto is mainly solitary, with less than 1/4 of sightings involving pairs (usually a mother and calf). Larger groups are rarely seen, although loose aggregations have been observed at feeding areas.

The Boto occurs throughout much of the Amazon and Orinoco watersheds, being found almost everywhere it can physically reach without venturing into marine (salt) waters. The principal limits to its distribution seem to be impassable rapids, waterfalls, and very small or shallow rivers. Its current distribution may be little different from that in pre-colonial settlement times. The Boto is vulnerable to human-induced habitat changes and suffers some incidental mortality in fisheries, but it has not yet been depleted to anything like the extent of its Asian counterparts, the Ganges River dolphin, and the Indus River dolphin. Threats include bycatch in fisheries; hydroelectric development; deforestation; and pollution from agriculture, industry, and mining.


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