Cu-cupacu, Mrs. Robinson

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Where I stayed
Hotel Krystal

Flag of Brazil  , State of Amazonas,
Thursday, October 6, 2005

We arrived in Manaus a day late with all intentions to head straight to find a guide who could lead us into an "authentic" Amazon jungle experience. We were warned to be wary of airport touts who would promise the world and then deliver a standard package tour, so we carefully headed to the bus stop to board the bus to the center when we encountered.... a tout. "Armstrong" was ostensibly heading back to his office at the center from his headquarters at the airport, and he proceeded to spend the entire hour trip (or it at least seemingly felt like an hour long trip) trying to sell us a four day tour. We were annoyed that we were subjected to such an extended pitch with nowhere to go, but on the upside, it was nice to have a knowledgeable Manaus-ian assist us into town, reducing the odds that we somehow were robbed (other than by Armonstrong, of course).

We politely bid adieu to Armstrong at the bus station and headed off to find the Krystal Hotel, an establishment we picked by reading the Lonely Planet on line. It was a bit pricer than our budget might like, but we certainly appreciated its aircon, its free breakfast, its hot water showers and, of course HBO and CNN. We also wanted a relatively secure place to store our extra bag whilst we were out traipsing through the Amazon. As luck would have it, the Krystal was a fortuitous landing pad, because we stayed there an extra night while Cori once again did battle with the evil intestinal demons lurking inside of her. It seems Immodium doesn┤t necessarily make things better but rather just covers up the symptoms, which may come back to haunt - and they did. So, October 1 was a day of rest and HBO for Cori and a day of wandering around the city looking for the best Amazon deals for Steve.

Turns out Cori didn┤t miss much (although Steve missed The Horse Whisperer, Calendar Girls and Pirates of the Carribbean), since Manaus really is a pit in the middle of the jungle - a place out of which one wants to get. On the whole, it is a grungy port town, with everything that implies, and it sits in oppressive jungle heat and humidity most of the year - and certainly during our stay there. There are a few nicer parks and plazas, but for the most part, the streets are covered in trash, the gutters run with grimy water and various food and bodily refuse, and a fair number of bold cockroaches blithely scurry down the streets. The remainder of the city is dedicated to a bustling, buzzing retail commerce in all corners of the city - in the streets, in back alleys, in small and large malls, really anywhere. What struck us as particularly unusual and amusing, though, was the sheer variety of inventory housed in any one hole in the wall shop. In one particularly memorable establishment - no bigger than 600 sq. feet - we saw for sale a host of Christmas ornaments, several selections of hand held fans, a rubber arm (for practical joke purposes, we hoped), some sundry electronic equipment, perfumes, watches, baby toys and pens. What knits these items together we┤ll never know, nor will we ever understand how potential customers would intuit that the shop dealt in these various and diverse trades. But it seems to work - people were buying and selling all over the place.

Speaking of, we must give credit where it is due, and that happens to be in the sorveterias of Manaus, in which we did a quantity of buying. Never to be without dessert for too long, we finally located Brasil┤s version of our ice cream parlors, which are just as unremarkable and just as pleasing but for two features. First, Brazil has many different fruity ice creams incorporating the weird and exotic fruits found in the jungle. We sampled cupašu, a tarter and more acidic version of coconut, ašai, a berry-like fruit but less sweet than north american berries, and graviola, a fruit we couldn┤t recognize on the street but tastes a lot like Hawaiian punch in the ice cream manifestation. Second, Cori heartily approved of the self-serve Glacial Sorveteria set-up, where the ice cream is paid for by weight and one can therefore pick and choose to combine a number of different flavors in one cup. Brilliant!

Moving on: Manaus was originally founded when rubber trees in the area were discovered. Brazilians made a pretty penny during this "rubber boom" - enough to finance a Neoclassical-style opera house, gilded and all, that would be worthy of a European capital. We were too cheap to wander inside, but we can assure you that the entrance was marble-plated, the dome on top of the house mosaic tiled, and the pictures of the interior very impressive indeed. Apparently an enterprising Brit ended the rubber boom by making off with several rubber tree seeds, which he planted in Malaysia; this obviously had the effect of making his fortune but significantly reducing Manaus┤, which went into a period of decline. Desperate to spur the economy of the city, the Brazilian government, sometime in the 1960s, declared Manaus to be a free-trade zone for electronics (or some such). Electronics manufacturers rushed in to begin producing TVs and radios in the middle of the jungle, and Brazilians flew in to buy these products. The effect of this policy apparently has been diluted in recent years by a reduction of import tariffs on electronics, and, if our perusal of the goods is any indication, Brazilians are getting no good deal here. If we had had to buy half our kit in Manaus, we may not be nearly as electronically connected.

At any rate, Manaus is now a gateway to the jungle and not much else, which is just as well. It sits on the banks of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon. And just below the city lies the convergence of the Negro with the Rio Solimoes (misspelled certainly) - a convergence that is grandly titled the Meeting of the Waters (Encontras des Aguas - also certainly misspelled). And grand it is. The Negro flows from Columbia and Venezuela and is colored a dirty muddy brown - when it is churned up it looks just like a river of coca-cola (Steve should know because he is now consuming copious amounts of the stuff). Because it runs through a certain type of vegetation that produces tannins, the Negro is high in acidity, therefore dissuading mosquitos from laying eggs in the small pools and eddies of the river. We both agreed that this must largely be fiction, because we are both sporting a fair number of nibbles from our blood-sucking friends, but perhaps we should be grateful - we hate to think what we might look like if we had spent time on the Solimoes. But I digress. The Solimoes is colder, faster moving, and significantly lighter-colored, revealing its mountainous Andean origin. These two rivers come together at the meeting of the waters, but they run side by side for another 11 kilometers before actually mixing to form the Amazon proper - just like oil and water. We┤ve posted at least one picture so you can get a sense of how extraordinary this phenomenon is, although the pictures certainly won┤t do it justice (as none of our pictures ever do).

When we first checked into the Krystal, we mentioned to the hotel clerk that we were looking for a guide, and she volunteered to phone a guide she knew, who would be willing to come over to the hotel to meet with us. Not less than thirty minutes later, Nelson arrived, tour book in hand. We tried to explain to him that we wanted to get off the beaten path, but we feared he just didn┤t get it and, after half and hour, we told him we┤d think about his offer. For the next day and a half, he hounded Steve, first, to sell us on his tour, and second, to offer medical advice to treat Cori┤s ailments (our guidebook mentioned that prescription drugs were readily available in Brazil because pharmacists are qualified to dispense medicine for various sicknesses, which apparently has lent itself to a pill-popping population). True to prediction, Nelson demanded we obtain no less than four separate types of "medicalments," going so far as to write out the name of the drugs and the exact dosage needed. We demurred on that issue but finally acquiesced to his persistent drop-bys by agreeing to sign up for a four day three night package: one night in the floating lodge, one night in the jungle, and one night at a "native house." We made the decision partially in light of Cori┤s gradual recovery, as we wanted to be in a semi-civilized setting the first night to guarantee her recovery was full and complete before venturing any further afield.

So, bright and early the next morning, Nelson arrived at our hotel and collected us and Kieran, a North Irishman from Belfast. We were all whisked away to the port, where we boarded a two story boat that was set to head to the floating lodge, about 60 km north of Manaus. As we pulled out of the dock, we came across another boat with a hitchhiker on board - a coiled anaconda sunning itself on the back deck of the boat (we┤ve also included a picture of this beast - ironically the best picture we obtained of a snake in the Amazon). With that introduction, we headed off on a two hour journey toward the lodge, during which we got a taste of what floating the remainder of the Amazon would be like: a boat employee strung a few hammocks from the boat┤s rafters, and we swung and napped in the hammocks as we steamed on by. Regrettably, the Amazon is so large that the views afforded from the boat weren┤t terrific, and we quickly realized that we┤d waste several days in transit floating the rest of Amazon for little gained in terms of wildlife or people watching. Accordingly, we planned to search for flights within Brazil when we returned to Manaus a few days hence.

We arrived at the Anaconda Floating Lodge around 2:30 in the afternoon, and a hot lunch was waiting. Nothing special, but it hit the spot - rice, spaghetti, fried fish, oranges and bananas. About 10 of us gulped down the food and then were herded onto a motorized canoe for piranha fishing. After a quick thirty minute boat ride in the hot sun, we arrived at a shallow tributary, where we tied up to an exposed log in the middle of the river. We were given bamboo fishing poles and instructed to put little bits of raw steak on the hooks at the end of the lines and then...wait. After what seemed like an eternity, Cori bagged one piranha, and Steve hooked one before the wily thing wriggled away. Cori┤s white piranha, as detailed in the picture, was sadly only a puny little thing, not even fit to eat, although the guide did make a show of bringing the poor dying fish back to the lodge (we later found that the dead fish were fed to the pink dolphins, which, because of the feeding schedule, regularly swam in the lagoon near the lodge). At any rate, the mighty and dreaded piranha ended up being just four inches long and apparently not even that aggressive - only the red piranhas, on the Solimoes, might live up to the man-eating myth.

After a hearty dinner, we went back out into the Amazon┤s tributaries in search of caimans, an alligator-like animal that inhabits the Amazon. They are only spottable at night, as they hunt nocturnally and bask during the heat of the day. We went back out in the motorized canoe and cut the engine as we approached a small lagoon, at which point the guide turned on his flashlight and began to scan for glints of light reflecting off the caiman┤s eyes. It was spooky to see how many were out there, just hovering beneath the surface, waiting for food to wander by. (It was at this point our guide informed us that if these caimans get really hungry they┤ll attempt to flip small boats by whacking them with their tails.) Thankfully, none of the caimans were starving enough to tangle with our vessel that night.

Instead, we ended up being the aggressors - something we weren┤t entirely happy to be a part of. Our guide scrambled up on the banks of the shore and began to scan the ground for caimans on dry land. After about half an hour, he returned to the boat triumphantly, holding a baby caiman - not more than seven inches long - in his hands. The caiman was obviously traumatized; it continued to let out little croaking sounds, either in sheer fright or perhaps in an attempt to scare us into letting him go, which we eventually did. Despite our reluctance to be privy to this, we must admit that seeing this little guy up close was pretty amazing - he was perfectly formed with a very sharp set of small teeth and a soft green underbelly to boot. And even more amazing was the fact that our guide located this critter and then caught him; no small feat we imagine, although we couldn┤t get him to reveal his caiman-capturing secrets. We were intrigued with what the next day had in store for us and retired for the night in our rather rustic accommodations dreaming of reptiles...
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