The Amazon Jungle

In the dead of night we paddled our way down the murky black River Uburu surrounded by the dense vegetation of the Amazon jungle. The river is an isolated tributary of the Amazon River and at night the dark shadows of the trees reflect in the still water against the dim glow of the moonlight sky.  The rain had stopped some time earlier and the humidity started to sink back in as we drifted down the river. Even when it rains in the Amazon you never really stop sweating.  Earlier in the day we spent a few hours fishing for dinner, I had never eaten much less fished for piranhas but after hiking around the jungle for a few days they made a tasty dinner to say the very least.  Now as we floated in a narrow wooden boat we were looking for alligators along the shadowy riverbanks for no apparent reason other than to see how their beady eyes glow a weird orange from a distance when a flashlight shines on them. Later we shined our flashlights into the massive canopy of trees above where we set up camp. Its amazing the number of creatures howling, chirping, and rustling in the canopy at night as we occasionally glimpsed strange pairs of eyes glowing from the trees above.  This is what one does for fun at night in the Amazon.

The Amazon is probably one of the more remote places I’ve been in my travels. I had traveled from Dallas to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a few days of fun on the beach. No doubt frolicking on the beaches of Rio is a good way to break up a long trip to the Amazon. From Rio I later took a flight to the remote city of Manaus, an old city situated in the middle of the Jungle. Flying into the city you see nothing but an endless blanket of thick green jungle from above until out of nowhere an isolated city appears at the confluence of the Amazon and Negro Rivers. The city of Manaus was once know for its rubber plantations until the rubber industry moved from Brazil to Southeast Asia at the turn of the 20th century. Manaus was a remarkable enough city with outdoor markets, small plazas with interesting architecture, and a number of docks along the river, but my main reason for going there was to arrange a trek into the jungle. Eventually, along with a few Australians backpackers I had met in my hostel, I arranged an expedition with a Brazilian guide.  Before leaving for the jungle I lingered in Manaus for a while, and spent a day taking a ferry down the mighty Amazon River before heading out for the River Uburu.

From Manaus we took a three hour bus journey into a random small village situated on a tributary of the Amazon River called the River Uburu. From there we crammed ourselves into a narrow wooden motorboat and sped off into the rain for a two hour trip up the river.  The ride was fascinating as the serpentine river meandered along the jungle shores. It was the “drier” season by Amazon standards and all along the banks endless tangles of barren intertwined tree roots carved through the exposed banks of sand and into the shallower than usual water below. After a couple of hours there appeared out of nowhere a small campsite maintained by an indigenous Caboclo family. I don’t know how the guide found it because for hours everything on the banks looks essentially the same. We strung up our hammocks in the open air on some poles under an open thatched canopy for the night. The jungle for all its fascinating flora and fauna is unbearably hot, intensely humid, and full of voracious bugs but an utterly astounding place to be nonetheless. During the days we trekked and trekked hours through the Jungle. Toucans sing high above in the trees, the sun is bright but sometimes barley visible beneath the shadows of the thick canopy. The vegetation is thick even with a machete to hack away a trail. At one point our guide dug out a giant hairy tarantula from beneath a tree stump, it had menacing sets of redundant eyes and fangs to match. He showed us rubber trees, camphor trees, plants containing quinine, and demonstrated which trees you could hack away at the bark and drink the milk-like sap. The next day we spent hours fishing for piranhas with makeshift fishing poles made of sticks, fishing line, and chunks of raw chicken for bait. We probably caught 8 or 9 piranhas that we later ate for dinner. The guide told us the fishing would be good because the water level was lower this time of year and the fish would be more concentrated.

A couple of days later we left the first campsite and made our way further up river and   trekked deeper into the jungle to set up another camp. We took 2 small canoes and paddled our way up river an hour and then hiked another hour into the jungle as we hacked our way through the bush. We later strung up our hammocks again on some trees beneath a canopy of leaves. We then built a fire and cooked a meal using large jungle leaves for plates and wood chipped from trees as small utensils.

Not a whole lot to do at night once we set up camp deeper in the jungle but peer into the dark vast wilderness. One tends to do a lot of introspection in the Jungle, I felt one with the jungle and indeed it clearly seemed the jungle felt one with me, at least the ubiquitous bugs felt one with me. I was bitten by a quite a variety of the pesky little bastards....swarms of  mosquitoes, giant horse flies with long snouts, annoying little sand flies, ants, and an extensive array of little weird jungle bugs I had never seen. I laid in my hammock at night getting bitten over and over despite the hole ridden mosquito net I had wrapped around my hammock like a cocoon. Every night it was quite hot and I drifted in and out of sleep all night in the humid stagnant air.  I often lay awake swinging back and forth in my hammock in a somewhat futile attempt create a small breeze. I periodically smacked bugs off my face and arms as I made an effort to forget all those unusual bug borne tropical illnesses I had so eagerly learned all about in Residency.....the interesting  list of exotic jungle diseases goes on and on..... Chagas disease, malaria, schistosomiasis, yellow fever, leishmaniasis, and various parasitic diseases among others. One morning I awoke to the Australian in the hammock next to me jumping out of his hammock and angrily cursing the loud swarm of horseflies biting him, as their long snouts were able to penetrate the fabric of the hammock from below. It was quite hilarious and we all got a good laugh at his expense.

Despite the small annoyances of the bugs and heat the whole trip turned out to be one of most exciting camping trips I’ve taken and the Australians and the guide made great company. Ah to be in the jungle, no place like it in the world!  Eventually we headed back in our boats and I continued to marvel at the majesty of the jungle as our camp began to fade away, perhaps one day I would like to come back

Rio de Janeiro

The twin beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana stretch for several miles flanked by large hills on either side. The beaches bask in the glow of an impossibly blue sky as emerald green waves splash onto the yellow sands. All along the beach a long promenade with a wavy black and white mosaic tile design bustles with people heading to and from the sands. Behind the beaches, across a long avenue are towering blocks of apartments, condos, and storefronts. Further back overlooking the whole grand scene from high atop Corcovada mountain is Rio’s famous and equally massive statue of Christ the Redeemer. The stoic 38 meter tall, 1145 ton art deco statue overlooks the city with giant arms stretched out toward the ocean.

There are few places livelier than Rio’s vibrant beaches. On Ipanema masses of bronzed bodies pack the sands for an afternoon in the sun no matter what the day of the week. There is no shortage of activity on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Volleyball nets are everywhere as some beach goers play traditional volleyball and others play a distinctly Brazilian variation of the game called “footvolly” using a soccer ball and the feet instead of a volleyball and the hands. Elsewhere beach kids play soccer, couples play paddleball, while others are just content to sip on beer and caipirinhas available everywhere on the beach. One day I was at the beach and I randomly ran into a good friend of mine from college named Scott, small world.

Ipanema and Copacabana are full of little sidewalk cafes and churrascarias with all you can eat Brazilian steak buffets. On the streets capoeira troupes stop traffic in the middle of the road to perform their amazing mix of acrobatics and mock fighting martial arts routines for patrons of the sidewalk cafes in hopes of small donations.

Rio and all Brazil for that matter is know for the bacchanalian festival of Carnival. I wasn’t there the right time of year for the actually festival but I did visit the  “Sambodromo” where the parade takes place every year.  I also went  to a “samba school” practice. Each year 14 neighborhoods parade down the Sambodromo with a large float, and hundreds of performers, dancers, and musicians. The parade is only held once a year, but the rest of the year the different neighborhoods hold parties every weekend to practice their routines at the “samba schools”. The one I went to was basically what amounts to a large red and white decorated warehouse in the Salgueiro neighborhood.  Inside the people party late into the morning  as dancers in elaborate costumes perform and a massive percussion troupe bangs away to the loud singing. The place is electric and the caipirinas are cheap and strong. Elsewhere in Rio the nightlife is amazing, I especially liked the  bohemian neighborhood of Lapa. Lapa is in a historic  part of Rio full of  colonial architecture where  endless masses of people wander the streets hopping from bar to bar.

Rio is certainly an  amazing place but no city is perfect, and  violent crime can be a  real problem in Rio.  It seems like everyone you meet from locals to others in the hostels have stories of someone they knew who had been held up or mugged or had been themselves. Unfortunately you pretty much cant walk around with anything valuable on your person on the steets of Rio.  I certainly didn’t walk around with my big camera most of the time, which is hard to do because Rio is incredibly photogenic and I felt like I missed a shot every corner I turned around. The locals tell you not to walk around with more than the equivalent of $5 in your pocket so great are your chances of getting held up even in the nicer areas like Ipanema and Copacabana.

To illustrate the point I was walking around downtown Rio in the middle of a busy day and I noticed a guy with a beer bottle in his hands and two of his companions walking a few feet behind me. I turned around and walked the opposite way and though to myself I’m being paranoid. Ten seconds later I heard a bottle break and the guy who was walking behind me ran across the street with the shards of a broken beer bottle in his hand and held the bottle to the neck of a tourist and struggled to get his camera. I considered myself very lucky and marveled at how brazen an attack like that could be in broad day light with people around. Unfortunately stories like this are commonly heard in Rio.

The Favelas

Part of the reason for all the crime is a class struggle rooted in the ever expanding economic gap between the vastly wealthy and the desperately poor. The rich and poor essentially live side by side as the slums know as “favelas” are built right into the edges of wealthy neighborhoods. Added to the mix of poverty in the favelas is the drug trade that dominates the slums. The largest slum in Rio is the favela of Rocihna. I was curious to see what the favelas were like especially after having seen the indie Brazilian movie “City of God” before I left on my trip. To see the slums you need a guide. There is actually somewhat of a cottage industry of local guides giving tours of the slums to curious backpackers. Ironically touring the slums with a guide is one of the safest places to be in Rio. The favela residents respect the guide and there is essentially no threat of crime when you are with a guide, in fact the guide encouraged us to bring our cameras. In some ways crime in the slums is less frequent because the drug lords don’t want to attract the attention of police. People who commit violent crimes in the slums answer to the drug lords who rule the community with a violent hand themselves. So those residents of the favelas who are so inclined commit most of their crimes outside the favelas in the more affluent neighborhoods.

The local guide told us he had just resumed giving tours of the slum after a 2 week hiatus sparked by a recent rash of assassinations and police raids that had enveloped the favela prior to our tour.  Two weeks earlier the police had infiltrated the favela and staked out the local drug lord. He was killed in the attempted arrest and a local power struggle ensued as several gangsters fought to become the next drug lord. Two more were killed until someone finally prevailed and a new power structure was established with a new drug lord.  As we walked around the guide spoke of the local problems. Favelas he told us are essentially illegal settlements built by squatters who build shacks wherever they can find space. In this case Rocihna is build on the slope of a large hill and is said to be the largest slum in South America. The people of the favelas live in poverty but the slum is not totally devoid of certain amenities like electricity and some running water. For instance, the power lines that run near the favelas are highjacked with pirated connection wires  so that each power line has hundreds or low lying rigged wires running off like a mass of snakes, in this way much of the slum has access to electricity.  Everywhere you go gang signs mark territory with graffiti. Children with bottle rocker firecrackers sit at the entrance road to the settlement and in the event that police are spotted they shoot the rockets into the air to alert the slum's drug lords that police are about. Elsewhere drug foot soldiers walk around with their own firearms. The tour was well worth it and the favela was in many ways one of the more photogenic places in Rio.

My time spent in Brazil was quite a trip. I hope to return one day and see the rest of Brazil.




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Our campsite in the Amazon Jungle (click to enlarge) 

Our canoes we used to paddle to the second campsite (click to enlarge) 

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro (click to enlarge) 

I went on a walking tour of Rocihna Favela in Rio, South America's largest slum (click to enlarge)

Rocinha Favela from afar (click to enlarge)