Life Changing in the Amazon

I took a thousand photos. None have the same sky or same water.

For two months, I have tried to write in my journal about my experience in visiting the Amazon in early August. Sadly I don’t think any of my words can convey the absolute MIGHTY of that river, those trees, that sky. However ridiculous it sounds, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. Vast. Hopeful. Alive. And very very dangerous. But that comes later.

I have wanted to visit the Amazon for many years–though technically, I had already visited in 1998. Graduate school friends and I had taken a several-day tour near Iquitos, Peru–we had fished piranha, met pink dolphins, fought off gigantic flying cockroaches and experienced the overwhelming heat and humidity of the area. But comparing the Amazon in Peru with the Amazon near Manaus is like comparing Stony Brook creek out front of my house with the Mississippi. The order of magnitude is stunning.

Gigantasaurus River – The Amazon. Image Credit:


It could take me the rest of my blogging life to talk about it. Y’all will certainly have left my site before I am done. I will never be done. I cannot wait to go back. But shall we go first and then I can go back later? Yes, we shall.

In preparation for our trip, I had read my 10 year olds a book called “Amazon Adventure: How Tiny Fish are Saving the World’s Largest Rainforest” by Sy Montgomery (she of Soul of the Octopus fame). It is a book aimed at 8-12 year olds, but as I read it out loud, my parents too came closer to hear about the seven deadly plagues of the Amazon (myth, really) and about the piabas, or tetras, that are better conservationists than most humans. Sort of. To cut to the chase on that book, the fish save the Amazon because the people who fish them to send them to aquariums around the world make enough money that they don’t need to seek jobs that hurt the forests–chopping down trees, etc. I will spend more time on this book in a later post because through it, I met a wonderful scientist at the New England Aquarium and my son and I got an unforgettable backstage tour. Electric eel. I must remember the electric eel.

Fishies! Image credit: (the irony!)

So we had done a very little homework to prepare for the trip–but I have to say that most tour books on Manaus, the Amazon and Brazil in general are pretty lame. Not really their fault–as I said before, the vastness of the place, the infinite experiences and moments, make it impossible to cover in one small book. I have much to add to Fodor’s and Lonely Planet but here I must say that I have a small advantage that most do not.

I speak Portuguese. I am able to have those wonderful moments of chatter with the waiter, the taxi driver or the boat pilot. Many Brazilians do not speak English, especially the farther you get from the commercial outposts of Rio, São Paulo and Brasilia. And I have to be blunt: if you don’t speak Portuguese, you will miss a great deal in Brazil. The humor of a Brazilian (yes, I am going to stereotype, deal with it) is infectious and ubiquitous. They can see the funny in just about anything (yes, including a 7-1 World Cup loss to Germany).  So if you are considering going to the Amazon, you will have to take me with you because I promise to translate everything.

There are now direct flights between Miami and Manaus. This is key. Manaus is a four and a half hour flight from São Paulo which is where most flights from the US go. So from Boston, we would need to take a 10 hour flight to São Paulo (I am glossing over the fact that we have a plane change and layover–no direct flights from here) and then fly back northwest for an additional four and a half hours. No, thank you. So discovering the direct flight from Miami to Manaus was key–five hours, leaves once a week on Saturdays around 5 pm and comes back on the following Saturday at midnight (red eye, agh…well, sleep it off on a Miami beach).

We were fortunate on this trip that my in-laws could join us for the week–they flew up from their home in Brazil to Manaus a week earlier to give a class in a university there. My mother-in-law is a biologist and my father-in-law a pediatrician–both are university professors who are theoretically retired, but work harder than most people I know. And, to be envied, they both love what they do. So we were covered in terms of learning more about the animal who just bit my kid, and for medical help for said kid. No, that never happened. My mother-in-law was quite popular however, when she tried to catch the giant tarantula in the breakfast room. After 20 years around the family, I am pretty much used to arachnids appearing close to my eyes at random times.

So I think I’ve set up the place, and the players, no?  Ah, no, my kids. My kids are 10 year old twin boys. They love animals, wildlife shows and their favorite vacation ever was a safari in South Africa. They are pretty game for anything though N won’t eat a tomato if he is starving on a desert island and L must kick something round wherever he goes (he really pissed off a cheetah named Apollo at a rescue center in South Africa just by bouncing a stone off his shoe–not at Apollo, mind you). They have no fear of beasties, from insects and scorpions to rhinos (that one could use a bit more fear). But visiting the Amazon is really not about the beasties–they are hard to find in the deep dark forest. Visiting the Amazon is about being small and wondering about the big. And then doing what you can to save it.

Here’s my plan for the vastness of what I have to say. Wait, are you still reading? Amazing.  First we’ll go to Manaus for a day, then to Novo Airão, the small town where we were based for most of the week–about three hours from Manaus. I may take a turn to Ft. Lauderdale, but probably not because really, how can you compare FLL to Manaus? Actually I may just quit this blog altogether if I manage to successfully convey the Amazon. Stick an arrow in me, I’m done.

Prepare yourselves.


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