Touring the Amazon



 Iquitos was bustling. The streets were already filled to overflowing when our taxi pushed its way into the traffic stream, next to a motorcycle ridden by a mother and father with their toddler sandwiched between them. A little boy with alert, dark eyes sat on his knees in a carriage, head and shoulders sticking out the back listlessly. The carriage was harnessed to a motorcycle, and like vehicles carried their passengers through the grey streets.

At the end of the Jungle city, we met the water. It was muddy, thicker than the Mississippi and any other body of water I had since before or since. The houses around the entry point were built on stilts, straight into the estuary, and balding chickens pecked listlessly about, quick to flee before raised shoes. The people looked at us without curiosity as they shook out their laundry and went about their business.

It was here that I first met Flavio—Master of the Amazon—a charismatic, handsome young man with smooth skin and a brilliant smile, who would be our tour guide while I was in the Jungle. He offered his hand, and I noticed a tattoo traveling up his arm that said "Melody." I took his hand and stepped onto the river for the first time. The canoe rocked side-to-side as the other passengers boarded, and I gripped the seat back tightly and shrugged into an over-sized lifevest. Little did I know how much of the next three days would be spent exploring the contours of this river, or that my memories of the Amazon would all sway like this palm-shaded canoe on the water and be punctuated by Flavio's melodies, as he called all manner of creatures to us from the trees and the water.

A few days in, Flavio announced that he was taking us to see the pink dolphins, which I thought was a joke. We were halfway there, and he was trying to persuade me that pink dolphins truly existed, when something huge and flesh-colored crossed the path of our canoe. I yelled and pointed, and he laughed and motioned to our Captain to kill the motor. We floated a moment, and the dolphin surfaced again, enormous and bright against the brown water, like new skin. When it passed, he grinned at me and shrugged, and the boat took off again.

When we reached the point where the Momon meets the Amazon, and the colors of the water changed abruptly from dark brown to the lighter clay hue of the greater river—the line where one flowed into the other as distinct as the line where freshwater flows into the sea. As I gazed across, our canoe was surrounded by dolphins on all sides, scaring up fish as they wove through the waters. The surface was dotted with the sharp fins of the small grey dolphins and the blunt dorsal fins of the pink dolphins, who moved more slowly and turned to sun their sides as they rose above the water. They were magical creatures, and yet they existed.

Flavio whistled low, and more surfaced on the sides of our canoe, twirling slowly through the water like whales. As we watched them play, he told us it was widely believed in the Jungle that these pink dolphins became blonde-haired blue-eyed men, who went into the village to take the most beautiful women and exchange large bills for supplies—bills that turned into seaweed at days end. Because of this myth, men from the Netherlands had difficulty getting supplies in the Jungle.

It was an hour or so, perhaps longer, that I sat at the front of the boat at the meeting of the waters, watching the dolphins bob amidst the canoes, as they fished leisurely alongside fishermen who were busily pulling in white tangles of net.

But the rains were coming. The water flashed dark—from brown to a slate grey, to black—and Flavio spoke quickly to the Captain. Our canoe sped away, with the dark clouds rolling in just behind us. We were alone in the great passage, the last to flee before the coming storm.

I was in this canoe the first time I felt the force of the Amazon rain. It was well over a hundred that day, and the earth was steaming. We returned to the canoe from visiting a butterfly sanctuary, and as the Captain navigated us through the inlet and into the main channel, the rains swept in all around us with the force of a monsoon. Our pace slowed to a crawl, as the skies flashed and formed walls of water that pelted through the top and sides of the boat in a sideways fury, pooling at the bottom. We were unable to see three feet outside the canoe, and were helpless, rocking in its wake.

The other two passengers refused ponchos. The dark-haired girl on the bench across tipped her face defiantly towards the rain, eyes pinched shut, laughing as the cooled water ran in streams down her cheeks. And then, as quickly as the storm had come, it was gone, and the waters were placid again. I emerged cautiously from my poncho and saw a group of swimmers in the middle of the river, who had also waited out the storm. They adjusted their swim caps, emptied their goggles, and resumed their strokes calmly, down the center of the river.

When the rains returned that night, I laid there in my bed, listening to the drums and songs of the indigenous tribe nearby, as their singing echoed across the Jungle. Their voices rose above the sounds of the swirling rain as they welcomed the waters and the life it would bring. It stormed all night and permeated my dreams—I imagined the river climbing up the steep cliffs, and flowing into my room, swirling with piranhas that snapped vengefully at my toes, all to the rhythms of the drums. Yet, in the morning, I woke to find that all was well, and the world was sparkling and saturated with the most vibrant blues and greens I'd ever seen.

And what else to tell? There were baby anacondas at the animal refuge, and spider monkeys rescued from the black market that would jump on your shoulders and pick your pockets. I walked through an enclosure with hundreds of butterflies feeding on plantains, whose irridesent blue wings flashed opened and closed—eyes upon eyes. We fished for orange-bellied piranhas with willow sticks and raw chicken, and then held them—jagged-toothed and glaring—in our bare hands. I danced with a jungle tribe, and glided over the river before the dawn to find Tucans and Kingfishers and funny birds with neon yellow wings that built hive-like nests and cackled like witches at a cauldron.

And late one night, the skies were clear and full of diamonds. There were ten of us in the boat, yet it was reverently quiet as we drifted beneath the cathedral of the heavens. Flavio called, and the songs of the Jungle echoed from shoreline to shoreline in response, and the night birds sang and flew low above our heads. As we glided further into the night, the stars grew so bright that the waters caught up their reflection, and the two heavens were separated only by the dark silhouette of trees.

Finally, we pulled to the center of the river, and the boat stopped. Flavio sat cross-legged at the prow, completely at ease. When all heads were turned to him, he began quietly, "Friends, we are going to take three to four minutes now in complete silence." He gestured to the shoreline. "Listen—this song is the Jungle offering her life and energy to you. Feel it swell within you, and offer that energy back."

His flashlight clicked off, and we swayed on the water, in the thick dark. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the lights above danced brighter and brighter and the songs around me throbbed—the calls of the birds, insects, and frogs to one another, and animals I would never know the names of, all connected in a beautiful, balanced dance—by breath, by life, by the Universe. We shared a bond, with unfathomable energy surging between, as we were rocked slowly by the river.

Flavio whistled low
and the Jungle answered back.

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Our captain Charles, on the birdwatching tour before dawn.

Our captain Charles, on the birdwatching tour before dawn.

at the butterfly sanctuary

at the butterfly sanctuary

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Flavio holding a Piranha

Flavio holding a Piranha

Dolphin watching

Dolphin watching