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Listening to the Heart of the Jungle

Listening to the Heart 
of the Jungle

There would be the occasional scream from one of the girls
who saw a spider crawling up the outside of her mosquito screen
or the cursing of a guy who was trying to kill a mosquito
that got inside his screen. Yes it was fun sleeping out
in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
By Phil Shields

My first sight of Brazil was of the Amazon jungle and its mighty river from the cockpit
of a Canadian Airlines Boeing 767 flying at 33,000 feet. My brother in law Stan was the
pilot who had given me an airline pass to use for the flight to São Paulo. This was my
first trip to South America. I wondered why it had taken me so long to eventually travel
to this part of the world. The trip would include six new countries that I would be
traveling to making a total of 48 that I would have now visited. I had just returned from
India, Nepal and Laos only eight months earlier. I thought I was ready for this trip. I
had studied Spanish for a couple of months only to realize four weeks before my trip that
they spoke Portuguese in Brazil. It could not be that much different from Spanish, at
least that was what I thought. Was I mistaken.

My friend Carol had introduced me to Isabel, a Brazilian from São Paulo who was a
student at her travel school in San Diego where I lived. When she started talking
Portuguese I was completely lost. We arranged to meet again a few more times so I could
learn some Portuguese. My next mistake was buying a Portuguese phrase book from Portugal
instead of a Brazilian phrase book. She helped me change some of the words and phrases in
the book because of the slight difference in the language. Since I would be arriving in
Isabel’s home city she was kind enough to give me the phone numbers of her friends in São
Paulo. That definitely helped me once I got there.

I was invited to sit up in the cockpit as we flew over the Amazon. The first thing I
noticed was the smoke that we were flying through at such a high altitude. The jungle
below was on fire. It was disheartening to see such a vast area of beautiful jungle being
burned for mineral exploration, cattle grazing and agriculture. The controversy about the
destruction of the Amazon was a concern in the United States where I lived and many other
countries around the world but it was a problem that only Brazil would be able to resolve.

Once I landed in São Paulo my trip was about to start. My eventual destination would
be the Amazon, which I had now flown over but wanted to explore by boat and on foot. I
planned on staying with Stan at the Paulista Wallstreet Hotel in the city, before moving
to the Sampa hostel off Paulista Avenue. His flight crew stayed at the hotel for a few
days on each trip before returning to Toronto. Since the crew was able to get off the
plane first and clear customs they would wait for me at the crew bus. Unfortunately the
airline lost my luggage so I was late getting to the crew bus. I apologized for being late
and was about to tell them their lousy airline had lost my luggage then decided I was
outnumbered by Canadian Airline employees and kept quiet. Luckily my luggage showed up a
day later.

I had been told of the fantastic hospitality the Brazilians give to guests of their
country and found out how true this was after calling a few of Isabel’s friends. Her
friend Sandra picked me up at the hotel a couple of days later and drove me to the hostel
where I would stay till I left for the northern part of Brazil. She spoke very good
English and showed me around the city and introduced me to her many friends. Isabel flew
down a week later and I also met her family. Once you meet one Brazilian you become a
friend to everyone else’s friends and family. They treated me like a king. I have never
eaten such great food before in such large quantities. If you like meat and seafood Brazil
is the place to go.

I only planned on staying a few days in São Paulo but every time I tried to leave
someone was inviting me to a party, barbeque or their beach house. The only problem that I
encountered in Brazil was being pick pocketed the second day in São Paulo while walking
along Paulista Avenue. Luckily the thief did not get anything but I saw three other
robberies while in the city. Like most big cities around the world you have to be careful.

Brazil is famous for its beaches and I planned to visit as many as I could. I ended up
traveling along the coast visiting the beaches at Florianópolis, Santos, Guarujá, Rio de
Janeiro, Salvador and Fortaleza. Brazil has by far the most beautiful girls in the world
and most of them can be seen on the beaches. I still had to get to the Amazon and Manaus,
a city of over 1,000,000 people in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I would have to take
two long bus rides from São Paulo to Salvador then on to Fortaleza and two airplane
flights to Brasília then to Manaus.

There are very few options available to reach Manaus. You can travel up river by boat
from Belém, which can take as long as eight days or you can fly, but most flights have to
go through Brasilia to get there. From Fortaleza I had to fly south to Brasília then back
up north again to Manaus. Roads into the Amazon are few and many are impassable because of
rain washing out the roadway at different times of the year. I was amazed to hear that few
Brazilians have ever been to the Amazon but considering how far and inaccessible it is to
get to I can see why.

Manaus overlooks the Negro and Solimões rivers, which are part of the mighty Amazon
River. Hundreds of tributaries branch off from the river and wind their way into the
Amazon jungle. The river is almost 8 kilometers wide at this point and is a busy port with
ocean going ships traveling 1600 kilometers up river from the Atlantic Ocean to get here.
From the waterfront you can take hundreds of smaller vessels to many parts of the Amazon
jungle. Like many tourists that come here I wanted to explore the jungle.

It did not take long once I had landed at the airport that I was approached by a couple
of safari tour operators. After sitting through the usual sales pitch I escaped to a quiet
place in the airport and read their brochures. Since I had arrived late at night I decided
to sleep at the airport until the morning when the local bus arrived to take me into the
city. This was only one of the many airports I have slept in throughout the world. Being a
budget traveler I often do this to save money rather than taking an expensive taxi ride
into town late at night or staying at an expensive hotel near the airport. Once I got into
the city and found a cheap hostel to stay in, I began looking for the tour companies that
operated trips into the jungle.

Like other safaris and tours I had taken in Africa, Asia and India there were many to
choose from at different prices and all say they were the best. I have found out that it
is not always the companies that are the most expensive that are the best. Talking to
other travelers who have gone on the tours is probably the best way to find out which ones
to take. Travelers on a budget will definitely tell you if they had a bad experience with
a tour company. Never pay the price you are quoted in the brochure. When you tell them the
price is too expensive and you start to walk out of the office the price all of a sudden
is reduced. There are many companies wanting your business and they will not let you leave
their office until you sign up with them. They will tell you not to tell other people on
the tour the price they gave you. Later you will discover that everyone on the tour paid a
different price for the same tour.

Manaus is a mixture of old colonial architecture, Indian culture and modern European
lifestyles. It was the rubber boom of the 19th century that started the growth
of this city, but once the boom was over the city declined until the tourist craze and
minerals, timber and its many byproducts created new industries. I was fortunate to visit
the opera house one night when the Manaus symphony was playing. This beautiful building
seems out of place in a city situated in the middle of the Amazon jungle. After three days
of visiting the arts, crafts and fish markets I was ready to go into the jungle.

I decided on using Green Planet Tours to spend five days of jungle adventure and wasn’t
disappointed. I was not interested in luxury tours and always pick safaris and tours that
are basic and inexpensive. The next day I was picked up at the hostel I was staying at and
driven down to the waterfront with a girl from Denmark and a guy from Germany. We would be
meeting a group of five other travelers who were already at the floating lodge on one of
the tributaries of the Amazon.

We crossed the river in a small motor boat then took a local bus to another tributary
where we boarded a long narrow canoe which had a small engine attached to a propeller with
an eight foot drive shaft. This was typical of the type of motorized craft found along the
Amazon River and its tributaries. The local natives used dugout canoes to travel and fish
on the water. We ended up traveling about 50 miles to get to our first stop on the river.
We would be spending the first two nights on a floating barge with a small building still
under construction as our sleeping and eating quarters. Our beds were hammocks covered
with mosquito netting attached to the ceiling of the building. The toilet was a hole in
the floor of the barge at the corner of the outside deck. If you did not like fish or rice
you would probably starve to death before the five days were over.

The river was abundant with piranha and we could catch them from the canoe or from
fishing over the side of the barge. We ate a lot of piranha on this trip. When we stopped
at different places along the river and our guide told us we could jump off the canoe and
swim in the river. Since most of us had seen piranha eating all the flesh of large animals
that swam in the Amazon river on television shows like the Discover channel we thought he
wasn’t serious but when he jumped into the water and after swimming returned to the canoe
alive and still in one piece we decided it was safe to swim among the ferocious little
fish. We were told that they rarely attack humans or cattle swimming or bathing in the
water and are attracted to blood or pieces of meat instead. It was easy to catch the fish
using only a pole with about 10 feet of line and a hook baited with pieces of fish or
chicken. You had to watch taking the piranha off the hook because their teeth are
extremely sharp. One unfortunate traveler got a nasty cut on his finger when a fish bit it
as he was trying to get the fish off the hook.

Every day around 3 o’clock the rain came and lasted for about an hour. One day we got
stuck in a rainstorm while still out on the river. The engine got wet and wouldn’t start
and the canoe started to fill with rainwater. We used our hands and a small bucket to bail
the water out of the canoe so as not to sink. On another day we spotted something swimming
across the river. When we got close to it we saw that it was a sloth. Our guide told us
that this was the first time he had ever seen one in the water. It was a very strange
looking creature with a small round head, long arms and legs and extremely long claws
which it used to hang on to the tree branches that it spent most of its life in. We lifted
it out of the water and put it back on the shore in the closest tree. Considering the
number of alligators we saw along the river the sloth would have probably been a meal to
one of them before it could cross the river.

Each day we would walk into the jungle hoping to see many animals but during the day it
is so hot that they are usually asleep. It is nighttime that many of them come out along
with millions of mosquitoes. By 8 o’clock each of us was lying in our hammocks covered by
our mosquito screens, listening to the sounds of the jungle in the dark. There would be
the occasional scream from one of the girls who saw a spider crawling up the outside of
her mosquito screen or the cursing of a guy who was trying to kill a mosquito that got
inside his screen. Yes it was fun sleeping out in the middle of the Amazon jungle.

On our last day we trekked into part of the jungle that had different kind of trees
used for many of the world’s medicines and saw the trees that we get latex rubber from. We
also saw the large tarantula spiders. We would poke a long thin leaf into the holes at the
base of trees where they lived and pull them out of their homes. Some of them were huge.
Luckily they would quickly go back into their holes when they saw us. Many parts of the
Amazon are yet to be explored and hopefully civilization will leave this beautiful jungle
alone. Brazil is such a large country that I plan on visiting it again and hopefully I
will have learned some Portuguese by the time I return.

Phil Shields lives in San Diego. He spends three to five months each
year traveling the world. So far he has been to 48 countries and plans on going to Brazil
again this year along with Vietnam and Cambodia. He has bicycled, sailed, backpacked and
driven his way around many of these countries. He can be reached at bsa1967@hotmail.com

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