We went for a guided walk in the Amazon forest not far from Manaus.
Our guide was a resident of Manaus and of indigenous heritage. He grew up in a traditional forest village far from Manaus. He told us that, when he was a child, American Baptist missionaries spent time in his village. When he was a teenager, one of the missionary families was going to move to Manaus. They invited him to come with them. He said that, once in Manaus, he learned Portuguese at school and English at home.
Our guide explained that in his home village, everyone sleeps in hammocks. When he arrived in Manaus, his hosts showed him is bedroom, with a western-style bed. He said that, while he finally acclimated to sleeping on a mattress bed, to this day, sleeping in a hammock is his preference.
He married a woman from Manaus. They have four children. Two of the children, now young adults, live in his home village. He says they love the forest, hunting, their family’s indigenous culture, and being out in nature. His other two children live in Manaus. He said he had to learn about computers and video games in order to stay connected with them. He was a very interesting man who somehow lives simultaneously in traditional indigenous and modern societies.
The outing started with a 20-minute boat trip out of Manaus, across the four kilometer wide Rio Negro. We passed under the recently-constructed Rio Negro bridge along the way.
Manaus sits at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon River. The Rio Negro — Black River — gets its name from its color. It is black because of organic material from its tributaries. The Amazon proper is the color of café-au-lait, because of soil sediment upriver. The “meeting of the waters” is famous: For many kilometers from where the Rio Negro and the Amazon meet, the brown and black currents flow parallel. They are not eager to get married for quite a distance.
When our boat reached shore, we could see the dark beer-like color of the Rio Negro.
Our guide explained that the river changes hugely between the dry and wet seasons. We were visiting just at the start of the wet season, so the river level was relatively low and its width the narrowest of the year. He explained about how some of the plant and fish species have adapted to these great seasonal changes. He pointed to the trees all around us at the shore. At the peak of the wet season, the trees are completely submerged. There are species of fish that lay their eggs only in the treetops! On our dry day, high above our heads, were the nurseries of fish!
Our guide led us on a 2-hour trek into the forest. We walked through the dense green growth, sweltering in the hot humidity.
At the first stop in the forest, our guide gave us a stern lecture, including, “The Amazon forest is not a zoo!” He said that, while there are plenty of animals in the forest around us, they don’t want to have anything to do with us. We humans are loud and smelly. They sense us from far away and steer clear.
Invisible to us, and perhaps close by, there were likely capybaras, sloths, monkeys, agoutis, caimans, anacondas, many birds, and even a jaguar.
The theme of our walk wasn’t the flora and fauna of the forest, but survival in the forest.
At one stop, the guide and his assistant showed us a camping hammock.
He then pointed to the trees around us, asking us which trees would we use to pitch a hammock. He started scraping the trunk of the tree next to him. Almost immediately, streams of big black ants, about 2 cm long each, sprung up from holes at the base of the tree, scurrying up the trunk. Our guide said this was not a good tree for a hammock post. In the night, the ants would emerge and climb all over the hammock and you. One bite from these ants is purportedly painful; a second bite will make you very sick; a third bite can kill you. Happy camping.
Our guide and his assistance showed us how they would start a cooking fire in the forest. They scraped thin fibers from a small tree trunk, making something like a puff of cotton. Then, of all things, two C-size batteries, and piece of aluminum foil. They created a circuit by touching the foil to the ends of the batteries, which in turn heated up and ignited the plant fibers. We expected a lower-tech approach, but this worked just fine.
They cut some of the thick vines around us, and showed us how they are a source for fresh clean water.
They also showed us animal traps, made just from forest materials. One was a triggered lasso that would snag and hang small prey. The other was a triggered bow and arrow. The guide explained that human forest residents would know intimately the habits and paths of the various edible animals in their region. If the path is frequented by larger animals such as capybara, they set the arrow higher; if the target are aglouti, they set it lower.
Local residents need to share information with their friends and family about where they have set these traps. They can’t say, “On the corner of 9th and Avenue A,” or “Behind the old school.” Their collective knowledge of the forest means they can pinpoint paths, trees and other natural landmarks. To us outsiders, the traps were almost invisible amid the undergrowth.
At a point when we were the furthest into the forest, the guide asked us to stand still and be silent, and to listen. It turns out that humans, at least the cruise variety, are terrible at being quiet. We could hear a few birds in the distance; that was all. It became quickly clear that to experience the Amazon in even just a little more depth would take much more time, and a very adventurous, tolerant, patient attitude.