The greatest animal

There are only two lodges in the Mamiraua Reserve. One, named after the red-faced Uakari monkey that’s endemic here, has the reputation of being one of the best ecolodges in the Amazon. I lusted to stay in it, but beside being very expensive, guests have to stay for either three or four days, with the stay starting only on certain days of the week. In the end, I couldn’t make the times work with our schedule.

I knew that the only other lodge, the Pousada Casa do Caboclo, would be a more trying experience. It was started three years ago by a local Amazonian couple, and though less expensive, it’s much more rustic. I was prepared for that, but somehow I still felt dismayed upon arrival. The main two-level structure is built on stilts out of planks and 2-by-4s cut from some rock-hard jungle tree, but all so crudely put together that Steve exclaimed, “It looks like something I would build!”

Our room was cramped, containing only 2 cots, a table, and a few (too few) nails driven in the wall to serve as hooks. With the other guests, we shared three mosquito-infested bathrooms down the hall. I wondered what other creatures might join us in the night; plenty of openings in our room’s floor and walls looked tailor-made for admitting creepy-crawlies. Only one of the two beds had a mosquito net above it. Steve graciously ceded that one to me.Whenever anyone walked down the hall outside our door, the whole building trembled. That made me uneasy. And it wasn’t the only thing that made me think the folks running this place were unacquainted with the Rules of Safety with which all Americans, even Baby Boomers like me, grew up. On the top floor, next to to the communal dining room, one section of the corridor had no railing or barrier of any sort between the edge and the 20-foot drop to the ground below. What may have protected any fool who drank too much at dinner was that drinking too much at dinner was not possible; the lodge neither served nor sold alcohol of any sort. (Steve and I wondered if the evangelical Christian church next door had anything to do with this.)

We were irritable that first night; whispered to ourselves about where in our travels we had ever stayed in any place so primitive. (We could think of two or three, but not many.) It wasn’t until the second afternoon that our attitudes began to change.

When we arrived, we met Alan, the sunny, 30-year-old English-speaking (sort of) Amazonas native who lives with his family next door to the lodge. At 3:30 that first afternoon, he took us out in a motorized dugout canoe that was leaking so badly he had to bail water from it periodically. He drove Steve and me through channels in the forest to a big lake, and over the course of two hours, we spotted monkeys (spider, capuchin, and howler), a sloth sleeping near the top of one of the gigantic trees, and countless birds. We saw no alligators, but when Alan emitted a low-pitched exclamatory call, answering calls echoed all around us — baby caimans, the guide explained, making the noise that they make when their moms call. It was adorable.

The next morning Alan took us out in a bigger skiff to look for the freshwater dolphins for which the Amazon is famous. We saw lots of the little gray species but only glimpses of the larger, flamboyantly pink ones. (We think we’ll see more as we continue down the river.)

By noon another pair of English-speaking tourists had arrived at the lodge: Frank and Jessica, a middle-aged Dutch couple now living in New Zealand. Thursday afternoon, Alan and another guide took the four of us on an adventure that you could only have in this astonishing ecosystem, at this time of year, in the company of a pair of young guys who grew up here and were completely unschooled in euro-norteamericano Rules of Safety.

What’s astonishing about the varzea ecosystem is that every May and June, after the months with the heaviest rains, the river system swells enough to flood the rainforest — in places the water can be 40 feet deep. All the plants and animals have adapted to this annual phenomenon. Creatures that normally live move on the land, like jaguars and tarantulas, move into the trees temporarily. Humans build their houses on stilts, and tourists who can hike along the forest trails in September instead must travel everywhere in boats.

In the flood season, grasses and giant water lilies and beautiful little velvet-leaved floating plants proliferate, making sections of the channels and lakes look like Midwestern fields. (You can’t see that everything is floating.) After passing areas like this, Alan and his assistant first pointed our craft into the ghostly flooded forest, where the light is shadowy and tangles of branches sometimes stretched just inches over our heads. It’s a weird, unearthly experience to know you’re seeing everything from a vantage point maybe 15 feet above the “ground.”

We emerged from the eerie gloom in one place to face a barrier of floating grasses so thick it reminded me of a cornfield. I thought we were trapped. But Alan gave a signal, and his assistant revved up the motor. The skiff leapt forward and rammed into the grass wall. All four of us gringoes were saucer-eyed.

We did this over and over during the next hour or so. Each time the grass would part and then completely encircle our boat, which struggled forward and usually broke through to another clear channel. Sometimes we got stuck, but the two guides always managed to free us (though not without some suspense.) Every time we smashed into the grasses, it triggered an explosion of insects and other little creatures, some of whom wound up in the boat. It felt a little like joyriding through the neighborhood with no regard to where the roads were; it gave a whole new meaning to the term “bushwhacking.”

Our outing the final morning was less rowdy, but it felt no less joyous. Alan and his helper motored the four of us through a brief section of flooded forest to another channel, one we hadn’t yet visited. Open to the sky, it was relatively narrow (i.e. bigger than most California rivers but downright intimate, compared to the Amazon’s major tributaries). Alan shut off the motor and picked up a paddle. Liberated from the buzzsaw of noise, we could hear the wondrous variety of bird calls, the soft splash of the oar, the ghostly moaning chorus of distant howler monkeys.

The sun was out but filtered and tempered by passing clouds. Riots of morning glories (or their close relatives) tumbled down trees and other footholds along the shore.

At one point, we paused to watch Alan pull out a thin wooden stick to which a hook and line had been attached. With a few quick casts he hooked a beautiful little river fish that he identified as a pacu. In less than a minute, he caught another.

We glided along; saw more animals, including my first wild toucan. I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t see more. It seemed that the greatest, wildest creature was ever-present: the jungle itself. It is beautiful and incomprehensible, and the part of it that we were seeing hasn’t changed in any significant way since humans appeared on the planet. I felt depthless gratitude for everything that made it possible for me to be there, not least of which included our rickety little guesthouse.

2 thoughts on “The greatest animal

  1. maria giraldo May 23, 2018 / 1:34 am

    I am really enjoying the way you are describing the journey. Endless adventures await down the river.

  2. Roy May 23, 2018 / 12:24 pm

    The Pacu looks like they would be ‘good eating. Hope you tried some;)

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