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Fyllis: Amazonia
Amazonia: Not Your Typical
Tourist Destination

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

am a hiker. But at home, no one uses a machete to blaze the trail prior to walking on it as Souza, our Amazon guide, did, creating a path in the overgrown rainforest step by step. Slicing, swatting, swooping, chopping, no branch, bush, vine or twig was safe.

The hike was one of four daily activities during our 8-day adventure exploring Amazonia. Calling the Tucano, a 16-passenger river yacht home, we traveled over 200 miles along the River Negro where the only other waterborne human we saw was the rare fisherman in a dugout canoe. For our daily excursions, we clamored aboard a small power launch which took us hiking, bird-watching, and village hopping, and on night-time outings that dramatized the allure of the river not experienced in any other way. But more on that later.

the 16-passenger river yacht Tucano cruising along the Amazon

Souza demanded quiet during our launch rides, using all of his senses to read the forest, listening for the breaking of a branch or a flutter through the trees, sniffing for animal odors, scanning leaves above and below for motion, or the water for ripples… and alerting us at every junction of what he has discovered. On our own, we would have heard, felt and discerned nothing.

Souza’s most amazing talent was his ability to identify the multitudes of birds traversing the river and forest, many of whose calls he could replicate precisely. What to us was a dot on a limb was declared a green ibis. Then a snow egret, crane hawk, red-breasted blackbird, jacana, snail kite –- so many I just stopped taking notes. So confidently did he identify the inhabitants, we would have believed: “That’s a green-tongued, red-beaked ibirus with one brown eye and a pimple on his right cheek…”

close-up view of a scarlet macaw in the Amazon

He could imitate more birds than the most gifted comedian can impersonate movie stars. He carried on such intimate conversations, that halfway through a lengthy discussion with a blackish gray antshrike, I think they became engaged. Then Souza, fickle male that he is, romanced a colorful azure blue-beaked Trogan perched upon a dead branch high in a tree. Birds have a surprising preference for dead tree parts. As one of my travel companions observed, “If you don’t like birds, you might as well take the next flight home.”

Back to Machete Man. Our forest walks also were a time for observation, not conversation. On a stop to view teca ants swarming over the bark, Souza wiped his hand across it, proceeding then to rub the ants over his forearms. Instant mosquito repellant –- handy tool in the Amazon.

At one point, I looked down and saw a long brown twig draping a log. Souza saw a snake. I looked again and still saw a twig, albeit one that now had an eye. I stepped more gingerly.

writer and tour guide making bird calls

We learned of the many medications the forest supplies to the natives; of vines for baskets and brooms; bark for strong rope; plants providing poison for arrows. As we heeded orders to be quiet, the dried leaves below screamed in protest at being trampled, the buzz of the horsefly the most persistent sound.

And then there are the leaf cutter ants! A long assembly line of tiny leaves paraded up a hill, as organized as a marching band. A closer look revealed leaf cutter ants to be the burly carriers. Hard to believe something so fragile can carry so large and unwieldy a load as much as half a mile to its colony.

Surprised at how much he learned about himself on the trip, Ritesh Beriwal, a 23-year-old worn-out Wall Street trainee, noted: “I didn’t realize how interested I’d be in the little things, like how insects such as the leaf-carrying ants build homes. Before it was just an ant; now it’s an ant with an entire life and work history.”

Each day brought new revelations and insight into our surroundings whether on land or water. Our visits to several villages only reinforced that impression.

Commonalities among villages: a dance hall where residents party once a month; a soccer field where youth exercise once a day; a school room where students of all grades learn; a clinic that caters to the medical needs of the community, 2-3 requisite churches where parishioners of different persuasions pray -– and a generator. And that’s about it. But the differences are notable as well.

I found the contrast particularly interesting between one village of no more than 30 families producing one farm product and a larger “company” town in which thrives an asphalt industry. In the larger village, there is a convenience store, a small café, a bakery. Each hut has its own outhouse and there are several satellite dishes throughout the community.

The entire economy of the farm community revolves around manioc –- a product made from grain that is the mainstay of the Amazonian diet. “If there is no manioc on the table, there is no meal,” explains Souza.

There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes, and there are no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had ever seen. On the other hand, the men don’t have to worry about remembering to put the seat down.

Although every day was an adventure, nothing compared with the nighttime jaunts. Our post-dinner sojourns, beginning around 8 p.m., pitched Souza and his searchlight against the dark horizon, scanning shoreline and trees desperately searching for something to entertain his charges.

An all-pervasive quiet loomed, yet everything, including the sounds, seemed magnified: dolphins snorting, fish jumping, caimans slithering, monkeys howling -– all vying for attention.

Eventually the flashlight, seemingly darting randomly above, below and beyond the trees, alighted (so to speak) on a caiman in the brush, his whole snout protruding for a moment before slinking away. Or perhaps instead the light reflected off a kingfisher’s eyes, temporarily blinding him so that we could drift in almost close enough to touch. Then for an encore, we watched a spider grab a dragonfly from a crack in a tree directly in front of us -– and diligently devour it. Did I mention it was pitch black?

Once again, the refrain in my head: “How does Souza do that?” Either he has a seventh sense about the animals, or the Amazon Tourist Board set them up ahead of time.

Whereas during the day, the trills, tweets and twerps of the birds dominate the landscape, at night it’s the croaks, caws and throaty outpourings of the frogs and caimans.

In between our first launch at 6 a.m to our final return sometime after 9, we pretty much spend the rest of the time eating. The native foods, beautifully prepared and presented, are a surprise this far from civilization.

sumptuous, beautifully prepared and presented food served at Amazon adventure exploration

As much as that is a typical day, so are the exceptions. One particular day we got to sleep in until 6, still early enough to watch the sun pull itself over the forest, and late enough to feel the already oppressive heat seep into my lightweight, washable. anti-bug-treated blouse (though overall, the weather was much more comfortable than anticipated). We were going fishing.

I sat with my Tom Sawyer fishing pole thinking the Amazon’s a long way from the Mississippi. I attached the chunks of beef to the end of the line thinking this was strange bait until I remembered our prey. Watching Souza rattle the water with his pole, I remembered that being quiet was the order of the day on most fishing sojourns. Still, I followed his lead -– make the quarry think there’s a wounded fish thrashing about -- and within a minute I knew I had snagged the big prize: at the end of my line was the famed carnivorous predator -– a 6” piranha.

writer with piranhas she had just caught

Souza held it up to a tree and used it like a scissors to cut a branch in two. Just looking at its imposing teeth, we knew it came by its reputation honestly. Still, piranhas get a bad rep. The truth is unless they’re starving, or you’re bleeding, we’re really not in their food chain. Nonetheless, the fried piranhas we had that night as appetizers were scrumptious, their tiny bones crunchy and the meat flaky, proving the wise adage that more people eat piranhas than piranhas eat people –- at least in Amazonia.

If You Go

How to go. I flew United, one of several airlines that go nonstop from several U.S. cities to Sao Paulo, then transferred to TAM for the hop to Manaus. TAM airlines also has daily non-stop flights from Miami to Manaus.

When to go. The January to June rainy season brings heavy but relatively brief downpours. Rivers rise dramatically -– often as high as 45 feet. The high water enables small boats to reach areas inaccessible at other times of year.

During dry season, roughly July to December, rivers run shallow, and while white sand beaches –- excellent for a refreshing swim -– appear, most of the area is more arid and less lush. Best time to visit is April to September.

For more information, call Latin American Escapes at 800-510-5999 or log onto latinamericanescapes.com.

Some Caveats

  • If you’re looking to see a lot of four-legged wildlife, go on a safari.

  • If taking hot showers are important, stay at a hotel (although the river water is tepid enough so as not to be too uncomfortable).

  • Although we didn’t experience any, the pre-trip information warns of glitches, inconveniences and delays and advises to bring along a lot of tolerance and patience.

  • Post-hike showers are required, including the need to wash out your clothes to prevent any insect mishaps.

  • There is a certain sameness to the daily activities.

  • There is also a 5 day/4 night option.

Related Articles:
Amazon Tour, Ecuador; Maracaibo, Venezuela; Costa Rica Adventure; Dominica

(Posted 9-29-2011)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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