Anavilhanas Archipelago, Brazil | One wild night
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“Sleep with your shoes on,” our guide said, “and keep the torch handy in case something falls into your hammock”. That made me feel better, but only slightly. I have been a city dweller all my life—and I had just been condemned to a night in the middle of the Amazon jungle. I am an arachnophobe to boot—and I had just spent an excruciating half-hour watching the said guide luring giant tarantulas (it’s not a tautology) out of their nests. Now he was telling me I might end up sleeping with one.
I had, in a moment of fool-hardiness, signed up for a three-night boat safari on the Amazon that included a night’s stay in the jungle. I was in Brazil for the football world cup and, trying to make the most of my trip, I had thought I should go all the way. I’m not sure what I was thinking.
The tour was supposed to have a gentle breaking-in period, when we were to visit softer locations like the meeting of the waters—the Rio Negro and the Solimões, which together form the Amazon—and the giant lilies. But in typically Brazilian fashion the schedule was thrown out of the window without much discussion. Half an hour after we boarded the boat in Manaus, our guide Max said: “Right, put your essentials into a backpack. Make sure you carry a torch and the repellent.” The night in the jungle was here and now.
The sun overhead was mercilessly hot when we got off the boat and began the trek. Inside the jungle there was a 10-degree difference in temperature, as the sun was blotted out by trees that seemed to stretch forever into the sky. The first thing to strike me was the silence; there was no sound except that of our trudging (and panting). Max said the birds were too high to be heard, and added ominously that the kind of creatures that were lower down didn’t make sounds.
It wasn’t all bad; along the way Max showed us how the indigenous people survived in the jungle—by using the jungle itself. One plant could be tapped to yield water; another had leaves that could be used to trap water. Yet another housed ants that, when crushed and spread on one’s skin, give off an animal-like odour which can camouflage our smells from predators. There were herbs of every kind —quinine substitutes, natural Viagra and, a discovery that gladdened my Bengali heart, a large number of leaves to cure stomach ailments.
This was Ground Zero of Brazil’s early wealth; from here, for more than a century, rubber was collected, taken to the river, shipped to Manaus and then upstream to Belém, and then on to the rest of the world. Manaus grew so wealthy that it built an opera house, with Italian marble and the best theatre equipment money could buy, in the middle of nowhere. It was only after an Englishman called Henry Wickham smuggled out some rubber seeds that eventually ended up in Malaysia that Brazil’s monopoly on the “white gold” ended. Manaus was stuck with its opera house—the fat lady had done her bit and exited—and thousands of slaves working the plantations suddenly had no work.
Then we turned a corner and the spotter noticed a tarantula nest in the ground. Max used a stick to coax these tarantulas out, but we won’t go into the details of what followed. Suffice to say that (a) it was the longest half-hour of my life and (b) though I didn’t see what emerged, I did see the reactions on my trekmates’ faces. I’m not sure which would have been worse.
By 7pm, we were ready for bed. There wasn’t much else to do. The strange thing was the complete absence of mosquitoes. We had been told to buy something called Exposis Extreme (black), which is apparently the WMD of mosquito repellents. We bought the next best thing—a repellent called One—but even that wasn’t necessary. Max explained: The Rio Negro’s hinterland has an acidic substance that inhibits mosquito breeding.
The one thing about a situation like this is that it helps you fully appreciate the majesty of dawn. It’s not a time of day journalists are very familiar with. But as the birdcalls started, insects quietened and the forest became visible, a calm set in. I wasn’t feeling sleepy or tired. I was actually energized by that first light. Cat Stevens knew what he was singing about.
There was no time to dawdle, though. We stretched, checked for any unwelcome intruders in hair, pockets or backpack, and set off back towards the boat. A shower, a hot meal, a loo awaited.
The rest was easy. Feeding the pink dolphins (they are as smooth and as pink as a baby’s bottom), fishing for piranha (I lucked out), seeing a 20ft pet anaconda were all on the agenda—but nothing could match the rawness, the harsh beauty of that first night. I learnt something about myself: that a sense of humour and a night’s worth of hummable songs can see you through anything.
3 tips to maximize your Amazon experience
■ Plan in advance and pick your tour guide. Don’t try and wing it from Manaus unless you look Brazilian, speak Portuguese and know the area. Give them your specifications—interests, costs, etc.—and they will tailor a trip to that. Choose what you want to do. Roughing it out? A bit of luxury? Anything is possible, but know yourself and your limits.
■ Travel light while on the boat—even if you have a cabin, there will only be room for two people and two small backpacks. Take what’s really essential—pack in the camera, leave the laptop. And there will be few, if any, charging points.
■ The food, though basic, is good and freshly cooked; if you’re fussy, carry biscuits or energy bars. Every meal will have rice, salad, beans and a non-vegetarian dish. And plenty of fruit. Praise the cook and he/she might even make more vegetarian stuff for you.
Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo and a columnist for Mint.