A man on a boat paddling high waters in the Amazon, Brazil

The Amazon - A Whirlwind for the Senses
Elizabeth Willoughby

Gliding along in a hollowed-out log, the paddles, nearly silent, impel the craft through the porridge of marshy weeds and murky water. The hot sun beats down with exhausting force. Heavy air carries aromatic scents of various trees and a trace of decaying foliage in this surreal atmosphere. The canoe manoeuvres through the Amazon treetops from where spiders drop, hitching a ride to their next port. Below, the obstinate jungle floor, buried under meters of water, attempts to re-grow itself on the water surface, providing a textured flattop for miniature frogs to rest upon. Grasshoppers urgently snap across it like raindrops pelting wet leaves, while dragonflies and butterflies relax, weightlessly, on paddlers' backs.

The rushes ahead stir. Paddlers stop as the canoe drifts soundlessly toward the movement. The spear is raised, a sudden thrust, plunk into the water. All eyes watch its retrieval, searching for signs of a struggle, a frenzied fish pierced through, dinner. Nothing. The hunt resumes.

Back at the floating camp, swaying in my hammock, I reflect on the past three days in the jungle, how my teenage sons have been taking in this strange new world, everyday filled with activities yet somehow remaining unhurried. Campers from every continent come and go according to their own schedule of the day. Bonds are created between strangers whose fate it is to arrive on the same boat and spend these few days together. The camaraderie at meal time sharing the day's experiences, the laughter, silliness and kindred spirits, different languages muffled by the dense air, all feels slow motion.

Our three-day tour began in Manaus with an early pick-up from patrons' hotels, providing the first glimpse of our travel mates. At the port, we boarded a boat and people-watched while provisions were addressed. A shore-side ride offered views of the city, some industry, and the hillside filled with houses on stilts as we headed to the renowned "meeting of the waters" where the dark coloured Rio Negro merges into the light colored Rio Solimões – an incredible phenomenon, the bicolour river unblending for kilometres.

Snaking along tributaries that only exist when the water is high enough, the craft carried us past floating houses, farms, school boats, local canoe traffic and tiny villages, the noisy engine making conversation nearly impossible, the scenery making it unnecessary.

120 Amazon meeting of the waters

We stopped at a popular handicraft store where, barely off the boat, we were met with an influx of children carrying an assortment of creatures: snakes, macaws, sloths and other monkeys, offering the tourists a chance to hold the animals for a few coins. Though an obvious tourist trap, it was an excellent opportunity to see the animals up close, and touch and feel them.

After lunch at our floating camp, it was time to reboard the motorized canoe and investigate the forest, absorbing the grandeur of the ancient samaúma trees and giant water lilies as we searched for a suitable fishing site.

Once found, the bamboo fishing rods were loaded with pieces of raw beef and the wait began. Intense faces focused on submerged lines; tense bodies breathlessly anticipated the catch, ready to haul it in at the first tweak. The small piranhas were returned to the water; the bigger ones were served for lunch the next day.

Nights were spent caiman catching and floating amongst the treetops listening to the jungle's nocturnal life. Mornings held pink sunrises. Daytime was a juxtaposition – exciting, filled with new sites, sounds and information, curiosity and wonder, yet calm and tranquil at the same time.

The boat has arrived now. Time to leave the hammock and return to Manaus. A woodpecker beats out another hollow tetrameter, giving reprieve to the sporadic squawks of macaws. We grab our backpacks and head toward the dock. The trip may be over but the reflections are only beginning.

135 Amazon woman in boat

This article was originally published by Sunday News, São Paulo, and here at

© Elizabeth Willoughby 2001

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