Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Four Days in the Amazon Jungle – Part One

We left Manaus first thing in the morning on June 26, having made arrangements with Maia Expeditions LINK to spend four nights at an ecolodge in the Amazon region.  Maia arranges expeditions throughout Brazil, but in particular the company owns the Turtle Lodge, about 100 kilometers from Manaus on a tributary of a tributary of the Amazon River.  Our tour guide, João Cristovão Egas, was at our hotel well before the 8 AM meeting time; a minivan came by shortly after 8 and picked us up with our luggage.  The van delivered us to a riverboat facility at the edge of the Amazon, where we and passengers from another van were loaded onto boat with our luggage, and we set out across the river.  We had been urged not to bring more than 10 kg of luggage per person, with the rest being taken to Maia’s office for storage pending our return to Manaus. 

The Amazon is a huge river, still miles wide at Manaus, and deep enough to accommodate ocean liners, as can be seen in this photograph. 

There were floating gas stations on either side of the river, as can be seen here:

The surface of the river had waves as choppy as the ocean near land. In the middle of the river is the location called the Meeting of the Waters, where two separate rivers from upstream, the Rio Negro, which is relatively clear, and the Rio Solimóes, which is relatively muddy, come together to form the Amazon proper.  The two rivers were running side by side where we were crossing, with both the colors of the two sets of water and the nature of the waves being noticeably different (less apparent than in these photos, but the differences were very real to the naked eye)

Meeting of the Waters: Rio Negro and Rio Solimóes

As we approached Careiro, the town on the  other side that was our destination, we could see houses that were actually located in the middle of the river, some of them on stilts, as well as grazing areas or cattle pens surrounded by fences.

These houses are on dry land part of the year; cattle graze on them during that period, but are moved elsewhere for the rainy season, a period that had just ended as we were crossing, but the waters were still high.

In Careiro, we loaded onto buses to be driven for about an hour to a launching site on the Rio Marmori.  There,  several speedboats awaited us; we could take backpacks or daybags with us on the speedboat, but all of the luggage went onto a separate speedboat, which took  us up the Marmori to other tributaries upstream.  The rivers appeared to be wider than most American rivers, with the possible exception of the Mississippi, the Missouri and Columbia
The wide Marmori River
Houses on stilts on the banks of the Marmori River
Houses surrounded by water along the Marmori

There were houses on edge of the river on stilts in the water, and we passed many treetops sticking out of the water; it turns out that the rivers’ width and depth (up to ten meters) was exaggerated by the high water levels due to the fact that the rainy season had recently ended.  During the dry season, we learned, the rivers are only ten meters across and two meters deep

We were on the speedboat for at least ninety minutes heading upstream.  Finally, after nearly four hours of travel by van, then boat, then bus, then speedboat, we reached our destination, the Turtle Lodge. 

Map showing location of Turtle Lodge
The Lodge consists of a circular, thatched two story building with a dining room / bar on the first floor and a large TV room on the second floor.  Both floors had screens rather than walls.  Beside this facility was a small open building with several hammocks.  There was a boat house and sundeck, where were arrived, and a series of small chalets, six ranging along the river and four more inland.  (There we separate buildings housing the tour guides, and a kitchen where the meals were prepared; the own’s mother also has a house on the premises). 
Our two chalets were among the inland group.  Each chalet has two bedrooms, entered separately; at the entry to each bedroom is a porch with a table and two lounge chairs; and at the back of each bedroom is the door to the bathroom.

Our room

Our room

Porches of our chalet

Cashew tree in front of our room

There was another set of chalets whose porches faced the river – ours were nice, but I wondered how we had missed out on those accommodations.

We dropped our bags and hurried to the dining room for lunch. 

There were two reasons for expedition, although at the time we knew of only one of them:  the food goes fast, because it tastes good and the guests are hungry (the part  we did not know), and the United States was set to play Germany and we were determined to see the game (the part we knew).  Most of the guests were rooting for the US, but there were also a fair number of German and Swiss guests whose loyalties were different.  As expected, German dominated possession and threatened the US goal often, but the US was holding firm – at least so far as we could see, because it began to rain heavily during the game, and the satellite reception became unstable

The  TV was working when Germany’s breakthrough came – a stinging shot that Tim Howard did well to parry, but only to the feet of Thomas Muller who was basically unmarked; his strong low shot from distance flew past Howard’s outstretched hands into the far corner of the net.  Germany’s lead stood, despite a flurry of chances for the US near the end of the game. 

But,  in the end, the loss did not matter, because in the game between Portugal and Ghana that was being played simultaneously in Brasilia, Portugal scored first. Ghana tied it up, making American fans nervous because a Ghana victory would have meant that the US would not progress from group play, but late in the game, we learned from those who understood the Portuguese broadcasters that Cristiano Ronaldo has scored, basically putting a Ghana victory out of reach.  Thank you, Cristiano Ronaldo (a great player, but by no means my favorite player; my thoughts were reminiscent of the Mexican TV casters who could be heard, while showing Mexico’s final WCQ game, saying “Thank you, Estados Unidos, We lo-o-ove you, Estados Unidos” after learning that the US had scored late against Panama granting Mexico a lifeline to qualify for the playoff position in CONCACAF qualifying.  Portugal went on to win. 

Both Portugal and the US finished group play with four points, but the US had a significantly superior goal differential.  So, the US had survived the Group of Death, and three teams from CONCACAF had made it out of the group stage, a new record for our region.  This was great news from our family’s perspective because it meant  that we would see the United States play Belgium, the winner of Group H, at our Round of 16 game in Salvador on July 1.  What luck!

After lunch, we headed down to the pier for an introductory boat ride on the surrounding rivers.  We did not appreciate it at the time, but all of our activities and tours while at the Turtle Lodge would begin by traipsing down to the pier because there are no roads in the region and, with one exception (an Ecological Track that never figured in our official activities), there were no walking options leaving from the lodge.  The rivers were the roads.  So unlike the Pantanal, where Santos would lead us on a walk away from the farm buildings, or we would load into his car to drive to a place for viewing, at the Turtle Lodge we would get into a speed boat and either ride and view from the boat (or go piranha fishing from the boat), or ride to another location and get out for a guided walk. 

The schedule each day was somewhat lower key than in the Pantanal.  We would generally rise for breakfast at seven.  All meals were served buffet style; the guests tended to sit by language affinity (German/Swiss, Spanish/Portuguese, and English), with each little cluster’s guide sitting with them. I was glad to break up this self-segregation when I could.  (At one meal, we tried to have our motorized canoe operator sit with us; he first said we would, but then we were told that this was impossible because a hotel rule forbids the staff other than guides  from dining with the guests; I was not sure whether this or shyness was the real reason).

Here is a photo of guests lining up for the buffet:

Breakfast was a nice collection of fresh fruits (pineapple, papaya, a local version of honeydew melon, and oranges which, I was told, were green oranges).  Pineapple was exceptionally sweet and flavorful and, perhaps because it is so familiar to so many, was always gone first.  Then there would be fritters, fried plantains, plantain chips, scrambled eggs, slices of ham and cheese, slices of bread that could be eaten as is or toasted on an available sandwich grill, and a variety of cakes, some made from wheat flour, some corn flour, and some manioc or tapioca flour.  There was coffee and tea (various caffeinated and uncaffeinated bags available), as well as fresh fruit juices – always orange, and sometimes pineapple, cupuaçu jurice mixed with milky, and, when we were lucky, guava juice mixed with milk.  Lunch at noon and dinner at 7 PM were similar – fresh shredded carrots and beets (arranged differently from time to time for apparent variety), sliced tomatoes (very disappointing quality for the tomatoes in Brazil), sliced cucumber, a chopped salad, a pasta (once it was lasagna), rice, usually beans, farofa to put on top of the rice and beans, usually a noodle soup for dinner, and then pork chops or sometimes steak, a chicken dish, and fish, usually in a sauce but sometimes simply baked or grilled. 

There was always a dessert that was put out about a half hour into the meal; maybe bananas in sauce, or a lime mousse, but the best was the cupraçu cream, especially when served with a chocolate sauce.  The dining area also featured a bar where we could buy canned juice, beer, excellent caiparinhas for the lowest price we had seen in Brazil so far, and bottled water – although there was also a large dispenser of mineral water that was always available for free (I confess that one annoyance of our Pantanal tour was that paying for “drinks” included the unavailability for free of anything but tap water; Santos had let us know that we should be 6 liter bottles of water in Pocone because bottled water would be more expensive at the lodges where we would be staying; two six liter bottles was just enough for the three of us for four days).

The official schedule provided for the possibility of four activities each day in addition to dinner:  a sunrise tour, a morning tour, an afternoon tour, and an evening tour.

But the reality we saw involved much less, usually just a morning event and an afternoon event, plus one early morning tour and one night tour during our entire time there.  I might have liked to have a but more in the way of guided nature tours, and we ended up seeing almost no mammals – no howler monkeys (some of us heard them near our chalets), no tapirs, of course no jaguars, which are particularly elusive; we did see a pet spider monkey (see the last article about our Amazon tour) and we saw one spider monkey in a tree by the side of a river.

But there were other diversions:  There was often a World Cup game on at lunch time (12 to 2), and another before dinner (4 to 6).  It was possible to go swimming in the afternoon.    So, now we can say we went swimming in the Amazon river basin!  (Joe and Sam and Nafisa also took a canoe out into the river).

 There was a hut with a bunch of hammocks, but a family with three children tended to monopolize that facility and my guess was that the family needed it more than I did.

The hotel staff other than guides could often be seen playing barefoot soccer on a rough field between the dining facility and the chalets; I wondered whether guests would be welcome to participate and, on our last  day there, Joe decided to try to join in, and he was plainly welcome.

Our next to last full day at the lodge was the first day of the Round of 16 games; Brazil was playing Chile during lunch time.  (I confess, I really like Chile and was secretly rooting for them, but decided that manifesting my sentiment might be taken badly). As the game wore on, more and more of the hotel staff gathered with the guests watching the game; by the time the game reached penalties after two hours of play, the entire staff was there.  The number of muffed penalties was exceptional, with Julio Cesar coming up big time after time.  The staff exploded with emotion each time a Brasilheiro scored and a Chileno’s shot was missed.  Finally, Brazil won and the staff exploded with joy; and, as in Cuiabá during the last of the group game, fireworks went off near the hotel after the victory.  It was a great place to see the game, even if it rather dominated the afternoon.

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