the our intrepid shaman guide, Samir
the group…plus our intrepid shaman guide, Samir

After deciding to blog about my incredible packing skills, that 4am wake up call came just as early as I thought it would…I’m that cheap gung-ho kind of traveler that will take flights at ridiculous hours figuring I will just sleep on the plane and why waste time or money when I could be somewhere? We headed to the airport at 4:45am. Our group included my married friends David and Rachael, and Tess. I work with these three weirdos. Tess had her mother and brother in town, and they came, too. Tess met some girls buying french fries at McDonalds at the airport at 6am and we thought that was a good sign.

I had a window seat and was asleep before takeoff. Note to self – bringing a scarf you’ve sprayed with a friendly vanilla perfume is a good thing. We landed, only one thing had exploded in my backpack, and then headed to the office, where we lingered in typical Brazilian fashion for a few hours, catching a “pay by how much your plate weighs” lunch, getting very little information but being assured everything was going according to plan, before finally beginning the first of four legs of the journey to get into the actual Amazon.

meeting of the rivers
meeting of the rivers

We piled into cars to get to the docks, where we shifted into speed boats over to an island, checking out the meeting of the rivers along the way. Turns out the Amazon is like three rivers of different kinds of water meeting all at once, hence the diversity and richness of the area. We watched the Rio Negro meet Amazonas, where you can see and feel a difference in temperature. Interesting fact – the Rio Negro has so much acidity in the water that there are no mosquitos. Follow up fact – I am moving to the Rio Negro.

We sailed past cliffs that showed where the floods force the land into the water, where locals daringly still fished underneath. “Sometimes cows are eating on the cliff and then boom!” said our guide, showing with his hands how the cliffs would wipe out at a moment’s notice. Poor cows. We transferred to a van that charged through potholes and was so warm I fell asleep and woke up to a “dock.” Then we got into a smaller speed boat and headed to the actual lodge.

that one time David rescued a toucan out of the Amazon...
that one time David rescued a toucan out of the Amazon…

We’d been in this boat maaaaaaybe 5 minutes when something bright and smelling like Fruit Loops caught our eyes, floating in a mess of river grass. That’s right. A freaking toucan. Our driver swung the boat around, told us to grab it, and with zero warning or thought David plunged a hand into the water and scooped out this poor baby. Drivers said it might have been attacked by bigger birds, or that it’s bill was just too heavy to fly long distances and it had fallen exhausted into the water. We brought it to the lodge, where it was famous and taken into a room to dry off and recuperate.

kids on their way to school in the mornings on the Amazon river.
kids on their way to school in the mornings on the Amazon river.

The lodge was ruuuuuustic. This trip is not for the weak. We opted for the rooms with fans and a private bathroom. The other options were a dorm of bed or a dorm of hammocks. After smelling the boys that were sharing the hammock dorm…I was super pumped about my choice. Of course, Tess and I were sharing this “private” bathroom with several cockroaches that made nighttime pees interesting. A lot of “come on, dude. Please like…go over there for two minutes.”

The electricity was come and go, and even water wasn’t guaranteed. The meals were served on a flexible schedule, but they ran out of things sometimes or had limited options if you’re not into rice, beans, beef, and a salad that comes out when you’re done eating. The mosquitos were insane. I counted 27 bites between my knee and toes on one leg before I gave up. There is an entire novel in Braille printed across my buttcheeks. Our guide says a male mosquito wrote it. Cheeky guide.

We were out in the middle of nowhere. The only transport is by boat. I can’t imagine what we would have done had anything terrible happened. All drinking water has to be brought in by boat. There are no grocery stores or doctors. A boat picks up kids to take them to school, there is a lone Assembly of God church on a hillside, a ramshackle cemetery on the riverbank. The community we stayed in has about 36 families in it (my single gal heart immediately went “dear Jesus how do they get married here?!”).

Mornings off our dock
Mornings off our dock

I met a guy they called Toucan, who was my bartender at the run down shack that served semi-cold cerveja. He had been born on the land we were standing on in 1953 to parents who had come from a different part of the Amazon and were manioc farmers (more on that later). He had left the Amazon once to go to the city. He stayed for one day and came back and hadn’t left since, although his siblings and children had all left. “I know every leaf, every water, every sound in this place,” he told me. “I have everything I need right here.”

I really enjoyed the technology break. And the cooking myself food break. And choosing what to wear break, since my decisions were boiled down to “what smells the least?” But I don’t like fish enough and I think I hate bugs too much to live on the Amazon.

I'm....obviously totally okay with holding this.
I’m….obviously totally okay with holding this.

That night, after settling in a bit, we went caiman hunting. They are like smaller versions of alligators, and at night, if you canoe out onto the river, you shine a light and wait until it reflects off two creepy eyes among the flickering fireflies. And then you just stick your hand down into the depths and grab one! At least that’s what our guides did. And then we took the baby back to the lodge to take pictures and learn about it.

The rest of the crew went to bed after this, but I stayed up at the makeshift bar to try and make friends. I’m used to hosteling and becoming quick family with whomever is hanging out. But the all-male somewhat young crew of travelers there rebuffed all my friendly questions. It was seriously strange. I was throwing softballs – “where ya from?” and they would completely clam up. So I ended up sharing drinks with our guide, Samir.

Who is a shaman. Sammi the Shaman. Who read my palm and told me how to open up my consciousness and how to grow ganja and how to waste all your money at brothels and a few magic card tricks and the art of a poisoned blow dart.

But that is for another post. Stay tuned.

And if you haven’t heard it today and you need to…

I’d share a tiny bed with no mosquito net in a rustic cabin in the Amazon with you.