Goliard Scholar: 1992

Richard Francis: Amazon in an inner tube, Brazil

After graduating in May I992 I went to Brazil to work at the YMCA with children of crèches, day care centers for children of low wage families. I truly grew to love Brazil during the three months that I worked in Belo Horizonte and decided that I wanted to spend a full year in Brazil working and traveling. Unfortunately when l went to extend my visa I was told that I had eight days to leave the country or l would be deported because I had the wrong type of visa. So my dream of traveling in Brazil would have to be deported. Nearly a year and a half after my dream would finally be realized. After spending seven months in Argentina on a Rotary Scholarship I traveled to Brazil where I focused on the north of the country including the Amazon. The following passage is from my trip to the Amazon though I also traveled to the incredible beaches of northeastern Brazil and to Bahia, the cultural center of the country.

I landed in Manaus in February during the rainy season. A new airport lies in the heart of the jungle. From the airport I took a bus to the city - a concrete jungle of traffic roads and trash. The only distinguishing factor that I was deep in the middle of the largest rain forest in the world instead of St. Louis was the weather. It was very humid that afternoon and later it rained. As I sat in a bar and drank a beer I watched the streets outside as it began to rain. Hardly anyone had an umbrella or even a jacket or newspaper to protect themselves - they simply walked unhurriedly through the streets to their destinations.

Later that afternoon I walked through the city to the river - fishing boats lined the shore and buzzards circled above in search of carrion. The immense forest loomed on the other side of the mighty river. The city itself had only one real attraction, the opera house which was built in the late 1800s during the rubber boom. The huge pink neoclassical building is very impressive in this otherwise grim city.

I talked to some of the denizens of the city and was surprised to find that many people had never ventured into the forest they spent their entire lives surrounded by the Amazon without going into the forest. To many it was the end of the world - a huge labyrinth filled with reptiles and insects.

The day after I arrived I traveled up the Amazon on a small boat guided by a chubby Indian affectionately nicknamed Jumbo. Jumbo spent his entire life in the forest over the last ten years he has made a living giving tours of the jungle and river. Our trip started at eight o clock in the morning. Also on board were two Austrians two Italians and an Argentinean. I soon realized the importance of the river to the people. There are floating gas stations such as Exxon on the river as well as piers where entire markets are located. Like Venice, a boat is the vehicle of choice here. There is always a flurry of activity on the river.

Our first destination was the meeting of the waters where the Sominões and the Amazon or Rio Negro converge. The clear black waters of the Amazon and the murky beige waters of the Sominões meet but do not mix for miles. Where the rivers merge dolphins abound. The Amazon is the only river where dolphins live naturally. They played in the water as we watched.

During the day we traveled up some of the hundreds of tributaries of the river. Along these tributaries many families live on floating houses that ride the rise and fall of the river. Their houses are built on huge trunks of trees. As we rode by the children would wave as their mothers washed the dishes or clothes in the river. Most families clear a small piece of land by the river to raise cattle or to grow corn and other vegetables.

Later we made an excursion into the jungle. The silence of the forest was broken only by the cries of birds and insects in the trees. Butterflies lizards and insects were the only animals I saw in the forest. It was much easier to see birds from the river than in the forest. Later in the afternoon we boarded a large canoe guided by an old Indian who took us up to a tributary where piranhas reside. We were to fish for these deadly creatures. The guide started by baiting the hook with raw meat and then splashed the fishing pole in the water. We all soon followed his lead but the only one who actually caught any was Jumbo and he caught six or seven. I learned that there are about twenty different types - some yellow some spotted some blood red. Fortunately or unfortunately the piranhas never swarmed around the bait in a frenzy.

Dusk fell quickly as we boarded the ship and ate dinner. That night we hunted for crocodiles with flashlights - their eyes reflect a red light when shined upon. In the distance the lighting from a thunderstorm lighted the skies along with the fireflies. The forest came alive with the sounds of the jungle. Jumbo quickly spotted a baby crocodile and caught it with his bare hands - he showed us the crocodile and let it go.

Later we headed back to the city its lights glowing brightly in the middle of the utter blackness of the forest. As we headed back Jumbo and I talked on the upper deck of the boat. We talked about his life my life and about the Amazon. I thought about how our realities are completely different. He has spent his entire life in the jungle he knows medicine men and different species of plants and animals. He lives a simple life that is for the most part in harmony with nature. He talked about the need to protect the forest and how over the past twenty years he has watched as man has encroached upon the forest changing it forever. I know orthopedic surgeons and the different types of automobiles and computers. I struggle to get away from society and its hassles but always find myself pulled back. It saddens me that maybe one day it might not even be possible to escape.