Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706




























Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706































Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706




























Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706


























Shawn Blore
Brazil Correspondent
sb@shawnblore.com
www.shawnblore.com
Tel:(55) 21-8102-4706
IN Magazine, May 2004

 

AMAZON KAYAK ADVENTURE
By Shawn Blore


EXPEDITION :
SHAWN BLORE SEEKS FOR ADVENTURE IN THE AMAZON RAINFOREST

The tree soars off into an indeterminate green zenith somewhere in a canopy far above. It is two arm-spans wide with buttress roots strong enough to support a stained-glass wall at Chartres and thin reddish bark that smells vaguely like deodorant. "Arabá," says Fortunato, a Tucano Indian from the Amazon headwaters past Săo Gabriel da Cachoeira and my guide on this expedition into the rain forest. "A-ra-bá," he repeats, over-enunciating for gringo-friendly clarity. Flipping back through a waterproof notebook, I see Fortunato gave this same name to another tree the day before. Either this is the same species, or Arabá is a family name, or Fortunato is just tossing out plausible nonsense to answer my incessant questions. There's really no way to check. Unknowability, I'm discovering on this expedition, is one of the key features of the rain forest.

The expedition plan, as explained in numerous e-mails and reconfirmed over a crackly Manaus phone line, was for a 10-day descent of the Rio Urubu, a small tributary of the Amazon that wends its way through the upland forest about 200 kilometers north and east of Manaus. The leader of the trip was a guide-outfitter named Mateus, a Canadian who transplanted some 10 years ago to Manaus.

We launched from beneath a bridge on the only road going north from the city. Days quickly fell into a pattern. We'd roll out of our hammocks around sunrise, down a few cups of hot, sweet café com leite, then hop into the kayaks and paddle for a few hours in the cool of the early light. Now and again, we would be rewarded with the chainsaw squawk of a macaw, or catch a glimpse of a flapping toucan struggling to keep its rainbow beak aloft, but mostly the hours on the water were an extended meditation on the rain forest's limitless palette of green.

Mid-morning we would stop for a long, indolent lunch of Amazon fish: pacu, tambaqui, dourado or piranha. There would be a hike to a cavern thick with stalactites or to a seldom-seen waterfall or just through the forest to look at trees. Finally, a short paddle to find camp.

Once or twice in the evenings, we would schlepp a car battery into one of the kayaks, hook it up with bare wires to a spotlight and paddle out to look for wildlife. One night Fortunato's spot caught the telltale red gleam of caiman eyeballs. Before I was really aware of what was happening, Fortunato had paddled over to the bank, leapt out and grabbed a half-meter caiman by the neck. It hung from his hand, legs splayed, strangely passive considering the oddness of its situation. "Jacaré pedra," said Fortunato - the most aggressive of the three Amazon species. He passed it over to me, and cautioned that I should hold on very tightly. I grasped its neck with what I thought was a suffocating grip, but clearly some softhearted impulse not to hurt the little beast was at work. As Mateus reached forward a hand to point out the ridge of head scales that distinguish the species, the jacaré thrashed from my grip and dug an incisor into Mateus' forefinger, ripping a nasty five-centimeter gash. All the way back to camp, Fortunato would look at the bloody slash on Mateus' finger and break out chuckling.
As intriguing as the wildlife were the trees. A temperate coastal forest, like those in the fjords of Chile or the North American Pacific Northwest, has about eight to ten dominant tree species; the Amazon is home to more than 5,000.

Classifying this cornucopia is clearly impossible, but somehow, being human, one has to try. Borrowing a page from Jorge Luis Borges' Chinese encyclopedia, I initially began divvying up Amazonian trees into those with (a) vines, (b) spines or (c) huge buttress roots and red bark that (d) look climbable, (e) have names given by Fortunato that I can recall or (f) look like the splay-headed poufed trees I used to see in Dr. Seuss books. As taxonomy goes it was fun, though perhaps a little unscientific. Next I took to shadowing Fortunato on walks in the jungle, pestering him for tree names. We developed a ritual. He showed me a tree. I scratched at the bark, sniffed the resin, parroted the name of the species two or three times until I'd sort of got it, then wrote down a phonetic transliteration in my notebook. Poupouyarana, I wrote, for a kind of palmetto palm; Capichua, for a tree that provides a natural bug repellent; Inaja, for a big palm that you can use to make cotton balls. Timbal is a kind of poisonous vine - chuck a meter of it in a small stream and the fish float up dead. Mata can be boiled in water to make tea good for the stomach, liver and bowels.

The high point of this forest apprenticeship came when Fortunato was casting about for an Invereira, an alder-sized tree, the bark of which comes off in a single long strip and makes a cord strong enough to support a grown man. I pointed out an overlooked candidate just a couple of meters away. "Is that one?" I asked. When Fortunato confirmed my guess, I glowed like the class's most promising student. Five days in the forest. One definite ID. Spend 68 years out here, perhaps I could learn them all.

A sensible man, at this point, would have accepted that the Amazon is a vast and glorious mystery, then settled back to appreciate what was on offer - a small taste of infinite beauty and perhaps a little insight.

Not being sensible, I began searching for ways to impress my fellow voyagers. Natural history knowledge clearly wasn't going to cut it. Ditto woodcraft. That left only foolish feats of physical daring and excess consumption of alcohol.

Caipirinhas were the drink of choice in the jungle. Alas, we all proved adept at this key aspect of jungle survival, even tiny Jean-Paul, a Parisian travel agent who had come to investigate eco-tourism options in the Amazon.

Fortunately, on the fifth or sixth day, the landscape provided an opportunity for foolish physical daring: a limestone fracture over which the normally placid Urubu poured in a sheer five-meter waterfall. The only place to shoot the rapids was by the left-hand side of the river, where the water poured down over two consecutive steps. This narrow pathway was obstructed on the left by a huge fallen tree and on the right by what kayakers call a "hole," a place where the falling water flows back on itself to create an endlessly circulating vortex. There were two holes, actually, one flanking the top step and the other directly blocking the straight-line path down from the first shelf. To shoot the falls successfully, I'd have to sneak between the log and the first hole, execute a quick left turn to dodge the second big hole, then lean way back so the sea kayak nose didn't submarine going over the second shelf. No problem in my usual nimble river kayak, but sea kayaks turn with all the agility of a long-haul truck. Fortunato and I scout the rapid. I toss a small log in the top hole. The river gobbles it up, gargles it in its maw for some 10 seconds, then spits it out again. I toss another log into the lower hole. That one the river sucks up and keeps. Miss that turn, and I'd be rotating around in the vortex for a good long while.

I hike up to my kayak, then decide to empty my bladder before hopping in. I slip on the mud bank and fall in the yellowed foamy water. Not a good start. I fiddle with the spray deck for a while, taking too long to get things right. Finally I'm paddling above the falls, pondering the wisdom of this move.

Too late. I take the first shelf, then kick the rudder to move the boat right. It responds, but slowly. I lean far out and dig in a paddle blade, pulling the boat right but putting it dangerously on edge as the second shelf arrives. The boat just skirts the monster hole, canted at an awkward angle with no back lean. The landing kicks hard and only a quick paddle slap saves me from going over. But I'm through.

On shore, there are high fives and hugs all around. I hear a call and turn round. Mateus is signaling he's going to give it a try. "Has he ever kayaked in white water?" I ask Fortunato. "No," he replies. We turn and watch Mateus descend.

He comes down the top sluice in perfect form, digs in a paddle blade and, like an expert, flicks the boat onto a new course. He's going to make it. There goes my exclusive lock on reckless physical daring. He's down the second shelf. No - he's forgotten the back lean. The nose submarines, the river kicks him up and sideways and he's over.

Fortunato drags him to shore, Mateus spitting river water. That night around the fire, I bring him a home-brewed tea. "Cerveja de mata," I tell him. "It's supposed to be good for the stomach."
Shawn Blore is a Freelance Correspondent based in Rio de Janeiro

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