After breakfast, we unloaded our gear into the malocas, small huts that are our homes for the week at Xixuau. Each hut has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. As expected, they are rustic/primitive. The windows have shutters, but no glass. There are electric lights that work when the solar power or generator are active, but these go off from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.; there are no electrical outlets in the huts, so we have to charge batteries and access the wi-fi in the reserve's office. The beds have mosquito netting to protect against the vampire bats that come out at night. The showers drain their unheated water through the spaces in the floorboards. The bathrooms seem to each come complete with a tarantula. We are asked to remove our shoes before entering any buildings, which struck me as odd since there is so little separation between indoors and outdoors.
We dropped off our things and went to the main maloca (the dining area) to meet our guides. I was paired up with Peter, the older Danish man, and we were introduced to Zezinio, our guide for the week. They are very strict with safety rules here, and we were instructed never to go into the water or beyond the village without our Zezinio. Meals are set at 7, noon, and 7 (with a drinks at 6:30), so our outings work around these times. Whatever Peter and I decide we want to do for the day, Zezinio will take us to do. The first morning was raining, so we did a brief walk around the village to see the homes of the 13 families who live there, the office, and the church. The rain stopped after a while, and we took a short walk in the rainforest behind the village. Zezinio speaks no English, and generally says very little. Peter is fluent in English, but is also a quiet person. So we have often gone through the forest and lake/river in silence. It's often very nice, but I sometimes wish for some conversation to share the experiences together, and it would be nice if Zezinio could tell us about the things we see and hear.
The weather cleared up a bit in the afternoon, so we went out on the lake in a canoe. Peter brought a mask, snorkel, and air-powered spear gun, and wanted to try to catch some fish. He also has a little GoPro video camera in a waterproof housing to take some underwater videos. So we went to an area of the river that had clearer water. The water here is generally known as black water, which is very dark from the tannins (leaves, peat, and other organic matter) that it picks up in its path down from the mountains. When the water level is lower (a couple of months ago), there are some places that have nearly clear water. We had to satisfy ourselves with a medium-brown with visibility of 4-6 feet. I didn't see any fish while I was swimming, and Peter only saw a few small ones, so he didn't achieve his fishing goal. But it was still a thrill to swim in the Amazon rainforest. And very refreshing in the warm, humid weather.
Getting into life on the reserve has sometimes felt challenging. It's a mix of strict rules/schedules on the one hand and waiting/lack of planning on the other. I find plenty to complain about, as there are many discomforts here. There are no decent chairs in the entire reserve, so sitting becomes painful before too long. The beds are likewise . . . basic. The food hasn't been working all that well for me. As expected, there are few vegetarian options (throughout Manaus as well as here), which I expected. Beans and rice are common, but that's about it, so I've been eating much more chicken and beef than usual. There is only a little fruit and not much in the way of vegetables. I have yet to see a whole grain on my trip. Breakfast is typically flimsy white bread (usually hot dog rolls), ham, American cheese, powdered milk, OJ, and coffee. I really need some more fiber . . . on the other hand, there is delicious, fresh fish--caught in the morning and on the table for lunch. Still, I've had an upset stomach for most of my second day on the reserve.
Much of the point of going to a "foreign" country is to experience something, well, foreign. The obvious answer to the complaints is to just go with what is offered and presented. I had planned on wearing my sneakers for nearly all of the time here, and I need their arch support if I'm going to be standing or walking much. But it's a pain to take them off every time I enter a building and having to re-tie them when I leave, and do the same two minutes later at the next building. I brought flip-flops in case I wanted to keep my feet cleaner in the shower, but we're supposed to be barefoot in the huts . . . so I wear the flip-flops around the village and in the canoe, and only use my sneakers for walking in the forest. Living in the tropics means getting used to never having your feet--or your clothing, or much of anything--be completely clean and dry. It means having a lot of time to just sit around talking or watching/listening to the forest or waiting (or meditating). This is how the natives live. They have very little by our standards, but it doesn't seem to bother them much. I sometimes wonder what the point of their lives is because there is so little change and no great achievements that they are striving for; they don't try to get a better job or improve their houses or plan a fancy retirement. But what is the purpose of doing these things? None of us have it wrong in terms of what we do. But most of us have it wrong in ascribing meaning and purpose to our lives. They simply are as they are.
The second day at Xixuau, Peter and I went for a long walk in the forest in the morning. We had very little luck seeing wildlife, but it was a beautiful walk. I stopped many times along the way for some scenic photos, though it's always difficult to find good compositions in a forest. We got something of an "authentic" rainforest experience when we got caught in a shower for the last 1/3 of the hike. Zezinio did nothing to adjust. I put the rain cover on my camera backpack. Peter had brought an umbrella and was wearing a rain hat. Although there are no mosquitoes in the village because they can't live in the black water, the forest is another story entirely (as I learned on the first day's walk). Insect repellent helped a lot, but I still have many bites, which I expected and accepted. The repellent did not seem to deter the ants that climbed up and bit my legs when I stopped for a few minutes.
In the afternoon, we went out in the canoe for some swimming, fishing, and photography. The swim was again very refreshing. Peter seemed somewhat erratic and undecided with his fishing, and after a few minutes decided that he wanted to explore randomly. I wasn't especially interested in fishing, but I was annoyed because it defeats the purpose of having a knowledgable guide. He could have taken us to some great fishing spots, or to see the giant otters or other wildlife. I was also getting upset that it might interfere with the photography plan, which was to go through the dense, flooded forest around sunset to get some great scenic photos. But we did end up seeing quite a few animals, though they were often difficult to photograph. Some grey Botos (dolphins) surfaced near our canoe. Several interesting birds appeared momentarily. And as the sun started getting lower in the sky, I managed to communicate to Zezinio that I wanted to take pictures in the mangrove area. There as well, rather than trying to tell him where to go and when to stop, I went with the places he went. We barely spoke, but he noticed when I was trying to compose and would sometimes slow down and wait. The sky cleared a bit in the late afternoon. Sunsets here are not the spectacular affairs one finds in Africa, on even in the mountains in the U.S., and taking pictures from a moving boat presents some challenges. but it was beautiful and relaxing.
It's now 9:40 p.m. and Francesco, my hut-mate, is fast asleep and snoring. I'm also surprisingly tired, and my head and stomach don't feel so great. My ankles and back are sore from sitting in the canoe for hours and standing in front of the little shelf in my room to type this. And I'm having fun and happy to be here. Time to get some release the thoughts of the day, get some sleep, and see what tomorrow brings.