A Still Mind | Rio Negro

Rio Negro

February 23, 2014  •  1 Comment
I believe it's a section of the Tao Te Ching that states that a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on reaching his/her destination. This sort of teaching is a fitting one for an Amazon adventure that is not with a luxury-oriented group. I had a nice Thursday morning in Manaus with a few of the other travelers. All of them are visiting the reserve as part of a research project. Before I left, I received an e-mail from Francesco, who is the curator of biodiversity at a museum in Italy. He told me that he was coming to work with the locals at Xixuau to do a mammal monitoring project. Very cool! We met for dinner on Thursday night, and got together again on Friday morning with his Brazilian colleagues: Alexandre, who is a professor in Boa Vista, Brazil, and two of his undergraduate students, Dennis and Yasmim. I bought a hammock, which I needed for sleeping on the boat ride to Xixuau, and we had lunch together. At 3:00 we gathered to leave for the boat.
Our group was much bigger than I expected, and it was large enough that the reserve came with their private riverboat rather than having us take the public boat most of the way, up the Rio Negro, and then picking us up in a smaller speedboat for the journey up the Rio Jauperi to the reserve. Rounding out our group are Ed and Christine, and unlikely seeming couple from outside Los Angeles. Christine is originally from France, and has done a lot of adventure travel. The mother-daughter pair of Sarah and Izzy joined as well; Sarah is an avid birdwatcher and all-around opinionated person. And there is Peter, a very sweet older man from Denmark who brought a classical guitar on the trip and is fluent in four languages. Many in the group speak English, some speak little or none. And we met Chris, our leader from the reserve who is fluent in English, Italian, and Portuguese. So there is some translating among people, some complete lack of understanding, and quite a bit of fun trying to communicate as we become friends. From a hotel in Manaus, our eventful journey began.
Rather than leave from the port in Manaus, our we headed to meet our riverboat further out in the country. Just how far was a surprise, as the trip I expected to be one hour and was told would be two hours stretched to over three. Our driver's old car had tire trouble along the way. And traveling by car here is wild to begin with. The lines on the roads seem to be taken as mere suggestions, when they exist at all. Same for speed limits, especially outside of town (in town, I didn't notice any speed limit signs, and they would be irrelevant anyway since the traffic keeps vehicles moving so slowly). Slowing or stopping for pedestrians is rare. It was a relief to finally get out of the city, at least in terms of the noise and traffic. The driving was just as nuts, though with far fewer cars. The tire incident was worrisome as we couldn't understand what the driver was telling us. He dropped us at a small shop at which he apparently knew people, and we took out all of our luggage because we weren't sure if he would be coming back. The driver contacted Chris, who showed up and explained the situation. Despite the somewhat harrowing experience, we had nothing to worry about in terms of safety or security. Everyone was friendly and honest.
The Amazon countryside was pretty, but seemed quite ordinary. I often felt like driving through a valley in rural Virginia, with small farms and ranches along the way. Since it's a tourist area, there are also lodges and restaurants in seemingly odd places. I noticed how much my mind tended to wander, imagining the lives of the people here and thinking about the upcoming boat journey. We finally arrived at the dock, hidden in a small community behind a saw mill. There was little information or instruction about what was happening as we unloaded the cars and began to bring our luggage to the boat. Then we waited. And waited . . . eventually finding out that the boat's engine needed a part, which they had to obtain and/or fabricate . . . somewhere. Our expected 6-7 p.m. departure didn't happen until almost 11. At best, we would arrive at Xixuau very late the following night.
The boat ride was had its own adventures. It was rustic, to say the least. The lower deck was very cramped, and extremely loud from the clackety-clack and deep rumble of the big diesel. We slept on the upper deck, which had a large covered area to hang our hammocks and a smaller deck in the back for standing or sitting (though there were only four chairs). Temperatures were refreshingly cool compared to Manaus. It rained for a good part of the day, which we had to expect in the rainforest. We also stopped several times along the way, once for what seemed like a social call at a tiny village, another seemingly to pick up some food and supplies, and a final long stop at a village to pick up another 8 or so passengers, including Chris' 2-year-old daughter. Dinner came late, as it had the night before, and seemed as though parts had been cooked too long, others cooked earlier and left to sit until they got cold. I tried to remember that it's difficult to cook for a big group in a small boat galley.
The rainforest is beautiful, but not quite as I expected. I had read that many people are often disappointed by the Amazon because they think that it will be like the African Savannah, teeming with large, impressive wildlife. In the Amazon, most of the animals are smaller and more difficult to see in the dense jungle. The river and forest themselves are beautiful, but also not the mind-blowing experience one might expect or hope for. As with the countryside, it often looks very ordinary. Yes the Rio Negro is big, and different for the very dark water. In some places, it's so wide that it looks like a lake. The trees on the banks are . . . green. Some are partly submerged at this time of year. Most look like trees in a forest anywhere. We saw a fair number of birds, but they were sparse. One or two at a time, several minutes apart, then nothing for a while longer. A nice thrill were the Boto, or river dolphins. They would appear from time to time at near the shore, surfacing for a breath and occasionally jumping a bit out of the water. The day seemed very long. I again noticed my mind wandering out of boredom and because things felt so ordinary. 
The wandering mind was a frequent occurrence, and one that is very useful to watch for. I also saw many times how my mind ran off in story or imagination because it started complaining about something it didn't like. The rain, the noisy engine, the lack of some time and space for myself, the food and meal times, the overcast skies that make for lousy photography . . . my mind can always find much that it doesn't like. With a little effort, I can notice all of the positive and neutral things that are also happening in the present. The temperature was comfortable, I'm with some very nice people . . . and I'm in the Amazon! Ordinary experience can be exquisite when you are fully present with it. And I after years of meditation practice, I can notice very quickly when my mind begins to wander, and I can see all the other things that are present even when a sense of self is stuck on some complaint or imaginary story.
After another late dinner, our group, quite tired at this point, sat and talked and looked up at the stars through the partly cloudy sky. By 10, nearly all of us were in bed as the boat continued up the Rio Jauperi in the darkness. I awoke in the middle of the night to find the engine quiet and the boat tied to the shore at Xixuau. The next morning, we began our first day exploring the reserve.


Stef from Four Thirds User photography forum(non-registered)
I love your writing style Hal and feel I'm sharing the trip vicariously through you... haven't missed the photography at all. Since my early childhood reading the adventures of "Bomba- The Jungle Boy" I've had an affinity for the Amazon Basin, one of the great engines of this earth. Keep writing... I'll keep reading
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