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High on the Amazon

By Taryn Hottman

AmazonChildren in the Trees © Taryn Hottman

Amazon. The word inspires dreams of impenetrable jungle and impossible trees, half-clad tribes and legendary creatures. It is nature so untamed and extreme it could never be contained. It is wanderlust, it is wild, it is water. Over 6,000 kilometres in length – flowing from the Andes in Peru to the Atlantic coast of Brazil – the Amazon is the second longest river in the world, surpassed only by the Nile. It carries twenty percent of the Earth's fresh water. Throughout its length, the river is one to ten kilometres wide (broader still in the wet season), save at its estuary where it fans into the sea for nearly 325 kilometres. Not one bridge spans it.  

I am floating on this mighty waterway in a small pirogue, cutting through the flooded jungle near Manaus, Brazil. Leo, my native guide, scouts the water and directs our driver, who is managing the outboard motor. I'm crouched at the front of the craft; two other tourists are sitting at the back, their inane chatter drowned out by the motor. The night is heavy and still and complete. This close to the equator there is no twilight – darkness falls like a blanket. The afternoon's rain has gathered up the skirts of its torrents and lingers in the wings, while omniscient stars take center stage.  

Leo kneels at the bow, scanning the banks with a flashlight, hunting for the cold points of reflected red that would reveal a reptilian eye. We are searching for caiman. Maybe it's “touristy” to seek a glimpse of the up to two-meter crocodile in its natural habitat, but it's something I've never seen before. There is joy in that: something new, different, thrilling. Leo is somewhat nonplussed. Such a creature is commonplace for him – he grew up around them. The same could be said for the monkeys we'd spotted that afternoon – for me, they were a giddy joy; for Leo they were an annoyance since, as he says, they “run around on the roof and throw shit at me.” I wonder how he would react to something I would dismiss: a raccoon or a chipmunk.  

AmazonAmazon at Sunset © Taryn Hottman

The flashlight beam dances over tangled roots and drooping ferns, skitters over flooded trees half-submerged in the engorged river in this wet season. The water has recently risen by more than ten meters. With the light, Leo gestures and the driver alters our course to the right The soft swish of the tannin-brown water against our hull increases, and I try not to ponder what might be lurking beneath us. Could it be the fresh water dolphin, the three-meter Pirarucu catfish or the flesh-starved piranha?

Leo flashes me a smile and I leech onto his confidence.  “Where're you from?” I ask.  

“From here,” he answers.  

“From Manaus?”

It's the obvious assumption – the foreigner's assumption – that he would hail from the nearest major city, the only major city out here in the wilderness. Located on the northern bank of the Amazon and only three degrees from the equator, it is home to more than a million people.  

“No. I am from here. From the jungle. My village is there –.” He points into the darkness. “Not far.”  

“Where did you learn English?”  

“From people like you.”  He smiles again, adjusting the fluorescent green ball cap that he is never without. “From tourists. But my English is very bad.”  

It isn't. His English is better than that of most of the people I know back home. Leo taught himself Portuguese in the same manner and is now working on his Spanish. I am in awe – absolute awe. My own Spanish is pidgin at best, consisting more of exaggerated gestures than actual language, and my Portuguese is but a few phrases memorized for Carnival (the most notable of which are “nice ass” and “a beer, please”).  And yet, society would claim that I am supposed to be the educated one – the wise and wealthy Westerner. What conceit.  

Leo gestures to the driver again, and our putt-putting boat shifts back to the left. The starlit water casts perfect reflections of the flooded trees. The glossy glass of the swollen river is God's own vanity mirror and He is preening in preparation for some grand event. ­­The wake of our pirogue does not disturb the reflection, making our presence seem wholly insignificant. Not even the nearest bank will mark our passing – there will be no trace of us in Belem, where the full force of the river surges into the sea and resists blending with the salt water for hundreds of kilometres.

The air is semi-cool as we weave through the partially submerged false mangroves, the high water drowning the expected stench of rotting vegetation. There is no whine of mosquitoes – the acidity of the water here prevents their breeding. In fact, the night is startlingly quiet: no bird calls, no insects chirping. There is only the intrusive sound of our passage.  

AmazonReflections of the Amazon © Taryn Hottman

I let my gaze wander up to the sky and I am lost. It is God's boudoir and His garments are the timeless stars. There are so many I lose my way among the silky scarves of the Milky Way. It is every child's hiding place – the blessed closet exorcised of its demons, where the ever-young may hide from monsters under the bed. I would conceal myself there forever if only… The flashlight clicks on again and I am wrenched from the wardrobe, the putt-putting and the tannin-swish bringing me back to the little wooden boat.  

“There…” Leo's voice is ghostlike in the darkness. His torch shines into the dense vegetation, where a perfect red orb glints back in reply. I stare into the reflected luminescence and the light winks out momentarily as the monster blinks. Caiman. All I can see is a bright spot of red, but I know what lurks in the darkness: teeth and claws and forty-five kilograms of predator. Sure as hell it's no raccoon or chipmunk. The scarlet glimmer winks out permanently as the creature slips beneath the river's surface and vanishes. That's all we see, but it is enough.  

The flashlight is turned off; I tip my head back, retreating again into the perpetual closet of the sky, allowing my soul to be polished eternally by eternal stars. Then – is it possible?  The Big Dipper – the beacon of my Northern home – is flourishing above the alien trees. The Great Bear – upside down, but unmistakable – is draped over God's hanger. I snap my head around, scanning the opposite horizon. There with God's shoes and trousers are the four points of the Southern Cross, bright above the treetops. How can they share the same sky, these indicators of opposite latitudes, of incompatible horizons?  Am I somehow asleep?  Am I dreaming? The putt-putting is proof I am awake, that here, straddling the equator in a land without twilight, such impossibility is common-place. No one else notices. Leo and the driver know no other sky and my tourist counterparts are absorbed in arguing over who took the best picture of what on their digital cameras earlier that day.  

But me, I forget the pirogue, the caiman. I forget Manaus and Belem and Brazil. The sky and the river have captured me. Amazon. The word may lead to secret, childhood dreams of jungle, of water, of caiman… For me Amazon is humility and joy and stars.

In the last four years, Taryn Hottman has travelled to sixty countries across six continents.  She taught English as a Second Language in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and is currently teaching in Poza Rica, Mexico.  Last year, her article “San Nicolas Shipping,” a story about travelling on local transport in the Philippines, was published with accompanying photos in SEA Backpacker Magazine.

Images edited by Kamer Guzel