After spending the first week of our Brazilian vacation in Bahia, we headed to the interior of Brazil, deep into the Amazon. We flew at night to Manaus, Brazil’s westernmost large city and home to 2.5 million people, and all we could see on the way there was blackness. Even during the night, it was easy to tell how dense and enormous the Amazon was, despite the huge amount of deforestation that is going on.
From Manaus, we drove three hours into the forest, arriving at a tiny town called Novo Airão. We could see active deforestation happening from the road, and we drove on part of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which cuts through the jungle and has spurred further development in the region.
Novo Airão is located on the banks of the Rio Negro and is home to 10,000 people. It is right next to Anavilhanas National Park, the largest freshwater archipelago on Earth. But there’s something even more special about this region – it is a fluvial rainforest, which means that it floods during the rainy season, raising the water level more than 50 feet and creating 400 “islands” from the contours of the land. Once the rain stops, the water slowly drains out of the Amazon River Basin and into the ocean at Belem in the north of Brazil. This landscape changes so drastically throughout the year – in the dry season it is filled with beaches and hiking territory, and in the wet season it is a boater’s paradise. We visited just after the rainy season ended, so we got to see firsthand what a flooded forest really looked like.
For the next paragraph of the post, try playing the following audio clip of bird calls that I recorded during our time in the Amazon:
We zoomed through Anavilhanas National Park in our motor boat, zipping around corners and through tributaries lined with miles of dense forest. Our guide took us into natural tunnels where we were surrounded by trees, filled with the sounds of the jungle, and we felt as if we were on a different planet. We also got to see several large lakes, their surfaces as smooth and clear as mirrors. This whole landscape was absolutely stunning to me, but what got me the most was the water – the Rio Negro is a blackwater tributary, and the water is acidic from all the leaves and fruit that fall into it, which turns the native dolphins pink, repels most mosquitoes from the area, and turns the water a dark, thick color, preventing light from penetrating more than a few inches below the surface. As our boat floated past the trees, our wake created slow, rolling waves, making the water seem fuller and smoother than I was used to, holding many secrets in its depths.
One of those secrets is the amazing ability of the trees in Anavilhanas to survive while completely submerged under water. It was so magical to look down into the river and see the very tops of trees rooted far, far below, and to realize that they were still alive. Anavilhanas is one of the most unique places on the planet. This is the way it has been here for millions of years, and the indigenous people of this region have interacted with this environment for many thousands of years. But, like many other precious areas of the world, this region is now changing rapidly. Tourism, development, and deforestation are enormous threats to biodiversity and conservation, and climate change is threatening to rock the very fabric of the fluvial cycles that so many animals, plants, and people depend on. Our tour guide Vermelinho, who grew up even deeper in the Amazonian wilderness, told us that climate change is making it harder to predict the changes in water levels throughout the year, which affects life cycles of native wildlife, resource planning in indigenous communities, and erosion risks for small towns like Novo Airão.
It was sobering to be in such a beautiful place and to know that it is under serious threat from human activity. In addition to admiring the scenery of Anavilhanas, we saw a large crocodile, stopped by some ancient petroglyphs, and visited some very tall trees in the bordering Jau National Park. We also enjoyed hanging out at our lodge in Novo Airão, where there was a giant rope swing and a place to wade into the black river. And we were continually reminded of how many interesting and amazing people there are in this world – one of our fellow guests at the lodge was on a 5-year motorcycle tour of the world, featuring his dog Teríx (named after “Arcteryx”).
But one of our family’s most special experiences during our time in the Amazon was meeting a semi-indigenous community that is living in Anavilhanas National Park. They are allowed to harvest for subsistence, and make weekly boat trips to Manaus to get supplies that they need. They make ends meet through artisanry, crafting beautiful pieces of jewelry that they then sell to tourists. We became very close with one family in particular during our visit to the community that had three kids. One showed us how they cook a traditional food called farinha in this huge outdoor pot while another played soccer with the new ball he had just bought with his own money while his grandmother carried their three pet macaws around on a broomstick. We also met their pet toucan.
Among other pets were turtles, chickens, and an adorable puppy – that was the first time I’ve seen all three of those animals together. My sister and I sat on the ground outside their chicken coop while the kids broke open a fruit and showed us how indigenous people squish the red berries inside to paint their faces. One of the kids took three fingers, dipped them in the red ink, and traced them across my face. “La India Branca,” she called me. “The White Indian.”
Before we left, the kids led us on a short trek into the woods, wielding machetes and chopping off stalks of sugar cane for us to chew. They pulled a mandioca plant out of the ground and explained how they prepare it for farinha. When my sister said she wanted to take a bite, they quickly stopped her and said that it was poisonous until cooked. I felt so safe with them – they knew what plants to touch and not to touch, what to eat and not to eat, and what insects were actually dangerous, instead of my assumption that they all were. As a first-time visitor to the Amazon, I transitioned between wanting to interact with everything in this extraordinary place, and not wanting anything to so much as brush my shirt. These kids opened up the jungle for me, showing a few of its secrets and demonstrating what I thought was as close to a sustainable lifestyle as it gets.
By modern American standards, these people were very poor, living in huts with dirt floors, unreliable electricity, and very little technology. But these boys were so proud of their community and wanted to show us everything about their lives. I’ve been to communities like this in other parts of the world and I’ve usually left feeling uneasy, like I was an intruder and I didn’t belong in this place that was so different from where I grew up. But I didn’t feel any of that this time. These boys and their parents made us feel so welcome, and it seemed like they really wanted to tell their story. So we listened, and then we shared a bit of our story too, all in their native language of Portuguese. We headed back to our lodge in Novo Airão, and the red lines on my face melted away as I cooled off in the pool. Two very different worlds, and yet, it is all the same planet.