I have a confession to make. It has taken me 20 years to admit this in print: I hate tropical rainforests.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m strongly in favor of preservation. The biodiversity harbored within the humid chaos of leaves and shadows is astonishing. Rainforests represent a priceless genetic library. They drive our climate. They are the lungs of our planet. We need them. But don’t expect me to enjoy being in one.
When I first visited the Amazon two decades ago, I was a bona fide tree-hugger. I set off on my initial forest trek filled with romantic wonder. I returned a couple of hours later, drenched in sweat, close to dehydration and with every square inch of exposed skin pocked with insect bites.
For all the discomforts and irritations, I keep returning. I have visited the Amazon in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Now I am in the very heart of this vast, complex ecosystem. I have boarded a boat in the Brazilian city of Manaus, heading upstream to a jungle lodge.
The image in your mind’s eye might not entirely match the reality. If you’re picturing one of the traditional wooden boats that ply the tangled waterways of the Amazon basin, you’d be wide of the mark.
By “boat” I actually mean a sleek, air-conditioned motor yacht that would not look out of place at a marina in the French Riviera. By “upstream” I mean a 45-minute voyage to a tributary just beyond sight of the city skyline. And by “jungle lodge” I mean a floating 5-star hotel, the Amazon Jungle Palace.
We sit on the upper deck sipping drinks as the increasingly forested banks of the Rio Negro slip by. Finally the boat steers into a narrow channel, maneuvers around a bend, and we arrive at the four-story hotel. A waiter greets us with a tray of cocktails.
This is the Amazon, though not as I’m used to it. My room has a plasma TV. I boot up my laptop and check my email. I take a shower, then read my Kindle (which has more than 200 books stored on it).
I usually leave significant elements of my life behind when I venture into the wilderness. This time, all the trappings of 2011 have come with me.
After dinner, in the dark, we decant to a long wooden boat for a short, torch-lit exploration of the labyrinthine channels surrounding the lodge. For a time, the boatman cuts the outboard motor, our guide switches off his torch, and we sit in inky blackness listening to the nocturnal soundtrack of the rainforest. Bats and moths flicker above us.
The following morning, we hit the trail. I douse myself head to toe with insect repellent. Then I repeat the procedure, just to be sure. We march in single file up a slight incline. I’m lathered in sweat almost immediately.
From a distance, a rainforest appears vibrant and harmonious, everything coexisting in natural balance. Up close, it is full of decay and life-or-death struggles. The forest floor is carpeted with a dense mulch of leaf litter. Against this fetid backdrop, creatures large and small are engaged in a constant battle for survival. Many of them have developed formidable defenses.
Our guide finds a bullet ant nest. We cluster round, though not too close. A sting from one of these inch-long insects is reputed to be the most painful of all stings, with the agony lasting for 24 hours.
Nearby, we crouch around a hole at the base of a tree. Our guide pushes a long twig into it, coaxing out a tarantula. We can see its fangs attempting to inflict a venomous bite on the offending piece of wood.
Returning to the river, we are abruptly halted by a snake on the path. Coiled tightly, with its head poised to strike, it is a deadly fer-de-lance. We make a wide detour, then resume our journey back to the hermetic comforts of the hotel.
This is merely the prelude to our real adventure in the Brazilian rainforest. It is soon time to strike deeper into the Amazon and to trade 5-star comfort for something more authentic.
We return to Manaus, cross the river by water taxi, drive for 40 minutes on worsening roads, then negotiate a succession of narrowing waterways by speedboat. The reception bars on my cellphone are lost one by one. I am out of range long before we reach Juma Lodge at dusk.
The lodge consists of wooden bungalows linked by rickety walkways. During my visit, the Amazon is in flood, and the stilted bungalows sit only a few feet above the water. In the dry season, the water level drops by more than 40 feet, leaving the entire lodge complex perched on spindly wooden scaffolding high above the forest floor.
My bungalow is simple. No TV, no Internet, no air conditioning. A ceiling fan turns languidly overhead. The light is too dim for reading. A brewing storm outside flaps the curtains through the glassless screened windows. A hammock is slung across the veranda; I lie in it for a while. The sounds of the rainforest are vivid and immediate. Thunder rumbles in the distance.
We fall into a new routine. Exploration of the forest is punctuated by delicious buffet meals in the stilted restaurant. To get anywhere from Juma, we must go by boat, weaving between the upper branches of the flooded forest until we reach higher ground where we can hike.
Day by day, I become increasingly acclimatized and more attuned to the movement and sounds of the forest. Wildlife encounters here are often sudden and fleeting. You need to be quick with your binoculars or camera. There, a toucan. There, a green iguana. There, a saki monkey. Each sighting is thrilling.
After our sojourn in Juma, we head back to Manaus, the city of 2 million people located at the confluence of the Negro and Solimoes rivers. As we move within range of the city’s telecommunications masts, our cellphones begin to trill after three days of silence.
One of the few remnants of Manaus’ late-19th-century heyday as the world capital of the rubber industry is the incongruous Renaissance-style opera house, Teatro Amazonas, the city’s top manmade attraction. It has been beautifully maintained, complete with a ceiling painting in the auditorium designed to look like the Eiffel Tower seen from directly underneath. The Parisian pretentions once extended to the city itself, though only a few faded buildings recall that glorious past.
After the Brazilian rubber boom ended, Manaus declined for decades. But today it is booming again as a free-trade zone. Sitting in a minibus in the traffic-choked streets of downtown, I take the opportunity to apply after-bite ointment to the many itchy blotches on my arms and legs.
The traffic inches forward. I remember the afternoon we spent on the river near Juma watching squadrons of parakeets and egrets fly across the rosy sky toward their evening roosts. I remember the sloths that we spotted in the treetops. I remember waking each morning to the dawn chorus.
Yes, I was exposed to myriad discomforts. And yes, in that respect I still hate the rainforest. But it is one of the most spectacular environments on Earth, full of secrets and surprises. Much as I hate it, I love it, too. That’s why I keep coming back.
Info to Go
Flights arrive at Eduardo Gomes International Airport (MAO) from major Brazilian
cities and Miami. Despite its size, Manaus lacks first-class hotels, though
with the city set to be a venue for the 2014 Soccer World Cup, several major
hotel developments are in the pipeline. For now, the top hotel is the Tropical
Manaus (www.tropicalhotel.com.br), which doesn’t live
up to international 5-star standards. An alternative is the Amazônia Golf Resort
by Nobile (www.nobilehoteis.com.br),
situated in immaculate grounds surrounded by rainforest a 40-minute drive north
of the city. The Amazon Jungle Palace (tel 55 92 3212 5600) is ideal for experiencing
the rainforest without abandoning modern comforts. Juma Lodge (www.jumalodge.com)
provides a much more rustic, close-to-nature experience. The staff is friendly
and highly knowledgeable.
Awareness about fair and sustainable travel continues to grow around the globe, with travelers everywhere considering a destination’s eco-friendly options before visiting. As public consciousness for this important aspect of tourism strengthens, tourists also look beyond just ecotourism and delve deeper into types of travel that allow them to respect the local culture, interact with locals and distribute benefits fairly.
Without visiting, it’d be easy to throw Chicago into any number of categories. Everyone thinks they know Chicago; after all, it’s the third-largest city in America, the most prestigious foodie city in the country, the city of jazz, a comedian’s playground, an architect’s dream, a writer’s paradise. The list goes on. Only when walking the streets themselves do you realize there’s nothing categorical about the Windy City, especially as it continues to evolve.
PHOTO: © ADRIAN OLSTAD
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