Surrounded by evergreen rainforest trees, the Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge is situated on the Rio Negro 200 kilometers to the north-west of Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s largest state – Amazonas. The Amazon rainforest is home to 10 percent of the world’s known species and represents over half of the planet’s rainforests. While we did not run into any block parties in this part of the world, the night spotting boat rides, river swims, and jungle walks more than made up for it.
I always knew that the Amazon was exceptionally diverse, but taking a walk through the jungle canopy on one of the 400 islands of the Anavilhana river archipelago gave a whole new meaning to the word “diverse”. Most of these islands are partially or wholly flooded in the wet season, when the water levels rise by up to 20 feet, transforming the area’s landscape and of course giving my swim buddies, the pink river dolphins, more room to play. As I learned more about the different plants, trees, and animals that call the Amazon home, the more I believed that this must have been one of the most luxurious rainforests to live in. With plants that store liquid water and tree sap that is still used to cure cough and cold, I quickly fell in love the marvels of what nature had to offer. It’s not just me though. Coco Chanel must have also made her way to one of these jungle walks, apparent by the fact that the oil of the Rosewood tree (pau rosa) is used in Chanel No. 5. As it turns out, indigenous Amazon tribes preferred to go with the powder from the bark of a palm tree over Sephora’s Setting Powder when getting ready for date night and, after a long night out, did not hesitate to put the bottle of ibuprofen aside and pop a few shavings of the Cat’s Claw (unha de gato) vine instead.
Contrary to what we all might hope, the Amazon ants were also surprisingly useful. They can be used as a natural mosquito repellant by simply putting your hand on a bark full of ants, letting them crawl all over your hand, and then rubbing your hands together to crush the ants and squeeze out the formic acid from their venom. Interestingly enough, the formic acid got its name from “formica”, the Latin name for ant. We also witnessed a beautiful symbiotic relationship between acacia plants and ants, wherein the plants give the ants an all-inclusive stay with a 24 hour protein-rich food supply and hollow thorns which can be used as nests. In return, the ants protect the plants against herbivores, because nobody likes to get ants in their food. I was a little disappointed that we did not get to see any exotic snakes on this walk but we did get a chance to play tug of war with a tarantula using a small stick. Needless to say, the tarantula won in extra time.
As much as I wanted my Instagram location tag to say “Amazon River”, we were actually on the Rio Negro, the largest blackwater river in the world. Originating in Colombia, this river has a dark color resembling that of black tea due to tannins from decayed and dissolved plant matter. This also makes the river extremely acidic with a pH between 3 and 4, that, wait for it, prevents mosquito larvae from forming! So even though I was on a very strict malaria pill regiment, I did not get bitten by a single mosquito during my time at the Amazon. So am I glad that I didn’t get bitten or am I sad that my pills were a complete waste? I’m still not sure. A couple hundred kilometers downstream in Manaus, you can actually see the brown colored Solimões River (i.e. Amazon) meet with the Rio Negro in a very fascinating encounter. The two rivers flow side by side for over six kilometers without mixing given the stark differences in temperature, speed, and water density. You can literally have one hand in the Solimões and the other in the Rio Negro and very easily know that the Solimões is significantly cooler and faster moving. Eventually, thanks to a blast of fast-moving whitewater, the two rivers converge to become part of the Lower Amazon – a truly beautiful sight to see.
Ironically enough, the most incredible time to see the river, for me, was at night. Aside from a few distractions from an incredibly slow sloth, a lurking Amazon Tree Boa, and a few spying Caimans, I spent most of the night boat ride staring at the sky. I have had the fortune to travel to many night-sky-famous parts of the world, from Yosemite to Pangong Lake, but never have I seen a night sky this bright. Once we entered the inner island-lakes formed by the flooding river, we were away from all artificial light and could truly enjoy the myriad constellations (some of which I definitely made up) and the enigma that is the universe (I still cannot fathom how the universe is infinite but I also don’t understand how it can be finite… but please let’s not get into that right now).
The stars I was looking at were between 1 and 10 billion years old. The rainforest I was in has existed for at least 55 million years and the river I was on is around 11 million years old. My thoughts and imaginations were floating far into the Stratosphere… until I was quickly brought back to earth after spotting a plastic bottle floating a few feet from the river bank . There is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way. One million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world and that number has no signs of slowing. Additionally, 91% of the plastic waste isn’t recycled and virtually every piece of plastic that was every made still exists in some shape or form. A recent study showed that fish in the deepest waters of the world, the Mariana Trench, had traces of plastic in their stomachs and a plastic bag was also found on the ocean bed, 36,000 feet below sea level.
The beautiful world I had the chance to see in Brazil will not last long if we continue at the rate we are going. Small drops make an ocean and there are small things we can do to start the move in the right direction. The U.S. uses 500 million plastic straws every day. Maybe say no to a plastic straw the next time you are offered one – do we really really need it? When stepping out to buy a box of Lucky Charms and a gallon of milk from the CVS down the block, perhaps bring a bag with you or carry it in your hand. Invest in a good reusable bottle and just think twice before buying a plastic bottle when there is filtered water available a minute away. Plastic destroys ecosystems and kills hundreds of animals and fish every day. None of this is easy, and it is virtually impossible to cut out plastic from our lives… but we can at least try a little?
Standing at the dock and looking across to the other side of the river was as peaceful as it was embarrassing. Embarrassing because what I thought was the other side of the river was actually just the start of one island and the distance I was gawking at was just 1/12th of the width of that part of the river. The sheer beauty, energy, and spirit of Brazil will stay with me for a very long time… or at least until I return, for I will be back.