I have come to find that living in the Amazon comes with many physical challenges during the most seemingly normal days. Just in this past week I have fought off dehydration, sun poisoning, and the dangers of drowning. All of these risky events occurred while going out on “recreational” activities. Americans go to the movies when they are bored, Brazilians in the Amazon rainforest stare death in the face.
The first adventure was a trip to Igatape, a part of the river where the water is black, clear, and clean enough to swim in. Black and clear may sound contradictory, but that is what is so beautiful about this little watering hole. It feels almost as if you are swimming in a huge lake of sweet tea, and can see through the cool water all the way down to the tiny pebbles at your feet.
Edwarda sunbathing in the "Sweet Tea" water
We were going to Igatape with the same family my parents had befriended many years ago. We had gone with them 4 years ago and had such a fun time playing tag and racing games with the little boys in the water that we were ready for a fun break from the unfailing task of doing research on Acai everyday. However, when we got to the families’ house, there were no cars or taxis around to take us to Igatape, which was about 15 miles away. What we saw instead was a single motorcycle waiting patiently for us in the middle of the dirt road.
My mom, terrified of all things small and fast moving, made the decision for us that we would instead walk to Igatape and meet the family there. Two of the boys decided to walk with us, and we set off on our journey. This seemed like a fine idea at the time, we had walked that long of a distance before, however like most things during this trip… we had greatly underestimated the intensity of the Amazon sun.
We started off walked at a quick pace, laughing and joking with every step. However soon the talking started to fade out, and was being replaced by heavy breathing and panting. My mom opened up her “Middle Tennessee State University” umbrella to protect herself from the sun, but it was about as helpful as wearing a poncho during a hazardous flood. The heat was coming from all directions.
As we continued to walk, beads of sweat started to trickle down my face and blur my vision, which was fine with me considering all I would be starring at would be the blinding refection of the sun bouncing off the orange dirt road. My shoulders and back of my neck started to tingle with a deep burning sensation. I glanced to the side and swore I saw smoke coming off of my crisping shoulders. Maybe it was just a mirage. Maybe the sun was already affecting my mind. I started to feel lightheaded and realized the only thing I had to drink that morning was a cup of black coffee. My tongue felt like chalk as the bitter taste of coffee was still very much present. I tried to focus on other things to keep my mind distracted from the discomfort of the heat. I tried to count how many footsteps I could hear in the crunching dirt and gravel road we were stumbling on. But when that started to put me to sleep I focused instead on my dad’s shirt. I tried to find images in his sweat stained back. I found a giraffe.
I looked up at the sky and saw a dozen buzzards circling right above us. They sensed something about to die. Considering we were the only living things for miles, I could easily assume it this group of staggering Americans they were waiting for. My lightheadedness started to increase, and I began to see white dots in my sun-affected eyes from starring at the sky too long. I told myself, “Don’t pass out, Annie, don’t pass out. That’s just what the buzzards are waiting for.” Right as my knees started to lock and vision start to fade to blackness, I saw in the distance a motorcycle coming to our rescue. The dad of the family turned his motorcycle to a stop beside us and kicked up some orange dirt that make the most beautiful dirt cloud I had ever seen, considering it was the reason I was not going to be eaten by buzzards. My sister and I threw our legs over the motorcycle and watched the boys and our parents, happily regaining their strength from a bundle of bananas they had bought. disappear as we sped off on the bumpy journey. I laughed to myself as I saw the boys still had smiles on their faces as they waved goodbye, barely affected by the sun. I didn’t understand how you could ever get use to this heat.
As the wind from the motorcycle started to hit my face I instantly started to feel better. My strength only increased when we finally made it to Igatape and plunged into the cool black, sweet tea water. We played games in the water for about an hour or so, and I realized that even though it had been so long since I last visited, nothing had changed. The little boys may have looked all grown up, but they were just the same as I had remembered… I realized this as a giant float bounced off the side of my head from the youngest boys attempt to slow me down during our race. When we were about to start the journey back home, we didn’t even have to start worrying about dehydration as a friendly man with a pick up truck pulled over and offered us a ride. We hopped in the back and were returned safely home.
During our next adventure, however, we were not as lucky to have a family of Brazilians that would never let anything bad happen to us, or friendly man driving a pick up. We were instead on our own, as the entire field study group decided to take two canoes up the Amazon rainforest with only ourselves paddling and the winding river decided our fate. We set off feeling like Pocahontas herself paddling and looking just around the river bend. The heat of the sun was masked by the hundreds of trees above us, only allowing a cool breeze to pass through their branches and acting as our own personal air conditioner. It didn’t take long for us to realize that paddling was hard work.
I was suddenly taken back to the days when I was a little girl and all I wanted to do was shovel snow off the driveway. One day, I woke up to a white, snow covered drive way and my dad handed me a shovel with a smirk on his face. I ran outside ready to start on this fun task. I dug my shovel into the snow… and found myself stuck bent over with my butt in the air and the snow filled shovel making no movement any direction. I didn’t even complete one full shoveling action until I put the shovel aside and decided snow angels were plenty entertainment for me.
The view from our canoe
As I dug the paddle into the river and pulled with all my force to move the six-person canoe against the current, I realized this was not as fun as it looked. Pocahontas had deceived me. It seemed we had all made my same mistake, and two hours later our group set the paddles down in the canoe and took deep breathes as we rested our aching arm muscles before we turned around to head back.
About a third of the way (going upstream again since the river was filling back up with water) we were hit full force with another famous characteristic of the rainforest… rain.
My mom pulled out her trusty umbrella, which once again proved to be useless… for this was not any normal rain. The raindrops, although someone slowed by the tress, were about the size of walnuts. It felt as if a vicious indigenous tribe was attacking our canoe from every direction with water balloons.
Before the rain had started, my dad had given away one of our paddles to the other, smaller canoe which had sped off ahead of us. Now, being completely alone in the rain disturbed river and noticing our canoe was beginning to fill with water, we began to paddle faster with only 4 people now having a paddle. No longer huddled up in a ball, I let the ice cold rain sting the back of my neck since I had given up on the idea of keeping at least some part of my body dry. I took the paddle from my tired sister and began trying to help pull us along the quickly flooding river.
I have never experienced Chinese water torture, but I think I felt some degree of what it must feel like then. The rain was falling on my head and streams of water were running down my face and over my eyes. My eyelashes were creating what felt like mini-waterfalls, keeping the water out of my eyes, yet my vision was very much blurred. The water would stream from off my head over my mouth, making deep breathing very difficult. The splashes coming off the river from my frantic paddling were also blurring my vision and continuing the soaking process of my shirt. On top of all that the walnut sized rain drops were hitting the river and splashing back up onto my face, making me feel as if it was raining backwards as well.
All communication in our canoe was lost as the rain pounded deafeningly on the trees and river. We were both blind and deaf, but kept paddling forward hoping to run into the dock soon and not a fallen tree. Finally, after what seemed like years, we saw the outline of the dock through the thick rain and began paddling faster. When we were close enough to hop off the canoe we realized the rain had worn down the once dirt hill and our only way onto land was to climb over the mudslide it had become. My dad made the first attempt, and unsuccessfully slipped in the mud. We all knew we had to make this same attempt, yet it didn’t keep us from laughing. Neil was the next one to make it safely off the boat and grabbed the rest of our hands and pulled us to land one by one.
Right as we all were safely on the land, the rain slowed to a drizzle. As we made the walk back into the town, we all shared a cup of Neil’s hot chocolate we had previously made fun of him for bringing on a trip into the jungle. We walked on as we got curious looks from the townspeople who were confused as to why this group of American students looked exhausted and were drenched from head to toe with muddy water.
As we continued walking, I wondered to myself if an outsider would ask… “Why put yourself through that?” Well, with my shoes squished out river water with ever step and my hair matted to my forehead, I never felt more accomplished. At that moment I felt as if I was walking down the path of victory, with every step being one step farther from your everyday sorority girl and one step closer to your everyday Amazon warrior. Well… a baby step closer at least.