Meeting the Mighty – Amazonas

A big bridge for a biiiiiiiiig river

At 8 am on Sunday, a passenger van picked up our family of six to deliver us (and about 20 others) to the port of Manaus. The plan for the day was a 1 1/2 hour trip up the river to swim with the pink dolphins, pass under the new bridge and visit an indigenous tribe. Then back another 2 hours to see the meeting of the waters–where the brown Solimões River meets the black Rio Negro and travel together for miles without mixing.

After unloading the van, we walked through the gritty port area of Manaus. Ah, the sweet smell of diesel in the morning. The port and the floating docks (the float allows them to rise and fall with the dry and wet seasons) were built by the English. I have to say that the Amazon region owes a lot of its positives and one big negative to those Brits. They did a lot of nice building, but they also stole the rubber plants that brought the region its wealth. The Brits decided to steal them so that they could plant them in more accessible and cheaper part of the world (southeast Asia). British missionaries also taught our guide Francisco how to speak English, and it was excellent. So we’ll give them a chaotic good rating for the moment (who speaks Dungeons and Dragons, anyone?)

Things got a bit wet in 2012, no? High water marks in various years

We had to walk through metal detecting machines at the entrance to the port–well, they would have detected metal if they had actually been plugged in. But they were not. So we walked through them, nodded at the armed security guards and went on our way. Bizarre. We marveled at a huge plaque at the water line that showed the years of ups and downs of the river–the dry and wet seasons a fantastical slow-moving tide.

The incorporated city of Manaus will be 348 years old this year on October 24. That is also the six-year anniversary of the huge bridge that spans the river — 3.5 km (2.2 miles) wide in the dry season, and 10 km (6.2 miles) wide in the wet season . It’s a mega-bridge, and made a big difference to Manaus, which is built on the opposite side of the Amazon from the rest of Brazil. Everything would have to cross the river by boat.

Not our boat but one much like ours. I was sleepy. Bad shot.

Once past the bridge, and an hour from the pink dolphins, we start to lose the large buildings of the not-pretty but far from ugly Manaus. And there is green to the left and green to the right. Far left. Far right. This river is big. I summed it up in my journal on two lines:

Big River.  big big big

I admit I was pretty sleepy at this point having had only about 5 hours of sleep.

Finally we turned into a smaller eddy (where the eddy is a 1/2 mile wide) area with a floating platform. We waited for two smaller boats to leave then docked. A flurry of activity as a number of women tied orange floaties around us, and we stepped into the water. I have no photos from all this since I was obliged to get in with my kid.

Now intellectually and factually I know that piranhas do not attack humans. Teddy Roosevelt and his excitement-seeking guides did no favors for this fish by claiming that a herd of them could eat a dead cow in 4.5 seconds (or something like that). So we were safe. But as you get in the brown water, and you feel something brush your leg, it is quite possible that you squeal like a small child. Oh wait, that was my small child. One of my kids was so frightened that he hung on to me the entire time in the water.

Photo credit:

So then you notice the fish guy in the water with you. Fish guy signals the floating platform guy to chuck him a bloody fish (do NOT think about piranhas, do not) which he does unerringly. And all of a sudden, from across the water, 30 feet away, you see a churning. And something swims under the lines (the dolphins are not captive but there is a line marking where you are allowed to swim) and under your feet and pops up in front of fish guy. And opens its pink mouth with its rows of BIG TEETH and snacks the fish. L loved it when the fish guy smacked the top of the water with the his palm and up comes a dolphin, grabs it, and smacks the top of the water with his entire body causing a wave to cover him. N had had enough and wanted out. Me too.

And you wonder why you are so merciless with people who do swim with dolphin programs yet here you are. More on that in an upcoming post. For now, I shall tell you that you could easily skip it. Yes, the dolphins are pink, they come close but here’s the truth of the truth: they’re not very attractive beasties these river dolphins (google them, you shall see). Yeah, I know, I’m so superficial. But ehhhh, whatever. We did it.

Happy fish ball snacks! Sounds better in portuguese. Bolinho de peixe.

Back in the boat we changed in the teeny weeny bathroom (one at a time, don’t get all crazy on me) and had a snack before stopping at a maloca – or the traditional long house of an indigenous tribe. I never caught the name of the tribe.  Francisco, our guide, translated “maloca” as “dance studio” and I can see why. Any attempt to show this anymore as a living space was completely abandoned–it was empty for dancing and surrounded on all walls with doo-dads to buy. By the way, I note that my son N got quite bored during the dance (see below) and took some pretty arty photos of doo-dads.

I will tell you that it was very touristy. Yes, the tribe played the heck out of some huge bassoon type instrument–the men only.  Then instruments down and each of the tribesmen and women grabbed the hand of a victim, I mean tourist, and we danced a long conga line. I was picked first by the chief so I got to lead the party. I noticed my kids trying hard not to look at the naked chests of the women…but they lucked out anyway. Each was chosen by a tiny (4 year old?) giggling girl to march with.  The chief spoke about their beliefs and how they spoke 26 languages. I really wondered about that statistic–why would you need 26 languages to describe simple things? Who are they talking to 2 hours from Manaus in the 14th language? Perplexing. However, we have found a group that can finally one-up the Swiss and their four languages…

Tooting their horns

Then it was time to eat ants. Seriously. Ant larva. L chomped his and then spit it out. N chomped his and said “yummy” and swallowed it.  Then we were all encouraged to buy doo-dads, which I didn’t but N got a mask, and L some blow gun and darts. They did allow their children to beg but there was a large bowl at the front where we could donate to them, and the chief dole it out. Or not. Who knows? I left there with the distinct feeling that they would all soon go back to the houses above the maloca and change into t-shirts and drink cokes.  My son L, 10 years old, asked as we left “if they are Indians, why do they need money?” in reference to what he had learned about the barter system and self-sufficiency. I had no answer.

Ant larva, anyone? Crunchy!

Chug chug, off we go back the other way on the river to our lunch stop–a floating restaurant called Rainha da Selva (Queen of the Jungle). A nice buffet of salads and fish of different kinds. You had better like fish if you visit the Amazon. Or beef–sadly there’s a lot of that too as you think about the forest being cut down for fields.

Everything floats! Gas stations, restaurants…very handy. Let’s do that in Miami.

Behind the restaurant there was a long boardwalk where we could explore back into the trees and swamp. We saw a tiny caiman and a picapau amarelo (yellow woodpecker). Plants named muriru, a white-flowered aquatic plant, victoria regis (giant water lily) and anti-malarial tree whose name I have forgotten. Some of the trees names ended with “-rana” which Francisco explained meant that they were copying something else. Like a “seringuerarana” would be a tree that was imitating the “seringuera” tree. And he said this was also true for humans – a “homen-rana” is someone who appears to be a man but is not. I did not pursue that line of humor.

A child can lie down on these and not sink. No, I did not let them.

It was time to head back, but first we had the “Meeting of the Waters”. It sounds better in Portuguese: “Encontro das Aguas” like the waters are dating. As I said earlier, the Amazon has many rivers leading into it, but the most famous of them are the Rio Negro (black water) and Rio Solimões (brown water) which meet and travel together without mixing for miles. The romantic notion is that they are getting to know each other before deciding to be together forever. The truth is that the difference in temperature, density and speed is what causes their long dating ritual. It’s pretty cool–you can read more about it here. And see better pictures than I was able to capture due to the evening lighting.

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Two rivers dating…miscegenation at its best

Time to head back to the hotel for a shower and dinner out. More fish if you must know. Tomorrow we head out to the wilds three hours from Manaus.




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