It was midafternoon on our Jaú day. After leaving Airão Velho, we were back in our boat and heading towards the tallest trees in the forest. Well, we don’t actually know if they are the tallest trees in the forest, but they were the trees we were going to see. Also, we needed to sign in at park headquarters of Jaú–passports and all. While waiting for the officials to sign off on our visit, my kids rescued a drowning bat, and we watching pink dolphins zoom around the dark water.
In the distance, we could hear thunder and see the cumulus clouds building. It was going to take us 2 1/2 hours by boat to return to the pousada, but we decided that we were not giving up the giant trees, and we walked down a short trail to the gigantic trees. No clapping ants. No Tarzan swings. Just amazing trees.
We loaded back into the boat and raced through some of the nearby flooded forest. Then it was time to hit the open water. A headwind came up slowly — and as my husband explained to the kids how you could tell it was a storm wind, not just the breeze in our faces, the rain started to fall.
White caps formed on the open water, then huge waves, then the rain hit us like bullets. It hurt. We had not had the foresight to put on our rain gear since we had been so hot on the trail, and the storm had not seemed so large. But it was. The rain and wind were so loud I could not hear any thunder so if there was any, I was blissfully unaware. And when I say “blissful”, what I actually mean is that I was terrified. Totally. And trying not to show it to my kids, as we went from laughing at the boat’s leaps over the waves, to seriousness as the troughs between waves became larger and the boat took on water. We were in the middle of an enormous river that had changed its happy clear-skied perspective to one of The Perfect Storm.
Let me digress for a moment to say that I am not scared of much in the natural world. I like bugs just fine, no issues with snakes, not a huge fan of spiders and scorpions, but I am not too worried about them either. But I am truly terrified of two things: 1. Thunderstorms and 2. Large Waves. I grew up on the top of a hill in New York state where the storms would line up behind a Hudson Valley mountain called Storm King, and one by one come over our hill. Lightning hit most of the houses at least once. I still wake up in the middle of the night if I hear a tiny rumble in the distance. Terrified. Large waves I have no story for, but I just hate them.
So we had Storm King on our river. And our fantastic guide got us over towards the shore, the boat climbing up the wave, and then bottoming out on the way down. What would happen if we were dumped out? Turned over? I did not want to think about it. We spent about an hour (but it could have been 5 minutes or 5 hours) fighting the storm to try to get to the lee side of one of the larger islands on the river. I prayed to the deity about as hard as I ever have–though later in the day, I would pray harder.
When we got to the relatively sheltered part of the island, we all took a deep breath and took stock of the situation. Those who had dry clothes and rain gear quickly changed and prepared for the inevitable. The only way home was down the river. The storm had lightened but still riled the river. If ever I had wanted to change my position and beam out of a place, this was the time.
After a half hour or so, we set off again down the river. One of my sons pulled out his Kindle and began to read. I watched as the storm abated towards the north, and the sky grew gorgeous in the pink sunset. The skies of the Amazon are indescribably beautiful–the clouds, the colors, …the lightning…what? I had spent so much time looking to the west and from where we had come, that I missed that a new storm was building right over our final destination…the pousada.
The rain began again, the waves getting larger, but not as large as our first storm. Nico continued to read. Lalo and I curled up together in the back of the boat, shivering and terrified. Eventually my husband made Nico put the Kindle away as we were taking on major water. My in-laws were quietly sitting and watching the storm.
Finally we were pretty much across the river from our pousada. It is a very wide river, however, at that point, and the waves rough. The storm was literally right over the far shore–lightning splitting the sky and seemingly hitting the ground. It was nearly pitch black except for the streaks of lightning. Aurecir, our guide, made a decision–we were going to run it.
I don’t mind telling you now that I was crying. No one could tell as our faces were all soaked with rain. I grabbed my kids and we all put our heads down to the wind on the last seat of the boat and I closed my eyes to the lightning right overhead. It is, without a doubt, the most terrifying experience of my life. On the bright side, God still clearly loves me as we made it. Also, the kids didn’t seem to notice that I was praying and crying and out of my mind. Actually I am not sure if that is a good thing.
Finally we reached the dock of the pousada. I now know why people fall to the ground and kiss the earth. I didn’t do it since with my luck a snake would have chosen that spot to get out of the rain, but I was so incredibly thankful to be back.
So, incredible guide, incredible day and this learning: The Amazon on a calm day is every bit as beautiful and serene as an ocean… and it is every bit as dangerous on a stormy day. If Nature ever gets really pissed off, we are all dead. All. Dead.
Much respect and love for this Storm King, the Rio Negro. But I never ever ever want to live a storm like that again. Ever.