After years of dreaming of the Amazon rainforest, I got myself a window seat to be sure of seeing it from above. At the moment the rivers are at their highest, so the forest is as much water as trees. It seems there isn’t one Amazon river, but dozens, all absolutely vast and all flowing in and out of each other, forming huge oxbow lakes, inland seas and running up valleys into the forest.
The president of the Amazon Association met me at the airport. Plinio joked and laughed, telling me about the reserve, the Xixuau community and how they set up the Amazon Association to bring the community together as members of a cooperative. My attempts to pronounce Xixuau (she-shooh-ah-ooh) caused much hilarity. He dropped me at a clean hotel, and I went to explore Manaus.
It’s amazing to think that everything in this crazy, steaming metropolis arrives by boat: the pink marble from Italy for the ostentatious theatre, the bright merchandise overflowing from the shops, and the factories adding to the pollution as the city sits and swelters in a bubble of smog, held in by the miles of rainforest all around.
It must be the busiest city I’ve ever visited: by the docks, the workers run across stepping stones of palettes to reach the boats, constantly loading and unloading vast cargoes, with piles of boxes stacked precariously on their shoulders. It looks like tough, endless work.
Normally when I pay for a holiday, I enter my credit card details into some website, and never think about who gets the money, where it is spent or what it buys. Not so with the Amazon Association! As well as helping me buy a splendid multicoloured hammock, Plinio had been busy using my money to buy vast quantities of rice, flour, beans, tinned food and gasoline that would travel with me upriver to the Xixuau community. This really is what sustainable ecotourism should mean.
I was thrilled to finally wobble up the planks on board the Lico Marquesa, and even happier to find my hammock waiting for me on the upper deck (I travelled in the public boat, but Xixuau will send its own boat for groups of visitors). Before we left, impossible numbers of people strung their hammocks across the deck, overlapping with each other every which way. A teenage girl strung her shocking pink hammock next to mine – and her little brother swayed above her. We left Manaus after dusk, chugging out into the pitch black Rio Negro.
The river journey was incredible. I got up as the night slowly turned pale grey. Distant flickers of lightening lit up the horizon, silhouetting the tallest trees above the forest canopy. In the half light the Rio Negro glistened like pure black oil.
As the sun rose I realised not only was the river over a mile wide, but whenever we got close to the ‘river bank’ it seemed not to be the river bank at all, but just the tops of the trees poking out from the water, as the river carried on into the forest.
The flooded forest rolled by for hours. Sometimes it was scorching hot, then within minutes the blue tarpaulins round the deck would be unfurled as insane quantities of rain made the far side of the river vanish completely. Children ran about the upper deck. Around midday the young men started playing a furious game of dominoes. Then suddenly we were at Moura, where the boats from Xixuau were waiting. All ‘my’ food and gasoline were quickly piled into one boat, and I was loaded into another, bound for Xixuau.
With a scream of the engine, my boat captain (Geraldo) giggled and said something that clearly translated as “Whooo hoo! We’re off!”
We sped across the Rio Negro and down a tributary. Suddenly wildlife sprang to life, dragonflies and birds dashed across the water, and a parrot shot overhead. A vast pink sunset turned the still water to fire under our boat. As the night got darker and darker, I had no idea how Geraldo guided our boat through the black waters until we arrived at Xixuau. Finally on dry land, I was too tired for supper and went straight to a comfortable bed in the huge round wooden maloca. Although there are few mosquitoes in Xixuau (they don’t like the ‘black’ waters of the Rio Negro), I felt more secure under my mosquito net. I fell asleep to the constant buzzing, croaking and whirring of bugs and frogs in the forest all around.
I woke up to cocks crowing and unimaginable varieties of birds singing, squawking, whistling and screeching. Still wobbly after 30 hours on boats, I spent the day on dry land and relaxed in the village.
My guide, Reimundo, took me on a little tour of Xixuau. There’s no need to leave the village to get acquainted with the wildlife. I’ve already started learning all sorts of useful vocabulary: butterfly, vulture, ant and caiman are all at the top of the list, and all hang out in the village alongside the rest of us. The biggest caiman is 3½ metres long, and lives in the water next to the kitchen, where it waits for scraps from the women who clean their fish (and their clothes, their babies and themselves) on the floating platforms a few metres out from the water’s edge.
The simple wooden houses are built on sticks to keep creepy-crawlies out. At one end of the village is a strange selection of equipment: Reimundo explained that this is a manioc mill, where the tough roots are soaked, squeezed, dried and processed into gritty farinha, which everyone loves. One patch of the forest has been converted into a shared village plantation, where the diversity of all the fruit trees, shrubs and pineapple plants mirror the rainforest all around.
After a fabulous lunch of fried piranha, I just watched the world go by, getting used to the pace of life. The children drag tiny dugout canoes through the water and play football and chase in the wide open space between the tiny school and the houses. Chickens, cats and dogs run about. Some of the men sat down together to weave palm fronds to repair a roof, and Geraldo started work on a canoe for his son. I realise that, unless I’m hiking in the rainforest, I’m not going to need more clothes than sandals, T-shirt, shorts and sunhat – and, of course, sunscreen. Everyone is friendly and cheerful, and I’m gradually relaxing into Xixuau life.
Reimundo took me out in one of the little canoes that Xixuau residents use for all their local trips (or in some cases, just to get to their frontdoors). We spent the morning paddling gently between the tree trunks in the flooded forest. It was totally surreal to be seven metres up, well above the undergrowth, on eye level with huge bromeliads and swiss cheese plants, with the canopy just above us, reflected in the perfectly still water.
Within two minutes of setting out we spotted a toucan in the trees above, with a pale green chest and unwieldy, rainbow bill. Crimson dragonflies dashed around us. Suddenly Reimundo gave a weird whistle, and monkeys were yelling at us from above, leaping from tree to tree and shaking the branches. Reimundo chattered back and they screeched with excitement.
Later we heard a grumbling, roaring noise far in the distance. Reimundo paddled towards it, hacking his way through lianas with his machete. Soon the entire forest was reverberating with what sounded like a whole tribe of elephants having a particularly frenzied battle. Still we paddled on into the yelling, groaning forest. Finally we spotted them: three bright orange howler monkeys puffing out their huge black throat sacks in the trees above. It was deafening.
After exploring the forest by boat, I decided to have a walk on the higher ground. Away from the river there are more mosquitoes, so I needed my repellent, long shirt, trousers and walking boots. Reimundo led me along a muddy path just about discernible through the undergrowth, between spectacular trees. The giant Brazil nut trees tower above the canopy, surrounded by piles of discarded Brazil nut casings. Their trunks plunge straight into the ground, but other trees grow from dramatic, flowing roots like the folds of a skirt, and others balance on their tiptoes above the ground. Some are barely visible behind their veils of lianas.
Reimundo pointed out armadillo burrows, tapir footprints and the silver ribbon of a snake skin nestled in a tree stump, surrounded by delicate, ghostly white mushrooms. Sunlight only reached us in clearings where old trees had fallen, which danced with bright blue morpho butterflies. Suddenly Reimundo was stamping his feet and backing towards me – the path ahead of us was a lake of ants, an ant metropolis, with wide ant highways stretching into the impenetrable undergrowth on either side! We had no choice but to make a dash for it, shaking the ants off furiously on the far side.
When we reached the start of the path again, there in the mud was a broad, heavy footprint, and further evidence that something rather large had eaten a meal filled with the indigestible black fur of wild pigs: since we’d set out, a jaguar had crossed our path! Jaguars are solitary beasts, with a unique killing method of chomping straight into the skull of their prey, so I wasn’t disappointed that we didn’t see it. But I was thrilled to think that we came close – and I suspect the jaguar had taken a peek at us as we’d strolled by earlier.
Today we could see thick clouds bubbling up above us, so I decided to stay in Xixuau, watch the manioc factory at work and wait for the rain.
Manuel is a lovely old man with bright eyes and a gappy smile. He’s also the best fisherman in the village, setting out at 7 in his canoe, and returning loaded with piranha and tucanare for our suppers. He loves to laugh, to fish, and to chat – and best of all to chat about fishing – so he’s set up home right in the middle of the village, and built a bench outside his house where passers by can stop to watch the world go by.
I was sitting on Manuel’s bench when the fat black clouds finally broke. He invited me in to chat out of the rain. As the rain hammered down on the thatch above us, he told me how he was born in the distant forested state of Acre, hundreds of miles away, then moved to Manaus, where he worked on the docks for years - a tough life, carrying huge loads on and off boats, eight hours a day. He moved to Xixuau with his three strapping sons, and loves it, laughing in delight and exclaiming how much better life is here than in Manaus: the fish! The beautiful forest! The fish...!
Xixuau has very specific volunteering opportunities, for an internet teacher and a nurse for their small health post. The volunteer internet teacher decided to pay for the gasoline to take a boat downriver to another community, which has a Saturday night party. (If the tourists prefer, Xixuau will hold its own party for them.) In the morning I had time for another magical canoe trip through the flooded forest with Reimundo. After a delicious lunch of Manuel’s finest fried fish, we loaded our hammocks onto a boat and set out for the party.
Two of the girls clambered onto the roof of the party boat as we chugged down river to Sao Pedro. The villagers turned up to meet their Xixuau friends. After the hot journey it was heaven to cool off in the river at sunset, splashing and swimming with the village children. Later I had my first real Brazilian caipirinha – just lime, sugar and cachaca. Ice is in short supply in Sao Pedro, so this was nothing like the cool, hip cocktail I knew from London’s West End bars. Soon the party was in full swing.
My friends from Xixuau tried to teach me to dance, with hilarious results. I was in awe of their fabulous dance moves, as the men spun their partners round the dance floor. The kids started their own mini party, bopping away under the moonlit palm trees just outside. The whole village pulsated to Brazilian pop, and the furious dancing continued through the night, long after I fell into my hammock.
After a late breakfast and football match between the villages, we headed upriver to Xixuau.
Back in the community I was stunned to see a tiny baby monkey following one of the women around, mewling and chirruping as it clambered up to nestle in her arms. She explained that it must have lost its mother, and had been so hungry that it just turned up in her house, desperate for food. I got to hold it, and its big dark eyes made my heart melt. The easy interaction between the people and wildlife amazes me – a couple of days ago the children all went running to see a sloth and her adorable baby, rescued from a flooded tree, before mother and baby were released back into the forest.
After supper Elinho explained a bit more about the community and the Amazon Association. The sustainable ecotourism is great for the whole village, as they share the food equally between the families, and have been able to invest in better boats and the health post. The Amazon Association is also working with the neighbouring villages to push for the creation of a new reserve, protecting 600,000 hectares. The Lower Rio Branco Jauaperi Extractivist Reserve will give the local communities the right to manage the area and carry out small scale traditional activities, like harvesting Brazil nuts, in exchange for protecting the rainforest and all its biodiversity. The whole community is passionate about conserving the forest for their children, and is convinced that this new extractive reserve is the best way to do it. Elinho is one of many volunteer environment agents along the river, and his bravery and dedication to monitoring and protecting the area is truly inspirational.
Reimundo decided that we should see if I could catch my own lunch, so we set out in the canoe for one of his favourite fishing spots. He sliced through lianas the size of my wrist with a single nonchalant swipe of the machete, and grabbed fat green grasshoppers off bushes for bait.
Just as we reached Reimundo’s preferred fishing grounds it started to rain. Rainforest really does do what it says on the tin. We paddled up to the shadow of a huge tree, and sheltered under it until the weather dried up. Reimundo pulled fish after fish into the boat, and I had nearly given up, far more interested in a family of chattering monkeys leaping about in the trees above us. Finally, my line went taut and zig zagged through the water: my own piranha! I was most proud!
The way back was really peaceful, as Reimundo paddled silently though the water, with just the buzz of insects and birdsong around us. Then we suddenly heard a strange, gasping splash: pink river dolphins! It was bizarre to think of them swimming between the tree trunks, above the forest floor. They followed us out into the river beside Xixuau, where I caught the occasional glimpse of their pink bodies breaking through the surface of the water.
On my last night I didn’t want to fall asleep, afraid of waking up and having to leave, so I stayed awake listening to the constant buzzing and whirring of the forest all round, and the occasional far-off rumble of howler monkeys.
As a final send off, the women from the village set up a market of jewellery and gifts, crafted from brightly coloured seeds and carved wood. Reimundo made a tiny paddle to remind me of our enchanted canoe trips. Everyone told me to come back – and assured me that the gorgeous sandy beaches and crystal clear waters of the dry season are just as magical as the flooded forest.
I read through other entries in the guest book, to try to find the words to say thank you to everyone. I realised how many other people have been just as affected as I have by visiting this wonderful place, moved by the opportunity to get to know the awe-inspiring rainforest, its incredible animals, and the truly amazing people of Xixuau. I wasn’t the first person who cried when the motor boat pulled away from the village for the last time, and I’m sure I won’t be the last.
June – July 2009