Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Trip to the Amazon

You can’t go to Brazil without going to the Amazon. So after giving an invited talk at SBBD 2007 in Joao Pessoa, I headed to Manaus, the capital of the Amazon region (see all photos here). It took 3 flights and some time-zone slalom (while I was flying west all the time, I had to turn my clock forward at one point, and backward at another). I landed in Manaus at 9pm, in the dark. I gentleman named Eduardo was waiting at the airport with my name on sign held up high. We got into a van that started driving towards the docks. It seemed that we were going through some pretty heavy forest in country roads into the darkness of the night (though I was reading a murder mystery during the flight, I tried to keep a positive attitude here).

We arrived at the docks and I was handed off to an unnamed man with a motorboat. I was told that it would take 20 minutes to get to the EcoPark. As I was sitting there, sailing in pitch dark (with only the moon in a very southern-hemisphere position to provide a bit of light), the sensation of adventure started sinking in. The boater turned on his flashlight every now and then to see where we are, and surprisingly, 20 minutes later, we arrived at a lodge, and I met Antonio, who would be my guide for the stay. After a welcoming drink and a short hike in the forest to my cabin, I plugged in my cell phone and went to sleep.

In the morning, after a yummy Brazilian breakfast, I went on a forest tour with Antonio and John, and American fellow who is 10 years into his retirement (he’s 48 now) and whose travel plans for the next couple of months made even my head spin. In the forest, we got to see an original cinnamon tree, a tree from which they produce “aborto”, which, as the name implies, is used to abort pregnancies (and is also a useful post-hangover medication as well). I got to be tarzan for a photo and see Antonio make gunpowder from scratch. Really. As we were finishing our forest walk it started raining (ah, get it? RAINforest, in this case pourForest would be more appropriate), and we were thankful it didn’t start earlier.

After lunch, I was introduced to cashew trees (yes, apparently they grow on trees, not at Costco). The barman took the cashew fruit and made a nice drink out of it. Later we went to an area with a bunch of monkeys playing about, including one with a red head and one that was called cappuccino monkey (if you’d see it, you would understand why). We were taken to see a few folks from the local Indian tribes (and ended up in funny costumes, doing their dance), and then spent an hour fishing on the river. I even managed to catch a catfish that I threw back into the water once the photo-op was over. Sitting on the fishing boat was incredibly tranquil, with sounds of the toucans flying about (and the news of the latest Google earnings report coming in on my cell).

I had dinner with a retired Swedish couple in their late 50’s. The husband ran an international company providing interior design services for cruise ships. He admitted that when a good friend of his came to him many years ago with sketches describing his idea for an ice hotel, he told his friend that he was crazy. Fortunately, the friend ignored his advice and did it anyway. (Oriana and I got engaged in that ice hotel in 2000).

The night activity involved a canoe trip on the river, looking for caimans and listening to the night sounds. We saw only the eyes of the caimans from afar, caught a couple of turtles, and heard many frogs. When we returned to the lodge, Antonio thought he heard lightening, but immediately corrected himself – they were only fireworks. Why fireworks, I asked? Because there was a soccer game in Rio between two teams from Rio, and the people in Manaus were very happy with the result. And it wasn’t even a terribly important game. But that’s Brazil for you! Celebrating a soccer victory of a team from a city thousands of miles away in a relatively unimportant game, is still good enough reason for fireworks.

The next morning, before going to the airport, we managed to squeeze in a speedboat trip to the meeting of the waters – the place where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimoes come together to create the Amazon River (that then flows to the Atlantic ocean). It was really fascinating to see the two distinct waters (they’re different in color, temperature and PH).

Five hours later I was in Miami, and six hour after that in the bay area. What a transformation!

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