The big day finally arrived – we were heading to the Amazon! We flew from Rio via Sao Paulo to Manaus, the gateway to the rainforest. In the process we got separated from one of our bags and attempts to track it through Portuguese speaking TAM Airlines staff who could rarely be reached by phone (and definitely not email) became an adventure unto itself…
On arrival at the lodge, we found that the Amazon was suffering from a severe draught. Good thing is, despite daily rains, the humidity remained comfortable – which was a far cry from the sweltering heat of the Ecuadorian Amazon on a prior trip. Bad thing is the draught had severely affected the flora and fauna in the dwindling waterways.
The Amazonat Jungle Lodge is run by Jacques van Egeraat a Dutch transplant with his Brazilian wife, who are incredibly gracious hosts. To accommodate my quest for a safety deposit box, hot shower, and a relatively bug free room (well this is the Amazon after all…), they allowed me go thru 4 of their cabins during our stay! We spent 5 days at the lodge (including Christmas) and went on daily excursions to different tributaries of the Amazon with a local guide.
According to custom, Christmas Eve is the ‘big day’ when families gather for a late dinner, then open presents before they go to midnight mass and party afterwards till the wee hours. Being treated to the Holiday feast (all the more spectacular because of the limited supplies available) and chatting with our host about all things Amazon (and Brazil) was a highlight of the trip. Although Christmas was supposed to be a work day, Jacques went to personally pick up the guide to make sure our tour happens!
During our stay, we took nocturnal tours looking for tarantulas and alligators, went on the Amazon River as well as the black water Urubu River in search of wildlife – while motoring past a floating dental clinic, butcher shop, and hotel! We also hand-lined for piranhas and hiked into the lodge’s jungle camp called Jane’s Place (aptly named after Tarzan’s wife).
I had loved camping overnight in the Ecuadorian Amazon before, even though the site was populated with LARGE, strange, and generally nasty looking insects. But there were tents & sleeping bags, and we had our guide, the shaman with his son, the chef and the boat captain to keep the two of us company! I reluctantly decided against overnighting at Jane’s Place because the only bedding choice was hammocks, which I’ve always found to be uncomfortable, and I want a tent for protection against biting critters…
Despite finding notably less bird and monkey species compared to our Ecuadoran trip, we had numerous sightings of the elusive pink dolphins, experienced firsthand the bio-diversity of the Brazilian Amazon, and saw how the river remains the lifeblood of the indigenous peoples.
On our last day Jacques drove us to Manaus and chartered a boat to see the “Meeting of the Waters” where the dark Rio Negro and the sandy colored upper Amazon River flow side by side without mixing. Then he took us to a buffet restaurant that is licensed to serve turtles and alligators among other local specialties. After he dropped us off at Manaus, we wandered around and sampled more gelados before heading to the airport.
Our last stop was São Paulo – a metropolis, a veritable concrete jungle diametrically opposite to the Amazon. More than other countries we’ve seen, the local businesses celebrate Christmas with beautiful window displays and monumental scenes on their building facades, giving a much more festive look to the downtown area.
We took the metro to the Mercadão (Big Market) which houses over 300 stands that sell just about everything edible, including meat, vegetables, cheese, spices, and fish from all over Brazil. Chock full of restaurants, traditional snack bars and bakeries one can browse for hours there.
Epilogue – After spending countless fruitless hours trying to contact TAM Airlines about our lost luggage, the bag mysteriously showed up at US Airways in Atlanta, one day before we were eligible for compensation for the missing bag! So now all is well…
Bolinhos de Bacalhau
1 pound salt cod
2 cups of mashed potatoes
2 tbsps of finely chopped parsley
2 large eggs
oil for frying
Soak salt cod overnight and during the morning, changing water three times. Drain, remove skin and any bones and cut in small chunks. Simmer a small onion, thinly sliced, with a bay leaf and 4 peppercorns in 2 cups of water. After 5 minutes, add the cod and 2 cups of water. When it simmers, cover the pan and remove from heat, so the cod doesn’t toughen. The cod can be kept in this liquid in the refrigerator until needed.
To form the bolinhos: drain the fish and flake it well into a bowl. Add 2 cups of mashed potatoes; beat two eggs with a pinch of salt and add them to the fish and potatoes. Add the parsley, salt and freshly grated pepper to taste. Wait about 1/2 hour to form 1 1/2 inch balls. Fry in oil at 375°. Dry in paper towels. Serve with very cold beer!