• Associated Press

    Family Explores the Amazonas Rain Forest

    by Rick Sammon

    MANAUS, Brazil (AP) - From our hotel, it was just a 20-minute ride by motorized longboat to the thatched huts of the Tarino Indian village deep in the Amazonas rain forest, but it seemed as if we had been transported back in time to another millennium. Listen to the tribal chief, through an interpreter, explaining some Tarino customs:
    "We paint our faces and bodies so the spirits of the rain forest can recognize us, and therefore protect us,'' he says. ``This is especially important when we are hunting in the rain forest. But on Thursdays, we don't go into the rain forest, because that is when the spirits are moving around. It is their day.

    "We also paint our faces and bodies to honor and thank the rain forest spirits during our nighttime celebrations. We dance, sing and play music. The spirits are an important part of our lives. We have great respect for them."

    My 10-year-old son, Marco; my wife, Susan; and I are learning about the customs of the Tarino through our guide, naturalist and translator, Luiz Magalhaes. Luiz is the chief guide at our base camp, the Ariau Amazon Jungle Towers and Hotel, which is on the Rio Negro River about two hours by boat from the city of Manaus in the state of Amazonas.
    At the Tarino village, we feel like we are literally in the middle of nowhere. We had left New York only yesterday for this unique family vacation.

    Luiz, after explaining that he, too, firmly believes in the spirits, continues his translation: "If we do have to go into the rain forest on Thursday, we make an offering under a samauma tree (the strongest tree in the rain forest) to the spirits that includes bananas, coconuts, honey and pineapple juice. Our offerings show that we respect the spirits and that we are asking for their protection."

    Marco, especially, is listening with great interest as Luiz speaks. His eyes open wide when Luiz recounts one particular personal experience. Feeding the resident monkeys
    "One day, I made the offering to the spirits, but it was after 6 a.m., which is too late to make offerings. For about five minutes, the trees, vines and bushes parted as if a giant, invisible force was moving in a circle around me. I guess the spirits were unhappy with me, but they knew I respected them, because I've been exploring the rain forest as a guide for 17 years. Eventually, they moved on."

    While Luiz is translating, I am hard at work photographing the tribe members. Susan and Marco are assisting. We are all drenched with sweat. It's probably around 90 degrees with 95 percent humidity.

    "It will probably rain again," says Luiz, which will be the fourth time today. "Why do you think they call it the 'rain forest?' After all, you are here in February, one of the rainiest months of the year. Come back in a few months and you can explore the rain forest canopy, in a boat because the river level will rise that much!"

    I want to shoot more pictures, but I know I can come back another day. After buying a genuine blowdart gun for my son and some beads for ourselves, we tread off through the mud back to our longboat, which will have us back at the Ariau in less than half an hour. I look at my son and wonder if he truly appreciates this unique experience.

    The Ariau is perhaps the most interesting place we've stayed on the planet. Built entirely on long stilts (so the rooms don't flood during the height of the rainy season), the Ariau is a complex of circular towers that house guest rooms, meeting rooms and dining areas. One of the main attractions - for kids, anyway - are dozens of spider and squirrel monkeys that literally hang out - morning, noon and night.

    Although they are wild animals, the monkeys are used to being fed seeds and fruit by the guests. Each day, hand-feeding of these curious creatures was a highlight for my son, who actually had more than a few monkeys jump on his head, shoulders and back.
    The monkeys are smart. They try to get into the towers (which are totally enclosed by a wire mesh) where they can find food in the restaurant and guest rooms. They even know how to unlatch door handles and push open doors. One day, we heard a knock at our door. That's right. It was a monkey. Startled, my wife slammed the door and the monkey ran away. From then on, we kept the door locked at all times.

    We stayed with the Ariau's activities program for few days, all of which began with a longboat ride. One day we went piranha fishing. Unfortunately, our group did not catch a fish, but another group caught five. One wound up floating in piranha soup that evening.

    Another day we went bird watching, and saw more than a few eagles, vultures, swallows and kingfishers. And one time we just took a three-hour ride along a river to experience the silence and beauty of the rain forest.

    Two of the most popular programs are a nighttime alligator "hunt" and a jungle survival program.

    The alligator "hunt" was a thrill. We left the dock about 8 p.m. and began to cruise the nearby rivers. A guide stood on the bow of the boat, sweeping a powerful beam of light around the river banks looking for alligators, or more specifically the ``red eye'' that's created when the beam hits the animal's eyes.

    By 9:30, we had seen a few alligators, but they ducked under the cover of water before we could get close. Shortly thereafter, our guide spotted a small alligator in the grass on the river bank, and asked us all to be very still and quiet. Ever so slowly, we approached the animal.

    As the guide with the searchlight trained the beam on the animal, another guide crouched down beside him. All of a sudden, the crouching guide leaped into the water and grabbed the animal around the snout. Holding the alligator under water, the guide did not move for about a minute. Then he stood up, slowly and triumphantly holding his catch. After gently tying the animal's mouth shut with a soft strip of cloth, he let each of us touch the animal before releasing it. ``Mom, I touched an alligator,'' my son exclaimed.

    The jungle survival program was one of the more educational parts of our trip. Normally, the program includes a night in the rain forest, where you go into the rain forest with only the clothes on your back. We opted for the afternoon program.
    We learned how to make a fire when everything is wet. (I'd tell you how they do it, but that would ruin the surprise if you go.) We saw how the Indians make animal traps out of branches and rope. We saw the lean-tos that can be made from palm trees. We drank fresh water from a water vine, and cut open a milk vine with "milk" so poisonous that just a few drops can kill you, which is why it's used for poisoned darts.
    For my son, the highlight of the jungle survival program was walking across a rope bridge, on one rope, about 15 feet above the forest floor (he was tied to a safety rope, which made my wife and me happy). Had we chosen the overnight program, we would have made our own bridge, over a little stream, from the ropes that the guides carry into the forest.

    Our learning experience continued.

    One morning we went by boat to Acajatuba Village, where a villager made a small slash in a rubber tree so we could see the latex seep out. (It was the huge rubber boom in the area during the 1800s that made the rubber barons of Europe so very powerful and very rich.) Not too far from the village, my son planted two trees, under the guidance of Julimara Aonterio, a forest engineer who heads a reforestation program run by the Ariau.
    One afternoon we went bird watching along the elevated catwalks that wind through the surrounding rain forest. Like the building that comprise the Ariau complex, the catwalks are high above the water at this time of year, and actually give visitors a bird's-eye view of the birds!

    Along one path we came upon an air-conditioned meditation center in the shape of a pyramid. Along another we found a school. And on other my wife and son walked on an infinity symbol that was painted on a large wooden deck. Interesting stuff to find in the middle of the rain forest, we thought.

    Another boat ride took us to a small fishing village on a beautiful, white sandy beach which was a surprise because we were on a river. The 25 or so villagers have lived there basically the same way for generations in five thatched roof huts. What struck us was the almost absolute silence of the village because most of the fishermen were out fishing.

    After six days exploring the rain forest and villages, it was time to head back to Manaus. My son bid farewell to his monkey "friends," and we headed back to the city.

    In Manaus, Luiz took us to two of the "must sees" in the city. The Manaus Opera House, a magnificent building that was built entirely from materials from Europe: every brick, stone, cast iron post, seat, etc., was imported on boats - the same boats that took the rubber to Europe. We also visited the teeming Municipal Market, where you can buy anything from local handicrafts to fresh fish.

    Our trip could not have ended any better. On our last night in Manaus, Luiz took us to a local restaurant in downtown Manaus. It was actually an eating experience, one that is on my "all time favorites" list. It's called Churrascaria Bufalo. About two minutes after you sit down, waiters come around holding different barbecued meats on long skewers, and ask if you want a fresh slice. That can go on until you burst! The food could not have been better, and it only cost about $10 each.

    For me, the hardest part of a trip is always the same, anywhere on the planet: saying good-bye to the people who have come into my life, and who have added something to my life. At the airport, we bid farewell to Luiz. He did not make saying good-bye any easier.

    His farewell words to my son; "Marco, always remember that the best friends you have on the planet are your parents."

    --- Rick Sammon is a professional photographer in New York City who has had 20 books published, mostly about wildlife. He also writes the Camera Angles column for The Associated Press.

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