Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Travel Blog #17: Meeting the Meeting of the Rivers

I keep trying to come up with openings to these blogs that don't sound trite.

I could try something like "There we were, sitting in a mud bog sipping V8 juice with seventeen naked pygmies." But that never happened and I would have to be a much better writer than I am to sell something like that.

But I am trying to convey the feeling that is unique to the Amazon, the sense it engenders in your heart. Simply being there is an experience.

Think of it like a tropical theme "Alice in Wonderland." People do the most remarkable things because this is a wholly remarkable place. It's all a result -- a direct result of the magic in the air, on the water. It reaches out and ignites the magic residing quietly inside your own spirit. It's peaceful and breathlessly exciting at the same time...and it's frustrating because I don't have the words to convey it to you.

Take a look at the opening picture. This guy has put a rock in the back of his canoe so he can sit at the front. I am sure there is a perfectly good reason for this although I have no idea what it might be. I suppose the thing I'm trying to say is that the whole place is different than anywhere else.

There is Amazon magic. I promise you. There’s a certain something that happens in your heart when you are adrift on this river. It fills your mind and spirit with something as unique as the taste of fine dark chocolate. It suffuses your being with a thing both mysterious and mystical.

We got off our Manaus bus, escaping the tour guide who was not even attempting to pretend he wasn't glaring at me, and walked down a short pier to the waiting riverboat.

Our party was herded into the upper deck by a little guy who couldn’t possibly been more than five feet tall. He introduced himself as “Eni” – which he pronounced as “Any.” He crackled with energy and he announced he was going to be our guide for the rest of the day and into the night.

I started up the stairs, wanting to get stake out the best seats for Sheree and me before the greedy people got there.

“Where are you going?” she asked.

“Up,” I answered, although since I was standing on a narrow staircase, I thought this would be obvious.

“Why?” she asked.

“Well…that’s where we’re going.”

She looked at me with a distantly pitying eye that I always find a little irritating…mostly because it usually means I am acting like a herd animal.

“You’re acting like a herd animal,” she confirmed. “Look around down here. We have the whole floor to ourselves. We can go anywhere. Would you rather be squeezed up there like a sardine?”

I paused uncertainly, wondering if there was any possible way to save face at this point and decided there was not. I stepped off the ladder and sauntered to the wooden bench, like it had been my idea from the beginning.

“We’ll stay down here,” I said with all possible male authority.

Sheree rolled her eyes and for the balance of the trip, we hung out on the lower level.

Just before a second busload of tourists climbed up to the second floor, a man toting an enormous plastic barrel appeared. The barrel was filled with plastic cups and the plastic cups were filled with something that looked like long, tapered potato chips.

"What are those?" I asked, noting the entire riverboat crew had purchased at least one of the containters for an american dollar each.

"Banana chips," he said. "Salted. One dollar."

I bought some. Sheree bought some and they were delicious. So there we were, cruising down the Amazon, noshing on lightly salted banana chips (which tasted like fruity potato chips to me) and in a place of pure bliss. Uncrowded. Downstairs was way "more gooder." Sheree was right. But don't tell her I said so.

Shortly after we left the dock Eni came down and looked at us for a long moment. I had a sense of deja vous. We were being identified as the “problem people” again. I didn’t want that to happen so I looked at Eni and explained that we wanted to be free to take pictures.

He looked at me for a long moment. I could see gears turning in his eyes and then he smiled broadly. “You know something? If I were you, I would stay here too.”

From that second, in that inexplicable way people have, we were friends. It was done. He looked at me and I looked at him and we understood each other perfectly. I smiled a little and so did he. He almost winked. It was a great moment.

And so Sheree and I were left mostly alone on the lower deck of a riverboat cruising the Amazon. It was wonderful. A gentle breeze blew through the lower deck and I had the illusion that we were all alone on the Amazon…exactly where we wanted to be. Occasionally another boat would fly by and we would look at it and maybe take a picture. Then the magic happened.

It was one of those perfect travel moments: one that will live in my mind forever. I have a number of these. In Alaska we rounded a corner and saw bald eagles soaring around the cross on a church, sublime moments in the profound peace of Fern Grotto in Jamaica, midnight in St. Marco Square in Venice – way too many to write here.

But travel magic was happening only a few feet from where we were. Wordlessly, I pointed out behind Sheree. She turned and saw the magic too. Let me explain what is happening in the picture above. I have only adjusted the contrast a little – otherwise it is exactly what we saw: two rivers, two colors travelling side by side in perfectly separate courses. It is called the “Meeting of the Rivers.” Two chemically different bodies of water meet and flow side by side – but never together.

Eni appeared, holding two small bottles of water. One was light brown. The other was blue. He laughed at both of us gaping at the impossible scene unfolding before us.

"Two completely different compositions of water. Different ph balances, acidity. These are two completely different waters one beside the other."

He smiled at us and I started taking pictures.

NOW can you try to tell me we are not talking about a magical place?

I took picture after picture of this impossible thing happening before my eyes. I am a professional magician, and if I could bottle this effect, I would make a Manaus-sized fortune. It’s a complete impossibility, which (in the final analysis) is what magic is all about.

In that instant I felt something strange – something that will offend some of you. But I felt an urge to fall to my knees before the God that had created this impossible thing, a God who built the vibrant life of the Amazon from monkey to “fat little guys” on Devil’s Island. In that instant I felt very small before my Creator and I had an urge to hide my face. Hard to explain – but it’s what was going on inside me. How does a visual of two rivers running side by side invoke that reaction? I don’t know. But it was intense and tender and precious to me.

The boat continued down the Amazon. Sheree claimed the fore deck. I called her “Rambette” because of her sweatband and military look. She didn’t care. Actually I think she kind of liked it.

Eni joined us and for the next hour or so we chatted amiably about his life in Manaus. He speaks seven languages. He loves his area of the world and he loves showing it to tourists. Sheree immediately began talking with him about the option of planning a photographers’ tour of Manaus. He understood right away and started talking about the many options available.

I liked this man more and more. I eased myself off of the bench and settled in beside Eni and Sheree at the very front of the boat. We talked about Manaus. The ship captain produced a package of cookies and we ate and talked and laughed together as though we had known each other for decades. It's just that way in the Amazon. I've noticed time and again the easy way people talk, the way people choose to be together.

We talked about our lives in Edmonton. We talked about the literal beauty as the Amazon showed itself to us. He had grown up on the Amazon, but Eni was still as in awe of what was out there as we were.

I wish you could have been there for only a few moments. You would first notice the scent in the air. It is quite unlike anything else you may have past experience with. It is so very alive. The scent itself is like nothing else: green and pulsing with life. I'll try to give you a better sense of what it was like to be there when I tell you about the walk into the jungle in the next blog.

Along the shorelines are people and animals. The clouds are vibrant and turbulent blues and greys and whites, in constant lazy state of motion as though God was gently blowing on them. And all around you is the sense of life and the loud heartbeat of the Amazon. It resounds in your spirit like a drum. It speaks to your heart and whispers that this is where you came from and that this is the garden of the world.

Flowery? Yes.

But intense and precious.

I would not trade my memories of that river ride for anything this world has to offer. Well. Almost anything.

We were headed for the deep Amazon. We were going for a long hike in the literal jungle. Nothing tourist here. We are talking pure Amazon.

The walk into the Amazon jungle was more astounding still. That story is next.

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