In order to watch the sunrise you have to be up before it. In this case it is generally best to let your tour guide wake you up rather than set an alarm so as your body clock doesn’t go into shock when it sees what time you’re making it start ticking so I have no idea what time Alan got us out of bed today but it was a time you stay up until, not a time you get up at. We were loaded onto the motorised canoe and taken to Juma Lake to watch the day begin in the Amazon before we were taken back to the lodge for breakfast and enough coffee to jump start my poor, confused brain. Yeah, coffee, I know right? Since when do I drink coffee? I’m a tea girl usually, English Breakfast, tiny bit of milk, no sugar, preferably Dilmah Extra Strength but while I’m on the road I usually go with the local way of doing things. Not because I’m cultured or anything or that I’m trying to immerse myself in local traditions, it’s simply because I’m just too bloody lazy to go and hunt for a cup of tea that doesn’t taste like witch’s piss. In Argentina and Paraguay I drank mate. Here in Brazil breakfast is either a short, very sweet black coffee or a large coffee with milk and sugar.
I’ve also discovered that fruit is stuff you can eat and not stuff you bypass on the supermarket shelves because the nutrition to price ratio doesn’t gel well with your wages. Thank you, hostel/pousada free breakfasts. You’ve opened my eyes to a whole new world I can’t ordinarily afford. So off we went on a jungle walk through Not-The-Real-Jungle. After those two going on the other night I was almost expecting paved footpaths with lighting and mosquito coils to keep the biting insects away from the fragile tourists. It was a worn path, obviously, but it wasn’t huge or ridiculously trampled. Just like the usual kind of dirt track walk you get anywhere.
Today we’d be learning about local trees, fruits and traditional remedies. Chances were they’d have a million things to cure my various ailments that I was just recovering from, it was like the jungle was mocking my Western ignorance, making me ill then surrounding me with natural cures that I knew nothing about. Alan showed us heaps of cool stuff from ants that can be smeared over your skin to act as a natural mosquito repellent (I’ll stick to my DEET thankyouverymuch, I learnt my lesson about trusting natural repellents in sandfly country in New Zealand) to a plant they call Amazon Vicks (no, really) which if you break a bit off and smell it it clears blocked sinuses and if you boil it into a grease you can rub it onto your chest and neck to clear catarrh. He handed round a sample for us to try and I wandered around for the next hour clutching it to my blocked nostrils.
He showed us a long, thin thing that was covered in spikes which you had to avoid because they were slightly poisonous, if you scratched yourself you’d have to suck the blood out of the wound to try and clean it. It’s the tree they use for blow pipes because they’re hollow inside, they cut themselves a portion, cut all the spikes off and it’s ready to use. There was a tree they called the telephone tree which, if you hit really hard, you can hear it for up to 4kms so you can use it to signal distress etc. There were huge Brazil Nut trees, and here’s something I didn’t know; Brazil nuts don’t grow individually on the tree, instead the tree sprouts coconut-type shells which you break open to reveal 10 or 12 brazil nuts in the rock hard shells we know as consumers. The locals collect them in their hundreds because they keep all year round and take them to Manaus where they sell them from carts on the street. They soak them in water to soften them up then peel the shells off with a knife. I’ve watched them do it.
Other things you can eat include açai berries which grow very high up palm trees. You rarely see the berries in the jungle because the birds get to them first but the locals plant them on their land to get the berries. I’m addicted to açai ice cream. It’s soooo gooood. If you find a young açai palm you can strip the bark off to get to the middle where you’ll find palmito. Palm heart. It doesn’t taste like much but I’ve had it in a pastel and my mate Ricky says it has zero calories. Which will surely make up for the fact that the pastry it’s encased in had just been soaked in boiling fat for a few minutes.
And then there’s the Naja Palm tree which produce these small, little coconuts which are too hard for anything to break so fireflies lay their eggs in them, the larvae eats the coconut flesh, eats a little hole out to the fresh air, becomes the fly and off it goes. That is, unless, we get to it first. Oh christ, here we go with the eating creepy crawlies thing. I’m so socially conditioned you wouldn’t believe it, eating bugs is funny when you watch D-list celebrities do it on TV in the name of reviving their ailing career but for fuck’s sake, I freak out when my fish arrives at my table with its head still on. Alan hacked a coconut open with his machete and showed us the milk worm inside and said, “Who’s going to eat one?”
Well you have to really don’t you. All part of the experience etc etc so I had a go, the first time ever I’ve eaten something like this. I licked a green ant’s arse once in Australia because it tasted like lime but I’ve never actually bitten into something that can be described as, well, a worm.
I managed to suck the insides out without vomiting and it actually did taste quite milky, it wasn’t bad, if it wasn’t a worm and was marketed in a brightly coloured packet placed by the checkout so you’d idly pick it up whilst waiting in line I’d quite happily munch on quite a few of them. I didn’t quite get as far as inserting the entire thing into my mouth and chewing though, I couldn’t handle the thought of getting its hard little face caught in my teeth. Baby steps, people, baby steps.
We were back at the lodge in time for our rice, beans and over-salted meat (ooh, and I got to eat my piranha. Tasted like… fish…) and to chill out before the afternoon’s activities. There was usually a bit of down time between midday and 3pm on account of the heat so we just kicked back and relaxed and went for a swim in the piranha infested Rio Mamori. Probably not the best idea given my history of being nibbled on my small fish but hey, you gotta try every thing once and if I can suck the insides out of a worm I can risk having a toe removed by a fish half the size of my foot. They don’t actually attack people unless they’re attracted by a gaping, bleeding wound and it wasn’t the time of the month for gaping, bleeding wounds so I was safe. I just hoped there wouldn’t be any revenge attacks for yesterday.
So tonight we’d be camping in the jungle. There was going to be me, an Israeli couple, an Argentinian guy and an American lass called Georgia who now lives in Holland. Oh, and Alan of course. Off we went in the canoe to the camp, switching the motor off a couple of times so we could paddle in silence through the flooded forest. We stopped to watch some Howler Monkeys make their way through the trees and at a local store where they were eating something out of these long shells. We asked what they were and he told us they were called inga fruits and got us a couple to try. The fruit inside the shell looks like little tampons. You eat the white stuff and discard the black seed and shit they’re good! Really sweet. And they’re not worms which is definitely a bonus.
Once we were at the camp, we were shown the correct way to hang a hammock with a mozzie net specially designed for hammocks and once that was done it was time to start preparing the food. It amused me how everyone fell automatically into their gender roles, including me and Georgia, the two dykes. The women headed to the table to chop the onions and garlic whilst the men collected wood and built a fire. The evening was spent waiting for food, watching fireflies, waiting for food, dousing ourselves in DEET, assuring our stomachs that food would be ready soon and just relaxing in the jungle. It was awesome falling asleep that night listening to the sounds all around us and it gave me a sense of smug satisfaction hearing the mozzies buzz near my ear, unable to get through the net to my sweet, sweet blood. Mwahaha.
I don’t know what time it was when I woke up needing to pee. I tried to ignore it for as long as I could but it wouldn’t go away. Fuck. The only torch I had was a pathetic wind up thing and that was in my bag. I lay in my hammock for a few more minutes cursing my refusal to buy a decent torch on account of my irrational aversion to buying batteries before I slipped underneath the mozzie net and fumbled around blindly in the dark trying to find my bag, located the torch, flicked the switch to “on” and began winding it as I went to find a place to piss. So I’m there, crouching in the pitch black because I can’t wind the torch and balance at the same time, I can’t see a bastard thing, the mosquitoes can’t believe their luck and were having a right good go at my exposed flesh as my legs started to ache and cave and my bladder insisted on trying to cut a river to rival the Amazon. Next time I’m gettin’ down with my feral self and sleeping out in the middle of nowhere I’m running a 6 metre hose from my hammock to the bush with a funnel at the end I pee into.