After leaving Barbados, we were at sea for 3 days traveling southeast in the Atlantic Ocean; passing by Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, before entering the Amazon river in northeast Brazil.
Our first attempt at visiting the Amazon was in 2002. Two days before Christmas we left Miami on the Olympia, a greek ship, expecting to be at sea for 2 days before arriving in Barbados. Instead, we were jolted awake the next morning by the US Coast Guard who had surrounded us with a dramatic display of pulsing lights and deafening sirens. They escorted us to the dock in St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), where we sat. Clueless. The crew was as bewildered as we were. No one was permitted to leave the ship and Internet access had been squelched. As noon passed, we grumbled about leading a mutiny while noshing on shrimp caesar salads and chocolate moose. Finally, a cryptic glimpse into our predicament was announced… “due to the court case underway in Honolulu, but now recessed for the holidays, the ship is temporarily being detained”. More information trickled in throughout the day, and by nightfall we had the full story. The cruise line had gone bankrupt, and the German bank who now controlled our fate, filed for an emergency injunction to stop us from leaving US Waters. The next morning we got booted off the dock. We moved to the outer harbor and sat at anchor, in limbo, for 10 days before heading back to Miami to disembark on January 3rd as scheduled.
Once the Coast Guard was assured we would not try to flee, tender service was approved. We went ashore each day to hang out in town, visit beaches, or take the local ferry to St. John for a change of scenery. The crew continued to treat us like royalty and the level of service never diminished. And, since many disillusioned passengers decided to fly home at their own expense, there was plenty of food for the rest of us. Hmmm…. go back to the frigid northeast or stay in tropical bliss? Seriously, is that a choice?
The night before pulling anchor, our waiter presented us with a elaborately wrapped package. He was beaming as we peeled off the tape. “You no make it to Amazon, so I give you my Piranah”, he said with reverence. Inside was a lacquered Piranah, it’s gaping maw revealed razor edged teeth. A stick jutted from it’s abdomen and “Manaus” was hand written on the driftwood base.
We were astonished by his unwavering professionalism, genial disposition, and generosity in the face of a very uncertain future.
Two weeks after we arrived back home, we received a full refund from the cruise line’s insurance company; even though we did not buy a policy. Refund rules are different for bankruptcies and in the passengers’ favor. Now that’s a happy ending.
It took us 15 years, but this time we made it! And, making history. The Queen Victoria is the largest passenger ship to ever transit the Amazon River.
Early explorers in the 1500’s wrote about being attacked by matriarchal tribes of bare breasted women who fought more fiercely then Indian men. It was these remarkable warriors who later inspired the name, Amazon, after the women of Greek mythology who removed their right breast to facilitate using a bow and arrow. That’s dedication!
The Amazon is truly the mightiest river on earth. The headwaters are a chain of glacier-fed lakes high in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The river flows eastward for 4,080 miles and eventually meets the Atlantic Ocean in Northeastern Brazil at the equator. It’s 250 mile wide mouth expels 3 billion gallons of water per minute with such force that you can taste fresh water 110 miles from the mouth of the river. I wonder who decided to take that first sip? This discharge accounts for 20% of all the fresh water on earth. Two days worth is enough to keep New York City hydrated for 9 years. Drainage comes from 2.3 million square miles of land, which is about 3/4 of the continental United States.
The Amazon can be 68 mile wide in places during the rainy season (January-June) as it rises up to 46 feet during monsoons. In the dry season, some spots are less then a mile wide. Depths range from 20-300 feet. Deep enough for ocean-going freighters to travel 2,310 miles inland as far as Iquitos, Peru. Year round water temperature is about 86F.
There are over 1,100 tributaries. 17 of these are magnificent rivers in their own right, at over 1,000 miles long. When some rivers meet the Amazon, their waters do not mix due to different densities, temperatures, and flow speed. This phenomenon is called the “Meeting of the Waters”. We witnessed this bizarre sight twice. When the Amazon meets the Rio Negro near Manaus, the rivers flow side by side for 6 miles before finally merging. The Amazon wins. The Amazon is milky brown with a mucky bottom because of the sediment and silt that flows from the Andes mountains. This sediment, rich in bacteria, is the perfect breeding ground for the 2.5 million different kinds of insects found here. Half of these spent 6 days attempting to drill through the thick glass of our balcony door… delirious with the intoxicating promise of feasting on the juicy overfed humans inside. We were warned to keep our balcony door closed at night, and outside lights on the decks were dimmed. These precautions did not seem to deter their kamikaze directives. At sunrise, there were mountains of dying insects on deck and a thick film of bug entrails on the windows.
The Rio Negro is the color of black tea which comes from decomposing trees. Because it has a sandy bottom, it is not a breeding ground for insects like the Amazon. It is one of the cleanest rivers in the world.
The second “meeting” is near Santarem where the Amazon meets the Tapajos.
The Amazon region hosts over 30% of all known plant and animal species in the world; 2,500 different kinds of fish,1,800 species of birds, 250 mammals, and 50,000 complex plant varieties. Average rainfall is 79 inches a year making it the wettest region in the world. Humidity is always near 100% and the temperature is usually 90F with little variation.
In the early 1,900’s there were over 5 million Amerindians living in the forest. Now there are less then 200,000. Today, approximately 240 known tribes live in Brazil and most have less then 1,000 people. it is believed that 50 of these tribes have never had contact with the outside world. These tribes are extremely vulnerable to diseases like the common cold or flu, transmitted by outsiders. Unfortunately, this does not stop thrill seekers from venturing further into the jungle.
The Amazon rainforest supplies 15% of the world’s oxygen; and is known as the “lungs of the planet”. Alarmingly, close to 20% (about the size of France) has been cut down, mainly within the past 50 years. Cattle companies using a “slash and burn” technique to sow pastures are major culprits along with foreign lumber companies and big grain farmers cultivating genetically engineered soybeans. Illegal deforestation also continues to be a huge problem. Thankfully, global interest in protecting the forest is on the rise.
My next post will be about our adventures in Manaus and Santarem, assuming I live long enough to tell the tale. Gulp. Was that crack in the window there a minute ago?