The trees and plants of the Amazonian jungle offer plenty of hiding spots for the leopards, monkeys, and tapirs. In addition, every animal in the forest could sense me from miles away due to the wreaking black t-shirt I´d been wearing for the past week. Thus, my wildlife encounters were few and far-between.
On my canoe trip with Mihai, the indian, we´d spotted a blue-winged, red-bellied bird. Another bird, with orange wings, a black back, and a yellow belly, glided in front of us.
Later, using long sticks, the indians pried a basketball-sized sloth from its tree so I could hold him. His black face had a tiny snout, a button nose, and a white beard. His white body felt like a place-mat, and he swung his long, single-clawed arms about slowly and mechanically. He was cute in an R2-D2 way.
On the ground, he didn´t have the strength to sit upright. He oozed around, stabbing the dirt with his claws and pulling himself behind. When I took him again, he slowly turned his grayish, gentle eyes as if to say, "Put me back, mister. I live in trees. Say, am I pathetic or what?" I obeyed, laughing about the pathetic part.
My next excursion was to Presidente Figuereiro, an hour north of Manaus.
I ran into Steve and Amanda on the town´s streets, so we hiked the rainforest trail together. Four kilometers later, we saw a thirty-foot waterfall so jumpy with foam that it resembled merengue pie.
Nearby, a cave stretched amid the scattered, thin, lush green trees. Steve did an "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" pose, kneeling in light that seaped into the cave. Meanwhile, I pulled a green python off the rock wall. With smiles, we watched the flourescent, four-foot serpent twirling from its tail. Once the snake figured how to lift its teeth to my hand, my smile became an "Oh, shit!" look, and I threw him on the ground.
Steve pulled out a neat flashlight-on-the-head device, and we climbed into some tight, dark chambers to explore. Big potato-bugs scurried under foot, and bats hung above. There was a two-inch fly colored like squashed bugs - evidently an evolutionary camouflage used to trick would-be squashers into thinking they´d already squashed him. The coolest thing we came across was a mammoth, whoopee cushion-shaped spider big enough to possibly eat bats.
My next find was a desert-colored, spiky-tailed, sharp-toed, round-headed lizard. I lifted him by the tail, too. He responded by opening his white mouth and looking in my eyes, creating a face that even a fly would´ve found more cute than threatening. I stood him on my hand, and he maintained this pose - evidently an evolutionary defense mechanism used to convince predators that he´s too cute to eat. Isn´t nature fascinating?
By this time, Steve and Amanda had left me and the rainforest. They´d went into town to sleep safely indoors (the pansies!). So, I set to the task of finding a place to hang my hammock for the night. I figured I´d try to find a path to the top of the cave. For the first time on the day, I left the trail and entered the friend-less, mammoth-spidered, enveloping jungle on my own.
Thirty minutes later, I was rationing my water supplies for a possible eight-day journey in search of civilization. I hadn´t found the top of the cave. The trail I´d been on wasn´t in sight. Everywhere I looked - left, right, up, down, in my shoes - I saw the same thing: thin trees, about eight feet high.
I assessed the situation: I had no map, no compass, and no flashlight. My only foods were chocolate powder and jellybeans, and my $1.18 machete was already becoming dull from the trees I´d whacked it against.
My first attempt at salvation was to simply walk in the direction that appealed to me. I proceeded at a 2 o´clock angle for a bit. From this angle, though, 1 o´clock looked good. So, I hacked trees and went in this direction. Soon, 10 o´clock seemed the way to go. Then, 3 o´clock. Next, 8 o´clock. After a while, the only "o´clock" I wanted to hear was ten o´clock, the next time I was allowed to drink water.
It became quite evident that I was walking a dizzying path no straighter than the one the zigzagging green python slithered. I was getting nowhere but more lost, and the trees were larger and more jungly.
My resourcefulness threw up more plans. Hearing a faint shuffling, I figured the trail-side river (where the waterfall had been) must´ve been close, so I walked in the shuffling´s direction. The shuffling got louder and louder. Alright! I was almost there.
... or not. The shuffling hadn´t come from the river; it´d come from the forest´s approaching blanket of rain. The dark clouds passed in minutes, but they left their bad news behind - I was soaked. The loneliness and confusion of the forest took its root in me. I wandered aimlessly.
I came to a small clearing. In the heights of the forest, branches from a sixty-foot tree provided perches for a gang of vultures. The vultures looked down and showed off pink, eight-foot wingspans.
I ignored the vultures and noticed how perfect the clearing´s lone, stubby tree would be for hanging my hammock. Man, I´d walked a long ways, I thought, imagining how comfortable my hammock would be until the talons scratched into me from above.
Believe my laziness or not, I nearly called it a night at 4 p.m. and decided not to concern myself with getting un-lost until morning.
Instead, I ate some jellybeans ... and "pressed on!" Modern Oddyseus wasn´t vulture food just yet!
The river, I remembered, was to the west. The sun, as I and all your great outdoor survivalists have learned, sets in the west. Searching through the forest´s thick canopy and the cloudy sky, I spotted a fluff of shiny white that represented the setting sun. The west!
I chopped my way to the setting sun. At one place, the plants grew so close I had to swim through them. After fifteen minutes, the sound of falling water shuffled in front of me. Oh no, more rain.
Or was it the river!? Excited, I ran. Seven minutes later, I stood again on my beloved river-side trail.
Celebrating, I found the cave´s top and hung my hammock near the edge, perfect to see wandering monkeys, hunting leopards, and seriously lost elephants. It didn´t matter by night, though, when I couldn´t even see the tree in front of me.
And if all THIS doesn´t convince you to enter the forest with me, you´re as big a wuss as my pal, Steve. Next time in Manaus, check out my ad: "Go with the Guide who Did More in his First Forty Minutes in the Forest than Most ´Experienced´ Guides do in Their Whole Lives, Like Getting Bit by a Horrible Ant and Getting Lost ... Join Justin´s Jellybean Jungle Journeys!"
I´ll see you next trek, Modern Oddyseus