“Whoah! Did you hear that?!” our 12-year-old son, Skyler, exclaimed.
“Yeah. Sounds like a 250-pound man doing a cannonball,” my husband, Peter, guessed.
We were taking a rest inside our floating cabin at the Uacari Lodge in the Brazilian Amazon. Connected by a boardwalk were five thatched bungalows, a two-story central house, and some outbuildings, each on their own raft, floating on a tributary of the Rio Solimoes. In front of the main house a square hole had been cut through the deck to create a pool. A netted pool. That was a good thing. We’d soon find out what we could have been swimming with. It was rapidly becoming clear that we were in territory where the wildlife ruled.
Great “ka-thunk” sounds were happening all around us. Hurrying out onto the porch, we saw a finned tail curl and whiplash the surface of the water. It belonged to a Pirarucu, a ten-foot-long fish that we’d seen in the market in Manaus, the one whose scales are sold for fingernail files. It was coming up to breathe. In addition to gills, Pirarucu have a swim bladder allowing them to extract oxygen from the air. This unusual adaptation to oxygen-poor water in the Amazonian floodplains would seem to be an advantage, but instead it required, every few minutes, what appeared to be a thrashingly desperate act of survival.
But the “ka-thunks” weren’t the only strange sound here in the Mamiraua Eco Reserve (the first of its kind in the state of Amazonas). There was that low otherworldly roar, like an icy wind howling through cavernous medieval halls; Red Howler Monkeys marking their territories, constantly it seemed.
We didn’t see the Caimin until the next day, when they surrounded our shallow-sided canoe. The semi-submersion—revealing only two nostrils, followed a foot or more away by two glassy eyes and a strip of scaly back—is part of what gives them their stealthy quality, but really I think it’s their glide; that pulse-less swimming, the skimming silence of it.
We went out again in a motorboat that night. In the dark, Eduardo—one of two English-speaking, biology students from Southern Brazil who were our main guides—scanned the river with a powerful flashlight, looking for obstacles in the water. The eyes of the Caimin, those trench-coated undercover agents, glowed red.
“I counted 13 that time,” whispered Skyler.
Despite this, the reserve is a tranquil place. A place where there is a lot of hunting going on, quiet, focused hunting. A lot of stalking, a lot of stillness. It's surprising to see how fast the Caimin can cruise because more often they seem to be stopped, probably knowing it’s the motion that gives them away. But they're not the only ones on the prowl. The Anhinga, an underwater diving bird, paddles silently with webbed feet, then unexpectedly slides backwards under the water, to emerge somewhere else, neck first, actually only the neck, a pulsing, snake-like periscope. The elegant Egrets ride, tall and white, on electric- green floating meadows, still lives on a conveyor belt of tall grass, waiting, watching.
Between the hulking, carnivorous Pirarucu, the diving Anhinga, plummeting Kingfishers, strafing Large-billed Terns, and stealthily cruising Caimin, being a small fish in the Amazon must be risky business. I wondered where we fit in. I felt pleased our kids were seeing a world where we were, as humans, so clearly not in charge.
I yearned to sit in the hammocks on our porch and immerse myself in the quiet, but we had a schedule. Up at six, out by seven, back by twelve, lunch, out at three, back by seven, dinner, after-dinner activity.
When Bianca, our other guide, said the purpose of the night walk was “to experience the night life” I laughed. Sounds like a party in Salvador. I love walking in woods at night, eyes wide, ears open, antennae alert. At least I had until here, when I heard the guide urgently hissing, “muito venenoso, venenoso.” It doesn’t take any language skill to figure out what that means when it’s attached to “Cobra!” I was in the front, behind the local guide, when he spotted the snake by the side of the path with his flashlight. I couldn’t really tell you what it looked like since I was mostly backing up, “rapidamente” as I’d been instructed to. He had that excited, tight sound in his voice that you don’t question. “Sirucucu, sirucucu!” Funny, that was the snake, the Fer-de-lance, also known as a Pit Viper, also known as the most venomous snake in the Amazon, that we’d just been talking about, our 16-year-old daughter, Molly, and I.
Paddling our canoe earlier that afternoon, Molly's and my Portuguese-speaking, local-village guide, Almir, said off-handedly that he’d been bitten by a Pit Viper twice that year. Then he went on to describe its behavior. Could it really swim? Jump into a canoe?! Climb trees, do double back flips….? We weren’t really sure we understood, but that's what we thought he'd said. Later, talking to Bianca, we sorted it out. It’s the Anaconda, another friendly local, that can climb trees and hop into your canoe. This one, the Sirucucu, just kills you. Almir had got the anti-venom in time, but was still unable to walk, for a month; its venom had paralyzed his legs. So that night, when we were invited to come forward for a look, I declined; unlike Molly, Skyler and Peter.
That morning, we’d visited a village down the river. A woman there had told us how she’d seen an Anaconda, at the edge of the water, already fully wrapped around a calf, starting to constrict it. She’d dashed into the river to free it. Now would that be your first instinct?! The Anaconda had bitten her (she showed us the marks) and then had been unable to extract its curved teeth from her arm. Her husband seeing that she was in trouble dashed into the water, too, and having no knife, bit the snake. I know, it’s starting to sound like a tall tale. The calf lived.
They all have stories like that. You start to believe them when you walk back to your bungalow after lunch and find a baby Caimin—a mere four-feet long—sunning itself on the flotation logs of your cabin.
Now, our night guide was shining his light into a tree trunk. I’d dropped back safely into the middle of the pack. Something like “Carangeira” was whispered along the line. “Tem muitos nomes.” “It has lots of names.” It turned out “Tarantula” was the one I recognized. By the time I got up to the tree, she had slid back into her white pocket of a house, only a few of her long, furry black legs still stuck out, yellow on the tips. She’d done her nails.
Given that I grew up with a father who had a phobia for snakes and a mother with a phobia for spiders, this was not shaping up to be my kind of a stroll. I can’t tell you much about the canopy at night, or the symphonic sounds of insects, as my eyes and ears were pretty solidly focused, okay glued, to the ground.
We did stop once, however, to listen. And the plethora of sounds were amazing. Like a percussion section, the cicadas played a steady blanket of 16th notes on high-pitched triangles; frogs, the washboard quarter notes, and toads, the low belching whole note. An occasional rapid-fire rattle skimmed the surface. Here was a little of Salvador after all. Soon afterward, we spotted the lights of the lodge through the trees. I was happy to return to our floating boardwalk. I’d take the “ka-thunks” in the night any day. My kids, however, had been unperturbed.
I was, nevertheless, pleased to have ventured into that other world; that Halloween night world of spiders and snakes, and to have had a small taste of what it might be like to live on a more even playing field with those creatures who are after all mostly just defending themselves against those out to get them—the likes of us. I felt glad that my kids could experience a world so unlike our Western one where we humans "monitor" and "control" the wildlife. I was grateful to be admitted as a guest in their house.
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