MANAUS, BRAZIL — Call it a stupid guy thing, if you will. But when the two young guides for our "day tour" of the Amazon Jungle challenged me to join them in the swirling, piranha-infested waters of the Amazon River, I dove right in.
Part of it was silly male pride, no doubt. Here were two young Brazilian men, Joao and Aldo, splashing and slithering in the water like the pink freshwater dolphins we were to glimpse later in the day, taunting me to "be courageous." How could I decline?
But another impulse had something to do with the discrepancy between expectations and reality that we often encounter in places we've heard and dreamed about.
The truth is, the day trip the Monitor photographer and I took out of Manaus had, to that point, offered little of the exoticism and thrilling chill I had imagined.
So jumping into those waters - where in reality the biggest danger I faced was probably the mix of urban pollution and diesel motor fluids engulfing me - afforded some of the excitement I expected from the Amazon.
What I learned that Sunday as we plied the waters and a few earthen jungle trails from morning until after dark is simple. While there's plenty to see in a one-day "jungle tour" out of Manaus, a city of more than 1 million people, much of it is a glimpse of how human presence has altered this once impenetrable environment.
But that's something most tourists are not prepared for. "I was really disappointed in the jungle," said a young Japanese man occupying the seat next to me on a plane from Manaus to Sao Paulo. He had taken the same kind of one-day tour we had. "I was expecting naked natives and colorful parrots in giant trees," he said, "and instead they took me to a restaurant where the waiters wore white shirts and black bow ties" (quite possibly the same one we went to).
To avoid disappointment, it's probably best to leave at home the expectations of loads of squawking birds and giant snakes slinking through vine-tangled trees (we did cross a diminutive but apparently deadly Surucucu snake) and realize that the virgin jungle lies at least a day's boat travel outside Manaus.
The ideal for a latter-day Indiana Jones might be one of the week-long or longer boat trips (there are still relatively few roads) that take adventurers deep into the jungle to view the flora and fauna, and even in some cases to visit Brazilian Indian settlements. But for those without such luxury of time, the day tour offers at least a trial-size taste of the Amazon.
After pulling out of Manaus's bustling port we pass several poor neighborhoods on the river's northern banks - neighborhoods that appear increasingly rudimentary in terms of services the farther we venture from Manaus.
Then the settlements thin out to nothing and we skim alongside riverbanks that look surprisingly like parts of the southern Mississippi - flat, covered with low, tangled vegetation, the earth pottery-red. Only the occasional coconut palm and low ferries with rows of hammocks swinging on open passenger decks suggest this is not the domain of Huckleberry Finn.
We then leave the shore of this astoundingly wide river to reach "the meeting of the waters," where our tour really begins.
"The meeting of the waters" is the spot east of Manaus where the Rio Negro, on which Manaus sits, joins what in Brazil is called the Solimoes River but which the rest of the world calls the Amazon. For Brazilians, this is where the Amazon River officially begins.
The Negro reaches the spot warm, slow, and as black as its name suggests, while the Solimoes flows fast and cool and resembles caf au lait. Because of the differences in water temperature and velocity, the two mighty rivers flow separately but side by side for about five miles - creating a natural and visually stunning demarcation that tour boats love to crisscross. It is here that Aldo, Joao, and I take our dip.
Our next stop is apparently designed to bring us closer in touch with the Amazon forest's wonders. But instead we encounter the universal inability of people to leave nature alone, even when that is the stated goal. We visit a self-described ecological park where a wooden walkway takes us to a pond with one sleepy crocodile and the Amazon's famed Victoria Regia waterlilies.
The lily pads can measure up to a yard or more across. Unfortunately we are viewing them in their off season and they look moth-eaten. But they are not nibbled at by fish from below, our guides tell us, because the pads are protected on their underside by dozens of sharp thorns. Insects eat them from their unprotected upper side.
The wooden walkway is also clogged, not with tourists, but with trinket vendors and children dragging harnessed Amazon fauna, begging a coin in exchange for a photo. Local environmental inspectors say they regularly rescue the turtles, monkeys, parrots, and snakes that local children take hostage to such tourist sites, but the practice goes on. One girl holds a sloth, an unfortunate-looking, hairy creature that never risks becoming a favorite in an international wildlife conservation campaign. With some sense of guilt, we take pictures.
Not surprisingly, our eco-park also offers a floating restaurant - which is where we meet the bow-tied waiters. Here we also encounter an education professor from the University of Manaus, who tells us what by now has become obvious: "Here you are geographically in the Amazon [region], but you are also out of the real Amazon," she says. "For that you must go farther."
After lunch we do manage to become lost on a jungle trail off a canal along the Solimoes. And although the walk offers tactile encounters with giant trees and other intriguing flora, we also run into a barbed-wire fence and a sliced-up hardwood tree that our guide tells us has been illegally cut.
After returning to the safety of the boat, Joao and Aldo, who are brothers, take us to the Solimoes settlement where they used to live - five or six families occupying stark, stilt-elevated wooden shacks. The jungle has been hacked back to make way for some crops, but most of the families here live by fishing. Our guides left here 10 years ago for Manaus, for better education and employment opportunities. But they've forgotten none of the talents they learned here - including how to quickly remove a hook from the mouths of the toothy piranhas we catch in the canal in front of their old, now boarded-up house.
Aldo tells me the piranha story I've heard since childhood: You can swim all you want among piranhas if you don't have any bleeding cuts. But if you do, the attack can be ferocious. The presence of some small children merrily splashing in the waters from which we just fished (and threw back) a dozen saw-toothed specimens confirms at least the first part of the tale.
Later, after watching a quiet sunset of rosy hues and memorable thunder clouds, we encounter another type of Amazon teeth: those of the caimans that thrive in the reedy waters of the river's edge.
In a procedure that remains something of a mystery, Joao flashes a light into the reeds, from a distance that would seem to defy detection of anything. But he says he spots the alligatorlike creature's eyes, and silently directs his rudder-wielding brother into the reeds while he lies flat on the bow.
With a grab as swift as lightning, Joao plunges his arm into the water then jerks up a caiman, clasping it securely around the neck and then by the tail to avoid any undesirable swipes or bites from a frightened reptile.
At this point that I decide that maybe this one-day tour offers more contact with the Amazon than smug early impressions concluded. Now Joao is thrusting the writhing beast my way for me to hold. My eyes immediately respond, "No, thank you."
But then I remember I won't have the time to take that week-long trip into the "real" Amazon. The least I can do, I figure, is gulp and grab hold of a caiman.