Where myths and fine china converge

No one told me about the clouds.

I thought I had prepared well for my first trip down the Amazon - reading various articles, talking to well-traveled friends, and watching National Geographic specials. But none of those things told me the first thing about what I saw on that first afternoon on the river.

It hurt my neck to look at them - enormous anvils of condensation waiting to crash on the landscape like waves. A child could grow old trying to identify all the shapes miles above the horizon.

Before I came here, the Amazon had only been a part of myth, an image outlined solely by old documentaries half forgotten, and pictures of piranha, their quivering bottom row of teeth protruding as if they were forever eating corn on the cob.

Some of these mental imprints, I soon learned, existed in the real place, too. But it was the canyon of clouds rising from each side of the broad river basin, the feeling of the sun pressed on my neck like a nickel-size branding iron - things I could not have imagined before I came - that now make up my Amazon.

For six days, the unabashedly opulent La Amatista crept up the Amazon - fast enough to convince myself and the 17 other passengers on board that there was some ultimate goal, but slow enough to qualify cloudwatching as an activity. At times, it seemed as if this was an adventure only in the let's-go-camping-with-a-Ford-Explorer-and-cell-phone sense of the word.

"Wild Kingdom's" Marlin Perkins would have been more out of place than Kathy Lee Gifford.

Not that it was all fine china and escargot, but the most perilous moments came when passengers forgot to use their industrial-strength bug spray, and not once were we asked to forage for food.

Amazon made easy

No, this was the Amazon made easy. Our days consisted of rising at 6 a.m. only to plop back down in small excursion boats that visited villages and worked their way up the Pacaya, a tributary with water blacker than dirt at midnight.

Every so often, as we crept upstream, one of our Peruvian guides would call out to the driver to stop, then point like a Magi of the tropics to some distant tree. Inevitably, on the other end of a dozen pairs of searching binoculars, sat some rare macaw or monkey, nearly invisible among the branches.

There's little else to do here except look at animals or the nature that surrounds them. Indeed, the Amazon is life brought to its lowest common denominator. Every day, La Amatista slipped by local villagers who emerged from the forest like an early-morning mist to tend to whatever crops they have and go fishing.

Deep in the Peruvian rain forest, where the Maraon and Ucayali Rivers meet to form the vast, muddy cone of the Amazon, there are no cars, no roads. The only means of travel from one thatch-hut town to another is on one of the thousands of rivers - both well-known and uncharted - that turn this region into a giant sponge of turgid earth.

For this reason, the only way to see the Amazon is on the deck of one of the few tourist ships that explore various portions of the 3,915-mile river.

And while many Americans may think of the Amazon as synonymous with Brazil, some of the wildest and most pristine sections of the river are to be found in Peru.

First impressions

It was here that I first saw the Amazon, a mile-wide column of blackness separating the port city of Iquitos from a half-dozen distant lights.

I had come for the myth. The others had come for Mary Alice Carmichael. The Birmingham, Ala., native came to one of the remotest regions of the planet for a homecoming of sorts - and she brought a dozen friends along to experience it with her.

Some six decades ago, Mrs. Carmichael's father, Donald Beatty, had arrived in the Amazon as a modern Marco Polo, paid by J.P. Morgan to document his travels in film and journal. In the end, the film was lost, but he returned home with the snapshots and stories that had led his daughter back.

It's hard to imagine that the Amazon looks much different now than it did when Beatty arrived in 1931. Most villagers wear T-shirts and shorts manufactured in far-off cities, and the old mission city of Requena even has electricity and a few three-wheeled motor taxis on its ruddy earthen streets.

For the most part, though, the rudiments of daily life remain largely unchanged. Everywhere, low dugout canoes bobbed along the river bank, and homes sat on what precious high ground there was - little more than spare, four-posted structures with elevated wooden floors, palm-leaf roofs, and no walls.

In this setting, La Amatista - with its air-conditioned rooms and ornately carved wooden railings - was a floating anomaly, drawing twisted expressions wherever it went. While not spacious, the accommodations seemed appropriate - each room decked in Peruvian mahogany, fitted two stiff beds, a small desk, and a full bathroom.

"If dad could only see me now, he wouldn't believe it," says Carmichael. "But I think he would have opted for some of the comfort we have," she adds with a wry smile.

Some of the comfort, perhaps.

For a man who traversed one-third of the continent, befriending headhunter chieftains and slathering himself with muck to keep mosquitoes away, La Amatista might seem a bit tame. For most on board, though, the trip was an ideal mix of excitement and ease.

"We were able to explore nature and local culture and yet be comfortable at the same time," says Randy McSwain, who has been on several adventure-travel vacations in Alaska, Canada, and the Western US. "We had good food, clean water, and comfortable beds, but we still did some very adventurous things."

Like the night one of our guides reached over the side of the smaller steel boat and snatched up a three-foot cayman. Or the morning the group went fishing for piranha. Yes, the guides took the silvery discs of teeth and bone off the hook, but that was all a part of the package. "Some of the trips I've been on have been very primitive," adds Mr. McSwain. "This is the other extreme."

In fact, it sometimes seemed that the crew was willing to go to absurd lengths to ensure the comfort of the passengers. On one particular morning, after a bird-watching session in one of the smaller boats, the crew pulled into a remote lake and served a full breakfast - complete with hot beverages and china. All that was missing were parasols and a recording of one of Mozart's clarinet concertos.

To be sure, some of this was courtesy demanded by the trip's price tag - most week-long Amazon cruises cost about $2,000. But there was more to it than that.

Courtesy extends beyond the ship

In a place where most villagers' possessions could be easily stowed in an overhead compartment and stories become families' heirlooms, relationships are the only thing of value that many people have. They refer to each other as "amigo," and when tourists come, they thank them for coming to "their" country.

In Carocurahuayte, a village of 200 to 300 people, the coming of tourists could hardly have been a more celebrated event. We puttered into the town in one of the small boats, wielding long-lensed cameras and immersed in the pungent coconut aroma of liberally applied sunscreen.

Almost instantly, dozens of children appeared on the shore. They scampered along in time with the boat and called out "Gringos!" like a dinner bell.

We moved through the town, an amoebic mass of cultural contradictions, watching and being watched. "May I show them your house?" one of our guides asked a local woman in Spanish. "Yes," came the reply. Always yes, no matter what the question.

To many of them, we were already "amigos." We were guests to their home - not to their rough-hewn houses, but to the Amazon.

"The entire rain forest is like this," says Renninger Coquinche, one of the guides.

For the most part, though, the rain forest is where people aren't. After all, this is an ecosystem that covers more than half of South America and contains two-thirds of the world's unfrozen freshwater. It's home to 20,000 species of moths and more types of fish than exist in the entire Atlantic Ocean. Towering ceiba trees spread toward the sky like wooden deltas of limbs and leaves. Plants and animals come in not paltry groups of 10 or 15, but rather in legions - like the hundreds of long-necked egrets that rose from the bank as we motored by, settling again on a distant shore, noiselessly like the first flakes of a tropical snow.

For this reason, a trip down the Amazon is not an itinerary that can be checked off or distilled to a few highlights. The river reveals itself at the geologic pace that everything moves at here.

Perhaps Beatty got the most intimate look at it all those years ago, trekking across the endless wilderness over days and even months. But these days, in a time when most people's hunting and gathering skills have been replaced by a mastery of the remote control, perhaps the wisest way to see the world's grandest river is on a boat like La Amatista.

*For more information contact International Expeditions, Inc. (800-633-4734 or www.ietravel.com)

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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