In the jungles of the Amazon

In the middle of the Amazon jungle, seven hours by boat from the closest hospital, I cut off my fingertip with a machete.

This is how I spent my Christmas: I flew to Manaus, a big ugly port city on the Amazon river, where the warm, slow, black Rio Negro and the cooler, faster, sandy Rio Solimões meet up and run side-by-side for some distance, looking rather neat. Manaus was not the world’s nicest introduction to Brazil—the city echoes the surrounding jungle with its sprawling messiness. Once one of Brazil’s richest cities, it still contains the opulent (and rather tacky-looking) pastel-coloured palaces built during the rubber boom, but everything else is either a giant ugly factory or struck with urban blight.

But it’s a jumping-off point for rainforest excursions, and that’s what I was there for after all. It took two flights, one taxi ride, a speedboat, a bus through one of the most poorly-maintained roads I’ve seen yet, and another, much smaller, wooden boat to get to the jungle lodge we’d be spending a good portion of the next five days. Early Boxing Day morning, I was on my way to the jungle, excited for what lay ahead of me.

I’ll be honest: it wasn’t anything like what I expected. I was ready for a trip that would be physically and mentally taxing; I got this, but not in the way I’d expected. I’d thought I’d be tired from physical exertion, but instead I was just cold and wet. (Or, other times, hot and mosquito-bitten.) Worse yet—I was almost bored.

The wiring in Manaus all looked like this. I'm sure in North America, this would be termed a fire hazard, but it rains so damned much there's probably no hope of fire. I'm assuming the electricians were all inspired by the thick twisting vines of the surrounding forests.

I have never before in my life come across a watercraft that inspired as much hatred as that wretched wooden boat. I spent incalculable tracts of time sitting in it, my butt going numb from the hard wooden seat. Oftentimes, I was being rained on. I’ve never felt so much time sedentary, doing nothing but scanning the shoreline for caimans or spotting river dolphins surfacing. For someone who’s used to being constantly busy, this was a hard reality to face. Even when I wasn’t sitting in the boat, there were vast tracts of idle time. I felt as though I was constantly waiting about, twiddling my thumbs. It nearly drove me to distraction. This slow pace is often prevalent in warmer climates, I assume mostly because people would drop dead of heat exhaustion if they ran about like rabid monkies, but I’ve generally had difficulties assimilating into it. Even in Argentina, people are more patient. I am not. “Laid-back” is not often a term used to describe me. “High-strung” seems far more appropriate. When the stress of my busy work schedule starts getting to me (as it often does), I make jokes about running away and becoming a banana farmer. Having seen the way people live in the jungle (admittedly, they don’t farm bananas), I’m not sure I could do it. I’ll take my high-stress lifestyle, thank you. That way, at least I know when I’m on vacation.

I’ve come to realize, too, that I’m a bit of a misanthrope. I’m usually traveling solo, which I love. Now, while I love my traveling companion dearly and can spend lengthy periods of time in his company (mostly) without wanting to strangle him, I can’t say the same for many people. I desperately need my alone-time, and going on a tour with six other people robbed me of this. Two days nonstop camping in the jungle with a group of strangers? Sure, I can handle that! By the end of it, I wanted to lock myself into a cell where nobody could find me. At times I felt a good deal like a child on a field trip, and the loss of autonomy was a challenge. While I don’t think heading out into the jungle by myself would have been advisable under any circumstance, I do treasure my independence, and it was a struggle to deal with the change.

If I could marry a tree, I think this would be the one. It was about ten feet wide, and there was enough space to set up camp between its roots. It's (probably) around 600 years old, but my Portugese is rather terrible (mostly because it's actually Spanish) so I wasn't entirely certain.

But, in spite of my issues: the Amazon rainforest is an incredible, magical place. Everything comes at you hard and fast, and totally unexpectedly: scorching sunshine suddenly shifts into a raging monsoon that soaks everything, and sunset lasts about thirty minutes when you’re so close to the equator (Manaus itself is at 3° S). I expect that’s how a jaguar or a boa would sneak up on you, too.

The night sky is utterly gorgeous—mostly untainted by light, you could see stars everywhere, and I think they were a mix of Southern and Northern hemisphere constellations. The thunder and lightning storms were dramatic and electric. Sometimes when it rains and you’re under the canopy, you can barely feel the drops; you only realize it’s raining because of the sounds overhead, like rain on a tin roof. The jungle is full of giant, beautiful trees wrapped round with huge vines. There are gorgeous birds, hairy tarantulas, and a whole host of insects that may or may not try to bite you. Although as the Machete Fingertip Incident proves, generally the most dangerous creature in the jungle is human stupidity.

I’m incredibly glad I went, but I don’t think I’ll be going back soon. I got to do all sorts of neat things—I caught piranhas, spent two consecutive nights camping in the forest, saw all kinds of flora and fauna, and experienced a little bit of what life is like in the jungle. I survived five whole days without a computer or internet access, without hot showers, with only very limited and occasional power, and with only my own brain for entertainment. Better yet, I discovered that when I returned “home”, the world didn’t fall apart without me for five days—maybe this means I’ll start taking time off work, and not worrying so much that the universe will implode without me constantly checking my emails.

The Amazon taught me about myself and about the world around me, which I’ll forever treasure. The most important lesson of all: machetes go in wood, not fingers!

Midway through cutting down a tree with a machete. Not pictured: buckets of sweat, incredible wrist pain ("This counts as physio, right?"). Pictured: horribly unflattering quick-dry outfit, two-days-without-a-shower-in-the-jungle hair and monkey-face. This was before I used the blade to re-engineer my finger.