After studying law I vectored towards journalism by accident and it's the only job I've done since. It's a job that has taken me on a private jet to Jaisalmer - where I wrote India's first feature on fractional ownership of business jets - to the badlands of west UP where India's sugar economy is inextricably now tied to politics. I'm a big fan of new business models and crafty entrepreneurs. Fortunately for me, there are plenty of those in Asia at the moment.
It’s a little past midnight and I’m lying wide awake in my hammock. Every few minutes, a mosquito whizzes past my ears. I impulsively swat at it, dislodging my balance; if I swat too hard, I could fall. In any case, the mosquitoes will be back. The cacophonous cry of howler monkeys, muffled due to the distance, provides relentless background music. Not a pleasant start to my five days beside the mighty Amazon river and its myriad tributaries and distributaries.
Earlier that day, my wife and I had arrived at a small clearing near the Brazilian leg of the fabled river for our night in the Amazon rainforest. Our plan was to hang hammocks protected by mosquito nets, chop firewood, cook a simple meal of marinated chicken and have some beer before turning in by around 7 pm—before the mosquitoes make it impossible for us to sit outside.
Soon, we realise how impractical our aim of speed was. It’s hard to wield an axe without prior experience, starting a fire with twigs can take as long as 30 minutes without kerosene, the chicken reared by the locals is among the largest and softest we had seen and it takes an hour to cook it on the low flame. But the sumptuous meal made our three-hour effort worth it.
I imagined myself as one of the first explorers of this rainforest, sans the machete, as they foraged their way through virgin territory. This was a real camp, after all, and we had done a lot of the heavy lifting too. But while Day 1 had been tiring, it had proven enjoyable.
There are many ways to get a true experience of the Amazon basin. One could do a quick fly past, which serves as a clear and quick souvenir of the vastness and sheer majesty of the Amazon river. For instance, flying over Manaus airport in Brazil’s Amazonas state, all I could see was water out of the window. Then there’s the luxury ship experience where you cruise down the river making short stops at towns along the way. Finally, there’s the camping option—that’s the one we picked and it didn’t let us down.
The next morning, we set off from Manaus Port with our guide Sameer Abdul Gandhi, who proved to be an entertaining presence on the trip. Of Indian origin, he often spoke about his grandfather from Uttar Pradesh who left India in the mid-1800s. Although Gandhi had no links with India and no knowledge of Hindi, he spoke fondly of the curry and chapatti he would have during his childhood in Guyana in northern South America.
Our first stop, 10 km from Manaus, was for a quick glimpse of the point where the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões tributaries of the Amazon river meet. The confluence of the black waters of the Rio Negro (the largest left tributary of the river and the world’s biggest backwater river) with the sandy-coloured waters of the Rio Solimões is the draw. The tributaries run alongside for 7 km and tourists and locals alike marvel at the cool currents. The calmness is punctuated by dolphins jumping out of the water surface.
Our camp is still three hours away as we switch to travelling by road. We now have a window-side view of the changing vegetation—from sparse to dense—and the quality of the infrastructure—smooth roads that we travelled on for hours, while passing only two vehicles. A couple of hours later, we hop on to another boat for the last leg of our journey to the jungle lodge—our base camp for four days.
Tour companies along the Amazon work with indigenous groups. The unwritten rule is that they arrange for customers from Manaus and contract guides, while the locals run the camps and provide the boats, food and electricity. There are no shops for even basic supplies at the lodge and (thankfully!) no internet. They price themselves reasonably and customers include backpackers (who opt for dormitories and hammocks) as well as well-heeled travellers (who choose single rooms with private baths). We opted for a dormitory. With the mercury hovering around 35 degree Celsius, sleeping threatened to be little fun but I was surprised at how fast the body acclimatises.
Hungry and exhausted after the five-hour trip to the neatly laid out camp, our group of 17 gorge on the food—local catfish cooked curry style, chicken curry, meat (usually pork or beef), baked beans, rice, noodles, bread and fruit. We eat copious quantities as there would be nothing available for the next six hours.
At sunrise, the pollution-free air presents the sun as a flaming ball of fire. In 15 minutes, night gives way to day. Still sleepy, I jump into the river’s ice-cold water and am wide awake in a flash. That evening, sunset was to prove equally arresting—even after the sun sinks into the river, the night sky stays lit for an hour with the rays seemingly emanating from beneath the water.
Hey ‘guy’, check out this insect. Anyone wants to eat it?” That is part of Gandhi’s spiel during our walk through the jungle. He spends the next four hours regaling us with stories about how the Amazon forests had virtually every medicinal cure known to man, including an antidote for snake bites and a plant that keeps mosquitoes at bay (I can testify to that: It turned out to be more effective than our repellent).
Anna, an Italian who proved to be the bravest in our group (from holding a snake to catching a caiman, she did it all), gulps down the insect and says it tasted like coconut. None of us are willing to verify her claim.
When it inevitably rains, we stand under a thick canopy of trees and stay mostly dry at the end of it. To quell hunger pangs, nuts are on offer on the trees—we had gathered these with our hunting knives.
Image: Getty Images
The piranhas are known for their sharp teeth
It proves to be an educative afternoon, and we emerge exhausted yet wiser about what is stacked beyond the all-embracing canopy of the jungle.
Hey Indian guy, what you do?” That is Gandhi again sitting at the back of the boat guiding us on our fishing expedition. “I am a reporter,” I reply. “What will you report? No fish in the Amazon?” he guffaws. We are in a small clearing where the water is calm. Our fishing rods made from forest sticks have been suitably baited and we lie in wait for the piranhas. The fish is mentioned with barely contained dread in the accounts of early explorers of the Amazon. The fear is localised, as it were, in the teeth. Their sharpness is legendary, finding its way to movies and books.
Heart in my mouth, I hold it up for all to survey before gingerly pulling it out of the rod and tossing it back into the water. I think that I could now go back with a suitable souvenir photograph, capturing both the joy of catching the fish and the horror when, a few seconds later, the fish jumped back from the water and (tried to) attack me.That night, after an early dinner at 6 pm, Sean takes us out on a caiman spotting expedition. He paddles his canoe furiously in the swamps, shining his torchlight, when almost immediately we see two red eyes flashing back. He angles the boat over and picks the caiman up with his bare hands. We marvel at the smoothness of the skin of what, to us Indians, looks like a baby crocodile. Its nostril is divided into three chambers. A chuckle later, Sean tosses it back into the water.