Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021
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I prescribe a trip to Amazonia

An MD cosies up to piranhas and caimans while touring the Brazilian ranforest by houseboat

Amazonia -- a mythic world, overflowing with exotic sounds, earthy scents and visions of colourful birds reflected in mysterious waters. The word evokes a luscious paradise even as it provokes fear and apprehension. My six-day trip on the Negro River of Amazonia, aboard a traditional three-decked wooden houseboat called the Doña Tania, was all that and so much more.

Our group of 10 met the night preceding our departure in the Brazilian city of Manaus. Alongside myself, there was a joyous extended family from Australia and a charming couple from Vancouver desperately seeking their lost luggage.

Our guide Anand showed up the next morning to lead us through the charming old Art Deco market, where we gathered ample provisions of Brazilian beer and cachaça, a local sugar-cane spirit. After touring the booths offering fortifying root powders, rejuvenating drinks and large scaly fish called pirarucu, we headed for our boat.

Our cabins were tiny and basic Antonia but we needed nothing larger, as most of our time would be spent on the decks, in the water or in the jungle. We met captain George, first-mate Jackson and Antonia, our fantastic cook.

And off we sailed, leaving Manaus' large harbour to view the impressive convergence of the waters. The creamy brown Solimões River, descending from Peru, and the dark Negro River, originating from the mountains of Venezuela and Colombia, court one another side-by-side for nine kilometres before finally marrying into one large river, the Amazon, which travels all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

There, for the first time, we saw the candy-pink boto river dolphins and the smaller grey tucuxi dolphins curling out of the water for a breath of air. We then entered the Negro River, some of us lazily lying in hammocks, others enjoying a cold beer while watching life along the shores.

Water World
The rainy season brings a rise in the water level of up to 15 metres and, by the end, the whole Amazonian basin is flooded. The level had dropped barely a metre when we started our trip at the beginning of the dry season. Tree trunks were submerged in water with only their branches coiling above the surface. The verandas of houses on posts were almost touching the river.

We started our second day with a long hike into the jungle, and Anand described the many useful jungle plants. We came across beautiful red passion fruit flowers, a liana (or water vine), which releases a steady flow of potable water when cut, trees producing sap used to water-proof boats and also precious woods such as rosewood and mahogany.

With his machete, Anand cut off a bamboo branch -- woven by locals into walls for their houses -- and started folding its leaves to construct a delicate crown. He placed it on 12-year-old Sarah's head, who was then and there declared by us to be Queen of the Jungle. Further on, we reached Tarzan's terrain, where we all tried our hands at swinging on a liana. I failed utterly but Sarah, along with 15-year-old sister Emma, skillfully enjoyed themselves.

The branches squeaked overhead and we looked up to admire an extended family of squirrel monkeys with wee babies hanging from their mother's fur, all curiously staring at us. We discovered red-and-yellow striped caterpillars, long stick insects and all sorts of ants: large red ones, dark brown ones (called "mother-in-law" ants by the locals) and tiny black ants used by the jungle dwellers as insect repellent. We aimed our binoculars up to seek out a furry sloth lazily hanging from a tree and to check out a handsome green iguana soaking up the rays of the early morning sun.

Close Encounters
We returned to our boat to sail through canals, watching birds along the shore: tall herons feeding, colourful kingfishers flying, a royal blue trogon proudly parading his thick tail and curly-beaked parrots chasing one another from branch to branch. George anchored the boat so we could swim.

The water was a transparent brownish colour and it felt like we were immersed in an extra large cup of tea: Earl Grey or English Breakfast? We argued for a while before returning to the boat, ready for our caipirinha, the local cachaça cocktail, and sunset on the upper deck.

On the third morning, Sarah woke us up, shouting, "Toucan! Toucan!" We climbed briskly onto the deck to admire the large-beaked birds. After breakfast, we prepared for a piranha fishing trip.

We delved into the flooded forest by motorboat, eventually cutting the motor to row further in. Occasionally we parted small trees as we pushed on. Finally, we stopped and Anand handed each of us a fishing pole crafted by our crew from a bamboo branch, string and hook. We threaded pieces of meat onto our hooks and threw our lines into the calm water to await the piranhas. We waited… and waited.

During flood season, the abundance of water causes the fish to disperse more, making them more difficult to catch, Anand explained. We successfully caught three piranhas among the 12 of us. We did pull more out, but the lively piranhas quickly unhooked themselves to return to the river. One angry piranha landed on Anand's trousers and inserted its sharp teeth into a strategic area, removing a piece of fabric before jumping back into the water. Astounded, Anand remained speechless for a while as he stood in the boat, staring at his damaged pants.

When darkness covered the jungle, we departed in our small motorboat for a night safari. Jackson used a bright light which reflected in the caimans' eyes. Anand spotted these South American crocodiles easily.

His first catch was a baby. The small, scaly reptile rested easily in our arms, seemingly unbothered by the snapping cameras. A somewhat older, more vigorous caiman was captured next, and it responded angrily after being pulled out of its resting place in the tall reeds. Both were returned to the river.

Alert! Anand had spotted an anaconda, the massive snake that spends much of its life submerged. As we approached, the stink in the air and the creature's immobility provided clues to its decaying state: it was dead, likely killed by a caiman.

On the fourth day, we stopped at the Terra Preta village, inhabited by the Tucano. A small market offered handicrafts such as handsome necklaces of green, red or yellow jungle pods threaded onto straw string. We visited their manioc-processing facility, and the house of a woodcarver.

In late afternoon, we prepared for our night of jungle camping. We departed in our motorboat to settle in a lightly cleared area near the shore. It took only minutes for Anand to hang our hammocks and an extra 15 minutes for him and our local guide Pedro to build a jungle bed for one of our group, whose bad back prevented him from sleeping in a hammock. Trunks of small trees were cut and stabilized on V-shaped branches, which were stuck into the earth and then tightened together with slender but sturdy lianas. A mattress made it comfy.

Vipers and Tarantulas
It was time for a swim. I was reluctant to go for a dip in this piranha-infested area but the prospect of cool water provided incentive. Someone said, "I don't believe I'm going to swim with all those things!" To which Anand replied, "Don't worry: the caimans are small here and all the other things -- the anacondas, sting rays, electric eels -- live at the bottom."

While we dried off, our guides prepared dinner. Large marinated chunks of chicken and pieces of pineapple were threaded onto the end of a branch, which was jammed into the ground to lean over the fire. This was eventually served with rice.

As the night encroached, we got ready for sleep. Anand warned us: "If you hear noises around your hammock, don't jump down. Just stay put and turn on your light. It might be a jaguar coming to drink from the river."

In the morning, we woke up to the sound of a howler monkey and began to pack our gear. Before we could head back, the rain came pouring down for a good 20 minutes. Luckily, Anand had had a premonition and we waited under a plastic canopy tied to the trees and stayed dry.

After a change of clothing, we departed for our second jungle walk. Anand warned us to remain on the trail, as snakes enjoy exploring the wet ground. Again, he was spot on: we encountered two of the most dangerous snakes in the area, members of the bushmaster family.

The first one slid quietly through the wet leaves, frightened by our arrival. The second one, a deadly viper known in Brazil as the pico-de-jaca, was cleverly spotted by Pedro. It was resting, well-camouflaged on the ground, curled into a coil. Right then, Pedro pulled up one of his pant legs to show us the ugly scar left by the nasty bite of another pico-de-jaca. He had been lucky enough to reach a hospital in time.

That last night, after the sun came down, a cloud of bats flew past the boat, just above the water's surface, on their way to their nightly feeding. I didn't see them though. Instead, I was in the kitchen attending Anand's class on how to mix a caipirinha. On our final morning, there was a commotion on board: a tarantula was visiting our boat.

Already baptized Fabio by Sarah, it strolled slowly along, its right hind leg dragging slightly behind as it explored our second deck. Five attempts to relocate the small creature failed; Fabio kept coming back on board. Finally, it was deposited into the water, where it became a yummy snack for a fortunate piranha.

On the way back to Manaus, we visited a fisherman who had miraculously survived a caiman attack despite having part of his stomach ripped off. We then went for our last swim at a lovely deserted sandy beach. For all of us, the short week aboard the Doña Tania was destined to become a memory of beauty, charm, fun and adventure, where danger was cleverly curbed by our friendly guides and crew.


Louise Poulin de Courval is a family physician in Montreal. This was her first trip to Brazil, but she has travelled extensively in Latin America. This month, she leaves for a nine-week trip in Asia and Africa. The jaunt will include a month in Chiang Mai, Thailand to learn Thai and practise yoga, a nine-day trek of Mount Kenya and a visit to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda to see mountain gorillas and golden monkeys.

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