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Where Beauty and Danger Live Side by Side

June 14, 1987|VALERIE WELLS | Wells is a Miami, Fla., free-lance writer.

MANAUS, Brazil — In the darkness between sunset and moonrise, we set out by canoe to hunt alligators.

Under a black sky crowded with stars, currents of silence and sound flowed against one another. Just behind my left shoulder came a hiss, followed by a gurgle. It was an anaconda coming up for air, then submerging.

The threat of danger was real, but fear was held at bay by the absorbing beauty of the jungle night.

The captain of the canoe, an Indian named Zeca, wore standard jungle attire--gym shorts and a T-shirt. He sported a straw hat with a flashlight tied on top, the jungle version of a miner's carbide lamp. When Zeca turned his head toward the shore, dozens of pairs of ominous orange dots glowed in the dark. Alligator eyes.

Alligator Harpooned

We paddled stealthily toward the glowing orbs. Zeca, standing in the bow like Capt. Ahab, harpoon at the ready, held an eight-foot alligator hypnotized in the beam of his flashlight. With a quicksilver motion, Zeca threw the harpoon between the alligator's shoulders.

The alligator alternately thrashed and went limp as Zeca hauled it to the side of the canoe. Suddenly the alligator arched its head backward over the low gunwale, its huge mouth wide open and white. Powerful jaws slammed shut so close to my trembling shins that I could feel the wind on my legs.

After lashing the jaws and tail with rope, Zeca invited me to touch the alligator. Its gnarled skin was the same green-brown as the water, and slick. Its body felt dense and powerful. Zeca unbound the alligator and let him go.

In the mysterious waters of the Amazon basin, beauty and danger live side by side. If you're willing to risk the danger to experience the beauty, one of the best ways to capture the spirit of the Amazon is by canoe. There are 1,000 tributaries to choose from, and the discomfort level is no more than that of camping.

Midway on the Amazon

The spearhead city into the jungle is Manaus, the midway point of the Amazon River's 4,000-mile journey from the mountains of Peru to the Atlantic Ocean. The largest river in the world by volume and basin area, the Amazon is just a hair shorter than the Nile.

In the heart of the Amazon basin, Manaus is a study in contrasts. Traders from the interior sell baby monkeys and necklaces made of snake vertebrae across the street from stores in the Free Trade Zone selling state-of-the-art electronic equipment.

The domed, mosaic roof of the Opera House, built by rubber barons in 1896, struggles for attention amid sleek skyscrapers.

Near the ornate, cast-iron fish market designed by Gustav Eiffel, jewelry-store windows glitter with bargain-price amethysts, topazes and emeralds.

An excellent way to tour the area is with one of the licensed, multilingual guides in Manaus. Custom-tailored tours, ranging from half a day to several days and nights, can be arranged through travel agencies and sometimes on the spot. The cost is reasonable because of Brazil's inflation and includes transportation, food and accommodations.

If you plan an overnight trip, you'll want to rest and bathe upon your return, so it's a good idea to have a hotel room reserved; you can store extra baggage at the hotel while you're gone. A bastion of graciousness amid the jungle wildness is the Tropical Hotel, which boasts a waterfall pool and a zoo.

Three Days in Jungle

I chose a three-day, two-night canoe trip through the jungle. My guide, Eliaquim Soares, was a round-faced, round-bellied man with a bright smile. Early in the morning, the sun rising over the jungle, we took a ferryboat from a ramp on the Rio Negro.

The Rio Negro is the largest tributary of the Amazon, and so named because its waters are black with the acid decay of jungle foliage. A bus from the ferry to the Araca River took us by water lilies of Amazonian proportions. Called Victoria Regia, some of the green leafy pads were the size and shape of a child's plastic wading pool, and the crocus-like pink blossoms the size of footballs.

At the Araca, one of the smaller tributaries of the Amazon, Soares arranged for a canoe carved out of ironwood. As we paddled upriver, the seamlessness of the water was broken by the broad back of a pirarucu, the largest freshwater fish in the world. It can weigh as much as 300 pounds, and is caught with a harpoon instead of rod and reel.

The languid glide of a heron was punctuated by the screech of a monkey high in a treetop. Parrots shot through the sky like brightly colored arrows.

Houses were few and far between and were built on stilts well back from the river to avoid being flooded during the rainy season, January to June, when rivers rise as much as 40 feet. Occasionally a house floated on an oil-drum raft anchored to the shore.

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