Joan Schweighardt talks about the Amazon rainforest & shares photos on the one-year anniversary of her Rivers Trilogy books.
Novelist Joan Schweighardt made two trips to South America in the last decade. The first trip was to stay with an Indigenous tribe in the deepest part of the Ecuadorian rainforest. The tribal people were allowing small numbers of sustainability advocates to witness their way of life in exchange for legal help, from the organization hosting the trip, to keep oil companies from destroying tribal lands with the byproduct of their drilling.
The seed for Schweighardt’s recently completed Rivers Trilogy — which unfolds in part in the South American rainforest and in part in the New York metro area — took hold during that first excursion. The second trip, three years later, was to celebrate the completion of the first book in the trilogy (entitled Before We Died) and to visit the city of Manaus, Brazil, before beginning the second and third books. After two days exploring the famous Teatro Amazonas (the opera house in Manaus) and other structures built during the rubber boom (the boom and its impact on the characters in years to come is the backdrop for sections of the trilogy), the author and her three traveling companions spent eight days on the Rio Negro in a small riverboat with a private guide. “Channel Surfing” was written to capture a part of that experience.
We are in a motorized canoe, but we are not running the motor. We are gliding through a narrow channel between trees. There are floating limbs below us, branches and brambles above and on either side. We sway left or right to avoid them. Sometimes we duck. When we see that an upcoming branch will be too rigid to push aside, we throw ourselves onto the floor of the canoe and then pop back up onto our benches. Moving front to back, we look like The Wave at Yankee Stadium. Except for the noise we make dodging flora, and the gurgle the water makes when the paddle pushes through it, it is dead quiet.
This is the fourth channel we have turned into, and we are hoping it will be the one that opens into the river, the Rio Negro, the largest tributary of the Amazon. It is getting dark, and as we set out early, we didn’t think to bring flashlights. They wouldn’t do much good anyway in these narrow channels dense with foliage. We do, however, have our rainforest guide at the front of the boat and a specialized canoe guide at the rear. Ever since we hit the dead-end of the third channel, their exchanges, in Portuguese, have become more spirited.
It is hard not to ponder what it would be like to spend the night in the canoe, tied to a tree in this narrow channel, waiting for daylight so we can start afresh. There are insects everywhere. Every time we push a branch aside, some fall into our boat. When we see them on the backs of our companions in front of us, we use leaves to propel them back into their own world. Earlier, something landed on my cheek, and I immediately cupped it and threw it into the water. Only then did I see that it was a good-sized spider. Besides the insects, there are lizards that leap out of the upper branches as we approach. They are big and colorful and make a plopping sound when they fall. They seem to wait until we are very close to decide to jump. So far none have fallen into our boat, but it seems possible. Leaping lizards. Who knew? There are bats, too; we disturbed a tree full of them earlier. There are snakes, including anacondas. There are alligators. There is no land nearby to escape to. This is May, the end of the wet season. The rivers have swollen, as they do every year, by more than forty feet. The waters reached low-lying banks months ago and have been creeping into the jungle since. In fact, the channels we are traversing are actually over land, over a large island in the middle of the river. We are canoeing above the forest, not among tree trunks but in the canopy. We are floating on the flood, with all the shrubs and smaller trees beneath us. That is another world that will be revealed again in good time.
The Rio Negro is the color of black tea. When the water is still, the surface is onyx. Every trunk, every branch, every leaf has its perfect counterpart mirrored in the inky water. When you are canoeing through a black-water channel, and every tree extends upward and downward from the waterline, the waterline disappears. The Amazon River is yellow-brown, and while the reflections can be just as precise, the waterline remains discernible because of the color of the water. Without a waterline for orientation, the landscape becomes a bewitching maw, an entrance into a forgotten memory or a fairytale. With night falling, as it is now, it becomes sinister. Someone, maybe Teddy Roosevelt, once said, “The jungle is the hell you keep coming back to.” The quote keeps coming back to me.
We fished for piranha when we were on the Amazon yesterday and caught several. We brought them back to the riverboat that is our headquarters for the eight days we will be on the water, and our cook baked them. She removed the jaws and gave them to us to take home as a souvenirs. The teeth are like razors. Some Indigenous peoples, our guide, Carlos, told us, use them to cut their hair. Reena, who is traveling with us, was the only one in our small group plucky enough to remove the hook from the piranha she caught herself. Even Carlos held his breath as she did so. Reena is the bravest among us. She doesn’t swim, but she had no problem jumping into the Amazon to stand on a narrow ledge of uncertain depth and throw fish to pink river dolphins. She refuses to wear a life vest in the canoe. When Carlos pulled an alligator out of the water one night, she not only touched it, but she grabbed its leg and turned her back on it for a photo op.
Reena grew up in Manipur, a remote part of India bordering on Myanmar. Since well before she was born, insurgent groups, some violent, have been fighting the government in pursuit of making Manipur an independent state. A paramilitary presence, accused of human rights violations, works to countermand the insurgency. The area is considered “sensitive.” When Reena left Manipur, it was to attend boarding school and college in Mumbai. When she left Mumbai, it was to take a job as a VP for a leading financial services firm in New York. When she is not working, she is traveling. A photograph from her Costa Rica trip depicts five people on a raft fighting whitewater rapids. All the river rafters, including the guide, are focused on some upcoming danger beyond the view of the lens, but while four are wide-eyed (as in, you can see white all around their pupils) with apprehension, only Reena’s expression is joyful.
Bravery came to me only in the last years. Several factors contributed to its arrival, but it was clinched during a shamanic ceremony in the jungles of Ecuador. Before then I was a coward; now I’m not so bad. I lived always within my comfort zone; now I’ve learned to love to leave it … periodically. So, yes, I am concerned that it is almost dark and we haven’t found the channel that will lead us out, that the conversation between our guides is beginning to sound confrontational, but it doesn’t terrorize me. If the worst happens, I will cover my head with my plastic poncho and curl up, like a sloth, on the floor of the canoe and surrender to the night. Surrender can be an art form.
Carlos is a wealth of knowledge. His grandparents lived on the Purus River, another Amazon tributary, and he spent time with them as a kid. When the river came up during the flood season, the water would reach almost to the door of their house. Only a floating platform adjacent to the house kept the chickens, goats, and pigs from drowning. But every year anacondas would rediscover it and swim up looking for dinner. To protect his animals, Carlos’ grandfather would wake himself in the middle of the night and go out in his canoe with a flashlight and machete.
Carlos loves the rainforest. It is under his skin. He speaks several languages, has a background in medicine and a degree in psychology, but the rainforest is where he likes to be. He calls out to birds and animals on our daily jungle treks. He leads with his machete, cutting trails where there weren’t any. He slashes water vines when we are thirsty. He points out termite nests, the inhabitants of which would keep us from starving if we were stranded. He shows us medicinal plants. He picks lemongrass and slices cinnamon bark to brew teas back at the boat.
He makes it all look easy, but I know the jungle is not always kind. It can’t afford to be. It has too much to protect, too much responsibility. Who else will look after the world’s oxygen and regulate its global weather?
The jungle doesn’t welcome intruders. Thousands of foreigners died in the jungle during the rubber boom between 1879 and 1912. Thousands more died attempting to build the Madeira-Mamoré Railroad. Their deaths were from malaria, yellow fever, snake and spider bites, and, yes, starvation. Famous explorers, like Percy Fawcett, went into the jungle and never came out; Teddy Roosevelt almost didn’t make it out. We are 21st-century tourists; we have prepared for our humble visitation. We are traveling with guides who know the rainforest as well as anyone can. We have had shots for yellow fever and hepatitis. We have pills for malaria and dysentery. We have moisture-wicking clothes that have been laundered in a detergent spiked with insect repellent. But it would be unwise to assume we are a match for anything the rainforest might throw at us.
When the conversation between the guides dwindles, I become hopeful. It is so dark in our leafy tunnel that I can hardly see the branches in time to duck from them. We are three days out from civilization, back in Manaus. There is no cell reception here, no houses, no other boats. Except for the crew on the riverboat, no one knows we’re here. I have been wanting to ask Carlos (the canoe guide doesn’t speak English) if he has ever been lost in one of these channels on previous trips. But I don’t, in part because I don’t want him to think I don’t trust him, and in part because it won’t do any good if the answer is yes.
It looks like this channel will be a dead-end, too. That means a slow trip back the way we came as we search for another opening. But then we squeeze between two trees, so close together that our boat rubs against bark on either side, and make a turn to the left. And there, ahead of us, is a splotch of sky. We head toward it, and there is the river.
The danger of having to spend the night in a narrow dark channel is over. As we get closer to our exit we can see torrential rain falling to the west. Now there is the question of whether we will make it back to our boat before the deluge. So far we have experienced only one bad storm, but that was from land. It was amazing to see the glassy river suddenly rear up and become a heaving sea, while great volumes of water fell from a blackened sky. Now the clouds above us are puffy, the color of eggplant. The vista is magnificent.
As we emerge from the forest we find ourselves in an arboreal graveyard. The silver trees twist and bend artfully, their perfect reflections mirroring their dance. Nothing gets wasted in the jungle. Epiphytes grow on the trunks and branches of these trees, including orchids. It is surreal to see them surrounding us, rising up out of dead wood.
We put the motor in the water, and soon we turn a bend and there is our boat in the distance, tied to some trees along the shore. I feel the way I do after deplaning from a long flight to find a loved one waiting for me in the airport. Or when I was a kid, walking out of the chaos of the school halls to find a car there to pick me up. It’s that feeling of leaving one reality for another safer one — the feeling of coming home. Our cook will have a traditional Brazilian dinner waiting. The generator will be turned on when the last of the light has left the sky. The young people (our companions, and the cook, canoe guide and motor expert) will play dominoes, heedless of language barriers. Carlos and Michael, my husband, and I will talk about the river. Carlos has a million stories (the Amazon Basin is a place where things always happen), and I want to hear them all.
I come to the rainforest for the beauty, for the impetus that drives me to reflection. It never disappoints. I know the corporate world is set on exploiting the resources of the rainforest and the river. When it does, I will have a different world to reflect on.
A version of this essay appeared under a different title in RomarTravel, a now defunct online publication, in 2015. In the short time since, much of the rainforest has been transformed by oil drillers, ranchers, miners, and others. Because of deforestation, the rainforests now emit more carbon than they absorb, hastening climate crisis worldwide. Less rainforest means more drought. The rivers can no longer be counted on to rise 40 feet during flood season. People and animals have been displaced. Some medicinal plants have gone or are becoming extinct, along with some animal and insect species. Hopefully we will all begin to “change the dream” [Indigenous term] and take measures to save the rainforest before it is too late.