It's Sunday. Just after 8:30 am. In the middle of the dry season, Manaus and the Amazon wake up lightly sprinkled with clouds, as far as rain was concerned, just and only decorative. A good part of its inhabitants are far from awakening.
This is not the case with Mr. Francisco, the guide who welcomes us and the other passengers on the boat and opens an intense multilingual narration. We set sail from the dock just in front of the old Alfândega and Guardamoria, with the river as shallow as, in September and October, the dry summer of the region usually makes it.
We sailed up the Negro River. We pass under the huge Jornalista Phelippe Daou Bridge that crosses the Negro and allows the AM-070 route to flow from the big city to the western interior of the Amazon and in the opposite direction. The bridge was inaugurated in October 2011 by the then President of Brazilian Republic, Dilma Roussef, who promised local politicians that the Manaus Free Trade Zone would extend for another half century with all the tax and commercial benefits it has enjoyed.
The conurbation of four nearby municipalities and the intensification of the progress of these stops in remote and feared times of the Brazil, quickly made itself felt, against the natural and luxuriant essence of the Amazon. As much as we wanted to abstract from that, the truth was that the tour we participated in sailed in the same direction.
Rio Negro upstream in search of the Amazon's dolphins
The first objective of the embarked tour was to find pink dolphins, the Amazon dolphins, something that the massification of tourism around Manaus made almost guaranteed. Porpoises are still at large in the Negro waters and tributaries.
But now, to make life easier for tourism businessmen and their clients, the natives operate small platforms to welcome mammals: both cetaceans and humans who flock there to live with them.
We landed in one of them. A caboclo descends a short staircase onto a submerged plank. There, he takes a small fish and shakes it under water. To Mr. Francisco's astonishment, the botos ignore the challenge. Not because they had walked away autonomously. The lure of a competing platform led them astray.
Over time, these dolphins got used to the fact that, at those times, they could get food without effort. All that was needed was for them to approach the platforms and circle between the visitors' legs, vulnerable to the caresses and contacts that almost everyone dedicates them to feel the incredible texture of their skin.
"Watch out for him girls, you don't want surprises, do you?" He tosses one passenger to the other and thus generates an almost hysterical communal laugh. “Hi, he's right there with you, get out of there, girl,” replies a second.
Contact with botos can be an exciting novelty for those arriving from other parts of the Brazil and the world. But it is common among Brazilians – especially those from the north of the country – a legend dedicated to these creatures.
According to this legend, the pink dolphins are transformed into elegant young men dressed in white and wearing a hat, in order to disguise the nostrils that, according to legend, this metamorphosis does not usually change. Well, it so happens that, during the time of the Festas Juninas, this boy seduces girls without a partner.
He takes them to the bottom of the river and often makes them pregnant. The old legend even justified that, when young people show up at parties, wearing a hat, they are told to take it off in order to prove that they are not dolphins. It is also the raison d'être of the expression “is a boto's son”, applied to children with an unknown father.
Another Endangered Species
In the realm of reality, similar to what happens with so many other species, it is humans who veto the porpoises to a distressing existential fragility. Much more serious than the intrusion of visitors to the Amazon, the customs of its inhabitants have been proven.
Despite its status as a protected species, the Amazon's inaccessibility makes it possible for thousands of specimens to be slaughtered every year. The environmental authorities found that the fishermen catch them because their meat is ideal to serve as bait for the piracatinga (Calophysus macropterus), a species of catfish with great commercial value.
Mainly for this reason, it has been estimated that every ten years, the pink dolphins decrease by half. Even though they resist in much of the Amazon, including the Araguaia river – but below the vast Pantanal -, as females have a single offspring every four or five years, the prospects for the species' recovery are bleak.
Even though the tourist invasion of humans into their habitat has proved a lesser evil, IBAMA agents deployed to Manaus they are present on the platforms, in charge of controlling the time each group spends with the pink dolphins and limiting their interaction with the animals.
At first, the agent present on our platform is limited to taking notes in any notebook, but when some of the maidens insist on prolonging their relationship with the dolphins, the officer does not shy away from cutting their tricks and forcing her own outflow of water.
Visit to the Dessana-Tukana Indigenous Community
We return on board. Mr. Francisco announces new excerpt. We sail from the middle of the Negro to a secluded and parched river beach. Still from the boat, we detected several malocas and other smaller buildings, all of them built with logs and covered with dry huts.
The closest one seems half sunk in the sand discovered by the retreat of the river. We walk to its entrance. There we are welcomed by a native of the small Tukana community that groups indigenous people from the Alto Rio Negro area of São Gabriel da Cachoeira, 850 km away, along the border with the Colombia.
This is the cultural core of a vast territory of the Amazon jungle where twenty-six different ethnic groups live together and share the same linguistic family, the Tukana. The community we visited comprises only five of them: Desana, Tukana, Tuiúca, Bará and Makuna.
Under a large headdress made of red and blue feathers that look like macaws, Tutuia, the native with the most distinctive indigenous features and the profile of a charismatic chief, welcomes us. First in Tukano, then in Portuguese, with several roosters crowing in the background.
He then leads us into the gloomy interior of the maloca, which the natives use as a house of wisdom or traditional medicine. A pajé fire burns there, which the hosts feed the resin, in order to protect their spirits and those of visitors from ill health.
Tutuia ends the welcome and the community presentation. Soon, it passes the prominence to four other natives, all men, since the ritual that follows is forbidden to women and children.
Jurupari: an Esoteric Cult of Evil
The natives inaugurate a Jurupari ritual, played with wind instruments made from paxiula, an Amazon palm tree that produces a characteristic sound. They play it back and forth inside the maloca, from door to door and backwards. They produce a movement and reverberation that proves mystical and leaves us intrigued.
We had reasons for that. Jurupari defines a complex mythological cult of the Amazonian indigenous peoples. It is evil in person, the origin of other secondary demons with the most diverse names, depending on the different tribes and ethnic groups.
When the Portuguese and the Spaniards arrived in the Amazonian lands, in the XNUMXth century, they realized that it was the main cult of the natives. Concerned about his popularity and competition for biblical characters and beliefs, the missionaries did everything to associate him with the Christian devil.
Jurupari's mysterious music continues to seduce us. Until their obscure dance gives way to a completely contrasting one, which follows the sound of Amazonian wooden flutes, unfolds in a circle instead of straight paths and already has women and children.
Precious time among the Tukana community is gone. Re-embarking. This time, we travel Negro down, towards Manaus. We went back under the Jornalista Phelippe Daou Bridge and left behind the vast area of riverside houses in the city.
Rio Negro below, to the Meeting of the Waters
We approached a large river tongue that concealed a border there. On our side, the Negro River continued to flow. On the other side, another one glided.
At a certain point, the Coca-Cola do Negro water, with very little sediment but immense dissolved vegetable raw material, gains the company of Solimões, thus the Iberian explorers baptized the upper stretch of the Amazon River.
The latter appears with a caramel tone given by the quantity and diversity of sediments (sand, mud and mud) that the Solimões accumulates on its descent from the distant slopes of the Andes mountain range.
For about 6km, the two streams flow side by side, in an enigmatic river pride that science has had no problem unraveling.
Between the two, almost everything is different: the Rio Negro slides at just 2km/h. Solimões flows between 4 and 6km/h. Negro water has a temperature of 28ºC. Solimões measures only 22ºC.
As such, the density of both streams proves to be quite different. The physicochemical peculiarity of each makes them take a long time to accept and mix in the unique flow of the Lower Amazon – the great Rio Mar that, until it flows into the true Atlantic sea, to the east of Belém, still welcomes “ encounters” similar.
Next to Manaus, the resistance of both is illustrated by the competing tones of the water, but not only that. Installed on the upper deck of the boat, vulnerable to the torrid tropical sun that whenever it sets free reinforces the phenomenon, we appreciate the curvilinear shapes and borders of the Encontro das Águas. And also the coffee-colored whirlpools that, from time to time, the fight between the two forces generated.
A denser mantle of nebulosity hides the sun again. Mr. Francisco and the boat crew had been with us for almost eight hours. One Sunday, they yearned more than ever for their own reunion with their families. Accordingly, we reversed course once more. Against our will and that of the Negro, we returned to Manaus.
TAP – flytap.pt flies directly from Lisbon to several Brazilian cities. In terms of flight hours, the most convenient to get to Manaus are, in this order: a) Fortaleza or Brasilia b) São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. c) via Miami, United States.