As I twirled, the breeze of my bright blue billowing skirt cut the humidity in the night air. I closely followed the teacher, trying to mimic her from across the circle, and feel the Carimbó music blasting across the flooded Rio Negro from the big speakers in the corner. Sweat dripped down my face, but the anticipation of the next dance move kept me going. The spectators were smiling (or was it laughing) and it dawned on me that I was learning to dance by and with Indigenous women in the Amazon. This was exactly the kind of authentic activity I was hoping to experience!
After a wonderful weekend exploring Iguazu Falls, we arrived in Manaus, the largest city in, and a popular jumping off point for the Amazon, well after midnight. Even at that hour, we could feel the difference in humidity from that of southern Brazil. As tired as I was, I was excited to experience the famous world-renowned Amazon.
It was very interesting to walk around the Centro part of this very colorful city – great place to people watch. Chrissy and I checked out the bright pink Teatro Amazona (Amazon Theater) as well as took a free tour of the equally-interesting courthouse across the street.
We stayed in Manaus for two nights before heading up the river for a four-day excursion in the jungle. Steps away from Manaus’ opera house is Casa da Pamonha, situated on R. Barroso, 375. This vegetarian eatery is open every day except Sundays starting at 8am and, with the exception of Saturday when it closes at 2pm, is open until 7pm. Casa da Pamonha offers a vegetarian buffet with a large selection of vegan options. Dishes on offer included vatapá de milho (corn vatapá) which is an Afro-Brazilian dish made from bread, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts and palm oil mashed into a creamy paste. (The non-vegan version of this dish includes shrimp.) I also enjoyed grão de bico ao molho com linguiça vegana (chickpeas in sauce with vegan sausage), and canelone tofu e legumes (tofu cannelloni and vegetables) among others. Vegan dishes are clearly labeled in blue (vegetarian in green). They also have a variety of homemade kombuchas for sale. The staff speak very good English and are happy to explain dishes or make suggestions about what to drink. I tried three of their kombuchas and two of them were made of Brazilian fruit that I had never heard of, but were delicious: pitaya and jambú. I also tried cangica, a dessert made of corn, coconut milk and sugar. They also had a vegan chocolate cake that looked delicious.
Chrissy and I discovered Açai Frozen across the street from Manaus’ Amazon Theater. This fast food joint specializes in tapioca, a traditional Brazilian dish that we had become familiar with after our stay in Foz do Iguacu. With a combination of bad Portuguese, bad Spanish and hand gestures, we were able to communicate what we wanted with the friendly staff: two tapiocas without butter (sem manteiga) and without cheese (sem queijo). I ordered one with tucuma fruit. I had never heard of this bright orange-colored fruit, that I later learned is native to the Amazon rainforest.
After doing a little research, I learned that tucuma has a big dark seed and that, interestingly, many people use this fruit as butter.
I also discovered that the dark woody seeds of the tucuma fruit are sometimes made into rings and exchanged as a symbol of marriage by local Indigenous groups. Later, to show support for equality, human rights and social justice, some Catholic missionaries also wore tucuma rings. I wondered if we’d be able to find such rings while in the jungle.
Upon our return to Manaus, we spent the night in a different part of town before flying home. Our last meal in Brazil was at Edi’s Sabor Natural Vegetariano, a vegan restaurant offering a delicious buffet lunch at Av. Mário Ypiranga, 54 – Adrianópolis.
The welcoming atmosphere was matched by the friendly staff. We even sat in the swings while the chefs finished preparing the vegan buffet. English was not spoken here, but because all the dishes were vegan, a simple smile went a long way.
A highlight of this meal for me was having the opportunity to try vegan feijoada, perhaps the most famous (and very meat-heavy) Brazilian dish.
Search after search for lodges in the Amazon produced websites promising piranha fishing, swimming with the pink dolphins (by feeding them) and pulling caiman alligators from the water so guests can take selfies (despite the fact that this was outlawed several years ago). I also saw images of guides holding sloths and other animals in the name of “education”. Many of these websites also claimed to be “eco-friendly”, a message that I frankly found confusing.
I finally came across Clobocos House Ecolodge, which allowed you to choose the activities in which you wanted to participate. And the activities in their four-day itinerary happened to be all vegan: boating in the Igapó (flooded forest), stargazing in a dark zone, a guided hike through the jungle, a class on Indigenous medicine, learning to dance Carimbó, making jewelry with natural local beads and visiting a local village.
We met our guide, Magnus, in the lobby of our hotel and drove via car for about an hour and a half before transfering to a 45-minute motorized boat ride up the river. Along the water, I saw the unmistakable fin of a dolphin only feet from the boat and my heart leaped. Given that it was rainy season, we saw many houses on stilts only a foot above the water and some that had even been flooded.
Upon arrival to the lodge, we received a welcome drink made of yet another fruit that was new for me: cupuaçu, which I was told is related to the cacao family. An online search yielded the opinion that it has a creamy white pulp with a chocolatey-pineapple flavor and juice that tastes like pear and banana. While that’s a much more involved description as I am able to give, I can attest to it being delicious, refreshing and just what was needed after the journey.
We were also met with the news that they hadn’t had electricity for the past couple of days because “a large tree had fallen on a wire”. My first thought was, “we’re definitely in the jungle now!” and smiled at the owner. After putting my small backpack in our room, I sunk into one of the hammocks and settled in for a much-needed nap.
The next thing I knew, I was being summoned for lunch and the electricity had been restored.
Our first meal included very flavorful pinto beans and rice, potatoes, salad and a dish with a combination of ingredients that I had never had before: layered eggplant and banana with tomato on top. It was fantastic! Oh and I also ate the best pineapple I’ve ever tasted! It was super sweet and incredible juicy and it spoiled me for all future pineapple experiences!
After a short siesta, we headed out on a guided boat tour of Lake Acajatuba. We saw the treetops of 25-30 meter-high trees and were told that lizards live in the tops of the trees for six months out of the year and only go on land when the water has receded. Our guide really painted quite a picture of what the Amazon must look like in the dry season.
We passed a tall radio tower that hadn’t been functioning in years and neighboring it was a “private church”, something I had never heard of. The locals seemed to find it peculiar as well that someone would build a church in the Amazon and then not open it to the public.
We finished the tour at a local bar, a beautiful bright blue house where a family member of Nilda lives. There we would spend the rest of the evening. We were invited to swim and were assured there were no piranha (“red fish” in Guarani) or alligators in that area. The water felt very refreshing and I was happy to stay in for awhile.
A highlight of the evening (and one that helped offset seeing people eat dead piranha and being encouraged to eat the eyeball) was meeting Jennifer. She was a resident there and really enjoyed attention from Chrissy and me. In fact, we all watched the sunset together.
Back at the lodge, dinner included vegan banana muquiéca (a Brazilian stew), rice, salad, vegetable soup and orange porridge (served hot) for dessert. During the meal, we were invited to see the caiman alligator that was right outside the kitchen window. When we were trying to get a picture of it, Chrissy’s phone fell into the dark water! All her contacts, her pictures, her files – gone in an instant! While I stood there, shocked, Magnus jumped into action. When I told him that I could see the light from the phone, he sprang into the water (the caiman swam quickly away), grabbed the phone and handed it to a staff member who began to dry it off. The chef handed Chrissy a bag of rice and a bowl and told her to place her phone inside the bowl of rice overnight. It turns out that her phone (and several of the newer versions of iphone) can withstand up to 30 minutes of being underwater. We were so relieved and grateful to the staff!
Exploring the Adiao River
After breakfast we set out to explore the Adiao River, a branch of the Amazon. The driver took us to an abandoned high-end tree-top resort (Ariau Towers) that had closed in 2016 due to bankruptcy. Reportedly, Bill Gates and Queen Elizabeth stayed there. It was strange to see these tall cement structures coming out of the water and looming over some of the trees.
The first stop we made was when our guide spotted a hoatzin, a prehistoric bird. The hoatzin is interestingly a ruminant and, unlike other birds, they don’t have hollow bones, making it challenging to fly.
The second highlight of the excursion was seeing squirrel monkeys come down from higher branches to greet us. Sadly, they were clearly used to being fed (another boat had just left the area) and so approached the boat hoping for bananas.
A short way up the river, Magnus yells “sloth” and the engine quickly cut out. I followed his outstretched finger to a three-toed mother sloth and her baby. They were cautiously tucked behind a branch. It was amazing to watch them; I could have stayed there all day. During the course of the morning, we experienced not one, not two, but three separate three-toed sloth sightings!
What a great way to start the day!
Making Jewelry in a Local Village
Unfortunately, Chrissy wasn’t feeling well at all so she opted to skip the afternoon activity of visiting Acajatubar Village, a local village of about 200 inhabitants (18 families). We began with a tour where we were shown the church, a two-storied medical clinic, a few local stores, a soccer field, a bakery and more. It was amazing to see how colorful the homes were.
Due to the rainy season, makeshift sidewalks had been created out of slabs of wood to make it easier to go from house to house. The main grocery store was flooded and I was surprised to see people still shopping, walking around in a couple feet of water. I guess one gets used to being flooded and weren’t afraid of a little water.
After our tour, my new Brazilian friend Paula (from Brasilia, the capital) and I were taken through an Indigenous jewelry store to a classroom in the back. A young woman proceeded to explain the process of making beads for jewelry from the açai plant, showing examples of every stage.
The stages included drying the seeds, washing them, dying them various colors and creating holes in them so they can be placed on a string and made into a beautiful piece of jewelry. We were then invited to make a necklace of our own. I made an anklet for me and one to bring to Chrissy.
While I was waiting for my friend Paula to finish her very beautiful necklace, I walked around a bit and came across a tucuma seed. “Maybe they have the tucuma rings here,” I thought and immediately asked about them with Magnus’ help. I was told that they might be able to find some. Not knowing if the gesture translated, I crossed my fingers and smiled.
At the end of the class, I asked about the rings again and two women went off to find them. Quite quickly they produced the only three black rings they had and I proceeded to try them on. The third one fit. Unsure as to the size of Chrissy’s finger, I bought the other two as well.
I asked the women what they know of these rings and one of them said she remembered hearing a story about the tucuma when she was a little girl. Everyone stopped what they were doing to listen to the story and Magnus translated for me. Here is the gist of my understanding of the tale:
In the beginning there was only daytime; there was no night. Night was owned by a serpent who lived under the river. One day, the serpent's daughter married a man from the surface. The wife told her husband that she would not sleep with him until it was night. The serpent's daughter gave a tucuma seed to the three servants of her husband and told them never to open it or all would be lost. While walking in the forest, the servants began hearing noises from inside the tucuma seed - noises from crickets and frogs and owls. At first they ignored the sounds because they were told not to open it, but eventually their curiosity got to them. When they opened the tucuma seed, night was released and everything became dark. The serpent's daughter was very angry because she would have to find a way to part the Day from the Night. She did so by creating a bird called cujubim who was to sing at dawn, the birth of Day. Then she created inhambu, a bird who was told to sing at the end of Day, to call the Night. And she created more birds to enlighten the Day, differing it from the Night.
I was delighted to hear this story of how night was created and it made me like the tucuma rings all the more. When I got back to the lodge, I showed Chrissy the rings and had her try them on and one fit perfectly! We wore the rings for the rest of the trip and still wear them today.
Dinner that night included squash, a delicious pumpkin dish, beans and rice, beets and salad.
Informative Jungle Hike
After a breakfast of tapioca and fruit, the day began with a guided hike in the jungle. Apparently, although the trees are very tall, they have shallow roots. Magnus pointed out various plants that are used as medicine. The first plant he showed us was the plant whose leaves can be boiled to make vapor rub. Even without manipulating it, the leaves smelled like Vicks Vapor Rub.
Magnus showed us the babassu tree, which locals used to use to make roofs. The downside, however, of using leaves is that the roofs need to be replaced every five years or so. For this reason, most locals switched to using aluminum roofs, which of course last much longer. Magnus also demonstrated how flammable babassu leaves can be and hence can be used to make a fire when the ground is wet.
Magnus continued by introducing us to the cumaru, which Indigenous people use for pneumonia. He shaved some of the thin bark from the breú tree and lit the shavings on fire. The resulting smoke smelled just like incense.
We were shown leaves that can be used as plates and even the tirica plants that have razor sharp leaves making them perfect for cutting. I carefully touched the edge of one of the tirica leaves and it was indeed as sharp as a knife. At one point Magnus said, “it’s time for a snack” and he proceeded to cut open the tops of some sort of nut where a grub was living. Sadly, he gave one to each willing guest encouraging them to eat it. Disheartened, I had to step away. Even though I walked a bit down the path, I could still hear everyone’s reaction every time a new person ate another poor grub alive that had been just minding his/her own business. It is for reasons like this that I wish I had found a vegan lodge.
Magnus showed us a carapanāuba tree. He shaved off some of the bark and told us that it can be used to treat malaria and is good for your liver. He invited us to try some, which I did. He further told us that Indigenous women use it to abort unwanted babies. I made sure to hug all the molateho trees I saw because they are called the “trees of youth”.
We saw some interesting animals during the jungle hike. Chrissy actually spotted a fisherman spider in the process of making “the net”, which it used to catch their prey. We came across a large mound where leaf-cutter ants live and heard a howler monkey in the distance.
Magnus noticed moth wings below a hollow part of a tree and told us that this was a sign that bats were living inside. The bats eat the bodies of the moths and their wings drop below. It was so neat to hear the bats inside. I asked our guide about a white cluster of what appeared to be eggs and he said they were green-thighed poison dart frog eggs – wow! Perhaps the most amazing animal we got to see what a bird-eating tarantula, who was living at the bottom of a tree. She seemed very curious and came out to look at us for a moment and then ran back inside only to come out again in a minute for another peek. I liked her.
Lunch that day included a potato and beet salad and the delicious dessert of cupuacu cream.
Paddling in the Iguapó
As someone who really enjoys canoeing and kayaking, I had been very much looking forward to paddling in a flooded forest. I was hoping that the afternoon activity would include the opportunity to paddle in a dugout canoe, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, we were to paddle in a large motor boat as a group. The boat was clearly not made for paddling and steering at the front involved a lot of tedious crossbow strokes. Eventually, we stopped paddling and I simply enjoyed laying in the boat, staring up at the swaying trees and listening to the many bird songs.
Five of us (three guests, our guide and the boat driver) climbed into the small motorized boat and set off. It wasn’t necessary to journey very far, just enough for the lights produced by the lodge to disappear from view. The sun had set only moments before. The driver cut the engine and we all looked up. To my surprise, I didn’t recognize the sky at all. I couldn’t locate anything familiar, like Orion’s Belt or the Big Dipper. I felt like I was on another planet looking at a completely foreign sky. It was beautiful and if Chrissy and I had been alone, it would have been quite romantic. I also enjoyed listening to the forest at night. At one point the driver took us into a covered area and again cut the lights. It would have been pitch black if it weren’t for the moon, which was crescent, but unlike seeing a crescent at an angle like I’m used to in the northern hemisphere, the light shone on the very bottom of the moon. When returning to the lodge, I did notice the Big Dipper coming up over the horizon, but it was upside down. Such a neat, and humbling, experience!
Learning to Dance Carimbó
After dinner we had quite the unique opportunity to take a Carimbó dance class. I have always enjoyed folk dancing and try it whenever I can. I even took a couple of dance performance trips with the Friendly Folk Dancers, a Quaker dance group. But, it had been awhile, I hadn’t been to the gym in many months and I don’t speak Portuguese, so I must admit that I was nervous to try Carimbó for the first time.
Carimbó requires a skirt, a long flowing one. Men are welcome to dance Carimbó too, but if they do, they too must don a skirt. None of the men there that night were courageous enough to try and it was just as well. The owner of the lodge had hand-made all the skirts.
This event was unusual and so tourists even came from other lodges to learn and/or spectate. It was a great way to meet Brazilians from different parts of the country.
Taking a Class on Indigenous Medicine
After breakfast of banana pudding, tapiocas and purple caro, we had the opportunity to learn about Indigenous medicine using ingredients in the Amazon. After climbing into the boat for a short ride, we arrived at Gisele’s house. Normally, Gisele’s mother teaches the class, but she was in the hospital in Manaus and was reportedly not doing so well, so Gisele, who grew up learning about Indigenous medicine, taught us instead. (A couple days after we left Brazil, Gisele told me that her mother was doing a bit better.)
And guess who ws there to greet us? Jennifer! She came running up to us for some love and attention. We were so happy to see a friendly familiar face!
The lesson began with the announcement that we were to make an immunity shot. Gisele began to explain the medicinal properties of each ingredient. She grilled limes in order to remove the acid, and therefore the bitterness, of them. Our teacher had added jatobá bark and ginger to a pot of boiling water, as well as jambú leaves, andiroba seed oil and copaiba oil.
The jatobá was used for its antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, decongestant, expectorant and antioxidant qualities. The ginger was also used as an anti-inflammatory, as well as for overall digestive health.
Jambú has diuretic and anti-inflammatory properties, but it can also be used to treat malaria and infections of the mouth and throat. Gisele included andiroba seed oil for its anti-inflammatory properties, but it also treats arthritis, rashes, muscle and joint aches and injuries, wounds, boils, and even herpes ulcers. I wish I knew that andiroba seed oil was also useful as an insect repellent before I arrived to Gisele’s house, because I got pretty bit up by mosquitos, strangely only from the knee down, while in her yard. (These bites were the itchiest I’ve ever experienced despite the fact that they only began itching a day later. They sure made the long journey back home quite uncomfortable.)
Copaiba oil provides pain relief, promotes wound healing and can be used to treat a variety of infections, including bladder infections. I wondered if copaiba oil could have helped with the UTI I had while traveling in Rio de Janeiro.
We were invited to help chop the leaves and ginger and it was all added to the pot for the next batch. Much like a cooking show, Gisele had already started cooking a batch of the immunity drink because it takes about 3 to 4 hours on the fire.
Gisele showed us plants that she had just picked from her yard. I learned that a leaf from the cumaro plant can help clear sinuses, fight the flu and even fight pneumonia. You must grill the plant, crush it and make it into a tea.
Gisele also made the claim that a plant colloquially called açúcar japonês (Japanese sugar) tasted very sweet and therefore could be used as a natural sweetener. Skeptical that a green leaf could be so sweet, I jumped at the chance to try some when it was offered to us. I can report that this claim is amazingly 100% accurate! As I chewed the small leaves, a sugar taste hit my tastebuds quite quickly. Wow!
I learned that blending something called belduegra into a salad (or simply eating it raw) can help diabetes. I know several people who could personally benefit from this plant. Making tea from cidreira leaves (lemon grass) can act as a sedative making it useful for anxiety (I could definitely benefit from this). Local Indigenous women often use cideira leaves to calm a crying baby.
Interestingly, arruda can help with aches and pains if you put it in boiling water and then bathe in it after it cools. It also is reported to rid one of bad energy. Given the state of affairs of the world today, I think we could all benefit from arruda. The mercurochrome plant also rids bad spirits and energy, and is a well-known antiseptic for the treatment of burns, minor wounds, and scratches.
We were told that olisciparigorico (electric oil) can help with stomach problems and back aches and favaca is good for open sores. Anemia can be cured by crushing up, boiling and drinking açai roots. Hotelan helps headaches, qerérra peda can break up kidney stones and amocracido can slow baldness. (A quick Google search on any of these plants yields nothing but empty results, leading me to believe that this knowledge is solely the intellectual property of locals in the Amazon.)
As I listened to Gisele share her wisdom, I thought about how much work was behind it. The amount of trial and error that must have gone into finding and creating medicine that works is astounding. I wondered how many generations old this accumulated knowledge was. I was also amazed at how Gisele’s yard is a big pharmacy, but only for people who know what to look for and know how to prepare and administer what they find.
Gisele reminded me of my best friend Erick’s mother (Bertha) who also has a knowledge of medicinal properties of plants. And, like Bertha, Gisele generously shares her invaluable wisdom with others.
Our last meal at the lodge included vegan mango ceviche. What a way to leave a lasting impression!
We said goodbye to all the other lodge visitors including our new friend Paula and then we thanked the staff for their part in our wonderful visit to the Amazon. I thought it was really great that we were the only non-Brazilians there.
Vegan Food in the Amazon
A professional chef from Peru is on staff at the lodge and he created some fantastic vegan meals for us – they often even warranted attention from non-vegans staying at the lodge. As I’ve stated throughout this post, visiting the Amazon presented many opportunities to try new kinds of fruit and to eat some already familiar foods from Brazil (açai and Brazil nuts for example), but from their original source.
Castania (Brazil nuts) are ubiquitous in the Amazon. In the wild, it takes 40 years before a Brazil nut tree bears fruit. Even then, they are very hard to open and we were told that a cutia, a small rodent, is the only animal that can open them. For humans, a machete must be used.
The bark of a Brazil nut tree can be used for cramps or infections. When out on the water, Brazil nut trees were pointed out to us. I came to recognize that mature trees tower over those of other species.
Present at every meal were condiments made of manioca.
Manioca (cassava/yucca) is a staple food in Brazil. First, the manioca is peeled, then soaked in water and the starch is squeezed out. This process takes several days and eventually the water and the starch are separated. The water becomes sauces, like tucupi. The cyanide is boiled off and various kinds of chilli are added. The lodge had several kinds of tucupi sauces and I added them to every meal. The starch that gets separated gets made into farofa, a condiment that Brazilians seem to add to any kind of dish. Sometimes Brazil nuts or other ingredients can be added to the farofa. Manioca also yields tapioca, a popular breakfast item all over Brazil.
We left the Amazon jungle the same way we arrived (by boat and taxi). On the way to our hotel in Manaus, I reflected on all that I had experienced and all that I had learned about one of the most unique (and important) places on earth. I thought about Indigenous dancing, hearing the tucuma story, seeing squirrel monkeys and sloths, trying new foods, and gazing at a foreign sky.
Before leaving Brazil, Chrissy and I bought a few souvenirs, namely fridge magnets and a mug for a friend. But, besides the amazing memories, the most precious souvenir of all, were the tucuma rings, which I will always cherish.