Up the Amazon - 2014

Scorpions…spiders…giant ants…mosquitoes…and snakes.
And if that’s not enough ---
Stingrays --- electric eels --- and the dreaded piranhas…

And that was just for starters as friends ticked off dangers I’d encounter when I told them I planned to sail up the Amazon River.

“You’re crazy,” was the unanimous response.

Nevertheless, I knew I was dying to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime chance—for several reasons:

---I had dreamed about this adventure since childhood when I read that fascinating tale of the Brazilian jungle, “Green Mansions.”

---The notion of sailing down the river that flows through the world’s greatest rainforest and is the longest in the world (next to the Nile) was a recurring desire I had to satisfy.

---The ultimate reason was the opportunity that arrived in September 2011 when I received an e-mail from Travltips, my favorite travel company. It offered a fabulous 50% reduction in the cost of an amazing trip, the “Passage through the Amazon.” This was an “Enrichment Voyage” offered by the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea. I had been reading about this trip for almost a year, but it was too expensive—until this message arrived. Now the price was too good to turn down!

---Actually, there was an even more important reason why this trip captured my imagination.  The “enrichment” concept presented precisely the type of travel experience that is my greatest joy: its highest priority was learning. It featured lectures and discussions by top notch academics, artists, and experts on topics of great interest to me, such as the history, culture, music, science, and literature of the Caribbean islands and Brazilian Amazon.

How could I NOT go?

However, just one obstacle stood in my way: I had to persuade Jean, my favorite traveling companion, to join me in order to take advantage of the 50% off “double room” price. I figured she couldn’t turn down this new incredible offer.

Amazingly, she didn’t.  I was ecstatic.  We were about to depart on one of the world’s greatest journeys, the “Passage through the Amazon.”

The itinerary called for departing from Nassau, Bahamas, just before Christmas, 2011 and returning to Ft. Lauderdale three weeks later.
This meant I’d have to forgo Christmas with my family.  But I knew they’d understand. They carried on the family Christmas tradition at my house-- without Grandmom.


Everyone boarded the MV Explorer in Nassau, Bahamas.  I didn’t.

I had long since promised an unbreakable commitment that fell on the official departure date, December 22, so after much checking, I planned to board at San Juan, Puerto Rico, the MV Explorer’s first port of call.  I was well aware that if I didn’t make the port in time, the ship would leave without me—and my arrival coincided with Christmas Eve Day, not the easiest time to catch a taxi at the airport because of the holiday celebrations that shut down the city.

I shouldn’t have worried.  I made the port on time—but the ship didn’t.

Arriving at the cruise ship passenger terminal in San Juan at noon, I sat in brilliant sunshine enjoying the view along the harbor promenade as I awaited the first sight of my home for the next three weeks.

One huge cruise ship docked and I thought, at first,  hey, the MV Explorer is much larger than I anticipated. My ship held about 750 passengers.  This ship was humongous.  It wasn’t the Explorer.

Finally, I noticed people starting to disembark from a much smaller ship.  The Explorer had arrived and my Amazon adventure was about to begin.

I hate to say it, but my first experience with the MV Explorer was not something to write home about. Anxious to board, suitcase at the ready, I was barred from entering the passenger terminal for over two hours.  When finally I was permitted to pass through immigration, I was halted once more. Another hour of standing in the humid sweltering terminal wasn’t the best way to begin this adventure, I thought.

However, Jean had discovered me earlier, sweltering in the sun along the harbor promenade. She passed the time describing the ship and our stateroom with its ample storage space, large picture window and comfortable furnishings.  Our beds would be made up perfectly several times a day, even if we lounged, napped, or hung out in the room to read. I couldn’t ask for more!

At last, I boarded the ship, received my key card, and collapsed in our room. I was ready for all the great experiences this voyage promised.  I was not disappointed.

In fact, I might well describe this as the most rewarding journey I’ve ever taken.

I say this for one reason: the “enrichments” on this voyage were truly exceptional, superlative--amazing. They exceeded my expectations of providing intellectual stimulation, great expertise, and an unrivaled opportunity for expanding my knowledge.  After attending a lecture on the geography of Amazonia on my first day aboard, I was hooked.

For the next three weeks, I attended every lecture, sat in on every small seminar I could, watched great movies, learned more about digital photography--and danced in every dance class offered.  I was amazed to see a line dance class listed in the schedule my first day aboard.  I hadn’t known my favorite pastime would be offered and didn’t even bring dance shoes. Never mind.  I took in every class and moved to steps of the samba, rumba, swing, waltz, and foxtrot sans proper shoes but with plenty of joi de vivre!

And, as they say in midnight TV commercials….”But wait, there’s more!”

The two keynote speakers, Julian Bond, the noted civil rights leader, and Rita Dove, the former Poet
Laureate of the U.S., were fantastic.  His lectures on civil rights, MLK, and the history of rock & roll music were not to be missed. Hers on her concepts of writing poetry and creativity were superb. Dove even danced a fantastic tango with her husband one night and won the prize in the Dancing with the Stars passenger competition!

I can’t exaggerate how exhilarating and informative the lectures, cultural performances, and musical sessions turned out to be. Whether on climatology, tropical birds, rainforest flora and fauna, or astronomy, each was more absorbing than the last.  One midnight a few of us climbed to the top deck where, searching the crystal clear night sky, the popular Scottish astronomer, Ian Campbell, pointed out brilliant constellations with his piercing red electronic pointer, and later on, the Southern Cross. With his Scottish accent, great sense of humor, and popular whisky tasting sessions, Campbell was the hit of the speakers.  But others rivaled him with their own informative and entertaining sessions.

I especially was drawn to the presentations of the Brazilian ethnomusicologist professor from UVA, Humberto Sales, and his wife, Madeline, who accompanied him singing Brazilian songs. He lectured on such topics as the origin of the samba and advent of bossa nova and the many other distinctly Brazilian musical styles, including the baiao, ixeja, choro, maculele and maracatu, to cite just a few of his fascinating  topics.  The two demonstrated dances and instruments, playing on unusual assortments of drums, pipes, cymbals and other lesser known Caribbean, African, and Brazilian instruments. Madeline also taught the dance classes. Picture us struggling to learn rumba and meringue dance steps while compensating for the roll of the ship!

At this dance venue, a panoramic lounge on the top deck with wraparound floor to ceiling windows revealing azure blue Caribbean skies, I also attended daily meditation sessions.  They will remain my most enduring memories of the trip.

On my first day I had noticed a listing for an 8 a.m. Guided Meditation session. Presented by a humble, quiet, yet charismatic Sri Lanka Buddhist monk, Bhante Sujatha, these meditation sessions, my first ever, became an unexpected enrichment for mind and body. Attending them, each day began positively and affirmatively.  In fact, now back home, I’ve continued to repeat the mantra with which we started each session:
“I am well, I am happy, I am peaceful.”
At the end of the voyage, I was!

Basseterre, St. Kitts

Our first stop was Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts. There, the antiquated St. Kitts Scenic Railway is called one of the most beautiful train rides in the world. This narrow gauge railroad was built almost a century ago to deliver sugar cane from the fields to mills in Basseterre.  It features double decker rail cars where you sit in open air on the upper observation deck or in air-conditioned comfort in rattan chairs on the first level. In either, the scenery slips by while you sip complimentary rum drinks and join in on some popular tunes sung by a talented island quartet.

That’s what we set out to do, but it didn’t turn out exactly as anticipated.

After boarding a bus at the dock, we rode through town and were deposited in a grassy field.  Cows and goats grazed nearby as we awaited the arrival of the popular train.

Standing uncomfortably in the open dirt field, the excessive humidity and sweltering sun soon became oppressive.  We waited and waited. Our guide was clueless as to the cause of the delay.

Soon, a few began to show the effects of humidity and hot sun, but at last we learned what had happened.

The scenic railway train had been forced to halt abruptly on its narrow gauge track high in mountains overlooking a gorge. The engineer luckily had observed that the track suddenly had separated on the bridge high above the gorge.  He stopped the train just in time. There, 200 feet above the ground, the train was stranded with its passengers (our ship’s morning excursion group) while a crew worked to repair the track.

The train was stuck for the almost two hours, but when finally we got underway, it was worth the wait.

We enjoyed fantastic views of the island from both vantage points. The prominent volcano, sugar plantations, lush green growth of rain forests and mountains, friendly children running along side the train, and sudden glimpses of uninhabited sandy beaches outlining the shore far below intrigued us as we sampled generous splashes of the complementary rum and the island serenaders’ songs.

Early on, I noted that the ship safety crew was constantly keeping the ship in top condition.  We had life jackets prominently displayed in our staterooms, and a mandatory evacuation exercise had already taken place before I boarded the ship. (We didn’t learn of the Italian cruise line disaster until after we arrived home!)


At St. George’s, Grenada, we walked the long dock to the market square, wandering through the bustling, noisy spice market.  We lingered over baskets for sale, inhaling the perfumed scents of samples of many of the spices sitting at home on my baking shelf.   Grenada is one of the world’s chief exporters of nutmeg and mace---one third of the world’s supply comes from here. They cost very little, but lack of luggage space was good reason for not buying souvenirs that day, or on this trip!


At sea, before “the moment” when we would arrive at the Amazon River entry, I continued
to be dazzled by a variety of lectures, ranging from Life on the Upper Amazon, Afro-Caribbean Music to the Coral Reef, and The Other Darwin, a fascinating lecture on Charles Darwin’s great competitor Alfred Wallace, who actually published Darwin’s theory of evolution first.

Finally, the big day arrived. On Friday, December 30 we encountered an incredible view-- 200 miles of muddy water across the mouth—our first view of the Amazon!  This is a river 4007 miles from source to mouth, second in length only to the Nile. We were to voyage 1,000 miles UP the Amazon to Manaus, the capitol of Amazonia, and return 1,000 miles back DOWN a week later.

Some facts about the river defy the imagination.

---It carries far more water than any other river in the world, with 16 percent of all water in the world passing through its 200 mile wide delta;
---The volume of its sediment deposited in the Atlantic stains the sea for almost 200 miles from shore;
---One fifth of the world’s river water flows through the Amazon system; at the mouth, the flow of the river is ten times that of the Mississippi;
---It harbors the world’s richest flora and fauna and is home to the world’s largest diversity of birds, insects and plants.

In the week that followed I would explore just a tiny fraction of the total mass of this amazing body of water.  Each day was unique.  Just one day of drifting down the enormous river meant what some would describe as unbearable monotony. But for me each quiet hour represented supreme moments of stillness and wonder.

I lost myself in the profound beauty and natural wonder accessible from every vantage point.  I marveled over the vast volume of coffee- colored silt-laden water flowing endlessly behind our tiny ship. I savored seeing a tiny uninhabited island pop up unexpectedly from within a muddy sea, lush green ribbons of growth lining the base of barren rocky cliffs, and an endless canopy of green interrupted only occasionally by a sparse example of civilization carved out of openings along the river banks.

The history of the white man’s influence and incursion into the areas of the native population of Indians of this Amazon region is fascinating, though devastating.  From the first European’s descent down the river in 1542 to today, the onslaught of disease, massive destruction of forest and rivers, and insidious introduction of western cultures and materialism had disastrous impact on the indigenous Indians, and is indescribably tragic. It is a history of conquest and destruction by those with little regard for the indigenous people, and it continues today as harmful deforestation that affects global climate change.

I learned much about these issues in many lectures, reinforcing my belief that everything possible must be done to preserve the future of the land and people who live along its shores.

New Year’s Day, 2012


Santarem is positioned at the confluence of the Tapajos and the Amazon Rivers, halfway between Belem at the mouth and Manaus, the capital. The Tapajos and the Amazon run along the front of the city side by side---but do not mix. There is a distinct line between the two. The Amazon’s silt- filled water carries café au lait-hued sediment down from the Andes, while the Tapajos’ water retains a rich blue caste. This phenomenon, the coming together of the two, is called the “meeting of the waters” by local natives. Further down the Amazon at Manaus,  the Rio Negro River and Amazon present the same phenomenon.

Everyone says you have to experience this “meeting of the waters.”  They’re right.

We landed in Santarem in early morning.  There was a time change, and Jean and I carefully had reset our clock the night before to be ready for our early morning excursion on the river. We were to board a small river boat to see this dramatic “meeting of the waters.”

It turned out we had made a slight mistake.  We had reset our clocks 24 hours too early!  

When we got to the gangway deck, we were dismayed to find that almost all our group had already headed down the gangway. WE WERE LATE!

Luckily, we hurried off the ship.  We were last in line to board one of the several small boats to begin the excursion.

We headed toward the famed “meeting of the waters,” then drifted along toward a tributary.  Along the way we spotted many ibis and heron and listened to songs of other birds.  Luckily, three friends, all avid bird watchers, had joined us on the excursion. They pointed out many birds in the treetops and along the banks of the river.  We kept an eye out for fresh water dolphins but sighted just one.

The day was extremely hot and muggy. The temperature and humidity climbed well into the 90s.  As the boat made its way up the narrow river channel, we viewed tiny huts with thatched or tin roofs, muddy yards with a cow, goat or sheep or two, and chickens pecking the hard dirt. Along the shore, children played in the dirt, jumped into the muddy water or fished, and waved in friendly gestures. Fishermen in solitary canoes cast their nets hoping for the catch of a day’s dinner.

In the heat of the afternoon, our little wooden boat pulled up along the edge of the narrow channel and put down anchor. At the muddy bottom piranha, the fish with razor sharp teeth that could bite a man’s arm off, were waiting, the guide told us.  We had been warned in TV horror flicks about this infamous fish of the Amazon.  Our guide asked, “Who wants to catch a piranha?”

I did, of course.  I grabbed a line, complete with bait, dropping the line down 14 feet to the murky bottom. I got a bite. I pulled up my line but the bait was gone.  I tried a second and a third time.

End of story:  here’s my prized picture:   the piranha was a big one, 4 ½ lbs. The captain ate it for dinner. I will enjoy having this photo of me and the dreaded piranha--but I will never admit how this picture got taken.


Originally a 17th century river port, Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonia, has a long-vacant custom house, but in other places still reflects the long-gone opulence and excesses of the former days of the rubber boom, 1879-1912.

In 1908-10 over 80,000 tons of rubber were exported from there. Thousands of indigenous Indians were virtually enslaved and Chinese work gangs were imported to accomplish this. But demand for Amazon rubber slumped because of international competition, and by 1923 the rubber industry collapse was complete. Manaus became a ghost town until its resurrection as a rubber source in WWII. Today, tourism and commerce have boosted local fortunes and it is a thriving, bustling city, the largest of the Amazon region.

Landing at Manaus, you find that here the Amazon rises and falls almost twenty meters between seasons.  The first thing I observed upon landing was the huge floating dock below.  Completed in 1902, the Porto Flutante is designed to rise and fall with the annual flooding of the river.  It’s an engineering marvel, and it’s mesmerizing to watch the press of life and enormous activity on the floating dock from the deck above.  I watched for hours, fascinated at the continuous commotion of riverboats, cargo ships, cruise ships, canoes, ferry boats, trucks, foreign crews hauling huge bundles on their backs, tourists, police, and hawkers, all intermingling in the crush of business on the floating dock.

Everyone who arrives at Manaus wants to visit the famous Teatro Amazonas Opera House. I was no exception. The Opera House is the most famous landmark of the city—known throughout the traveler’s world as a must see destination, a marvel of architecture not to be missed by any visitor to the Amazon.

It is a stunning, wildly extravagant relic of the excesses of the late 19th century rubber barons and the rubber boom of 1896, a testament to their obsession to create the most flamboyant European culture in the heart of the Amazon jungle.

Each piece that comprises the stone structure was cut in Europe and shipped in pieces up the river to be rebuilt in imitation of a grand European edifice.

No expense was spared to create its wedding cake architecture, a tribute to the “taste” of the rubber baron aristocracy. Marble from Italy, glass tiles from France, a dome of 36,000 ceramic tiles imported from Europe, extraordinary murals gracing the ceiling of the auditorium—each monument to excess outdoes the next.

Even the parquet tiles on the floor of the alcove are so precious that one must don felt slippers before being allowed to walk on the premises. And that’s only the beginning: glass enclosed cases display ornate costumes, precious jewelry, and other accoutrements of 19th century aristocracy, testaments to excess of another era where its luxurious features were paid for by wealth earned by slaves of the robber barons.

In 1912 the doors of the Opera House closed. It crumbled into disrepair, not to be reopened until a restoration was completed in 1990. Today it holds only a couple of performances a year.

I entered the Opera House as part of the city tour, soaking wet from a violent rainstorm that had drenched us as we walked from the floating dock to our bus.  We toured the auditorium and other rooms but our agenda called for moving on quickly to visit the Museum of the Indians. This was worthwhile, but I wasn’t satisfied.  I wanted to explore more of the Opera House.

The next day I bargained with a taxi driver so that Jean and I could return.  It was the right move. This time I wandered freely, sneaking around alone courtesy of a kind guide who invited me to join his group just to get through the gate-- (you are suppose to tour only in a group with a guide). I had a leisurely time eyeing murals, the impressive stage curtain, and glittering costumes and brilliant jewelry of the rubber baron patrons.

Too soon we had to leave Manaus to head back down the river and out to sea for the return journey home.

Sailing 1,000 miles back down the Amazon presented ample time to sit on the deck as the shoreline passed by almost endlessly and recall all that I had just seen.


Beautifully restored buildings, lush botanical gardens, and verdant tropical forests made this excursion a distinctly different experience from what I had just done. Strolling through the Royal Botanical Gardens in Port of Spain, we observed some of the 622 species of butterfly and other indigenous shrubs, ferns and cacti. We hopped aboard a van and enjoyed a scenic drive around the island to Maracas Bay, swaying over winding mountain roads to a beautiful beach crowded with islanders enjoying surf, sand, and shark sandwiches.

A day of rest. Then on to…


I had saved the best rainforest for last.  Dominica, the youngest island of the Lesser Antilles, is an especially beautiful Caribbean paradise of dense forests, scenic mountains, and the home of many rare plants, animal, and bird species.

After disembarking by tender, we rode through the quaint village of the capital, Roseau. I had signed up for an aerial tram ride in an open air gondola. It would glide above the rain forest at the top of the 3,000 foot mountains within Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site.

Seated aboard the eight-person gondola in dappled sunshine of the damp rain forest, surrounded by spiky ferns, dense shrubs and vine covered trees reaching high toward the sky, perhaps my favorite of all the excursions of the entire trip got underway.

The gondola glided silently through dense greenery 20 feet below the top of the rainforest canopy above.  I was enthralled by the enormous variety and myriad shades, shapes, and sizes of unknown tropical trees, plants and shrubs surrounding me. I heard bits of songs from some of the 172 species of birds found in the rain forest there and a few outcries of parrots hidden in the green growth. The ride was even more dramatic when a sudden a clap of thunder signified that a torrential downpour of rain was imminent.

Seated at the front of the open gondola, I got the brunt of the deluge.  I became drenched in a few minutes despite holding my rain jacket as an umbrella, but it didn’t bother me. This just made it an authentic rainforest experience!   At the crest of the mountain our gondola reversed direction. We found ourselves slowly descending at one mile per hour down the mountain, now hovering 20 feet ABOVE the roof of the forest. This presented a rather different vision of the endless tropical growth below. All too soon, the excursion was over.

Winding back down the mountain, we paused at a roadside stand.

Dominica was our final port of call. My three week voyage was winding down. Next stop was Ft. Lauderdale.

 Truly “life-changing” was the familiar phrase I heard over and over as my friends and I enjoyed a gala farewell dinner.

Maybe it wasn’t life-changing, (we will see), but the passage through the Amazon was certainly memorable for me as well.

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