High: Cruising the Amazon

by Kerry Nappi

High: We had a great time cruising the banks of the Amazon River and exploring its major city of Manaus.

IMG_2107I just keep telling myself, we are lucky, we are lucky. How else to account for the fact that we have again taken a trip that we read about as children? Despite getting used to traveling as a family of three, our oldest being far away in Michigan, we had a great time cruising the banks of the Amazon River and exploring its major city of Manaus.

Anyone who watched the World Cup last year will recall stories of getting materials to the Amazon to build the stadium in Manaus. Imagine, then, the year is 1896 and the rubber boom is fully “booming” ~ and that’s when the Teatro Amazonas was inaugurated. This magnificent Opera House imported chandeliers (198 of them!), roofing tiles, and steel walls, and an Italian artist came to paint the decorated ceilings. The 36,000 tiles that cover its dome are painted in the colors of the Brazilian flag. And one can still watch performances of many types there, in the heart of the rainforest.

IMG_2010Another highlight was “swimming with pink dolphins”, though if truth be told, we actually didn’t swim so much as float with them as a man enticed them closer with fish food. Still, it was thrilling ~ their size and heft knocking into us, their sleek bodiesbrushing ours under the dark waters of the Rio Negro. I felt giddy, actually, wanting to hug them, even though I knew intellectually they were only there for the free food and not for my companionship. I’ll share the picture, and you’ll have to imagine that every one of the photos our guide took that morning show the same silly face of surprise.

Most of our time in the state of Amazonas, though, was spent on a small wooden vessel cruising down the Amazon River. By luck alone, and who’s to say good or bad, we booked too late to get the Premium Boat. We took a chance with the Traditional, despite the warning that it had only cold showers, no AC during the day, and bunk beds. We were game, and it paid off handsomely. The Traditional boat was smaller, and thus our group of random strangers was smaller. But more about that in Glitter!

For those 48 hours, we were a captive audience to the Amazon. Mornings, we were awakened at 5:30 for early canoe outings, afternoons were spent on short jungle treks or siestas, and then again canoes for the evenings. IMG_2139After all, rainforest animals will come out when it’s not so hot. The canoe was able to get close enough to the banks of the tributaries to not only see dozens of caimans, but for our guide to reach over and pick one up. After he explained about their bodies and lives, holding this young one inches from us, I took the dare and held it. We saw a sloth so high in the tree that if I hadn’t been told it was an animal, I would have guessed it a discoloration of the tree. The iguanas were plentiful and the birds were amazing. Dolphins often swam beside us. One afternoon, we entered the quiet covered waters near our boat and fished for piranhas.and caught several. This had been my fear and I almost passed on the opportunity to try it; I am so glad I didn’t!

When we arrived at the Meeting of the Waters, we marveled that for 6 kilometers, the Rio Negro and Amazon River (Solimōes) do not merge. The differences in temperature, speed, and density keep these rivers separate, and the demarcation is obvious.

In all, we experienced everything we dreamed of there, and still came home unblemished by the forces of nature.

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Low:  I finally calculated my average car time per Monday-Friday week: 3 hours and 48 minutes per day.

I am told that I must embrace the Bahian way. It is our Brazilian state, and it is marked by (among other cooler things like music and a combined culture of Portuguese and African and indigenous descendants and certain foods uncommon in the rest of Brazil) a laid-back demeanor and easy way of life. It is anathema to my admittedly Type A personality, but okay, I can live with everyone late all the time and things not fixed properly and dates and times of meetings being fluid and ever-changing. Maybe it’s the heat. What I can’t stand, though, is that I am supposed to be patient and laid back, yet when we face the inevitable traffic jam and I patiently wait in the lane of cars for 30 minutes moving less than an inch, all these local drivers are impatiently zipping around the law-abiders to get ahead and, sometimes, causing horrible and fatal accidents. Why can’t they be patient, too? Why can’t traffic laws apply to everyone instead of half the people deciding they are busier, more in a rush, more important, and thus more entitled to pass us all? I don’t know, is it possible for a Low to be facing horrible traffic every day and getting annoyed with every driver around me? I finally calculated my average car time per Monday-Friday week: 3 hours and 48 minutes per day. Seems extreme.

Glitter:  It would not surprise me one bit if we see each other some later date on some distant continent, and I love that!

As my new friend Tantra said, If you can’t imagine choosing to spend 3 days on a small wooden vessel with 10 strangers from 6 countries doing wild things, you probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this trip. As I mentioned before, we had the cheaper boat. It was also smaller, with a capacity for 16 guests and a booking of 10. The seven others plus guide and staff included such a mix that every excursion, every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and all social communication since then has been a delight.

There was a Japanese couple who had been living in Manaus for 4 years; we have lived in Japan twice and felt a kinship that was probed with a combination of English and Japanese. There was a couple from Thailand, where we also lived for four years. We immediately realized the guy was not Thai, though he’s lived there for 18 years, but he was born in Ann Arbor, not 20 minutes from our home in Michigan. We spoke of restaurants we all knew and the government and its problems.


The even more glittery part of the getting-to-know-you was when we discovered that both Steve and T were Navy Nuke guys (engineers in nuclear subs) AND that they had gone to the same university a few years apart – and suddenly together in the Amazon rainforest.

And finally, the group of three German men, no relation to us or anything we knew, but immediately bonded over this common experience and since then in almost constant contact as they make their way through more of South America. It would not surprise me one bit if we see each other some later date on some distant continent, and I love that!

Kerry Nappi was born, raised, and attended Smith College in Massachusetts. In fact, she had rarely left Massachusetts by the age of 22 when she decided she could both expand her horizons and help others by joining the Peace Corps. Thus, she landed in Tunisia for an amazing two year stint that, still, might have proven to be the end of her travel. At 24, she was back in Massachusetts, teaching at a laboratory school at Smith College, and starting to forget her Tunisian Arabic skills already. When she married a New Yorker at 28, it seemed New York would be her only culture shock. Her new husband, Steve, had spent 6 years in a Navy nuclear sub and wanted nothing more than to settle down on Long Island, where he had been raised.

As often happens when you make plans, though, life changes them without much notice.

Between forced job changes and new desires to see other parts of the world, Kerry and Steve moved across the country to Arizona with their 2-year-old for grad school, spent a semester in Tokyo while pregnant with their second child, and then started a new life in Michigan. Since 2000, their family of four has lived in Michigan, Hiroshima, Bangkok, back in Michigan, and are now beginning their newest assignment with Ford Motor in Bahia, Brazil. The kids, now 14 and 18, are considered Third Culture Kids, and Kerry is a Trailing Spouse. For the most part, it doesn’t seem like “trailing” as she is the one who has to forge forward in each new host country, learning the language and making new connections, from friends to doctors to schools, while Steve goes to work and the kids to school.

The life of an expatriate cannot be summed up in a few paragraphs. Volumes have been written about the experience. Perhaps a blog that allows her to focus on a High, a Low, and a Glitter each month is one way to steady that rollercoaster ride that is her current life.

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