With Arms Wide Open

Monday 19th March 2018

It was 3am and time to get up. What a ridiculous time.

Surprisingly we woke up easily and were up and out of our room for our 4am rendezvous with Chader in the lobby.

Checking out took a little longer than it should have because the bill for last night’s meal had a more expensive bottle of wine added to it. The bottle of Chandon at R$130 was almost twice the price of the Terranova we had.

The guy at reception spoke no English so it was difficult to explain the issue. Thankfully Chader was at hand to do some translating for us. At one point we could have got away with not paying for any wine, but we couldn’t do that. The total cost for our 2 night stay for food and drink came to R$647 (about £140).

All sorted we left and drove the short distance to the airport. 

Today had been the day Julie dreaded more than any other. It was to be a long day of travelling with two internal flights including a stop-over in Curitiba. So technically it was three flights in one day, six ups and downs, over five hours flying time.

Her anxiety was crippling. It was such a struggle for her. Her courage always astounds me.

Chader came with us to the check-in desk to clarify the arrangements with the luggage. As we were flying both with Gol airlines our luggage would be transferred to our connecting flight in Brasilia. That was a relief to know, especially with the stress of the connection in Sao Paulo.

We said our goodbyes and slipped Chader a fistful of reals for being an excellent guide. He was such a likeable guy. There was an honest friendliness about him.

By the time we got through security it was almost time to start boarding the plane, which was good as it didn’t give Julie much time to dwell on her desperate thoughts.

She had a little wobble when she realised she was not going to be seated by a window. She always sits by a window. We did recall one trip, when we went to Munich with Garry, Sonya and Steve. Julie was sat in the middle seat with Steve’s head blocking the view out of the window. We laughed at the fun memories which seem to console Julie slightly.

We buckled up and set off on our journey at 5:30am.

We were impressed by the airplane. It had the ability to pay for wi-fi that you could remain connected during the flight. Julie wouldn’t let me pay for the service. She imagined the scenario where the last thing we post on Facebook would be a selfie from 35,000 feet moments before the plane plummeted to the ground.  Fate wasn’t going to be tempted today.

We could have connected for free to stream from their library of films, but the flights weren’t long enough for a two-hour film.

Instead we entertained ourselves by reading the inflight magazine. It was in Portuguese (of course) but the pictures spoke the same in any language.

There was an article by Pelé, Brazil’s most famous son, which intrigued me. He was holding up a photo of him scoring his first goal in the 1958 World Cup. I wasn’t even born then but it’s a moment in history I know well, because it was against Wales!

I later translated the article and he says that it was his favourite goal of all time. I was so glad that I read that because in the film Pelé: Birth of a Legend which covered his life culminating in the 1958 World Cup they completely erased the Wales game from the story! Not even a passing mention.

Pelé scores his first goal in the World Cup and they neglect to mention it. I must admit I was a little offended by it.

Which is why I was glad to read from the man himself that he regarded it as his favourite goal.

Forty minutes after leaving Foz do Iguaçu we landed with a bit of a bump in Curitiba the regional capital. Most of the people got off to be replace by a fresh set of passengers.

It was a surprisingly quick turnaround. We were soon hurtling down the runway for our second leg of the journey.

We got given our second round of free sustenance for our 80-minute flight to Brasilia.  The savoury snacks were actually quite nice.

Julie distracted herself by playing her Plants vs Zombies saving the planet against the living dead with potted plants. Who the hell came up with that idea? And how the hell has it become such a successful game?

Anyway, time flew by and we landed ahead of schedule in Presidente Juscelino Kubitschek International Airport. (Named after the Brazilian president whose pushed through the project to create a brand new capital from scratch in the geographical centre of the country)

It felt strange walking straight into the departures lounge. We didn’t need to collect our luggage and being an internal flight we didn’t have to go through any immigration.

The first thing we did was to find somewhere to eat. The little tomato flavoured biscuits didn’t really fill us.

We stopped at the first café we came across, it was Casa do Pão de Queijo or the House of the Cheese Bread. I didn’t go for the eponymous cheese bread but instead, ordered a spinach and ricotta filled empanada. It really was delicious, especially the wholemeal pastry.

Julie had a toasted club sandwich which she also really enjoyed. She almost felt normal and forgot she was at an airport, it was that nice.

Then ‘Proceed to gate’ appeared opposite our flight. It was gate 7, we were at gate 22. Little did we know how far apart they were! It took us almost twenty minutes to get there and we were walking at some pace.

We sat and waited to board. On our flight was a team of football players from Manaus FC. A quick search of the internet saw that they played last night in a quarter-final of the Copa Verde where they beat Rio Branco on penalties.

They play in the lower tiers of Brazilian football but it was still quite exciting.

We boarded, and by some coincidence the lady who welcomed us on board had looked after us on the earlier flight from Iguaçu. It put Julie at ease a little. She was also buoyed by her window seat.

As we taxied to the runway we caught a great glimpse of the metropolis that is Brasilia. It was only officially established in 1960! A sort of Brazilian Milton Keynes. A modern city of its time.

We took off on our flight to the Amazon rainforest. I was super excited. Julie was getting there I’m sure.

It was a three hour flight; there was time to watch a film, but this aeroplane wasn’t wi-fi enabled so we couldn’t! We saw the funny side.

Our entertainment was a return to an unfinished game of Scrabble which after some lucky big words I made up but happened to be in the scrabble dictionary I won by three points!

After another complimentary packet of savoury tomato biscuits, and a couple of hours we began our descent towards Manaus. We got proper excited when we could see for the first time the longest river in the world, the Amazon. It may have looked like a wide expanse of muddy brown water, but it was THE Amazon!

This part of the river is known locally as Rio Solimões, although we outsiders still call it the Amazon.

Moments later we flew over the Rio Negro, another wide river but as the name suggests the water was dark black.

We soon banked sharply and headed down river towards the city of Manaus. Julie gripped the seat in front and closed her eyes, waiting for the ordeal to end.

End it did without fuss or trauma. She was absolutely cock-a-hoop to put it mildly. The torment and anguish she had accumulated for the last few weeks over todays itinerary immediately dissipated. She beamed with relief knowing that we now had four days without any flying ahead of us.

We were happy to our luggage had followed us to Manaus. Despite it already being such a long day of travelling it was only 11:50am! It wasn’t over either! We had a pick-up scheduled for 2pm for a three hour drive to our jungle lodge on the banks of the Rio Negro.

Whilst we were wandering around the terminal looking for somewhere to eat we were approached by someone from the Anavilhanas lodge. He spoke very good English and told us that our pick-up will be arriving on hour earlier than expected.

We still had three quarters of an hour to have some lunch.  He directed us to the first floor which saved some time wandering aimlessly.

There were a couple of choices, a Pizza Hut, a Casa do Pão de Queijo and a local restaurant selling local dishes called Giraffas. It was very popular. The menu was cheap and very meaty.  If it wasn’t for the long queue Julie would have liked to have been adventurous and tried something different.

Instead she went to Pizza Hut for two pieces of fried chicken and two Brahma beers. There wasn’t a queue there at all.

I decided to eat at the House of the Cheesy Balls and order their famous delicacy. They were nice if a little claggy.

Fed and refreshed we felt human again.

We returned downstairs to wait for our pick up.

Our “meeter and greeter” found us and we all got on board the mini-bus. We settled down to a three hour journey 200km deeper into the Amazon rainforest. It may sound quite adventurous and in the 19th century it would have been, but in reality it wasn’t so much off the beaten track. We were taking the main road to Novo Airão, a town on banks of the Rio Negro.

After introducing us to the driver, handing us an information pack and giving us some spiel about the lodge our meeter and greeter got off, before we really got going. The driver spoke no English so we quickly learned the Portuguese word for “Toilet” in case we needed to use it!

We drove out of Manaus crossing the Rio Negro over a massive 3.6km bridge spanning the river. Ponte Rio Negro only opened 7 years ago and is the only major bridge in the Amazon basin. The Amazon river itself doesn’t have a single bridge along its entire length. The difficulty is the variable width of the river. During the rainy season the rivers rise and expand greatly. 

But also, there simply aren’t many roads to need to build bridges. Most of the travelling is done on the river.

As we reached the other side I was convinced I could see a polar bear. Julie thought I had gone completely mad, but I hadn’t it was an optical illusion in the clouds. It only lasted for a few seconds before the angle changed and it looked like just clouds again.

We drove West, through the district of Iranduba passing several brickworks, many of them abandoned. They sprung up here to feed the need for building materials for the ever expanding city of Manaus and the clay from the amazon was the perfect raw material for their product.

It was sparsely populated. There wasn’t much in the way of large towns along the road, just a cluster of houses every now and again that could be called a village and a scattering of homesteads where they had cleared away the jungle to cultivate cassava.  

The nearest we came to a town was just after we crossed the Ariau river, in the district of Paricatuba. The road condition suddenly deteriorated into a bumpy dirt track. Thankfully the smooth tarmac returned once we left the town behind.

As we neared the town of Manacpuru we turned off the AM-070 and headed North along the AM-352.

A few miles up the road we had to slow down, there were a lot of branches in the road. We may have been cutting through the jungle, but these branches had been laid purposely to slow the traffic down.

There had been an accident. A young girl lay on the ground, motionless, her moped a little further along. A crowd of on-lookers had gathered around her. Only one was being useful by fanning a large piece of cardboard to cool the girl down as they waited for help. She didn’t look well.

After the smooth tarmac of the road from Manaus to Manacpuru the road to Novo Airão was atrocious in comparison. The AM-253 is fairly new, in fact it turned out they hadn’t finished it yet! Every now and again there would be a stretch of smooth tarmac where we would whizz along nicely, but it wasn’t long before we had to contend with some serious potholes. There were patches so bad that it forced our driver to come to a stop before rolling cautiously over them. It was like we were driving through a minefield. It made for slow progress.

We did come across a few local council workers whose job it was to repair the road. I only guessed at their jobs because one grey-haired gentleman was sat on a steamroller enjoying the shade of a brightly coloured parasol. No work was being done. No holes were being filled.

They were all having a tea-break in the shade of some trees.

I must admit I have all sympathy for them. I have a small driveway which after a cold winter and heavy rains always becomes ridden with pot holes. Filling them is a job I detest. You’re fighting a losing battle. As soon as it rains again the holes fill up and whatever you’ve just stuffed into them gets displaced each time you drive over it.

If I was filling potholes in this heat I’d be sitting in the shade whenever possible.

It still wasn’t a very populated area along the main road. Although there must have been enough people to sustain a village store every now and again.

The most frequent type of building however was a church. They weren’t traditional churches with arches and spires but basic wooden structures with a sign outside to let you know that it was a house of God. In a country of mainly Catholics it came as a surprise to see so many, if not all them, were the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.

Almost exactly three hours after leaving Manaus airport we turned off the main road, pass a security gate and down a dirt track through the jungle. The vegetation was closing in on us. The anticipation of finally reaching the lodge was exhilarating. It was such a wonderful feeling.

It took almost 10 minutes to carefully make our way down towards the lodge where we parked up in a clearing.

Waiting for us was a member of staff who warmly welcomed us to the Anavilhanas Jungle Lodge.

On the short walk to reception she pointed out a large spider in the centre of its web, and then a bug called a cicada busy shedding its skin. Then up in the trees some half a dozen little monkeys came to have a look at the new arrivals.

Reception was a large open plan wooden structure on stilts, complete with a traditional palm leaf thatched roof. In fact, all the buildings were similarly built.

It immediately felt relaxing.

We had a welcome drink of cupuaçu juice which was an acquired taste to put it mildly. I don’t think three days would be long enough to get used to its strange flavour. The cupuaçu is a tree that grows in the rainforest and is closely related to the cocoa tree, but I wasn’t picking up any chocolately undertones.

Our itinerary for our stay had already been planned for us which included a boat ride into the Anavilhanas National Park this evening at 8pm. We were so tired we asked to re-schedule it for tomorrow. All we wanted to do tonight was sleep.

We were given the key to our room, bungalow No.1. Not only were they all numbered but they also had an animal associated with them. Ours was the tapier, the odd pig-like animal that they had on road signs in Iguacu.

Before we got shown to our room we had a quick tour of the resort. It didn’t take long, it wasn’t very large. Opposite reception was the restaurant. On the other side of reception was the infinity pool overlooking the Rio Negro. Follow the steps down to river to reach the pontoon from which you can swim in the river. And finally follow the path down to the river in the other direction and we would find the launch from which all the boat trips leave. We didn’t walk down to the river, it was just so that we could get orientated.

We were handed two camouflaged life-jackets to use during our stay. All the excursions involve leaving the lodge by boat.

It was now 5pm. Dinner was served between 7pm and 8pm so we had a couple of hours to relax in our room.

They had six semi-detached bungalows in a row as well as larger deluxe cottages dotted around the place. Ours was the one at the furthest end of the row.

We didn’t know quite what to expect. When we booked through Audley Travel (the tour operator) they described the level of accommodation as basic.

Stepping inside out bungalow was a pleasant surprise. It was lovely, stylishly decorated. I know that wood panelling isn’t to everybody’s tastes, but I would go as far as to describe the room as luxurious. It had everything you would expect from a modern hotel room plus more. Out on the back veranda we had a hammock. There was only one but that was fine as Julie found the idea of swinging in a hammock rather unappealing.

They had left a gift for us, a locally produced wooden carving of a tapier. It was a nice touch.

Whilst Julie fell asleep on the bed I went outside and slept on the hammock. It felt surprisingly comfortable, so much so that I’m planning on having one set up at home. (Outside in the garden not in the bedroom!)

Time flew, and it was soon time to make our way over to the restaurant for our supper but first we decided to walk down to the river and have a closer look at the Rio Negro.

They had a floating jetty jutting out into the river. To reach the platform we walked across a floating bridge which wasn’t easy. It was like walking across a water-bed with each step causing it to rock from side to side.

It was incredibly peaceful. There was a small bar and some comfy chairs to sit and enjoy the sunset. The sun had already set. There was still some daylight, but it was fading fast.  

We made our way to the restaurant. We were beginning to get hungry.

We found our table quite easily as it had a huge wooden tapier on it. It wasn’t so much there for our benefit but to help the guides to recognise the guests with whom they had an excursion arranged.

I have to admit I was little disappointed being associated with the pig-like creature. We were known as the tapiers. We could have been the more dramatic piranhas or the enigmatic caymans. It could have been worse I suppose. I’m sure I saw a large snail on one table.

Supper turned out to be a buffet. I think I’ve already mentioned I’m not the biggest fan of the format, however we could not have been any more pleased with the choice on offer and more importantly the quality of the food. It really was top drawer.

I had plenty of options from the various salads available, including a delicious lentil salad with a lime dressing, a marinated white cheese called coalho and a hot chilli oil made with Muripi peppers to drizzle over my green salad leaves. I filled my plate.

I also had the Leek & Potato soup which oddly enough is a very popular dish in Wales!

I then filled my second plate with a tomato pasta, spinach, and a very tropical dish of sauté bananas! All mopped up with a very nice focaccia bread.

Julie had her plate filled with beef, chicken and this evening’s special of Pirarucu fish in a ginger marinade which she went back for a second helping.

For dessert I had the Pacoca de Colher, a Brazilian peanut pudding which was amazing. It was like the inside of a star bar. It stuck to the roof of my mouth beautifully and lingered on the tongue long after I’d finished.

It was dark by the time we left and returned to our room.

Whilst we had been eating staff had been to leave some chocolates and whilst they were there they made the bed and generally tided up. Julie was mortified! We had left the room in such a mess, with rather embarrassing items left where they had fallen!

Anyway, we didn’t lose any sleep over it. We were fast asleep within minutes of our heads hitting the pillow. It had been a very long day. It was only little past 8pm but with the hour difference we’d been awake for 18 hours!

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