Well, we finally realized our dream to see the Amazon River. We took a 9:30 a.m. flight on LATAM (Brazil's top airline) to Manaus which is in the middle of the jungle. The population is approx. 2.6 million. When you arrive and realize that the only way in or out is by boat or airplane. You can travel north to the state of Roraima on a highway, but there are no roads coming from the popular and richer Southern Brazil. The trans-amazonia highway isn't really an option because it is closed most of the time and is in disrepair or destroyed my Mother Nature. Eduardo Urtecho, the manager/owner of the tourist agency was waiting for us with a sign that said, "Paula Sonder". We figured it out okay. He took us to the Tropical Hotel Manaus on the banks of the Rio Negro, a 1400 mile black water river and the largest tributary of the Amazon. It begins in Colombia. The water is black because of all the vegetation that is constantly decaying. During the high water season, all the animals including the jaguars live in the tops of the trees. In the dry season, they all come down. In some places our small boat was on, the river was 3-4 miles wide, but during the wet season, it can be as wide as 19 miles. We felt like we were out on the ocean. I am getting ahead of myself. Our room was pretty good and the restaurant was good. We had frango a milanesa or chicken fried chicken.
Boy, it sure is hot and humid here. You sweat like crazy even when you are just sitting around. We went to the 4:30 p.m. session in the Manaus Temple which also sits on the bank of the Rio Negro. It is a gorgeous temple inside and out. Not real big, but beautiful. We were warmly greeted. The session leader said that he hoped his American friends felt welcome and that we would come again. The session was really enjoyable, partly because of the air conditioning, but the spirit was present. We could not help but think of the caravans from Manaus to São Paulo in the past which took several days on the river and several days on a bus to get to the temple. Often, the people would run out of food and water. It was a great sacrifice for them to go 1800 miles to the temple. Elder Costa, the Brazil Area President told a story of a family who sold all their belongings to have enough money to go to the temple and be sealed. Elder Costa was the first president of the Manaus Mission. He told of how happy the family was that they had furniture to sell so that they could go. A couple of years later, Elder Costa went back to visit this family. When he entered the home, he noticed that it was furnished again. He said to the father, "It is nice to see that you have everything back in your home", to which the father replied, "Yes, isn't that wonderful. Now we can sell everything again and go to the temple one more time." Such is the attitude of the people here and the sacrifices they are willing to make. President Lopes (temple president) was very nice to us and we had a good visit with him. He was born in the state of Minas Gerais. He speaks very good English. He served as the mission president of the Maceió mission some years ago. Although we did not ask, he took us back to the hotel.
The next morning, we went on the city tour, mostly by foot after we got to the centro. We started at the Manaus Opera House or Amazon Theater whose construction was finished in 1896. It was a very ornate building with French glass and Italian marble. It is the home of the Amazon Philharmonic Orchestra. Many well known musicians and opera singers as well as other musical entertainers, choirs and orchestras come to Manaus to perform. They were rehearsing while we were there and a fellow on the trombone was an American who was the invited guest for several performances. You may wonder how a city in the middle of the Amazon River Basin could be so large. Well, Manaus was the first city in Brazil to have electricity and telephones. Why, because of the rubber boom. In the 19th century, it was one of the richest cities in the world, controlled by the rubber barons. There was much influence on the architecture of the city from the French and the Italians. When the rubber boom was over, Manaus fell into disrepair and suffered for a long time. Today it is the center of ecotourism and many biologists and zoologists all over the world spend lots of time here. It is also a duty-free zone and the port of Manaus is very important to the economy of all of Northern Brazil. We walked downhill through the city and headed to the old marketplace, The Mercado Adolpho Lisboa founded in 1882. We went through the vast fish market where there were numerous people cleaning and cutting up every kind of fish imaginable, none of which we had ever seen. It was interesting to see how busy the fish market was. There was also a large area of fruit and vegetables. Much of the fruit cannot be found elsewhere in the world unless it is imported. The açaí berry is found in this region and is very popular for drinks, ice cream and just to eat. We stopped at a small restaurant and had a meal of rice and beans and a fish called the "Pirarucu", a freshwater fish that gets 10-11 feet long and weighs up to 450 pounds. It was pretty good. It was quite an experience to see how busy the marketplace was. It is definitely a whole lifestyle for many people here. A couple of times I felt as though someone was going to pickpocket or rob us, but each time I turned the person would quickly move away. We headed back to the hotel and took a walk through the hotel zoo which was a lot of fun. We saw a jaguar (onça) and they are so beautiful. They have the most powerful jaws of any animal in the world with the exception of a hippopotamus.
The next day, we went on a small and very nice bus to our island resort on the Rio Negro. When I got on the bus, I sat next to a young Brazilian fellow and began speaking to him in Portuguese. He answered in English and told me he was from Israel. His name is Itamar Tsror. He is one of the nicest young men I have ever met. He had served three years in the Israeli Army and was touring all over the world and decided to check out Brazil. For the next 2 and 1/2 days, we talked about Israel, the Abrahamic Covenant, the Ten Tribes, the Second Coming, etc. He was amazed that our religion takes such an interest in Israel and that we believe they are the 'Chosen People'. I was able to talk freely to him about the ties we share. Later that night, he came to me and said, "Is it okay if we talk some more. I want to ask some questions." So we did. I had him read Joseph Smith's account of the first vision. He liked that. I had him read D&C 19:27 which says, "Which is my word to the Gentile, that soon it may go to the Jew, of whom the Lamanites are a remnant,that they may believe the gospel, and look not for a Messiah to come who has already come." I told him that there are Jewish people who are already beginning to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah who already came and that more and more Jewish people will begin to accept Him. Ross Baron, formerly of the Religion Department at BYU-I and now the Associate Dean of Curriculum, is the first Jewish stake president in the Church. I sent Itamar an email today and he wants to keep in touch with me. He gave me his mailing address in Israel. It was a great experience with a really great young man. He enjoyed talking to us, enjoyed our company and is interested in finding out more about the Church. One thing I didn't say was that when I sat by him and found out who he was, a voice said to me, "If you don't open your mouth, how else are my people going to learn of me and change their thinking about me."
That night we went for a boat ride with our little Caboclo guide Fábio. He is not 5´tall. He spoke good English and was completely at home in the jungle. When I asked him if he ever goes to Manaus, he said, "Only if absolutely necessary." Then pointing to the forest he said, "This is my city." He stopped the motor and began lightly paddling and then stopping to listen and to watch. Eventually after quite some time, we began to see more birds and then a lot of different kinds of monkeys. Soon we saw some small gray dolphins which Fábio said weighed about 30-35 lbs. They were having a great time in the river. The river area and the jungle are so vast. You could get lost so easy. We were grateful that Fábio was taking us all around and knew exactly what he was doing. We saw lots of fishermen placing their nets in the river. I say river, but where we were you could not tell if you were in a river or not. Water everywhere, but little and big islands her and there and little coves and entrances everywhere. The fishermen hate the piranha because they make holes in their nets. As we would approach them, they would signal to Fábio where there nets were so he wouldn't go over them and ruin them. Finally got back after a very wonderful evening, just in time for dinner. We had a choice of fish and more fish as the main dish. They cut the head off of a fairly large fish, the tambaqui, which can weigh 90 lbs., grill it and serve it. It tasted really good, although Paula liked it more than I did. Then it was off to bed. There was no air conditioning, no fan, a thin mattress and humidity off the charts. It was a miserable night. So much for the idea we had that we were going to these cute little air-conditioned huts up in the tree branches.
The next day we went to another island and went hiking through the jungle. Fábio showed us mahogany trees, Brazilian rosewood trees (rare, as the Portuguese shipped most of it back to Portugal), Brazil Nut trees, Açaí tree (Very hard to get to the fruit), and lots of other cool things. There was a hanging anthill in a tree that Fábio hit three times with his machete and 1000's of ants came pouring out. He promptly put his hand in the middle of them and his hand turned dark with them. But none of them bit him. He then began wiping them(smashing them) back and forth on this arms and then had us smell his arms. There was a distinct odor, not unpleasant at all. He said, "That is our insect repellent and it works better because it is safer than chemicals." He showed us several holes that armadillos had dug and then we cam across a mound of dirt with a fist size hole in it. He told us that Shelob was in there (just kidding). He told us that there was a big spider in there and said, "Lets see if we can coax her out." He took a long thin stick and carefully moved it into the hole and then very shortly, the largest spider we have ever seen appeared. She did not appear to be upset, just curious, but wow was she huge. Just her head was the size of a silver dollar and very large fangs, legs that went forever and all in all, a very formidable and hairy thing. She got tired of us and went back inside, probably to have a snack.
Later in the afternoon, we took off to see the pink dolphins (boto). About 2/3's of the group got into the water and one of the guides got on and coaxed them in with fish. Fábio told me that the tourists aren't allowed to feed the fish because they don't let go of them quickly enough and they get bit. He wondered why we weren't going in and I said we didn't bring swim suits and would have to go in only our birthday suits. He didn't know what a "birthday suit" was so I told him what it mean't. He and all the other guides thought that was pretty funny. We were kind of glad we didn't go in because the floating house where the dolphins came had a toilet and yes, it emptied into the river right by us. After that, we went piranha fishing. You may think it would be easy to catch one, but they are so quick. They take the meat off the hook like lightening. Mom caught the first one and I caught the biggest one. We were pretty lucky to do that. I really enjoyed it though but the way Fábio was running around on the boat, I thought he might fall in. I finally had him hand me the chicken meat/fat and told him I could bait the hook myself. He seemed happy about that. On the way back to our island, I noticed a pencil sized hole next to me in the boat. There was a lot of water coming in. I couldn't tell Fábio because he was too far away and the motor too loud. So I took a banana peel and carefully poked it down into the hole and kept working it in until there was no leak, not a drop. I showed Fábio when we got back and he said, "Oh, you are becoming like us." The night was not good. I hadn't had a shower for almost three days and decided that orange water or not, I was taking a shower. During the night, I got eaten alive by borrachudos (a black blood sucking gnat - no exaggeration). I have about 25-30 bites on my legs and a few on my hind end. They are all blistered and red and very ugly. I had to go to the doctor and they said that the bites were infected and put me on an antibiotic and some anti-itch medication (thank you). They appear to be getting better.
The next day, we headed for yet another island where we met a tribe of indigenous people. They were all dressed in leaf skirts and or loin cloths and that was it. Hadn't expected that. They danced for us several times and then came and took us by the hand and we danced with them. Up to that point in my life, I hadn't danced with naked ladies. A 13-14 year old girl was my partner. So what do you do? I just danced and didn't worry about it. It was actually very innocent and of no consequence. I had some pretty tender feelings watching them all, but especially the little ones. I reminded myself that they were Heavenly Father's children just as much as me. I asked the chief if I could pick up one of the children as I was missing my grandchildren and he said yes. "Will she cry?" He said she wouldn't and she didn't. When I went to put her down I gave her a kiss on the cheek, for her, and for my grandchildren. We bought a couple of things from them. A little boat made of Brazilian rosewood and a type of wind instrument that mom liked. We gave Fábio a tip and then got in a boat and headed for our ride back to Manaus. When we got there, Eduardo was there waiting. Mom and I and sister Cox got in his truck and the Burkes went in a car with Eduardo's son who I had given a Book of Mormon. We went across the 1.5 mile bridge and into Manaus. Eduardo looked at me and said, "Can I ask you some questions about the Mormons?" So we talked back and forth for over an hour. It was wonderful. He even wondered who was on top of the temple and so I told him about Moroni. I won't take any longer to talk about our conversation, but he absolutely wants to know more and wants a Book of Mormon. I am sending him a book, a history of my great great grandfather John Watkins (in Portuguese), the book "Our Legacy" and a letter with my testimony. He was a really sincere man and had such a good spirit about him. We talked like we had known each other for years.
Eduardo took us to the port where we got on a bigger motor boat (covered) and headed out on the Amazon River to see the "Encontro das Aguas" (the meeting of the rivers). The Rio Negro which is black in color joins up with the Rio Solimões which comes from the Andes Mountains and is a tan, muddy color, about two kilometers out into the river. You can see it on Google Earth. As the rivers first touch, they don't mix for several miles but run side by side as if a line had been drawn the middle. The Rio Negro is 9 degrees warmer than the Rio Solimões. Science can't completely explain this phenomena. It has something to do with density and temperature. It is awesome to see. This is where Brazilians officially say the Amazon begins it't 4000 mile journey to the sea. It was so awesome to see this. There is more water coming our of the mouth of the Amazon than of the Mississippi River. This has been a great experience in every way with the exception of the bites. Seeing the Amazon is worth it and it surely gives you a different perspective on what God is capable of creating. He must have really enjoyed getting the Amazon region set up with all it's different plant, animal, bird and fish species (more than 600 kinds of fish in the Amazon River). Well, I have rambled too much, but I am pretty sure that my grandchildren will enjoy hearing about our experience. Love all of you very much.
Com Muito Carinho,
Dad - Grandpa