"Please! Look to the soil, and don't touch anything!" Rui commanded as we began the first of our two hikes along the rainforest floor.
The first rule of surviving in the jungle is to watch where you're stepping, rather than looking up to see all of the birds, animals, butterflies, and vegetation up high in the rainforest canopy as you walk along. I had to remind myself to stop when I wanted to look up to see interesting things like the epiphytic bromiliad plants, which grow on top of other plants to be closer to the light and escape the darkness created by all the trees shading the rainforest floor.
The second rule: don't touch anything, was much easier said than done. The forest was dense with foliage in some places and so there was no escaping touching things as you made your way through. Here's a little video and photo to give you a sense of the experience:
We hiked through two different areas of the rainforest, and it seemed that the igapo forest, which floods during the rainy season, had vegetation that was less dense than the dry-year-round terra firma forest. Even though I was careful, I took a fall when my ankles got tangled up in the vines along the floor of the "terra firma" forest. Here's a shot of the terra firma floor:
Here Rui is showing us the type of fruit that is eaten by fish when the igapo forest is flooded. Some scientists even believe that piranhas and their relatives evolved teeth for the purpose of cutting into fruit, rather than for the purpose of eating flesh.
"Can I carry your boys across this part of the forest?" Rui asked Katherine, the mother of the 5- and 7-year old who were with us. Katherine agreed, and after all of us were across the 20-foot section that was especially deep with leaves, Rui explained that they often see pit vipers there. I was glad he waited until AFTER I had crossed to tell me that, and was glad that none of them were out that day.
Which leads us to the next jungle survival tip: don't get bitten or eaten by anything.
The key to following this rule is managing your scent, which can be tricky because the jungle is a sweaty place. Beads of sweat are constantly dripping down your back and face, due to the 90% humidity there.
The animals are so sensitive to your scent that Rui asked us to avoid using deodorant, soap, or any fragrance prior to our sunrise walk because it would scare away the birds or animals we wanted to see.
When you are trying to avoid attracting the jaguars, wild boars, and other predators that are drawn by the scent of your sweat, if you've planned in advance you can eat garlic, like the soldiers stationed in Manaus do before their jungle excursions. If you haven't planned in advance, you can rub your hands on an ants' nest, like I'm doing here, and then rub the scent all over your body.
Speaking of ants, here's a video and photo of the little leaf cutting ants that busily gather leaves to feed to the fungi that they cultivate, as it is their major food source:
Here's a cute little fungi I noticed near there:
If you do happen to get bit by an ant, a snake, a scorpion, or a tarantula, you can cut some of these tree roots that hang down from the sky, and use the liquid that drips from them as an anti-venom.
If you have to spend the night in the jungle, you'll want to sleep standing up in the little rooms created by the buttresses of the shallow-rooted trees:
Jaguars like to attack from the back, which they can't do if you're standing there. You can also cover your little room with leaves and mud, or start a fire to hide your scent. You can also smear mud on your face, so the brightness of your face won't stand out against the darkness of the jungle.
Not only can the buttress roots give you shelter, but they can also be used as jungle telephones, if you need to get the attention of someone within about 3 kilometers away. Here's a video of Rui demonstrating that:
Another key to survival is finding water, which is not difficult because it rains so often there. You just use a pod to collect the rainwater, as Rui is showing us here, but then you must be sure to filter the water through your shirt. The water is dirty, having come through all the monkey excrement and dirt and stuff that is in the rainforest canopy.
The final key to survival is knowing what to eat in the jungle, and the safest thing to do is to watch the monkeys and eat the same things they do. They avoid eating anything that is red, orange, or black, like these tento seeds that Rui picked up from the forest floor.
If you do happen to eat something bad and get sick, there are many medicinal plants that can help you get feeling better. Here, Rui is giving the bark of a cashew tree to Katherine's sons, instructing them to boil the bark into a tea and give it to their mother to stop the stomach sickness she was experiencing. They did, and it worked.
I was amazed at the variety of useful plants in the Amazon, and at the knowledge of the natives who know how to use the plants for many different purposes. For example, they hang this "scissor plant" in their windows to keep out bats, because it is sharp and will cut anything that tries to fly through there.
They use other plants for fragrances, and will scrape off the bark and light it to produce a smoke that can serve as a headache remedy, like Francisco and Rui are showing us here:
Both rubber and gum trees grow in the rainforest, and are harvested by cutting the bark of the tree and then capturing the white milk that flows out of them in little cups.
The rubber trees brought much wealth to the Amazon for a time, including enough to build this opulent opera house in Manaus:
The rainforest has plants that can be used for the treatment of malaria, diabetes, urinary infections, hepatitis, and many other ailments. The natives use other plants to induce vomiting, to induce labor or cause an abortion, to treat impotence, to cauterize wounds, to repel insects, to treat baldness, and to generate energy. We still haven't fully explored the Amazon, and still have much to learn about that amazing place.
Visiting there gave me the sense that I live in a very artificial world, where I'm sheltered from the cycles of life: from birth and death, from prey and predator, from dirt, and mud, and sweat. Most of all, visiting the Amazon made me realize yet again, what a beautiful, wonderful world this is.