Monday, January 25, 2010

The Amazon

Father Gaspar de Carvajal was a Catholic priest who visited the coast of South America in the middle years of the sixteenth century and wrote a book about it. It begins in a perfectly believable fashion. They were, he said, following the coast, keeping it on their starboard (right-hand) side. One day it turned from south to west. The water around their ship went from blue to brown and a current began to push against the bow, both signs that seemed to indicate they’d entered an estuary. Five days of steady sailing ensued, still with no sign of an opposing shore. The sailors began to have doubts. If they were on a river, it was huge, larger than any in Europe.
Then, on the morning of the sixth day, their ships were suddenly and viciously attacked. The assailants were a host of natives in canoes, natives who (according to Gaspar ) were all women, set on capturing our men for the purpose of procreation.

Mind you, the crew had been at sea, without women, for many months by then. They might have welcomed some feminine company, had not Gaspar, wise man that he was, claimed to have been in possession of superior knowledge, i.e. that the ladies weren’t after a lifetime of connubial bliss. They were after a date and dinner – with the seamen as the dinner.
Fear of cannibalism strengthened the crew’s resolve. The attack was beaten off. The women disappeared into the jungle, never to be seen again. And not one member of the crew accused Father Gaspar of being a mean-spirited Baron Munchausen of sexual angst for inventing the story. (Okay, I made that last part up.)

Gasper, too, made something up: a name for the place where it all happened, He called it the Great River of the Amazons, later (shortened and Anglicized) to become the Amazon River.
He was, of course, inspired by the legend of a similar tribe of warlike women in the mythology of the Greeks. But who needs tall tales, and myths, when it comes to the Amazon? I sure as hell don’t. For me, the truth is impressive enough.

The Amazon is the oldest river in the world. Ten of its branches are larger than the Mississippi. Its length, from source to mouth, is almost equal to the distance between New York and Berlin. The total volume of the main river, and its tributaries, far exceeds that of the next five largest rivers on earth. The amount of water that it dumps into the sea could fill Lake Ontario in three hours. That amount of water exceeds, daily, the total volume of what flows out of the mouth of the Thames in an entire year. Almost one-fifth of all the river water in the world flows past the Amazon’s banks. As it pours into the ocean, fresh water pushes salt water back a hundred miles into the open sea. A thousand kilometers upriver, the depths in mid-channel continue to exceed 115 meters (350 feet), more than enough to completely submerge the Statue of Liberty. If every person alive in the world today were to dump a four-hundred pound bag of dirt into the ocean, the total would not add-up to the amount of silt the Amazon carries into the South Atlantic each year. When the river rises, the resulting flood inundates an area twice the size of Austria.

There are more species of fish in the Amazon River than there are in the Atlantic Ocean,

bigger fish than can be found in any other river, fifteen times as many species as can be found in all the rivers of Europe. Twice a year, between the months of February and March, the Atlantic Ocean waters roll up the Amazon in a great tidal bore ( that the Brazilians call the Pororoca. It generates the longest waves on earth, sweeping along everything from piranhas to tree trunks. One Brazilian surfer, Picuruta Salazar, managed to ride one of those waves for 37 minutes. It carried him for 12 kilometers.

Most of the river is lined by jungle, a primeval rainforest hardly changed from Father Gaspar’s day. Within it are to be found more varieties of butterflies than anywhere else,

half the world’s bird species, one-third of all the types of living creatures on earth. And almost three hundred varieties of mosquitoes.

One word of advice: Should you add The Amazon to your bucket list, center your visit around Santarem, not Manaus.

Santarem is a rather pleasant place as far as isolated jungle cities go. Manaus…isn’t.


  1. Wow, Leighton -- the statistics are almost literally unbelievable. You make it clear why the Amazon is the mother of all rivers and the Mekhong, which I've always thought of as moderately impressive, is a creek. Although the Mekhong flows through some amazing civilizations, so historically, anyway, it's a torrent.

    Great piece.

  2. Holy...HOLY! Fascinating! I want to visit and stay far away at the same time.


  3. I would have liked more pictures of the butterflies and fewer of the fish, especially the one that looks more frightening than the shark in "Jaws". The first one pictured doesn't look real. Knowing that the area is the home of the anaconda and the piranha is already enough to keep me away.

    How many people die from diseases transmitted by the mosquitos? In my part of the US, Eastern Equine Encephalitis keeps people inside at dawn and dusk.

    If anyone needs more information as to why Santarem is a better choice than Manaus can learn what they need to know by reading your previous blog entry and DYING GASP.


  4. Leighton,

    Yes, I was shamed into reappearing. And my God, all the great things I missed while I was away. This really is a unique blog, so much to learn that you can find nowhere else. Thanks for bringing me back. By the way, you also lend credence to a somewhat controversial theory espoused most notably, perhaps, in the film, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding": if you take a word, any word, and trace it back far enough, its origins are Greek. Amazin:)


  5. Hi Leighton,

    Great article and photos.

    There's a reference to man-eating fish in Dying Gasp, is the photo of the fish you posted with teeth one of them?