The waiting is endless, and even more excruciating because I can’t picture what’s in store. I squirm in the slippery beige chair, amidst an ocean of beige seats on a spotty beige carpet surrounded by beige walls and one impossibly large window giving me a glimpse of the largest airplane I’ve ever seen. A double-decker for the length of the plane, with the rear end well out of my sight, this creature dwarfs the ordinary planes around it. The tiny pilot windows in the gargantuan nose stare accusingly through the window at me – unfriendly – like the beady eyes of a bird. I’m going to board this plane with my three sisters in “just a few more minutes,” as I’m reminded again by my parents. My stomach tingles with a sick feeling. It’s not excitement. You don’t get excited for what you can’t imagine. On the other hand, I do have a very clear idea of what I’m leaving behind: the gently falling snow and frosty air, stacks of colorful presents under a fragrant pine tree, buttery cookies, foil-wrapped candies, and caroling in front of the Village Green bonfire after the candlelight service. I’m leaving Christmas behind.
A small patch of raw pink skin forms on my left palm, but I don’t mind. I’m swinging around a splintered bark pole, one of four that support the thatched-roof embarkation area at the base of the landing. The dock is a makeshift assortment of wood planks and logs, snaking like a peninsula far into a murky river so wide that I can’t really see the other side. The water gently laps the shore, brushing against orange flowers and cloudy sand. Catapulting myself around the pole one more time, I catch my breath, inhaling the fragrant moist air of Brazil. This is not the Brazil of cosmopolitan cities, crystal beaches, or the upcoming Olympics. Instead, after boarding that aircraft in New York, I fell asleep and awoke to find myself transported to a different and exotic world.
Pausing mid-swing, I glance up – way up – at the cluster of thatched-roof huts on stilts 60 feet above this tributary of the Amazon River. These airborne cabins are my home for the next two weeks. In fact, the entire hotel complex hovers in the misty air above the river, connected by a series of boardwalks. Since it is December, most of the tangle of vines and brush beneath the maze of walkways is exposed. In just a few short weeks, the rainy season will begin, making the river swell and drown most of what I see. At that point, this village on poles will be an odd type of water park perched above the flood waters.
I spot the cabin I share with my four-year-old sister and two mischievous black monkeys who love to swing on our porch hammock. Below our cabin, a lone capybara roams, rooting through the brush for food. I’ve already learned the Brazilian capybara is the world’s biggest rodent, the size of a large pig. What does he do when the river rises?
I marvel at the thought of waking up to this tropical home each day, with the perfume of flowers, flashy bird plumages, and chattering wildlife, instead of the drone of my sister’s cartoons on the kitchen television. The locals here don’t give a second thought to the monkeys, birds, and capybaras. But I’m from a different world, where the most interesting animal is a wild turkey.
I hear the low grumbling of an ancient motor approaching. Just as the smell of gasoline assaults my nose, my family joins me on the dock. My youngest sister chants and dances, as if this dock is her stage: “If ya step on a crack you’ll break your momma’s back!” Pushing this annoyance out of my mind, I let go of my pole, stretch, and look for the source of the fumes. Idling near the landing is a low-riding, white dinghy piloted by a local with a genial smile. He wears an oversized polo with a blotchy bleach stain in the center. On his head is a faded blue cap with a NY Yankees logo.
“Are you the family from the Upper-River Cabins?” he asks in a musical Portuguese accent. After seeing us all nod, he continues: “I am Mo. I will be your guide today.”
Mo invites us to step aboard with a sweeping gesture. I sit in between my older sister and mother on a rough plank wedged in steel grooves. We delicately position ourselves, yet the craft still rocks dangerously, allowing the edges to dip into the water. I peer over the edge and see my blurred reflection. I notice the hull is covered in a coppery moss. I wonder how this peeling assortment of wooden planks will stay afloat. I wonder briefly why nobody has given me a life jacket. I can see my parents are having the same thought but suppress their worry, gripping each of us a bit tighter. I guess this is yet another difference between my world and this one. After everyone is situated, Mo jerks the cord, causing the motor to choke into life. The low grumbling begins again and we’re off.
As we move along the water, I am struck by all the colors. The riverbanks, 200 yards apart, are primarily gray and green. The monochromatic vision changes as we approach the banks. Then we see the brown, yellow, and sharper green of massive rubber trees, towering reeds, and the occasional hut. More dramatic breaks in the color scheme occur when the rainforest is punctuated by a brilliant flash of red, blue, or yellow as a toucan passes.
I squint at the late afternoon sun for a minute before squeezing my eyes shut. When I reopen them, I see four small black spots. The sun spot game is interrupted when my father starts to lecture us on the history of tribes and plant life in the Amazon, starting with the predicable: “Did you know that ….”
He is cut off by a loud gasp. Mo is excitedly pointing, his mouth agape. The putt-putt of the motor coughs and then goes silent. Two pink objects glide toward our boat. “Pink Amazon river dolphins!” Mo grins at our shocked reactions.
As we stare wide-eyed, Mo explains that this is the rarest variety of dolphins in the world. The glistening sun casts rainbows across their backs, like my driveway when the sprinkler meets the sun’s rays. Their torsos are like pink rubber, yet their oiliness reflects the greens and grays surrounding us. They dive in and out, playing or showing off. Finally, after enchanting us, they turn toward the setting sun and take one final plunge, leaving nothing but ripples.
We sit in stunned silence. Finally, Mo says, “You have a better chance at winning the jackpot than to see a pink river dolphin.” He also explains that by the time my sisters and I are adults, there will be no pink river dolphins left here. Pollution is killing them. I am devastated by that prediction.
The sun begins to sink more rapidly, casting a triangular orange sheen on the water and transforming the edges from gray to green, then blue and, finally, black. We have one more stop before returning to the lodge. Mo pulls a flashlight out of the floor cabinet and hands it to my father.
“Keep it off for now, but be ready.”
Ready for what?
We make our way through the twilight. I see the wake behind us, waves rippling outward diagonally. Our motor cuts through the inky water, which reflects the moon and stars, creating two skies – one above, one below. A cacophony of sound envelops us. The river at night is a new world and far more ominous than by day.
Suddenly Mo cuts the engine and points toward two orange points of light. We glide silently toward these lights, which I realize, with terror, are eyes. At the same moment as the boat strikes ground, Mo lunges over the side and rises with a squirming reptile in his arms. A caiman!
Instructing my father to shine the beam at its face to momentarily quiet the creature, Mo gently presses at the corners of its jaws, causing the mouth to open and reveal dozens of white pointed teeth.
“You may put your finger in its mouth, if you want,” instructs Mo.
Tentatively I extend my finger, completely in the moment and trusting that the luck that had gotten me this far will hold. Nothing happens! One by one, each of us tries, pulling back and giggling as Mo teasingly pushes the caiman closer. When we are done, we stroke its smooth scales and then sadly watch Mo place it back in the water. In an instant, it disappears.
Suddenly I feel overwhelmed by this, and the entire day of rare experiences. As we leave the shadowy shore and head back, I close my eyes, lean against my mother, and listen to the cries and hums of unimaginable wildlife. What else lives here? What new mysteries could I uncover if I lived here? I visualize the pink river dolphins again, imagine them slipping in and out of the silky depths, making their way to their resting spots, safe for the night. I want those dolphins to live forever – and that little caiman too.
I cling to the hope that this river habitat and this fairytale experience will not be ruined by humans. I promise that one day I will visit again. I will introduce my own family to Mo and ensure that his prediction is wrong. These magical creatures will still be here.
I open my eyes as the motor changes. We are idling as we approach the end of our excursion. Sleepily, I notice that the dock and the thatched-roof landing are draped in softly glowing golden lights. I look up and gasp. The cabins and the entire boardwalk are decked out in tiny glowing bulbs, soft and subtle against the greenish-black jungle night.
With a sudden awareness, I realize it is Christmas Eve … and I’m in Brazil. Not the Brazil of cosmopolitan cities, crystal beaches, or the upcoming Olympics. This Brazil is shy and hides from us. But now, with one magical boat ride, I’m connected to it forever. I think I understand what “a small world” means. And, as we follow the twinkling golden lights to our cabins, I smile and can’t help hugging myself with the satisfaction of that knowledge.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the December 2015 Teen Ink Travel Contest.