In the end, I thought as I whacked the water with a wooden stick, it is very easy to catch a piranha. More difficult (I guessed, as I felt the sharp tugs of piranha jaws on the submerged meat I had crudely piled on the hook), is to the get the feisty critter in the canoe without losing a finger. When the tugs became a determined pull, I lifted the angry piranha from the murky water of the flooded forest. Jarrison, the Amazon guide who maneuvered the boat through the seemingly impenetrable foliage on the bank of the Rio Negro cautiously gripped the bony fish behind its head and removed the hook from between two rows of razor sharp teeth. He broke a stick off the nearest tree, relaxed his grip a fraction and thrust the stick between the jaws of the fish. My catch promptly snapped the stick in half.
I had known before trekking up the Amazon jungle that fishing is an activity requiring patience and quiet. Not so, if you are fishing for the predators who live in the murky shallows of the Amazon’s banks. They are attracted by noise and splashing on the water’s surface. To them, it signifies a distressed creature. Don’t give them gristly water-logged meat as bait either – the bloodier the better. Within minutes of having thrashed the water as hard as I could with my crude fishing pole, I drew interest from below the surface.
The piranha squirmed free from Jarrison’s grip and landed in the watery bottom of the canoe. It snapped past three sets of flip-flopped toes whose attempts at evasion caused the little wooden boat to rock amongst submerged logs where iguanas, alligators and anacondas might lurk. Before getting caught a second time, it emitted menacing hissing growls which, although rather unfish like, provided the perfect soundtrack to suit the environment.
I got fried piranha for lunch that day. The bit of meat on the fish’s bony frame was tasty. I took comfort in the confirmation of my status in the food chain.
So, catching a piranha is easy. Getting to the piranha is harder work. Our riverboat took off from the capital of the Amazon, Manaus. No roads lead to Manaus. Transport is by boat or plane in the heart of the Amazon jungle. Picture your surprise, then, to find at the end of such an arduous journey, an opera house! It was built by the rubber barons in 1896 – a fallen symbol of conspicuous consumption. Constructed at the height of the Brazilian rubber boom, it even featured a rubber-paved road around it so that the wheels of carriages outside could not disturb performances. The wealthy citizens of Manaus at the time had such pretension that they sent their shirts to London to be laundered.
Although much poorer today, Manaus occupies a unique location on the globe. It is situated at "‘the meeting of the waters", at the curious yin-and-yang confluence of two huge rivers – the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimões. Together they form the Amazon River, which runs from Manaus for 1,500 kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean. The cold, cappuccino coloured waters of the Rio Solimões run fast from the Andes mountains and meet the slower, tannin rich black waters of the Rio Negro. Where the rivers join, they form a curvy seam, black on the one side and brown on the other. The two rivers do not merge their waters for some six kilometers after they meet owing to differences in their velocity, density and temperatures. Our boat went upstream along this watery border. We could dip our hands into the warm water of the Negro on the one side of the boat and into the much colder water of the Solimões on the other.
Our hammocks were strung on the upper deck. Another side effect of piranha fishing is the discomfort of sleeping in hammocks. There simply is no comfortable position to be found. Economy class airline seats are luxurious in comparison when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. On our jungle trek, the hammocks were strung under leafy shelters that offered no shelter when lightning struck around us and rain poured down through the night in sheets.
Friendlier creatures than piranhas also live in the Amazonian waters. During the first few days on the boat going up the Negro, we caught tantalizing glimpses of muddy pink creatures breaching the cola coloured water – freshwater dolphins.
With our piranha encounters a recent memory, it took some courage to swim into the dark water to meet the dolphins with offerings of fish. At first they appeared in the distance like aliens breaking through the surface. Then our legs were nudged gently under water. “Did you feel that?”, we asked each other, afraid of the answer. “Was that your partner’s leg brushing against you?” we wondered. And suddenly, the dolphins were right there with us, their long snouts taking fish from our hands which we had been dangling on the surface. They weaved between and up among us. Instead of dorsal fins, these dolphins have flat protruding ridges on their backs. Their small beady eyes are virtually blind, we were told. In the dark waters, they rely on sonar to navigate their way.
Piranhas and other carnivores were forgotten during this rapturous close encounter of the alien kind.
Aliens, it seemed, had always been half expected in the area. Stiff from nights spent in backbreaking hammocks, dirty and shivering after enduring buckets of rain in a night in the jungle, Jarrison delivered us at the Ariaú Towers. Michael Jackson, we were told, was an enthusiastic visitor to this remote treehouse lodge with bridged walkways built high in the forest canopy and over the water. It was like Tarzan’s house, but with the welcome addition of plumbing. It also featured a UFO landing pad amidst the giant trees and vines – no kidding. I could imagine Michael Jackson’s rapture. There is much of his home, Neverland, and the 70’s hippie symbolism, ranging from welcome signs for UFOs and a crystal-adorned meditation pyramid to garish sculptures of anacondas.
We flew out of Manaus along the enormous body of the Amazon river to the river’s port town, Belem. Belem’s market is a depository for the weird and wonderful produce of the Amazon. It is a voodoo place of strange medicines and potions, live animals, fruits and plants, religious icons, and a breathtaking variety of fish that land at the docks early every morning. The largest Amazonian fish is the pirarucu, a fresh water monster weighing in at 100 kilograms, prized for its meat. As you look at the gutted belly of a pirarucu in the noisy old fishmarket of Belém, you may expect Jonah to still be inside.
There I caught a piranha again. This time – dried, varnished and ferociously posed with gaping jaws. It was easier to bag my second catch. Again, it was the journey back, this time with a piranha in the hand luggage, which posed the more challenging part of the adventure.