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Day 4: Beside the Rio Negro

Michael Palin - BrazilElias sits at the table with a succession of beers, pouring out the story of his life to anyone who'll listen. And a sad story it is too. He'd married at the age of nineteen and they had one son. Then for some reason he left home. Walked out. He says now that he left the one woman he'd ever really loved, and never found her again.

When the rain eases we tramp across the duckboards and out along the rickety wooden jetty to pick up our boat. It's an open boat and a very wide river, and the wind whips what's left of the rain into our faces as it carries us back down the Rio Negro to the hotel where we'll be spending the night.

I've never come across a hotel quite like it. From the river its collection of round wooden towers, painted a murky, undergrowth green, looks like a row of abandoned gasometers. There's something ominous about its appearance, as if we might have stumbled upon some abandoned jungle laboratory where an experiment went terribly wrong.

This is not that far from the truth. The Ariaú Towers complex was built in the 1970s as one of the first eco-lodges in the Amazon. The famous French naturalist and explorer Jacques Cousteau had come here to study the river dolphins and wanted to create some sort of centre, something that would blend in with its surroundings, in which visitors could experience the richness of the rainforest without damaging it. The buildings would be made from local materials, which is why there is no steel or concrete to support the framework that carries the six-storey accommodation pods and the network of walkways that connects them, high above the riverbank.

Though it's a little run-down these days, it's a playful sort of place, with more than a touch of eco-kitsch. A big, colourful snake rears up beside the swimming pool. There's a three-metre-high Disney-like Indian with bow and arrow and a pair of painted wooden leopards clinging to tree trunks outside the Aquarium Disco and Bar. To get to my room, Casa do Tarzan – the Tarzan House– I have to cross two bridges and climb four flights of precipitous steps to the top of a tree. I could have done without the dainty white curtains, the bedspread and the towels rolled up in the shape of a snake, but I sorely missed a liana to swing myself down to the ground, not to mention a distorting mirror in the bathroom to make me look like Johnny Weissmuller.

It was only as I lay back on the bed to take it all in that I became aware of the potential disadvantages of a tree house in the Amazon rainforest, a constant chorus of scuttlings, scratchings and peckings from the walls and the ceiling. It was like lying in a nesting box. I'm all for being close to nature, but not this close.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 4: Beside the Rio Negro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio Negro
  • Book page no: 31

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