As soon as our small boat came to a stop in a muddy cove of the Janauaca lake region, along the Solimoes River, we sensed some movement behind the trees. Birds? Maybe an animal? No, just four small children padding out toward the water in a row, to see what the commotion was all about.
They were not so eager to talk, as we found throughout our trip. The children here are extremely soft-spoken and polite, at least when outsiders are tiptoeing around.
|Michelle Kosinski / NBC News|
|A young boy who lives along the Amazon River.|
I took a few pictures of them as they sat together on a fallen tree, then let them take a look at my digital camera, causing some giggles. They teased one another and then decided to follow us into the forest as we started a morning's trek.
The children were irresistible –we couldn't stop watching them watch us. They were curious and heart-wrenchingly beautiful. One boy carried his baby brother. Another helped his little sister fix her hair, patiently twisting it over and over again so it would fit into a pink plastic clip.
School bus is a boat
The children lived on a small farm with at least a dozen other people, growing manioc (cassava), the food staple, and often the currency, of the Amazon people.
On the day we visited, the group – small children included – was hard at work in a main hut peeling a big pile of manioc while others prepared it for cooking and making flour.
One of the visitors asked the children following us if they like going to school. The answer was a definite yes.
Education is important around here. At one point we passed an Amazonian school bus – a boat! Like so many things that float in this magical region – houses, clinics, taxis – a big boat takes children to school in the mornings.
Some parents send their children to school in the nearest large city, Manaus, when they get a little older, hoping to give their kids the best education possible, as well as a taste of the larger world around them.
|Michelle Kosinski / NBC News|
|A family prepares manioc.|
Raised in the rainforest
That was the story with Piro, an experienced guide who grew up in the jungle as a part of the Bare (BAH-reh) tribe until he was 14.
He said when he was about 8 years old some American missionaries came to his village. At first there were wild rumors that the outsiders were there to kill them, and the children were told to stay inside. But over time, suspicions faded and Piro said he learned much from the Americans that fascinated him – how to ride a bicycle, brush his teeth, and take care of his health. At 14, his mother decided to send the exuberant, hungry-to-learn boy to Manaus to get an education.
From there, Piro became a musician and traveled through Europe with a band. He plays traditional wooden flutes like nothing we had ever heard before. He now has a few CDs out and more in the works.
And he leads excursions into the wilderness, often encountering children like he was. He feels that some outside influence can be healthy and good, as long as things are not forced upon them. "A balance," is how he describes the ideal.
Some children seem to be well aware that the outsiders were fascinated.
As our boat meandered its way through the Amazon, suddenly a canoe appeared out of nowhere, speeding up to us as a little hand reached out and latched on.
There were three children inside, and each had a pet to show us: a turtle, a parrot and a three-toed sloth! We were amazed. It looked like a teddy bear with a spiked haircut, and long long arms that move slowly and gently. The children offered it up to our group to cuddle and hold. And then they offered out their hands for a little cash for their trouble.
The smart rainforest business kids knew the sloth will get 'em every time. They made a few Reais from everyone in the boat.
Life in the forest for a kid can be hard work, but a great life, according to Piro. He emphasized how peaceful it is, as if we couldn't possibly understand. And, we probably can't.
There is virtually no stress there, said Piro. People help one another. They have to work to survive, to grow food or fish and hunt, but they spend a lot of time relaxing together, too.
His memories are very, very good. He says on weekends people get together and have parties, often in a communal floating house, where there is music, drinking and everyone is welcome. There is a rhythm to it, he explained, that might seem slow to us, but it works.
Two worlds running side by side
The motion of the jungle life, and the modern world, seem to run side by side but separately, swirling together at just a few points along the way.
It is like a human meeting of the waters: That legendary place outside Manaus where the cool, slow, black Rio Negro meets up with the warmer, faster, lighter Rio Solimoes, and they flow side-by side without combining for six mysterious miles. Just swirling. You can actually see the split, though together they are the Amazon. Down the river, it all mixes up. Maybe one day it will be the same for the people here too.
And for all of his travels and experience, in both worlds, Piro says in 10 or 15 years, he plans to move from his city home in bustling Manaus back to the rainforest.
"It's where my people are," he said. He misses them. He misses the peace, the tranquility of his youth, and what he remembers as a complete lack of crime or fighting.
Will it be a tough transition? "Don't get me wrong," he said. "I will have a beautiful house. I will have my television – and my phone. But it will be in the jungle."