The Amazon: Breathing from the Lungs of the Earth (Colombia, Peru)

I don’t know what came over me when I decided that I had to explore the Amazon. It began with a gnawing and rapidly intensifying curiosity – I longed to see a world in its rawest form, to interact with exotic wildlife and experience how people on the outskirts of civilization lived. Even more so was my omnipresent, ardent desire to challenge myself, to leave my comfort zone in the most extreme way I could fathom. There is a restlessness that fuels the traveler’s soul, and I won’t deny that it is an addictive high. The second that routine starts creeping into our daily life, there is an instinctive urge to push back. And so, to disrupt predictability, I decided to jet off to one of the wildest and most untamed corners of the world.

The Amazon is a special and regrettably under-appreciated gift from nature. These “lungs of the Earth,” as locals affectionately call it, produce over 20% of the planet’s oxygen and fresh water. The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest at a massive 5.5 million square kilometers (2.1 mi) – for context, Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world, and the Amazon covers approximately 60% of it and borders five additional South American countries. The rainforest is home to the richest biodiversity in the world, hundreds of ancient indigenous cultures, and a myriad of natural resources. In other words, this region is absolutely critical to our planet: it directly sustains the very fabrics of our society.

Regrettably, the Amazon is also marred by a dark history. Ever since the Conquistadors discovered this paradise in the 1500’s, the Western World has gone to brutal lengths to tame and conquer it. Driven by greed, Westerners quickly began exploiting the rainforest for its abundant resources – primarily searching for the profitable cinnamon and rubber trees, as well as the elusive ancient city of gold, El Dorado – at the cost of the lives and well-being of countless animals, plant species, and natives. Before these “civilized” Westerners’ arrival, several million people inhabited the Amazon. Within a century, an estimated 90% of the indigenous population was massacred due to slavery, homicide, and the introduction of foreign diseases like smallpox.

Despite the trauma it has endured, the Amazon continues to be a center of powerful energy for the Earth. This type of nature isn’t meant for any man: raw and unyielding, it is a wilderness that will ravage anyone who threatens it. It is one of the few environments in nature that will fight back, in full force, to human abuse. This place commands tremendous respect, and it will quickly put you in your place. Bow down to its power, and the Amazon will teach you – about its jungle, its people, and most importantly, about yourself.

The rainforest must be seen from both within and above. My first encounter with the Amazon entailed one of the most strenuous and rewarding physical activities I’ve done to date: scaling a 20 meter (65 ft) Ceiba tree. Entering the thick, muddy canopy of fauna initially stirred an overwhelming sense of vulnerability. I was hyper-aware of the fact that while exquisitely beautiful, this jungle could harm me without a moment’s notice. The air was pregnant with moisture; harnesses that promised safety dug into my flanks, and sweat coated my face like a glistening mask. Yet, my discomfort evaporated as I saw the dense jungle unveiling itself underneath me. Hanging mid-air overlooking this green beast, completely at its mercy, was simultaneously terrifying and liberating. A stark reminder of how small we are in this world – passerby’s who could easily be engulfed by nature if it so chooses.

Summoning a final bout of strength, I eventually wriggled onto the flimsy wooden platform wedged within the Ceiba’s mammoth branches, only to be welcomed by a torrential rainfall. That was the moment I knew I was in the presence of a force that could not be harnessed – the energy secreting from the Earth was palpable. The Amazon was replenishing itself, and marking me in the process. Never had I been so thoroughly accepting of being drenched to the bone.

Simply put, the Amazon River is magnificent. The world’s largest river – measuring over 6,437 km (4,000 miles) in length – is a mood ring, changing colors and transparency to match its state of being. The River can morph anywhere from muddy brown to crystal clear, from serene to tempestuous, depending on where it courses. Luckily, the Amazon was coy this time, gracing its visitors with calm waters and even a rainbow. I was most charmed by the Reserva Marasha Lake in Peru. The silky surface was so peaceful that it meticulously reflected the thick curtain of vegetation encircling the lake, only disrupted by the momentary flicker of an air bubble or the gentle wake of a passing canoe. It was almost unbelievable that just underneath this watery mirror was an underworld teeming with life.

Remarkable wild life pulses through this intricate ecosystem. I encountered exotic animals everywhere I went, and was pleasantly surprised that they approached me as well. While these creatures are habituated to people, they are free – according to a wise man I met at Mundo Amazonas, “wild animals can be tamed, but not domesticated.” This was profoundly true at the Amazon; animals approached humans on their own account. I will let photos speak for themselves – every interaction was quite unpredictable, sometimes intimidating, and always special.

Each indigenous Amazonian tribe holds a precious history that can be fleetingly captured via their words and rituals. It is a privilege to be given some access, however minimal, to the depth of their knowledge. Although Western intrusion has inevitably altered their way of living, native tribes continue to practice many of their ancient traditions. People have inhabited the Amazon for over 15,000 years – contrary to popular Western belief, the region could sustain large, sophisticated settlements that were only obstructed by the Conquistadors’ invasions. Each tribe holds a unique chronicle of intricate myths and legends that are passed on orally – shockingly unaltered – from generation to generation. Theirs is a storytelling of the purest form: ornate, timeless, and saturated with valuable lessons.

The most notable quality of the Amazon’s inhabitants is their connection with nature. Amazonians tap into nature rather than attempt to subjugate it; they ask, not take, from the rainforest. They deeply care for it, and in return the Amazon gives them everything they need. An elder of the Huitoto tribe explained that the Amazon provides his people with four essentials: nourishment, shade, life, and health. Everything that they use from the Earth, they do so with purpose and intent – no plant or animal product goes to waste. Every living being thus has meaning.

The Amazon and the fascinating creatures inhabiting it taught me a crucial lesson on the balance of life. The same nature that causes ailment, can give you a cure: just as a snake bite emits deadly poison, the resin of a certain tree provides an antidote. What is dangerous and threatening to some, is home – salvation – to others. Ultimately, it is all about perspective: our environment inevitably shapes us as human beings, however we have the power to impact it as well. It is up to us to choose to do so for the better.

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