by Robert Lanz, LCSW
I’d been to the jungles of Mexico, Central America and South East Asia, but those were mostly walking trips with a little boating thrown in. My first trip to the Amazon was different-very different.
We had flown up to Manaus, in Brazil, an incredible city in the middle of the rain forest sitting at the confluence of the Rio Solimois and the Rio Negro where the “Amazon” officially becomes the Amazon. Almost a thousand miles east, where it dumps its fresh water into the sea it is about a hundred miles wide. Where we were, by comparison, the grand river was essentially a creek, only five miles across.
At first, I wasn’t scared. Manaus is a big city cut from the jungle, with most of the amenities found in big cities anywhere- movies, supermarkets, drug stores etc. However, unlike most first world cities, the safety factor diminishes when you step off the curb. Alligators, snakes, piranhas, giant leaping iguanas, fresh water sharks and other fish big enough to swallow us like minnows were everywhere. Lots of reasons to not stray from the sidewalk.
So we chartered a boat, hardly more sophisticated than Humphrey Bogart’s famed African Queen, and we chugged up river, soon parting the jungle and totally losing sight of the Manaus skyline along with any sense of the safety of a sidewalk.
This journey would involve a new set of survival skills, most of which we had only imagined but had yet to put into practice. Luckily, we had the foresight to hire a native guide and had a dugout canoe in tow behind us just in case. I’ve surfed since I was sixteen and I’m comfortable in the water most of the time but being a good swimmer here might not be much help. Carrying a weapon of some sort might not either. It was the rainy season and normally exposed islands were now underwater. Large trees poking out of the depths were the only evidence of land, somewhere down there. A lot could go wrong.
Freeboard is the distance between the water and the high point of the sides of the boat or canoe. On the boat we chartered it was about three feet, sort of a sidewalk separation from the unknown creatures we were undoubtedly floating over. The canoe had only about three inches of freeboard which meant fingers were dangerously exposed to those creatures when we held on to the sides to steady the delicate balance of the hand carved craft.
While fishing for piranhas, each catch of the steel-toothed carnivores had the canoe rocking. Without land to swim to if we got swamped, we’d have to try to get to one of the nearby trees and climb safely into the branches. So far, whenever we got close to those trees, the twenty pound iguanas living in them would panic and leap from their perch, hitting the water like guys cannon-balling in a backyard pool party, causing waves that could have easily swamped the low freeboard canoe. The fear I felt that day still lingers in my memory bank. Amygdala time again.
It’s surprising I had any room for these fears, given the night experience we had in the same low freeboard canoe when our guide suggested we abandon the relative safety of the bigger boat witha giant flashlight and look for crocs. With their glowing red eyes, the crocs looked liked surprised kids at a birthday party getting their pictures taken with a powerful flash bulb. With such eyes, I imagined they would be able to backtrack to the source of the light- us. Us in a low freeboard canoe. We even, well, not we, the native guide, grabbed a baby croc that was swimming by and pulled it into the canoe. Trepidation would describe my feelings and I just wanted to get back to the safety of the big boat with all of that freeboard.
We tied the big boat to a house on stilts, apparently the home of a family member of our guide, and hung our hammocks, then rocked gently to sleep. Not so gently actually, thanks to a few bad dreams about the denizens of the deep separated from us by only a few inches of wood called our boat. Normal fears.
In the morning we were awakened by the sound of children laughing loudly and splashing vigorously. I looked overboard to see a dozen little native kids swimming around the boat, some even using it as a diving platform, straight into the darkened river we had been plying for piranhas and crocodiles.
Of course, they weren’t scared, they knew the swamp. They were familiar with the dangers and just acknowledged them as minor inconveniences they had learned to accommodate in their lives, as we might if we stayed there long enough. When you live by the river, you soon learn there is no way around it, only through it. The swamp, of course, initially seems scary and there is a sense that it would be safer to go around it. But the swamp is endless. You can’t ever go around it-only through it. Attempts to circumvent those fears just postpone the inevitable, waste time and may get you lost. Nevertheless, my first inclination was always to stay in the boat. Thankfully I overcame those fears and soon found myself swimming with the kids, laughing and splashing like I never thought I would.
By now I’m sure you recognize that this story, while true, is a great metaphor for the grieving process. No way around it, only through it, scary as it initially seems.
I have related this Amazon adventure tale to many patients who seemed to be stuck in that grieving process, fears often turning to somatic complaints that brought them to the ER with problems relating more to emotional pain than some disease process.
It’s a good story. It’s also a good metaphor and seemed to get a strong response most of the time. Maybe you could tell it yourself some time. Just say, “I heard a social worker tell this interesting story…”