Abroad and Beyond

Schoneker, Jake

This sharp, stirring exhilaration floods into my bloodstream, and I turn to experience the strange world around me. It’s so easy to get stuck within my own body – this is still just another day in the life of me. I wake up each morning in the same state of mind as always, but then, all of a sudden, it changes. Something inexplicable and fleeting strikes me, like a profound revelation that is gone before I can even realize it happened. I’m … here!

What was that strange, satisfying feeling? I turn to confide in a friend, but by the time the idea gets to words, the meaning sounds silly.

“We’re here, man.” He nods slowly and scans this foreign horizon in a thoughtful patrol. We fall silent and watch as the fading sunlight bounces, shimmering from the rolling waters of the mighty Amazon, as our boat cuts the breeze and sends us sailing into unknown depths of these jungle shadows. Finally, after the silence has spoken, he looks back at me.

“This is what we’ve been waiting for,” he says. “Right now.”

I’ve spent so much of my life waiting for something – either waiting or caught in some desperate kind of hurry. I’ve cut friendly conversations short and put on iPod blinders so I can get to where I’m going without delay. I’ve walked past so much knowledge on the walls of the world, without a thought or a second glance. And for what? So that I can rush back to my room and wait for something to happen to me? So I can check my friends’ away messages, wondering if they’re wasting time like I am, or are they doing something? I walk vicariously through my third person, reminiscing and making plans, while the days fade into past and future tense.

But not today. Today I am making waves, becoming part of this breathing tide we call life. I’ve been on this Amazon River adventure for two weeks now. It all started on a flight from Belém, my home in Brazil, to Manaus, a bustling city trapped in the heart of the rainforest.

Our first destination was the nearby Meeting of the Waters, where the dark waters of the Río Negro collide with the clear Amazon River current. What results is a kind of epic battle of good and evil, like pouring balsamic vinegar into skim milk. We arrived there just in time for the most breathtaking sunset I have ever seen. Dark clouds fractured the sky into pieces as the flowing waters fought. It was as if the entire world was at war, a great color crusade that somehow all blended into one landscape, one heavenly horizon.

The next day we hiked through the jungle to the home of a local Amazonian research facility. Here, we got the opportunity to climb the observation tower, a rickety steel-pipe structure extending 53 meters into the air, high above the canopy. Climbing up these dozens of ladders is something like walking through a dark cave for weeks and then finally discovering light.

The rainforest is so thick with life and vegetation, it is impossible to realize the big picture from the ground. As I climbed through layers of understory and then finally broke through the canopy roof, I finally gained perspective on how the whole system fits together.

It was as if I had entered into an entirely different, bright new world. The sun, which had been hidden for several hours, seemed too bright to be real, and the miles and miles of forest that surrounded me swayed gently in the wind. As I stood up there, I felt like I could almost see the forest breathe.

There have been beautiful moments on this journey and plenty of fun, but there have also been conversations and experiences that have forced me to seriously question the way I live my life. For four days I stayed with a rural family in the tiny community of Caroca. Largely forgotten by society, this small band of families, about 18 houses in all, leads a simple life far from the conveniences I take for granted. They have little or no access to health services and must paddle for hours upstream in order to get to town because they have no roads. I spoke with elders who have not left this tiny community their entire lives and played with children who never will.

I am a restless person by nature; this is why I love to travel. Having seen parts of the world that these people will never see, I couldn’t help but feel sorry – sorry that they will never have the chances I’ve had, never have anything more than this simple life. Yet, the more time I spent in Caroca, the more I began to realize that maybe I’m the one missing out. I spend so much time worrying and hurrying, chasing this elusive satisfaction that I know is just beyond the horizon, that I never just stop and be.

The people of Caroca don’t need computers and cars. They have neighbors they trust and a river that provides for them. In this “real world” we call home, we are becoming a global society, yet we are losing our sense of community. We are tragic individuals in a world too big to understand. In Caroca, everyone is family, and there is nothing more to understand about life except the feeling of sitting outside on a warm evening, sharing tranquility with people you love.

While I search the world for questions that have no answers, they have already found something that matters here on the forgotten shores of the Amazon: peace of mind and a place to call home.