The Amazon Jungle and a New York City Girl

Never did I think I'd find myself nestled in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, sitting cross-legged in a jungle bungalow with local hero—Dr. Eugenio Netto. Eugenio is a medical doctor and the founder of Projeto Saude e Alegria, or, The Health and Happiness Project, a Brazilian NGO that has been working to restore health and social equality for at-risk indigenous Amazonian communities since 1987.

As we sip Caipirinhas under the soft glow of kerosene lamps, it's easy to let my thoughts drift and lead me to believe I'm on a glamorous Amazonian expedition. But all it takes is a firm and passionate reminder from Eugenio to remember that I'm not there on vacation, but there on a press trip because they've asked me and other journalists to capture Projeto Saude e Alegria's important efforts to save the Amazon and garner international buzz and support for their traveling exhibit, Amazonia Brasil—which seeks to educate children and the world about the rainforest. This night, like most other nights with Eugenio and my fellow American journalists, is spent talking intensely about the forest, its threats, and its often too foreign relationship with non-Amazonians.
Amazonia Brasil's NYC entrance.
The Amazon Rainforest in New York City

Eugenio tells us in his thick, Portuguese accent, "Amazonia is not important for [city] children because for them, life in Amazonia is a very far, very exotic place Amazonia means a fantasy about nature, about the forest. A child who lives inside an apartment sees Amazonia only through the TV, but I think every child wants to touch that."

With the help of Eugenio's exhibit, children will be able to touch it, or at least the ones lucky enough to live near the cities Amazonia Brasil will be making stops in. Starting today—April 22—until July 13, the worldwide display hits New York City, transforming 12,000 of the city's square-feet (including the South Street Seaport, World Financial Center, and Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian) into a virtual Brazilian Amazon jungle—and if Eugenio's master plan works out—it'll transform both the children's and the general public's distant and indifferent attitude towards the forest, into consciousness and concern.


Eugenio's jungle abode.
Amazon Rainforest Reveries

When I swapped out my cushy urban jungle for the weeklong press trip to Eugenio's home, workspace, and his exhibit's inspiration—the real Brazilian Amazon—I learned that the Amazon lived as wild and freely in my 24-year-old imagination as it did in those apartment-dwelling kids Eugenio had described.

To demystify this fantasy about the forest, that I—and so many others like me—have, Eugenio created the exhibition to raise international awareness about the Amazon's "delicate and diverse ecosystems and present a realistic and contemporary vision of the region." Similar to the exhibit's mission, my trip to the real Amazon helped unveil the embarrassingly inaccurate jungle landscape that I had childishly scribbled in my mind—a Crayola rendering of an exotic, untouchable rainforest complete with bad Survivor-esque clichés like swarms of mosquitoes, crocodiles and piranhas alongside postcard perfect, Glamazon visions of Caipirinhas, toucans, and bikini-clad partygoers.

The notion of chipping away at my grand Amazonian stereotypes, to really try and understand its reality, always felt too vast, too exotic. After all, the only forest that I had identified as "knowable" and central to my daily routine was Brooklyn's version, Prospect Park, a quick three-block stroll away from my apartment. It was never the tropical forest 3,000 miles away.

I still wanted to be part of the solution, though, part of the elusive cause dubbed "Save the Rainforest." So I would make feeble attempts to educate myself about the Amazon in whatever free time I could muster up, checking out maps, statistics, and articles on TreeHugger. More often than not, I'd read headlines about the rainforest's continued rate of destruction—and the virtual climate control system and store of natural resources the world would lose—were the Amazon to disappear completely. Online searches would tell me about the important function of the Amazon River Basin, which holds one-fifth of the world's fresh water supply and produces 20 billion tons of water vapor each day making it a key player in regulating the world's climate. And I'd learn that the forest, as a whole, also keeps the climate in check by storing carbon dioxide, the world's principal greenhouse gas. Home to a quarter of the world's animal and plant species—with so many more species yet to be identified—I'd also discover the pricelessness of its rich ecosystems rife with flora and fauna that could potentially solve our world's food and energy shortages and currently incurable diseases.

But even with this wealth of information available to me pointing out the significance of the Amazon, nothing ever succeeded in making the world's largest jungle—roughly 3,179,715 square miles—feel familiar, fixable, or connected to a city girl like me. For instance, I would feel a bit more well informed after reading a news bite about how soy production is pushing cattle ranchers and farmers into rainforest areas and clear-cutting trees for new highways, but then I'd resume my day without missing a beat. I felt too inadequate to help in a situation that felt too big and too far away. I guess not having the forest outside my front stoop made it one of those out of sight, out of mind sort of things so resorting to the common idea of the Amazon being an exotic, fantasy-land was easiest.

Amazon Rainforest Realities

Say "Amazon" to me now, however, after having actually stepped foot into the jungle alongside Eugenio and his Projeto Saude e Alegria, and I see a forest other than the stigma-induced one that the world had impressed upon me. I don't see crocodiles lurching through sea grass like childhood storybooks once showed, or mosquito laden swamps as I had been told—and which had set me off in a panicked, packing frenzy (Think: mosquito netting, bug spray, light colored clothing and other geeky precautions only a city girl would take, and all of which I did not need). I see alligators.

And that's because alligators—not crocodiles—live in the Amazon, as Eugenio likes to clarify over the course of the week. And though I definitely don't need to see it to believe it, Eugenio decides during one of our philosophical evenings under a starry and moonlit sky, that it's only suitable to take a city girl like me out looking for alligators. A mix of fear and excitement washes over me as we hop aboard a tiny little fishing boat. I make sure to sit squeezed in between Eugenio and my new journalist friend since sitting towards the outside of the boat, would of course, leave me susceptible to a Jaws-like gator bite.

We speedily skim across the water, weaving in and out of mangroves, slowing down and quietly stopping near grassy areas where alligators like to lurk. Eugenio uses a flashlight to scan the surface and when no gator is present, we speed up and hit the next area, slowing down again. It takes me a good few rounds of this stop-and-go to really let my fear drip away and enjoy the simple art of alligator watching. Instead of thinking about what would feel like to have my arm bit off or what would happen we were unable to backtrack our way to home base, I finally sink into the moment and keep my eyes peeled for alligator peepers, which in the dead night of the Amazon, appear as little flashes of red.

When I do catch my first glimpse of gator eyes, a feel a rush of adrenaline and a sense of accomplishment. I wasn't afraid anymore and I knew that while, yes, this little adventure was all in the name of some jungle fun, Eugenio had taken me out on that boat to non-verbally teach me a lesson. My fear of alligators was only a smaller metaphor for the larger fear I had towards the Amazon—a place that I had viewed as scary and untouchable. Generous in his tough love, Eugenio reminds me that it isn't the bite and sting of mosquitoes and crocodiles that I arrive back in Brooklyn with, but the sting of my own ignorance that I had had about the forest and its inhabitants—and the importance of really knowing the Amazon in order to help save it.

Traveling with the good doctor is like an Amazonian demystification detox, complete with native counseling, locally grown meals, and a biodiverse change of scenery. I came back home with a better sense of truth about the forest and its people, and a renewed feeling of confidence. This metro-riding mortal could help save the Amazon by understanding it—even if it wasn't right outside my front stoop.

Stay tuned for more Amazonian musings over the coming weeks...

Tags: Biodiversity | Brazil | Deforestation