Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

Sunday, June 28 - The Observation Tower and Black Water Lagoon.

John has had a sore throat for several days and this morning he can barely swallow. I’ve been treating him with a spray Echinacea and Rebecca suggests gargling with salt water. Art hasn't slept well and chooses to stay at the lodge this morning. John and I join our group for the hike to the observation tower leaving a little before 7:00 A,M, We don our rubber boots and follow Aldolpho and Paulo into the jungle. last nights rain has made the trail slippery and the animals are all awake foraging for their breakfast. The observation tower is not far from the lodge; a stairway scaffolding built around an immense kapok tree. Paulo tells us that the tower was rebuilt just 6 months ago and we begin climbing the Robinson Crusoe like structure, 120 feet high. The upper platform is at level with the top of the jungle canopy and is adequate to hold the 7 of us. The view is breathtaking in more ways than one, and I survey the engineering of the tower and the width of the kapok tree, trying not to think about the kapoks shallow root system. We hear and see from a distance, troupes of squirrel and tamarind monkeys. Aldolpho and Paulo spot activity with their binoculars and quickly sets up the spotting scope for us all to take a closer look. The antics of the monkeys are delightful as they scamper along the upper canopy branches moving from one tree to another foraging for food. We see toucans, varieties of parrots and iridescent birds in all shapes and colors. A pair of green parrots flies past and a woodpecker strikes his morning cadence. We learn that there are flock leaders and witness the gathering of a wide variety of birds. Paulo explains that flocking is a survival strategy; that there is safety in numbers. We stay in the tower for an hour and a half and when the activity slows, descend the wooden stairs and hike further into the jungle to a black water lagoon. Two long paddle canoes are moored at a simple wooden dock. Paulo helps the five of us step down into the canoe. He takes the lead seat and Adolpho paddles from the rear. Before pushing out into the lagoon, he instructs us to be silent and just watch and listen. The magic of the lagoon leaves me speechless as we glide past floating islands of water hyacinths into a narrow inlet. We move through a canopy of palms and mangrove trees, the roots of the mangroves dripping with moss and standing spider like in the reflective back water. Although we don't see them, there are electric eel and caiman in this lagoon and the eel can be dangerous, inflicting a stunning shock which would render the swimmer unconscious and lead to drowning. Every shift of our weight tips the canoe, the surface of the water is just two inches down from the rim of our boat, and I wonder how often a canoe has capsized? This lagoon is part of a flooded forest ecosystem, underwater 7 months of the year and the still, black, reflective water extends into the mangroves as far as my eyes can discern. Coming to the end of an inlet, Aldolpho aptly turns the canoe around and soon, Paulo motions Aldolpho to cease paddling and points to an insect nest above us. He breaks the silence to tell us that this is a nest of marching termites and that on the count of three we must all shout loudly in unison. We shout and he holds up his hand indicating silence again. Moments later, we hear a synchronized thrumming coming from the hive. It is the sound of thousands of the termites, thrusting their thoraxes against the inside of the hive. The sound increases in intensity, just as if the termites were marching, thus the common name of these insects. It is a unified response to danger, a warning sound telling the intruder that they should leave before the termites emerge to confront their aggressor. I am in full agreement and we glide back into the open waters of the lagoon, lush with the water hyacinth islands, Rorschach reflections in the mirrored water. Up ahead is a family of river otters cavorting at the edge of a floating island. I struggle to focus my camera, but the encounter is fleeting and 30 seconds later, they submerge, swimming off to an undisturbed part of the lagoon. We disembark at the rustic wooden dock and return to camp, stopping frequently to admire the miracle of a red bellied poison dart frog, or a copy cat species that has similar markings, but lacks the poison. . .

Our excursion has been long and eventful and it is nearly noon when we reach the lodge. Art regrets that he did not accompany us; all of the guests left on a morning excursion and the morning alone was a long one.

The afternoon excursion is to the lodges butterfly farm and my preconceived vision lacks luster. We meet Paulo at 4:00 P.M. and walk one of the bamboo boardwalks to a large enclosed green house just down from the string of bungalows. Inside the larger green house is a smaller glassed in structure and around the entire enclosed perimeter are dozens of 6' high x 8' wide plastic covered caterpillar enclosures. Paulo strips away the Velcro front plastic from all of these and we circulate slowly, admiring each of the remarkable caterpillar species and learning what sort of butterfly or moth they will eventually morph into. The caterpillars are extra-terrestrial jewels; some as long as 6" some with markings and protrusions that mimic two heads so that a predator might mistake the back end as a treat and ultimately leave the caterpillar intact to continue into it's cocoon stage. I imagine that the costume designers of Star Wars took inspiration from the Amazonian caterpillars and I lag behind our group, attempting to take close up photos of the most unusual ones. Prior to this excursion, we were advised not to put insect repellent on so that we could touch the caterpillars and butterflies. The caterpillars are meaty and velvety soft in spite of their many protrusions. A final enclosure holds hundreds of cocoons, pinned gently to wooden rack. The cocoons are tiny jewels, many iridescent, and I marvel at what remarkable earrings these would make. Whoever tends the farm, groups the cocoons by species and most are exported to zoos and research centers around the world. The time sensitive cargo is shipped express and theoretically arrives at the ultimate destination still in the cocoon stage. The butterfly will emerge from the cocoon at the end destination to the delight of many.

The three girls and their grandparents leave in the morning and one of the girls wants to take home one of my rainforest charms. We agree to meet after dinner in the lounge, but the grandparents usher the girls away to pack and we have a nighttime canoe excursion on the lake. It's magical to glide silently upon the lake at night. Bats are the highlight of this excursion and we see large bats swooping down upon the lake to snatch an insect or small fish. Paulo catches their movement in the beam of his strong flashlight and scans the trees and foliage at the edge of the lake for movement. A branch protrudes from the water near the shore and a covey of long nosed bats take flight, startled by the light. One tiny lone bat is left clinging to the branch and Paulo tells us that it is a baby, too young for flight. It is obviously frightened and I hope that the mother will return shortly and comfort it.

Back at the lodge, I quickly connect with the young girl who chooses the tree frog charm. John, the 3 girls and the Danish boy have a last game of rummy tile. It's good to see John comfortable in most any situation and the animated group enjoy each other's company until the grandparents whisk their charges off to bed. John's sore throat is getting worse and I wish for antibiotics. Paulo mentioned that the lodge might have some. If John isn't better by morning, I will actively pursue this.

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