It’s well known that Jews have a major case of wanderlust. Perhaps because we have migrated from country to country throughout our history – China to Chile, Uruguay to Uzbekistan – the need to constantly be on the move is in our blood, in our ethnic DNA.
This is particularly true about Israel, which has always suffered from extreme “cabin fever,” and where at any moment in the year, 20% of the population is abroad.
But if anyone ever really wants to get away – way away – nothing beats a trip to the amazing Amazon, where I helped staff the first-ever kosher cruise/tour there this past week.
After 21 hours of flying from Tel Aviv, we finally landed in Manaus, Brazil, the gateway to the rain forest. The contrast between our cozy, compact Israel and the rain forest is breathtaking.
The Amazon rainforest occupies a massive 5.3 million (!) square km., a jungle-like land mass which represents 60% of Brazil – the largest country in South America, with a population of more than 200 million – and a full 44% of the entire continent. The rain forest – so-called because it rains there 11 months of the year – hosts 500 different species of animals, 1,800 species of birds, and millions of species of insects. It has 180 diverse ecosystems, and is truly a wonder of the world.
Manaus, as well as the forest itself, is inaccessible by road from the rest of the country, and can be reached only by plane or boat. As such, it is a pristine natural universe all of its own.
Of course, the lifeline of the entire area is the mighty Amazon, the longest river in the world, running 7,000 km. through Brazil and Peru. The Amazon contains a full third of the world’s surface fresh water, with an abundant supply of fish, the primary source of food for its 2.5 million residents, including 600,000 “indigenous inhabitants” or natives.
As we sailed the Amazon and trekked through the forest, we marveled at this miracle of unspoiled beauty. We saw caimans (from the alligator family), sloths, iguanas, tapirs, squirrel monkeys and armadillos. We tracked macaws, toucans, falcons and hawks in flight, and even felt the slimy skin of an anaconda, held confidently by a local young native.
We saw any number of natural wonders, such as the conflation of two differently colored rivers – the black Negro and brown Solimoes – which run parallel to each other yet never mix. We ate a variety of unique fruits and foods, including piranha soup – certified kosher by the local (you guessed it) Chabad rabbi. (The trick is to eat it before it eats you!)
In short, we were captivated by an environment where nature rules man, and not vice versa.
We were awed by the ability of the natives to survive. Our guide showed us how to make fire in the jungle with only tree bark, steel wool and a stone – or a cellphone battery! He identified dozens of plants that provide nourishment, serve as cures for various ailments and even serve as a repellent to the ubiquitous mosquitoes.
Here I immediately thought back to Israel and our own historic miracle of survival, how we have bravely and ingeniously – with God’s help – not only survived but flourished in a very hostile neighborhood.
For most of the intrepid 100 participants in our group, the most challenging aspect of the trip was being completely, totally disconnected from the outside world. For six days, we had no Internet, no Wi-Fi, no radio or television, no newspapers. For any Israeli, this was no simple ordeal; most of us naturally were struck by DSSS – Desperately Seeking Signal Syndrome.
But, to our surprise, after a day or two, we not only adjusted to our isolation, we embraced it. Without distractions, free of worries about terrorist attacks, world tensions or political problems, we could focus on the unique opportunity this excursion offered us. We put away our phones and opened our eyes and ears to observe and absorb nature’s grand presentation.
One the most striking moments of the trip was when we sailed silently along the river late at night, listening to the diverse sounds of the jungle. Gone was the cacophony of phones buzzing, horns honking or music blaring that normally invades our airspace. Instead, we heard the cry of a jackal, the chirping of the frogs and crickets and the pitter-patter of the rain falling upon the river. It simultaneously soothed and serenaded us.
After a truly spectacular week, we now return to our beloved Israel, amazing in its own right. We bring with us a certain peace that only nature can provide, with a silent prayer to the Almighty that it will eventually envelop the entire world.
The writer, director of the Ra’anana Jewish Outreach Center, directs kosher cruises to fascinating places on the planet; firstname.lastname@example.org
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