Record Hunters blog, Day 5

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Day 5, posted Nov. 2, 2006

Rob Fordyce and Joe Rodriguez are highly sought after guides in south Florida. They prowl the waters of Florida Bay, the Everglades, Biscayne Bay and the Keys almost every day in search of snook, redfish, tarpon and bonefish. Both men seem to be able to sniff out fish whether they are in Florida or in the Amazon.

As guides, they are also keenly aware of their relationship with Gonzaga our Brazilian guide. At times I can sense their eagerness to try something that Gonzaga has not suggested but fishing etiquette seems to prevent that.

So on this our fifth day on the Unini River, they decide to go it alone on the water. Gonzaga needs a break from this caravan of a camera crew, and Rob and Joe are hankering to try to figure out this fishery on their own for a day.

So after consulting satellite images kept aboard the Amazon Cutter, they formulate a plan. Looking at the maze of water and trees on the maps leaves me bewildered at how they would even begin, but both of them are confident as they head out in their skiff.

In the meantime, I am treated to a tour of the camp. Our houseboat is moored alongside an area that used to be a small village. Now there are some small dwellings for the staff of Peacock Bass Trips including a big shed for the oh-so-important generator that runs the air conditioner and other necessities on the boat.

There is a tiny cemetery in the center of camp. Years ago disease swept through the camp killing some of the people who lived here. I notice some small child-sized plots in the primitive graveyard. I am told that one of our guides, Zaki, who also pilots our camera boat lost his family in this epidemic, which is why the camp is not inhabited year round anymore. It is only populated when the Amazon Cutter is docked here.

The staff lives in small wooden buildings of which there are about ten nestled alongside the jungle. Hammocks are strung among the trees and I am left to assume that many of them sleep outside when it's dry.

Jerry, the camp manager is my tour guide and he knows the name of every tree and plant in the vicinity. He also knows the qualities of each plant, whether it be for consumption or medicinal. It seems that everything that grows here is eaten by the locals or utilized in some manner.

A huge rubber tree is in the center of the camp and Jerry whacks it with a machete. White milk oozes from the spot. Another tree is whacked and as the white milk seeps down, Jerry puts a small drinking glass beneath it to catch the liquid. He explains that this milk is used to cure dysentery and diarrhea. I take the extended glass and find it is sweet and chalky and reminds me of milk of magnesia.

There are machete scars crisscrossing the tree all the way up and when I ask Jerry about them, he tells me that boats used to come up the river to this place to gather this milk. You can see where the marks stop, which must indicate when the disease shut down the camp.

Later that night I will read in my guidebook that many of our modern medicines come from the rainforests. In fact, it states that 37 percent of all medicines prescribed in the United States have active ingredients derived from rainforest plants.

The calabash tree that grows outside the window of my cabin in the houseboat bears a huge round fruit that the women in camp dry and use for bowls. Jerry also chops open a Brazil nut, a task that is not easily accomplished.

I was also delighted to see a cashew tree. The fruit hangs heavily down in the very shape of the cashew nuts we nibble on here, but they are covered with a thick green waxy hull. Jerry explains that they roast the nut in the skin then remove the cashew from within. No wonder they are so pricey.

As we stand beneath the calabash tree a pair of toucans land in one of the trees above us. They are very timid, but I can clearly see their huge beaks. They are a huge bird and a real treat to get to see in the wild instead of on a cereal box.

The local guides invite me to lunch with them on the river. We get into a skiff and travel a short distance to a sandy beach. As one of the guides fishes for the peacock bass we will eat for lunch another excitedly calls out to me to show me some tracks in the sand.

They are turtle tracks and the guides follow them to where they stop then begin digging their heels in the sand looking for the soft spot where the turtle may have laid her eggs. When they find the spot they drop to their knees and begin furiously digging with their hands until they find the eggs. Taking only a few of the dozen or more eggs, they carefully refill the spot with sand.

The guys find a slope in the sand and dig a hole about 3 feet deep into the side of the dune. They mound up the downward side of the hole, fill the bottom with small sticks they gathered and then layer bigger sticks on top to make a grill.

A dead tree is hanging out over the water and one of the guides lithely climbs out to shop off the ends with a machete to build the fire. When the blaze turns to coal, they lay long straight sticks from the high side of the hole over to the mounded side they built and then lay the peacock bass they caught over it to roast.

The guides have brought along some roasted manioc root, which they consume with every meal eating it from a communal bowl. Manioc is plentiful in this locale and I'm told it produces more calories per acre than any other crop in the world including rice, corn and potatoes.

When the fish is roasted, the guides eat the eyeballs first. They then pick large pieces of fish off the bone after carefully peeling the skin. They squeeze lime on the fish then add pimento sauce. While I declined the offer of eyeballs, I was happy to eat the fish with them and it was delicious.

The turtle eggs are cracked and mixed with the manioc root raw. I don't particularly have a taste for raw eggs, but this mixture is so full of flavor and I can see why they love it so.

The proprietor of Peacock Bass Trips, Don Cutter, admonishes the guides for robbing turtle nests, but they have only taken three. We all eat the thick mixture in giant spoonfuls savoring it like caviar.

The guides that work here are very warm and gracious. They are happy to share anything they have and delighted by any small gift we give them. I gave my rain jacket to one of them during a downpour and he brought it back to me the next day, laundered by hand in the river.

Even though we don't speak Portuguese, the crew of the Record Hunters is becoming fast friends with the staff of Peacock Bass Trips. I admire and respect their simple lifestyle and their honest open smiles make every morning bright.

Zaki, the guide who runs our camera boat has scars on his skull from when he was attacked by a jaguar. He also has a deformed finger that he nearly lost when he was chopping open a Brazil nut with a machete years ago. Yet, he never complains and is always quick with a smile and to laugh along with us when we tell a joke in English that he can't possibly understand. He seems to just want us to have fun.

I feel honored to have been included in their riverside lunch.

While we were enjoying our shore lunch Rob and Joe have found success on the water. After landing several average size peacocks, Rob hooks one that registers 16 and a half pounds on the boga grip scale. They return to the dock feeling good about their day and their ability to use their guide sense in unknown waters.

Later that evening as we sat relaxing on the deck of the boat, Jerry proposed a toast. He ours out a little bit of wine on the deck and says, "For those among us, who cannot be seen."

My mind goes immediately to the tiny cemetery in the middle of camp and I drink to the families of these tanned, smiling Brazilians that I now call friends.

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