Partner – Host – Translator – Media Production
5 languages later and an uncanny ability to make everything we do more fun, ends up making him wear the most hats for our company.
Hey folks, Rob here. I do not usually introduce myself into one of the many stories that have landed on our website. Although I have written, helped write or edited most of them, this one I couldn’t touch. Most of us, if we got into this much detail of our lives no one would read, but as he would say, “it’s a long one”. Karim Abu Bakr is, outside my immediate family, the best thing that has ever happened to me and this company. He is my brother and my best friend. For our company he is the “G.O.A.T.” There is an old clip from the T.V. show Saturday Night Live, about a product that is so versatile it can be both a dessert topping and a floor wax. Well – that is Karim.
South America is not a traditional destination for Russian travelers. Spanish is not a foreign language commonly taught in schools of Moscow city. However I got into a public school with deep studies of Spanish and Hispanic Culture. I got fascinated by stories of Spanish navigators and “conquistadores”, consequently fell in love with The New World’s civilizations like Mayas, Aztecs and Incas. It’s funny, though, the first Spanish explorer I ever read about was Francisco de Orellana, the first European to sail the Mother of All Rivers and give it the name we use today – the Amazon. By the time I was fifteen I spoke both – English and Spanish – the latter I handled well enough to win a literature contest devoted to a great Spanish poet Miguel Hernandez. My prose was based on memoirs of Pablo Neruda – my father’s favorite author. My father was an Egyptian communist, so the fact he married a Russian woman, got a PHD in Moscow and loved a Chilean author opposed to the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet is not a surprise. I was born a year before Soviet Union officially fell apart, grew up in the bizarre Russian 90ies and got obsessed with Chile just because I loved the mixture of indigenous and European cultures.
As a result of my history and literature interests I ended up enrolling in the Faculty of International Journalism at MGIMO – Moscow State University of International Relations of Russian Ministry of Foreign Affair. Three things happened there. Number one – after 6 months at the University I got invited for an internship at ITAR-TASS (Russian info agency) in Santiago de Chile. Number two – I learned all I could from the best professionals in journalism, PR, Marketing and Business Management with a wide access to national and international media. Being at a prestigious University like that in Russia meant a ton of open doors – I got to spend time with correspondents from CNN, BBC, Russia Today and folks from Madison Avenue. Number Three – I learned French. As much as I was undisciplined I was in love with that language, but still, while my fellows were turning their habits into European French style, I was looking for a way to keep the Latin American Dream alive as well as maintain all three foreign languages I was speaking by the time –English, Spanish and French. That meant moving my attention from the southern tip of the continent to North – the Caribbean. At some point I came across a historical Novel by a great French journalist Albert Londres – “Adieu, Cayenne” that told the story of the man who escaped the Devil’s Island – French Penal Colony in Cayenne, French Guiana. The book changed my life.
French Guiana is still part of France – now as an overseas department. By the time I was close to graduating I knew more about it than about my own neighborhood, so, I felt like it was time to go. The idea of doing the trip literally came to mind in the middle of the night and I was on the plane in five days. No big planning, just an inspiration. I didn’t have a visa to French Guiana (we, Russians, need a visa everywhere), so my travel agent suggested I go somewhere close to its borders where I didn’t need a visa and figure it out down the road. That’s why I loved my travel agent. We randomly pointed at the biggest city close to Guiana on the map – Belem, state of Para, Brazilian Amazon. Now, Brazil is the only country in Latin America whose language I didn’t speak. I actually always laughed at it and condescendingly called it “a funny Spanish dialect”. It was the only country I had never studied more than a few things about the economic miracles of the 2000s. I would always turn off my grandmother’s Brazilian soap operas and the only idea I had of the city of Belem was from a 1920s book – the time when that city was considered “South American San Francisco”. Plus, I was sure Brazilians would be cosmopolitan enough to speak English and in Belem – French, and Portuguese is the same as Spanish, but funny, right? What could possibly go wrong?
Everything could go wrong. Luggage was lost during a São Paulo layover. Belem did not look like San Francisco. Money and credit cards were stolen on the 3-day boat trip in a hammock from Belem to Santarem. [Read Karim’s article: “Sailing on Brazilian Amazon”] I disembarked in a town I wasn’t able to find on the map, in a place where no one seemed to speak any of the four languages I spoke and everyone seemed to have a pretty bad taste for music. My mom is a musician, so, that’s important. I had no money, no communication (roaming didn’t work) and the only people I knew were two backpackers travelling with an outdated Lonely Planet Guidebook – in German. Congratulations, Karim, you just got as adventurous as one could ever be.
In 2 weeks the town I hated on the first day turned into a place I’d choose not to leave any time soon. A hidden paradise of white sandy beaches, untold stories of ghost towns in the middle of the jungle and charming people that received me, saved me and helped me become one of the greatest Brazilian patriots. No joke. I did have harsh times. Before learning Portuguese well enough, being accepted is not easy. Becoming a language teacher and an eco-tour guide was even tougher: tourism is not exactly an industry in Santarém, even though it’s an authentic jewel with an immense potential. But I quickly realized that’s what I wanted to do. Being a tour guide means research and storytelling – just like journalism. Then, sell your product, just like I was taught at the college. Luck and good people made me become a valuable guide on all levels: shore excursions for cruise ships, multi-day jungle, road and boat trips. My network got very wide: when you build your own tours you have to know everyone – from village fishermen to restaurant owners and politicians. Historians, farmers, doctors, hunters, manioc flour makers, caciques of indigenous tribes – I met all of them. I also ended up doing a little bit of everything: cleaning fish at the local market, hosting a radio show, making burgers, building my own eco-tour web-site, giving lessons at schools and universities, going to government meetings, protesting against hydroelectric dams, being a fixer for documentary makers, kayaking 200 miles upriver… I mean, I did in five years what would’ve taken me decades if I just stuck to my life and career in Moscow.
At the end of 2011 I met a lady that would make Brazil my home – Kris. Her family was from Sao Francisco de Carapanari – a village close to the home and restaurant of one of my best partners and friends – Saulo Jennings. Kris and I have been through a lot. She met me when I was guiding crew members of cargo ships docking in Santarem. We’ve had 2 kids, built our language school together and we are still fighting to put check marks on our list of dreams – our own little Bucket List.
Turning points in my Amazonian life were the foundation of Big Tree Adventure Tours with Rick Paid, working with Gil Serique, opening an immersive language school (High5) with an American Diner in it and, of course, becoming a guide on Amazon Dream. The name of that river cruise boat makes it justice not only for the ones travelling on board but also for those working there. Every single eco-tour guide in Brazilian Amazon considers that a peak of their career. Those years – 2015-2018 also were my apogee in Santarém: my language school became a success 6 months after foundation, Big Tree Adventure Tours was growing fast and Amazon Dream turned me into their head guide. My network became so large I could barely walk through town without being greeted by someone. My knowledge of the history of this part of the amazon got its foundation not only from books but from being mentored by the best historians of the area. My flora and fauna knowledge was collected in a variety of expeditions teamed up with fantastic naturalists from all over the world. I couldn’t feel more complete than that and, again, I said “What can possibly go wrong?”
Too many mistakes were made. Having too much on my plate started to take its toll. Maintaining a business while being constantly away from the city, trying to keep a number of activities running smoothly brought it all to the point where it could collapse and I could lose it all. My wife used to blame me for not being able to say “no”. Leaving behind my first friends in the Amazon seemed unfair, joining adventures with the new ones was exciting.
In January 2017 I did my last tour for Big Tree Adventure Tours. My client wanted to visit Fordlandia and he had chosen to contact us because we used the services of the same travel agent as he did – Kevin Martin. We connected through WhatsApp and after that I kept laughing at his name – Evan Firstman. The first man I guided to Fordlandia in over a year. Evan spent 6 days in the Santarem region, including 3 days in Fordlandia, where we explored everything, mainly thanks to my friend and a great historian, Father Sidney Canto. Evan was one of those rare totally easy-going guests ready for absolutely anything – from sleeping on a mattress on the floor of my classroom instead of the hotel to climbing on the Water tower in Fordlandia. I don’t need to say Evan, the sunny guitar player with ultimate skills in making up songs as he goes, became one of my best friends on this planet with no doubt.
Fifteen months later I receive a WhatsApp call from Evan (after trying for a year to get at least one Facebook or WhatsApp message answered, but, oh well, Evan is not a social media guy). A buddy of Evan’s needed a translator in Manaus. Back in 2017 drinking beer with the priest in Fordlandia Evan mentioned this guy, Rob. I didn’t understand much about these fishing operations and even less about fly fishing, I kind of heard about those boats doing fishing trips in public waters Manaus-Barcelos, but nothing more than that. May 2018 was not an easy moment to get me out of Santarem, right on the Eve of cruise season, with my language school running and tons of other things going on. Well, if Evan called me, there must’ve been a reason for it. A friend of Evan’s is a friend of mine. I called Rob. 3 days later I was on the plane to Manaus, my wife having asked what I was going to do there and me answering with gestures – “I have no clue”.
It was one of those moves I was constantly blamed for: taking on too much, but this time I had a feeling it was more like an opportunity of a fresh start.
Meeting Rob in Manaus a couple of days later was the moment my life made another spin in the opposite direction. For 8 years before that my life had been so locked on trying to change the world by doing everything in the little town of Santarem, that I simply forgot about the world beyond that county. So, at the reception of the Quality hotel, for the first time in a while, I felt like I had no idea about the Amazon. Fishing operations, private, exclusive fishing operations in remote areas was a whole new world I had never thought of before. When one met Rob back then, he wouldn’t think this guy was serious about what he wanted to do. Here’s what I figured (quote from my note made in January 2019): “Rob Anderson is an ultimate fly fishing guide, fly designer and a man who loves Brazil. At some point he started booking agent activity but felt like he could do more for his clients – exclusive private preserve fly fishing only experience.” That was a very simplified sum-up. It turns out, the best area to do it in Brazil is in the state of Roraima because Amazonas state is full of boats, lodges and mixed operations. So, there’s the Xeriuini River. I had no idea where it was but it sounded like going far up enough that river you’d get to speak some Spanish (this is supposed to be a funny one). I don’t know how easy it is to build an operation like that anywhere else in the world but here’s what it took us to get it done: 8 months of negotiations with state and municipality government, 2 trips to the lower Xeruini where village leaders are, apart from 2 years before that with Rob trying to arrange a decent operator, get the houseboats built, working out logistics, building a team with the best guides, going back to villages to discuss preservation projects and benefits for local community. It’s hard to describe in a couple of lines but with all we learned is needed to build this kind of operation and have people to rely on, Rob and I could easily become Environmental Ministers or lawyers.
Finally, all set, Rob has the first couple of weeks of anglers and he calls me in December to see if we could make the trip all the way up Xeriuini, stopping by the villages on the way and to show me a week of operation I had never seen with my own eyes. I hesitated just because it was right at the top of the season of my activities in Santarem but Rob had a joker in his hand: “Evan’s coming”. January 7th, 2019, I’m on the plane, off from Santarem for 2 weeks. 20 hours on a boat, from Manaus on Rio Negro to Rio Branco, change the boats, another 5 hours on a smaller boat, in a hammock on top of roaring engine, a night in the village of Canuini, a speedboat to next village and the next one, late evening meeting in Terra Preta, Evan singing “Gin and juice” right by Assembly of God church for villagers. Rob and Evan were received in the villages as if they were semi-gods from Asgard. The next morning, a 7-hour ride up the Xeruini, morning rain, then burning sun. The river is way too low, we must get off the boat to push it through sand bars. The water is getting clearer every minute. I was amazed by landscapes easily competing with the ones on the Tapajos – white sandy beaches, crystal-clear creeks coming down from the middle of the rainforest. Who could say we were in the Amazon? Ze Maria, our pilot, laughing at our photo sessions “Reading Playboy Magazine In The Most Irrelevant Places And Situations In The World” and saying “we’re getting close” every 30 minutes.
Ze Maria was pointing out a huge Brazil Nut tree. We checked on our GPS. For the first time in 7 years I was going across the Equator to the Northern Hemisphere. Sunset was close, we took great pictures of pink spoonbills, wood storks and other birds with a fantastic light. What was waiting for me on this other side of the planet went way beyond (again) my expectations (and time limits). A week at a fly fishing operation that turned out to be a great adventure packed with unseen in my area wildlife, cutting through the jungle to never-seen-before lagoons and tributaries, campfire discussions of the day where I could be a highlight with my improvised conferences and, of course, new people, new experiences and new places. These were going to be my craziest weeks ever in the Amazon.
In a matter of 8 months of work together Rob and I became almost family. We fought, we won and we lost together, one challenge at a time, changing our minds and directions. In January 2019 I ended up staying for the whole season – all four weeks. My language school was already falling apart and I had quit my other activities already, so I just took it like I did in my first year in the Amazon – every step is something exciting I’m doing for the first time.
As a result, in August 2019 I saw my first jaguar on our exploratory trip to Pantanal and in October-November the same year Natan Guedes, our partner in Amazon Operations took me to a dozen of rivers in the states of Amazonas and Roraima to train me better as a host in a fishing camp. Everything I had ever learned in my life and in years in the amazon became handy: from sense of photo/video to speaking all the languages I do and knowing a few dozen species of parrots.
The other day I was talking to Evan who couldn’t believe how much I got into the world of fly fishing in less than two years. And from now on, I’m just starting a new exciting decade in my life. Rob opened a whole new world for me and the only thing I can regret is that we hadn’t met before. At the same time, I’m grateful to every person that contributed to my trajectory that ended up taking me where I am now – a part of the family that is “Bucket List Fly Fishing”.