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Best Christmas ever: Return from the Amazon

1/12/2009

Christmas Day, 2000

Christmas is here again. As is our family's tradition, we all awaken early and gather around the beautifully decorated tree in our living room. I play Santa, passing out gifts to my wife Theresa and our sons. Everyone smiles as they open presents.

There's nothing really different about this particular Christmas. We exchange our gifts, and later in the day, we'll eat our fill of a huge holiday feast.

This Christmas feels different to me, however, because, for the first time in my life, I realize how truly blessed I am.

Forty-eight hours earlier, I was awakened by the raucous calls of parrots outside. I was in my berth on the mothership Yanna, and the final day of a week-long fishing trip in Brazil was about to begin. I had only a couple hours left to fish before the ship took us back to the city, so I hurried outside and met my guide Alamao. He greeted me with a big smile, as always.

"Bom dia, Senor Catfish," he said. "You are ready to catch one more grandé pirarara?"

The pirarara is the redtail catfish, and with Alamao's help, I landed a beautiful specimen less than an hour later. It seemed appropriate on the eve of Christmas Eve to catch a fish with a Christmas-colored tail. For me, there could have been no more perfect way to end seven days of incredible fishing.

Alamao and several other guides on the Yanna live in the town of Autazes on the Madeira River. A few hours later, the boat docked there so the men could disembark and go home to their families. When we arrived, Alamao asked if I would walk with him to his home. He wanted me to meet his wife.

Alamao's tiny house had only a single room and no furniture. Two hammocks hung in one corner. There was no running water, sewer or electricity. An open tank on the rooftop collected rainwater for cooking, drinking and bathing.

Alamao's wife hugged me when we met, as if she was greeting a long-lost brother. She had in her arms a baby less than six months old. He appeared very ill.

"He has malaria," Alamao told me. "The doctors do not think he will live very long. Two more of our children have died because of the mosquitoes. We have no medicine for them."

As the Yanna pulled away later that day, Alamao and his wife smiled and waved goodbye to us from shore. The other guides were there with their families, too.

In his hand, Alamao clutched a bag full of pills. Every angler on the boat had contributed the last of their malaria medicine to the children of Autazes. And money several of us had brought to buy Christmas gifts for our families was given to Alamao so he could buy more medicine.

As Autazes faded slowly in the distance, the eyes of every man on board the Yanna were full of tears.

We live in a country where it is easy to forget, especially around Christmas time, how fortunate we are to have everything we need. But on Christmas Day, 2000, with memories of Autazes still vivid in my mind, I was keenly aware of how blessed my family is.

I hugged my wife and sons tight and said a prayer of thanks for the best Christmas ever.