Sunday, December 9, 2012

Saturday, December 8 – Wherein we enter the forest primeval


We are in Santarem, Brazil, today, our first chance to walk in the rainforest; indeed, it is the first chance we have had to walk anywhere in Brazil.  More about that later.


We were slow getting moving this morning and ate in the Lido to be sure we would not be late again for Trivia.  Just as we have not forgiven Barry for missing the Canada question the other day, the others continue to tease us about being late.  We functioned well as a team again which is shorthand for we did not win; we were tied for second with 15/17 but, once again, we laughed more than any other team.


The ship was scheduled to dock and be cleared at noon, so D told our tour group to assemble at the Stuyvesant Room near our cabin at 12 o’clock.  We had to wait until about two minutes past the hour for the last person to arrive, but it was not a problem.  As soon as everyone was accounted for, we proceeded to disembark.  Today’s guide, Paulo Coelho, was outside waiting for us, holding up a sign with our group name.  Those at the front of the line got to board the supposedly-air conditioned bus while we waited for those who got caught in the elevator tango.  And off we went!


We have been planning our own tours since 2008, usually with great success [Of course, we still talk about the disasters].  D has made arrangements for four tours this time plus one HAL excursion in Parintins next week.  The private tours in Brazil include a 4 hour tour today plus two tours in Manaus next week.  As in all of the previous tours, the arrangements have been made via the internet.  It is a leap of faith, faith that the guide will show up; faith that the guide will be good; and faith that the guide will not try to gouge more money than the agreed upon price.  We hit the jackpot today.


Santarem appears to be about 400 hundred mile inland from the Atlantic Ocean.  It has become an important commercial hub because it is situated at the confluence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers.  The local economy is dependent on agriculture, mining, fishing and tourism.  Tourism is playing an increasing role in that mixture.


Satarem, itself, was practically hidden from us today.  Most of the stores and shops were closed as part of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception which culminates tonight with church services, fireworks and a festival atmosphere.  We saw booths set up in front of the cathedral, and blocked-off streets later in the afternoon, but missed the fireworks because we left before they started.


Instead of visiting the fish or grocery markets [which were open], we drove directly to “our” boat, a design called a “cage” boat because the superstructure looks like a cage without bars or wire.  There were 16 people in our group and we had plenty of room.  We availed ourselves of plastic stacking chairs and headed down the Tapajos river.


Paulo kept up a constant narration about what we saw on the shore as well as on the river.  When we finally past the end of Santarem, we started to watch for dolphins in the water.  We were able to spot several, both grey and pink, but it is hard to capture them with a camera because they move so quickly; there is simply too little time to react before they are under water again.


We entered the Maica Canal, a natural canal which veers off of the Tapajos.  The canal is narrow so we moved slowly.  We saw an assortment of birds including herons, hawks, cormorants, egrets and carcaras; more dolphins; and an assortment of domestic livestock such as cattle and sheep along the riverbank.  Above the banks were houses on stilts, women doing the family in the river and lots of children swimming and playing in the water on a lazy Saturday.


The Brazilian rainforest has two seasons, wet and dry, just like Florida and most tropical and sub-tropical regions.  During the rainy season, the rivers can rise as much as 15 meters in the center with the water rising proportionally on the banks.  Houses near the floodplain are of necessity built on stilts to avoid the worst of the flooding.  The Amazon is subject to these seasons as well as the gathering rush of water as it makes its way almost 5000 miles from the mountains of Peru.  We were able to see the high water mark on the exteriors of all the houses we saw; no matter how high they were off the ground, it was not high enough.


We are traveling on the Amazon during the dry season, so the water level is comparatively low.  One byproduct of the dry season is shallow water on the banks which forms pools which, in turn, trap piranha.  The piranha is a fierce fish with razor sharp teeth.  When piranha are in deep water, they are happy and well-fed, but they are dangerous in the shallow pools because they have too little food; they will eat anything or anyone.


So… is the dry season; the piranha are at their meanest; and we went piranha fishing in the Maica Canal.  Hooks were baited with raw meat and attached via monofilament fishing line to empty plastic water bottles; these served as rod and reel.  The lines were dropped over the side of the boat and the waiting began.  The piranha were clever and most of our group had the bait stripped without hooking a fish, but there were four piranha which were either not as smart or not as lucky.  We brought two silver, one gold and one red piranha on board where Paulo disengaged the hooks very carefully and also demonstrated how sharp and dangerous the teeth are.  The fish were not pleased by the demonstration.  The piranha is often caught as a food fish, but Paulo threw ours back in the water.


When we were finished fishing, we turned around and headed back to the Tapajos River.  The most amazing sight caught our eyes – a parade of 10 -15 cage boats filled with HAL passengers who were going piranha fishing. [The count is approximate because different members of our group remembered it differently]  The HAL boats were about the same size as ours but had 30 – 40 passengers compared to our 16.  We waved merrily to them and called them fools under our breath.  We were getting a much longer tour for less money and with less crowding.


We began our tour at noon, so most of us had had no lunch.  While we were heading to the canal and were later fishing, we were offered fresh fruit [pineapple, mango, banana and watermelon] and sandwiches [ham and cheese?].  Some people ate it all, but our heroes were cautious, following the ship’s advice to avoid watermelon and lunch meat [and lots of other stuff we will probably have to avoid in Manaus].  Bottled water was available all day as was fresh juice which MA found to be tart and D did not like.  D does not want to return from another equatorial country with intestinal difficulties.


The next stage of our Amazon exploration was a ride in a motorized rowboat to a local farm.  Our guide Paulo had arranged this visit for us and another Cruise Critic group.  We were packed 6 to eight per boat and motored smoothly from the Tapajos to a tributary.  The trip was easy, but getting into the boat was tortuous.  There was a steep plank leading from the cage boat to the motorboat, but it was so steep that neither MA nor Mary [from Trivia] dared attempt the transfer.  Their decision was probably a good one because everyone else had difficulty moving from one boat to the other [in both directions].


As we moved down the tributary, we were very low in the water, and it was tempting to dip one’s hands in the cool water until we thought about the piranha.  There was the occasional jumping fish and lots of birds.  As we approached our destination, we could see cattle and sheep plus one horse on the left bank.  There was a rickety dock and we all managed to climb out of the boat without mishap.


While our group waited for the other three boats to arrive, we rested in the same style of plastic chairs which we had used on the cage boat.  We started looking more closely at our surroundings and discovered a covey of green parrots.  They blended in so well with the greenery that they were hard to see.  Luckily, they were even more patient than we were so most of us were able to get good photographs [one of which may be posted here someday].


Finally, everyone was delivered and the two groups split up for a tour.  We left our cool spot under a huge tree and trudged further up the bank to the house.  Even several hundred yards from the river bank, the house, on stilts, still had a high-water mark almost three feet above the level of the porch. 


We went into the house to discover it had three bedrooms, all sparsely furnished but neat and clean.  The kitchen was outside on the rear porch; the cookware hung from the rafters and was so clean it was shiny.  Several of the tour members remarked that their own pots and pans were not as sparkly.


We left the house and went on a nature walk around the property.  Again, it wasn’t rainy and it wasn’t so forested.  There was plenty of ground cover and plenty of trees, but there was no tree canopy.  Paulo explained what some of the various trees were and opened some of the fruit which had dropped.  Some were edible and some were not; one was used as the basis of a fermented liquor.  Whee!  He picked up one about the size of a sweet potato but symmetrical and with a smooth green skin.  At one end was a stem.  Paulo told us that as a child growing up in the rainforest, he used to shove sticks into this fruit and imagine that the stem was the face of a cow [or bull].  He had so many that he was able to pretend he was a cattle rancher; he used other sticks to make fences.  When you grow up in the jungle, you find your fun where you can.


Various group members saw parrots, unoccupied snail shells, herons, hawks and other birds.  At least one participant was really hoping to see a three-toed sloth.  As it turned out, there was one hanging from a low branch near the house when we returned from the Great Trek.  We all oohed and aahed and grabbed our cameras.  Normally, the sloth is shy, but this one practically posed for us.  It was the photographic high point of the day.


We made our goodbyes and returned to the boats for the short ride back to the cage boat.  We could see the Prinsendam across the river but still had to travel back to our starting point.  There were no open stores in town because of the festival, so we had to content ourselves to spreading American goodwill and dollars at a small crafts market on the dock.  Yes, gentle and dedicated readers, D bought another mask.


We did not return to the ship until almost 6 o’clock.  Paulo would have kept us until 7 but some of the folks wanted to go back earlier.  Since we had expected to be back to the ship around 4:30, we had no complaints, especially because we had had such a good day.


We were late getting to the OB but had no trouble finding a table.  Apparently everyone else was tired, too.  At dinner we talked to Pedr and Manute about tours and invited them to join us in Manaus on Tuesday.  They had already bought a HAL tour and it was too late to cancel without losing their money; at least we tried.


And so to bed.


Tomorrow  -- Boca de Valeria


Sunday, December 9 – The River of Life, part I


We have been learning that the Amazon is the source of life in the rainforest, at least in the alluvial plain.  Where we are is more important than what we have seen – there have been no great edifices, no statues, nothing of historical significance.  The river supplies the food the native peoples eat; it provides the soil in which they grow their crops; it is the highway of the rainforest.


Paulo told us that the diet of the Amazons consists of fish and manioc except when it is manioc and fish. [Manioc is a product of the cassava which also is the base for tapioca].  When people in Santarem want to go to the “big” city of Manaus, they must fly or take a boat; there are no roads.  The only road out of Santarem is to Alter de Chao approximately 25 miles away.  Although the road is paved, the trip still takes an hour.  The trip by boat takes several days.  The first thing passengers do when they board the intercity boats is to hang their hammocks so they have someplace to sleep during the journey.


Today we visited Boca de Valeria at the mouth of the Valeria River.  It is really a village of about 75 people.  We tendered ashore where the entire town greeted us in some fashion.  Looking across the river to the tender dock, one could see a long line of people waiting, waiting, waiting in the heat and humidity to catch the tenders back to the ship.


MA chose to stay home today in anticipation of the heat, humidity and, most of all, the uneven footing.  Once again, she chose well.  The path from the dock to the village was obviously uphill, but the path was ragged and rutted.  There were small boats by the dock, undoubtedly used by the locals as fishing vessels.


As soon as we passed the HAL security tent, small children snatched at our hands trying to be hired as guides for one dollar.  D was with Barry and Vicky all of whom declined the guide services.  All along the path to the village proper we saw villagers offering to pose for photographs.  Some were in “native” costume; some had caimans on strings; others had bugs or sloths; still others were selling primitive pottery.  Photographs were a dollar; the one piece of pottery D priced was five.


Once past the vendors, we entered the village.  There were raised houses, of course, as well as a school, a church and a snack bar selling two types of Brazilian soda but no Coke products.  Looking out from the front door of the church, one could see a grassland reminiscent of the African savannah.  Of course, all of this will be under water during the rainy season when the flooding will bring more silt and soil to the banks.


Despite the isolation and desolation, the village has electricity.  There must be a diesel generator somewhere, but the source and ownership remain a mystery; our resident expert says he is sure the power is not brought in from Parintins, the nearest city.   There were electric lines overhead and a transformer on a pole; outside each of the stilted houses was an electric meter.  There were two large satellite dishes in the town.  Many of the people who were not barefoot were wearing rubber flip-flops which looked like the ones sold at Wal-Mart.


We were exhausted by the time we reached the end of the Boca de Valeria.  We are only 2-1/2 degrees above the equator.  On a clear day like today, the heat and humidity are draining.  We made our way to the tender dock, avoiding all of the photo ops, wood work and cute children.  We did not have long to wait but it felt endless.  The tender was crowded and hot making the coolness of the ship and the concurrent air circulation seem to be a blessing.  It had been a long hour ashore.


D dropped off his camera in the stateroom before finding MA in the Explorers’ Lounge.  He was soaked through.  Even a half-hour later, after talking with Mark, his shirt was still visibly wet.  We returned to the room so he could get a dry shirt.  We went to the Lido for nasi goreng for lunch before returning to the room to pack the computer, pens and sodas for Trivia.


Once again, we had more fun than any other team.  The ship had sponsored free drinks from 2 -3 pm and Vicky had three [count ‘em, three] rum drinks before giggling her way to our table at 3 pm.  She was really happy.  Either despite her or because of her, we won again, five times now in ten days.  When Carlos announced our victory, however, there was some booing, something we have never experienced on the Prinsendam.  Now we really have a target on our backs.


Tomorrow we have an 8-hour tour scheduled in Manaus.  D made the arrangements and we hope it is as good as the tour in Santarem.  If the climb into and out of the boats we will use on this journey into the rainforest look too difficult, MA will stay back with Mary.  Barry is not so interested in this tour, so the three of them may defend our Trivia honor tomorrow.  Stay tuned.

Tomorrow – Manaus, Brazil

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