This is the blog for the Elmira College travel class to Brazil in May 2010.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

More on our Amazon Adventures

Our stay in the Eco Lodge was really wonderful. There were no roads there, so we had to take a river boat to reach it. We were located in a nature preserve dedicated to rehabilitating monkeys (and soon, to rehabilitating turtles) back into the wild. In fact, the lodge itself was built to support the work of the rehabilitation, so our first thing we did upon arrival was to take a boat further up the river to the rehabilitation center. The monkeys were all free, and were fed some fruit at two different times a day (and were learning to forage for the rest of their food). Since there were no cages, one of the ways they tracked the success of the rehabilitation was when monkeys stopped showing up as frequently for the feedings. There were probably 15 monkey around when we visited, and we were watching them and trying to find them in the trees, when suddenly one of the monkeys walked right up to Kasey and started hugging her leg. The staff told us to be very quiet, and the monkey just kept hugging, and then slowly climbed up to Kasey´s neck and sat on her shoulders. The staff told us that this monkey was very gentle and had been raised as a pet, and sometimes still wanted that human interaction. Several other students got to hold her as the staff was trying to set her down, and it was really fun to see.

The lodge had a main reception room with open walls, a snack bar with a pool table, several safari-style sofas, and some tables and chairs made out of giant tree trunks that had been cut and polished up. A bit of a walk away was an open-sided pavillion structure with a number of hammocks in it. There was a larger open-sided meal center (with delicious foods every day, including many local fishes and fruits). We stayed in small bungalows interspersed in pathways throughout the grounds. There was a natural swimming pool filled with spring water the color of dark tea (and like tea, it was very refreshing!). And there was a sandy beach-front along the river with some tables and chairs and shade umbrellas. We were not staying on the Amazon River itself, but rather on a tributary to the Negra River. Although this tributary was probably 5 times the size of the Chemung River in Elmira, it is considered only a `canoe-way´because it is apparently so minor. I guess the fact that the height of the river varies by 50 feet every year between the rainy season and the summer probably also figures into that. The river was up 35 feet since January, and we could tell. The local eco-system is called the ´flooded-forrest´because of the varience in water levels. Trees have adapted to being half flooded or even completely submerged for part of the year. Because the water was high while we were there, we could see hundreds of tree tops partially coming out of the water all around us. It made the shores seem incredibly solidly green when viewed from afar, since there was no peek of soil or bank or shore. It was just a carpet of green rising straight out of the river and up the banks.

We had the opportunity to visit some actual indigenous people who lived near the preserve where we were staying. These people still live in the traditional mobile way, and just came to live there a few years ago. They will probably move on in a few more years. They have agreed to meet guests of the lodge and show us some of their cultural practices, but this is not of course a group of primitive people by any measure. They have built their traditional open-sided village structures out of fronds and wood, and they cook in their communal cooking hut, but they live in wooden houses that they built not much different from other houses in the region. They wore traditional clothes for our visit--with palm frond skirts and jewelry and decorations made of local seeds and wood, and they wore body paint, but they consider this their job, to meet visitors and share some of their culture with us. They also sell jewelry and carvings that they have made by hand. When they get off work, they change into shorts and tee-shirts. They only speak a little portuguese, and mostly use their native indigenous language, but the children have started to take the river boat to go to school, and are now becoming fluent in portuguese. The littlest kids just stared at us and played with us, which was really fun. We got to learn a traditional house dance that we found out later was actually a wedding dance. We think Melinda might actually have gotten herself married. Brendan and Katy as well....

We also had the opportunity to visit some of the tiny river communities of the Cabaclos, or the mixed peoples. Technically, the term Cabaclo means a mix between the indigenous and the early Portuguese from colonial times, but now it has come to mean peoples who are mostly indigenous by ancestry but who are living more Westernized lives. These tiny river communities, mostly in the small byways and tributaries of the Amazon, were fascinating. Because the level of the water rises and falls so dramatically between the seasons, these river houses are built high up on stilts. We would see maybe 6 or 8 houses built high up and close together, and there would also always be one church and one sort of store or community center with a kind of porch on it. These houses couldn´t have been more than 1 or 2 rooms, and they each had a tiny little open porch with stairs going down. When the river reaches its full height, they use boards to link the porches of their homes. We are still several months of rain away from that, so we could see that each little settlement had a kind of common lawn, not large, but grassy, where there were tables where people gathered. These communities had no roads to connect them, and were really scattered and isolated.

Even more isolated were the floating homes. We saw any number of tiny one room barges, for lack of a better word. These barges floated on giant logs of balsa wood, and were basically a shack with a small deck all the way around it. Some had floating chicken coops. Dogs and kids sat on the decks and watched us go by. These people have a subsistence living from the river and from the forest around them. It was very clear that these were very poor people, and we learned that it was just recently that the government decided that they would create a system of school ´bus´boats that would take the kids every day to school. Some of the floating houses were so isolated that the kids spent hours every day on the school boats, but it is still seen as a way for kids to have a chance at something larger in their lives.

We were so lucky to see some amazing animals while in our little bit of the Amazon! We were extremely lucky to see not just one but three separate pink freshwater river dolphins! And we also saw the smaller gray freshwater river dolphins, including a pair that was doing synchronized leaps out of the water. We saw some amazing wild birds, including toucans, vultures, storks, hummingbirds, and many other bright colored birds that we couldn´t identify. We saw mantises, including a bright pink one. We saw giant carmel colored spiders the size of a large human hand, including one with an irridescent egg sac the size of an apricot! We saw a big blue butterfly the size of a salad plate. We saw a wild sloth with a baby on its back, way up in a tree. We also saw a sloth in capitivity, brought out to our boat by a Cabaclo boy about 8 years old. He saw our boat and grabbed the sloth from inside the floating house, and before we even realized what was going on, he was handing the sloth inside our boat. I guess this was a way his family made money, and he held out his hand to each of us as the sloth was passed around. While it was a really amazing experience the see a sloth up close, it was a little disturbing to think about it more deeply. The same with a giant anaconda also shown to us by a Cabaclo family. This family was selling photos with the ananconca, and many of the students had photos with the anaconda around their necks. Again, a very cool thing to experience, but the larger picture....

In the water near our lodge, we went out by boat to fish for piranhas and look for caiman. We were split into two small narrow speed boats, and our guides Tuco and Melo brought us out into the floating forest near the shore. We could hear the giant splash of big reptile bodies lurching into the water, and one of our boats got to see a huge caiman about the size of a large german shephard, but longer, and with a hard a pointy head, of course! We were fishing with pieces of chicken, and I think they could smell the meat in the water. Only one student managed to catch a piranha (Ashley) and she actually caught two of them. The guides lured in a caiman close, and then fed them the piranha, and it was amazing to see the caiman thrash and lunge suddenly for food. They were mostly quite and lurking, with just their horned eye-ridges and golden eyes above the water. They are really quite creepy, and of course, I had just been swimming and floating in this same river not far away just an hour before. I didn´t swim in the river again, and I noticed the students didn´t either...!

We did go hunting for caiman at night, trying to find the reflection of their eyes with our lights. One boat of students saw quite a few lurking caiman. The other boat didn´t get to see any at all. It was still interesting to be out on the water at night. The frogs and insects are really loud, calling and creaking and chirping. There was no actual light visible besides our own, and only a small part of the sky reflected some of the city light of Manaus. When we turned off the motors and just floated, it was peaceful and somehow powerful.

Early one morning while we were there, we had the chance to go on a kind of nature walk in the preserve around us. There had been a big storm and lots of rain the night before (it is the rainforest!) and the jungle was steamy hot and dripping wet. We walked single file, with our main guide Wedson along with Tuca and Melo told us about different plants and some of the practices of the indigenous peoples. All three of them had been raised close to the traditions of indigenous peoples, and had grown up as kids harvesting food and using plants as medicine. They showed us how to make the traditional foot loop for climbing trees and they let us try it (none of us were very successful). They also showed us the quinine tree (and told us how they were raised drinking tea made from the bark a couple times a week, made by their grandmothers, and this was the traditional way to prevent getting malaria). We saw many ants and termites, and they showed us how to use smoke to get to the ants that might be a protein source if really hungry. They also showed us how to identify a termite nest and then carve into a tree to find a termite path--again, another protein source if hungry enough. They showed us a tree that dripped a natural kind of wax that could hold a light for a long time, and they made a torch with a stick and a blob of this wax. Then they used the torch to show us how to make a kind of natural fireworks from the sap of another tree (they burned it, let it drip onto a large leaf, let it dry, rolled it into a powder, then dropped the powder into the flame, and it exploded and sparkled, much like a 4th of July sparkler). The indigenous people use this powder in some of their most important ceremonies. Every now and then, Wedson would tell us not to touch a particular plant or tree as it was poisonous. There´s nothing like a little drama!

The walk through the rain forest was really interesting. The path itself was hardly a path; at some points we were walking on leaves that sunk past the tops of our shoes. We were walking over and on top of tree roots, stepping over and under branches, walking through small water trickles or puddles, or right through mud. And it was steamy hot, and because of the bugs, we had to wear long pants tucked into our shoes, and long sleeves. We were soaking wet and completely overheated by the time we were done, but it was wonderful. The guides seemed quite taken with all of our beautiful girls (and they teased our one guy, Brendan, quite a bit). At one point they showed us how the heart of palm frond looks like a very sharp spear, and they gave Brendan a machete and told him to see if he could defend himself against the traditional jaguar spear, and then they told him he might need two machetes, and they worked us all up, and then instead of attacking Brendan, Wedson shook out the palm spear and suddenly a huge number of palm fronds popped out, turning it from a ´spear´into a giant palm branch. We all were laughing and laughing, and later as we were walking, Tuca and Melo made traditional headpieces for the girls out of the fronds. They made Brendan a big pair of Harry Potter glasses. It was pretty funny.

When we were returning from piranha fishing, they invited us to come play soccer with some of the guys who worked at the lodge. Of course, Wedson had already told us that football was not a sport but a religion in Brazil, and when we saw these guys, we knew it to be true. They had basically carved a soccer field out of the forrest. They had built handmade nets, and the field was made of sand. It was like beach soccer, and all the more strenuous because of it. They basically took it pretty easy against us, letting us change teams after two goals. Both Brendan and Meesh did manage to score, and Brendan was good enough that they actually gave him a nickname: Vermillion (or Big Red) because of his rather red-looking tan. Of course the girls immediately started calling him Little Red, but basically, it was really fun to play with them (some of the guys were on the regional championship team, and believe me, they were really really good). We got our little fix of football in Brazil. (Actually, even as I´m writing here in Salvador, some students are making plans to go out tonight in order to watch one of the semi-final national championship matches on TV with local Brazilians. The game isn´t being played locally, but Brazillians seem to like to gather in the streets and watch the game on screens outside little shops. There´s a real cameraderie, and lots and lots of shouting and celebrating.)

Right before we left the Amazon, we had the chance to take an early morning canoe trip for an hour. It had been raining, and some of the students weren´t packed yet, so only a few of us came. It was so beautiful and peaceful, gliding deep and quietly into the floating forest, with half submerged trees and vines all around us, the occaisional sudden flower or bright colored bird or the splash of a startled caiman. A large iguana high up in a tree watched us for a while. It was an amazing and touching experience.

We got to Salvador just fine, after almost a full day in transit. We are staying in the Monte Pascoal Hotel, which is right across the road from the beach and in a nice area for walking around. We´ve had a busy day already, but I´ll have to catch up the blog about it all later. So far, Salvador is lovely and interesting, and we should learn a lot here. So far, this has been a terrific class with amazing experiences with wonderful students. So far, so good.

1 comment:

  1. I do not want to get on my daughter's nerves from an entirely different continent, so I have been trying not to comment on the blog too often. Tonight, though, I cannot contain myself. Not only are the blogs so interesting and captivating, this trip sounds so wonderfully memorable. Every experience comes across as extraordinary - keep the stories coming - they are great! Thank you so much for being brave enough to take college students out of the classroom :)