Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Shaking Off a Bug Before We Fly; Shaking Hands with Monkeys Too

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 20

Day 19 is finally up.  Day 17 (which was missing) is there too.  Today is our last day in Brazil and we are doing our last minute shopping and sightseeing.  We sadly got struck by some weird bug that meant that about half of us have thrown up, some enough to get pretty dehydrated.  Our doctor friend in town has set us up beautifully to get us everything we need but, unfortunately, she cannot prevent anyone from getting sick in the first place.

Everyone who got sick rallied and is up and about except for one, whose late-breaking bout with the bug has her symptoms going on longer than the rest.  That person is on fluids now and should be up and about pretty soon.

We have one last excursion planned for today for those who are feeling like it: a trip to a zoo hospital to see the sick and injured animals that have been brought from all around the region.  Though it might sound depressing to visit sick animals, they are all on the mend and definitely worth seeing.  The last time an SMC Amazon group was there, we got to touch a baby jaguar.  We will report in later if we can to tell you about this visit.

ADDED INFO:  We made it to the zoo hospital and we are REALLY glad that we managed to make it happen.  We got to go even though the facility was technically closed because we had some connections that helped us to get in.  We started at some enclosures that held injured alligators, birds and turtles, then visited one of the staff areas where some of the recovering animals are just around and outside of any enclosures.  These include huge birds like macaws and toucans and -- perhaps best of all for some of us -- cute little monkeys!  The monkeys were shy at first when our big group arrived, but soon they jumped from one shoulder to another and let us hold them and pet them (and, of course, take pictures with them).   One in particular preferred women to men (and long-haired women in particular).  We all took down our ponytails to attract that monkey to us and it would swing in our hair and go from one of us to another, making hilarious little monkey noises all the while.

We then walked the trail to a number of different enclosures, where we got to see lots of different kinds of monkeys, all of whom reached out to us with their hands, feet and tails to connect with us.  We saw lots of birds, including the biggest bird of prey in the world, called a "gavião" in Portuguese.  We saw different kinds of small cats and strange rodents (?) with a special guide telling us of the details about why the animals are there.  There were two big cats in the main part of the zoo hospital that looked pretty much like mountain lions.

We then went to the quarantine area where some of the more injured animals were.  We saw lots of manatees in specially built tanks and we saw a beautiful adult jaguar and an adorable baby one.  We saw lots more birds and oversized rodents and we even got to get really close to an injured sloth.  We had to hurry away from the zoo to get home to pack but we have no regrets about finding a way to fit this trip into our last day's agenda. 

We fly tonight and arrive back in California on Tuesday.  We will hole up in a computer lab for awhile to finish our projects so you might not see us in person until the weekend.

Thanks again for following our travels and for letting us feel you "out there" as we explore this beautiful new world.  We look forward to seeing you soon!

Vilas Amazonas

SMC Amazon 2014 Day 19


Our fishing expedition never happened, as we saw huge thunderheads gathering at just about the time that we were supposed to head out in five rowboats in search of piranhas.  We decided to wait until the rain passed but by the time it did, darkness had fallen.  Those lucky piranhas!  We’ll get ‘em next time!

We decided to spend our boat time catching up on unfinished videos and we premiered some of the ones that have gotten finished over the last few days.  We awoke to a cloudy but rainless day, which was a perfect combo for us, as we were taking our last excursion into a new community, this one called Vilas Amazonas. 

Vilas Amazonas overlooks the actual Amazon River itself from a rather high perch on a cliff.  Our other communities were mostly centered around an Amazon tributary called the Arapiuns and we did a little jaunt onto another large tributary called the Tapajós.  Vilas Amazonas had a very different feel, both because the vegetation and soil color were different and because the houses and the layout of the community were different. 

In the other communities where we have been we have seen the workings of the government, partly through the provision of stable water supplies but also in the actual construction of the houses there.  The houses in Anã, for example, were almost all of a plaster construction with metal windows and doors.  They are even stamped with some federal bank logo to indicate their source. 

In Vilas Amazonas, though, the houses are less uniform.  Some are made of wooden planks, some of all thatch, some partially of brick, etc., etc.  The community has made a conscious effort to plant and maintain fruit trees and hardwoods, so there are about 15 or more kinds of fruits scattered on the ground throughout the village at any give time.  We tasted mangoes straight from the tree along with cacao, the source of chocolate. 

We visited one of the houses and were offered avocado juice as a morning refreshment.  Avocado juice is just smashed up avocadoes, water and sugar.  It is excellent.  The avocado is universally treated as a fruit here and used as a sugary dessert, drink or ice cream.  No one would EVER salt an avocado and eat it as part of a savory dish as far as we have seen. 

The house with the avocado juice also had two pet parrots that had just decided to live there, coming in from the rain forest to domesticate themselves.  They lived outside on the ledge of a shed and happily walked onto our hands and shoulders, squawking (but not talking) all the while. 

The owner of the house showed us his collection of indigenous artifacts, much like the ones that we saw in the Santarém museum on our first day in town.  Like the ones in the museum, these artifacts are thousands of years old. 

We went on into town toward an indefinite location that only revealed itself when we reached it: the tallest tree in the area.  Our guide told us that the tree had been there “since the beginning of time.”  Whether or not he is accurate in his assessment, we learned a  lot about community priorities by seeing how important this big old tree was to the people who live there. 

The community provided lunch for us, including fish, chicken, salads, vegetables and juices and then we headed back to our boat, about an hour’s walk away.  We bathed in the river before we pulled up the stakes that anchored the boat.  Louro made us pineapple juice with fresh mint and also popcorn.  We got out our endless supply of peanut butter and Ritz crackers to add to the feast and liberated our last big bag of M&Ms from the “secret stash” bag that helps keep us supplied with treats and a few necessities. 

We took one last little jaunt down one of “the narrows,” a small tributary lined with small ranches that raise long-horned cattle.  The cows walk right down into the water, neck deep sometimes, to eat the rich vegetation that is floating close by.  We saw some beautiful water birds, a few horses and a dolphin or two as we made our way between the small thatched houses.  It is clear that this area gets flooded out regularly but it seems that everyone involved is ready for all contingencies.  Once we left the narrows, we motored across the line where two rivers run next to each other in different colors (the Amason in brown and the Tapajós in blue) and back to the pier in Santarém from which we left. 

We will return to our original place of lodging tonight then do the last packing push to get ourselves headed toward home.  We probably need to get ice cream in town before heading out to our camp and we will also have to arrange for Louro to make us fried chicken at least once, if not two more times, before we leave. 

We feel some sadness about the end of our boat trip and even more sadness about leaving Brazil.  We are eager to see our people back at home, though, and we are eager to remember what our clothes used to smell like when we lived in California.  We’ll try to report in about our last day in Santarém, but we get on a plane tomorrow night so we might have trouble finding the time.  Thanks again for keeping track of our travels!

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Here Comes the Rain!

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 18

Our piricaia was excellent, with succulent roasted fish, beef and sausage, as well as tons of vegetables, farofa (an offshoot of farinha) and the kind of flan that they call pudim (pronounced pretty much like “pudding”).  We all ate more than was reasonable and enjoyed the night sky around a big bonfire. 

Our lovely evening, though, gave way to a middle-of-the-night storm that had all of us jumping from our hammocks to secure our things as the crew ran around the decks to drop the tarps to prevent us from getting totally soaked.  The storm was mostly just rain, with some far-off lightning and thunder but without enormous boat-rocking winds. 

The rain continued through breakfast, causing a delay in our entry to our next community: Urucureá.  While we waited for the rain to stop, we made the unusual decision to go “signal fishing,” as we knew that our cellphones had caught a signal just outside the cove where we spent the night.  So, we drove the boat out into a more open spot in the river and tried to make it possible to at least send some texts out to friends and family at home.  We got off a few texts by walking around the boat with our phones in the air but then lost the signal entirely before too much time had passed. 

Still, our signal fishing excursion used up the last of the rain so we could return to the community and walk up into it to meet the greeting committee.  In this community, the greeters were all women who are artisans, mostly of the basket-weaving variety.  We heard a bit about their community and then looked at their wares, acquiring quite a few more items as souvenirs. 

We went up a long rain forest trail to learn more about their community, including how they had established their water system through the help of Saude e Alegría (it provides water for almost every house in the community for less than the equivalent of $5 US per month) and how they got their small computer lab (also from S&A, with four laptops and a wireless hub).  We toured the school and the church, then thanked our guides and said our farewells.  We learned about the next projects that they would like to pursue so we might need to remember them as we plan next January . . .

We decided to nap on the boat for a bit because most of us had very interrupted sleep last night, mostly due to the storm.  We slept hard for an hour or so, then decided to do some more signal fishing before our next excursion this afternoon: more fishing, this time for the elusive piranha!

We have a local piranha-fishing expert who has had good luck catching the fish near dusk in a cove not too far from the community.  His other amazing skill is his ability to play pitch perfect tunes on a leaf, including the complicated (and long!) Brazilian national anthem.  We are on the boat right now trying to send more texts and we are looking forward to our fishing expedition in an hour or so. 

We will tell you more about our fishing expedition as soon as we can and, of course, we will send pictures of our catch whenever we can send data again.  Tonight will be our last night on the boat and then we return to Santarém to revisit our original Brazilian home and hit the town there one more time.  We expect to buy out most of the city’s supply of Brazilian-made Havaianas (flip flop sandals), as we have learned how priceless they are when one is living in the Amazon. 

We will try to fit in another excursion or two as we return to the city so we will write those up too.  Otherwise, we will hit the ground back in the U.S. on Tuesday, after a long night of traveling that starts late Monday night.  Please remember to save the date for our final presentations on Wednesday, February 12, at 7:00 p.m. in Galileo 201 on the Saint Mary’s College campus. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Special Note: Join Us!

Special Note: Please join us at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 12, in Galileo 201 on the Saint Mary's College campus for a screening of some of our final multimedia presentations from SMC Amazon 2014.  Bring your friends, relatives and neighbors!  Bring strangers if you want!

Baskets and Dolphins

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 17

We awoke to a beautiful morning after a rather breezy night.  The sun hit the beach and changed the color of the sand from the night before and the clouds, the water, and all of the vegetation around us all went into high contrast mode.  We decided to try to get a group picture to meet a Jan Term program request, but we couldn’t get the light to quite work out the way we wanted. 
We motored around the point and headed into a cove of trees that were out in the water, indicating that the river is higher than it sometimes is.  We stopped the big boat outside the cove and used our little motorboat to shuttle groups of six in through the trees to get to the community of Arimum.  We were met by a man in a yellow shirt, who walked us to a group of other people in yellow shirts, all of whom were part of the “tourism committee” for their community.  They were in a thatched shelter by a swimming hole where children were jumping from trees into the water and squealing with delight. 
Once we had all been shuttled over, we got a demonstration of how the locals collect a slightly different version of palhas than the ones we opened in Anã and dry them properly for use in baskets and other handicrafts.  They showed us how to dye them using natural leaves, plants and roots and then they let us pick our own colors and try to weave a little coaster for ourselves. 
“Try” is the operative word here, as many of us did not succeed in our goal of finishing a legitimate project.  Some of us did a pretty good job, while others successfully conned one of the people in the yellow shirts to do the project that we set out to do, while still others gave up entirely and did something else.  We learned a lot about the concepts of “teaching” and “learning” in this process.  Let’s leave it at that. 
We got a chance to see some of the community’s real handiwork at the end of the demonstration and several of us invested in quite a few pieces (maybe as gifts for some of YOU!).   We swam a bit with the kids in the swimming hole and then we got out our markers and paper and drew with the kids who felt like drawing.  It turned out that a lot of them wanted to draw so we stayed pretty busy. 
We started to shuttle back to the big boat and then set off for our next destination: the middle of the river.  Our captain knew a great place to anchor the boat where the water would be very deep but the current would be very mild.  A place like that is an excellent place to jump off of our boat and into the river, with lots of spotters waiting below with life jackets and other flotation devices, just in case. 
All of you old DIRT fans know that this moment can be a momentous one.  Without belaboring the point, we will let you know that there was a BIG safety talk that preceded anyone jumping off the boat and that Shawny took her usual role of being the first one to jump.  Everyone went off feet first, knees bent.  We had a fun frolic in the water and then decided that we were ready to move on.
Then Dennis noticed the dolphins.  CLOSE to us.  So we asked the captain about them and he said that if we swam some more, they would come even closer.  So four people offered to go back in the water and the dolphins did, indeed, come really close.  Not close enough to touch, but close enough to hear them really well and see them really well.  The captain pointed out that they were black dolphins (not regular grey or Amazon pink ones) and that they aren’t terribly friendly.  So, we got back out of the water and watched them go along their merry way.  
Tonight we are having a piricaia on another lovely river beach.  This means we will dig a pit, start a fire, build a grid over it and then roast fish.  We’ll do some potatoes and other things at the same time and have a blast.  The sky has more clouds this evening but there doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat of rain.  We’ll let you know about our evening when we write tomorrow . . .

The Rain Forest

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 16

It’s Jesse’s birthday!!!  More on this later in the entry . . .
We had mixed results sleeping on the boat, but no matter how much anyone slept, we all awoke abruptly at 5:00 when the boat engine turned on to get things rolling for the morning.  We stayed in our hammocks until about 6:00, had breakfast and then went into the community of Atodí just after 7:00.  There, we broke into two groups, each of which had a local guide, and started a four and a half hour hike through the rain forest. 
Our guides can move through the forest very quickly and with great ease, so we did our best to keep up.  We started out on a trail that is a central path between various communities and their source of farinha (the manioc flour that is at the base of most of what we eat here).  The places where farinha is made started uphill from the river, near a freshwater source called an igarapé.   Even though the (small) population is now more concentrated near the river, the food production still remains in its traditional location, meaning that the path that leads to the manioc huts is pretty well worn. 
We were on that path for about thirty minutes, then diverted out into the forest.  In certain places, we were in old growth areas with absolutely awesome trees and other forms of vegetation unlike anything many of us had ever seen.  There were enormous palms whose fronds were actually truly 30 or 40 feet long just standing right off the forest floor.  There were castanha (Brazil nut) trees, many of which will be raised in the tree nursery we built in Anã, that seemed like they might have been 100 feet tall.  (We aren’t sure if that number is an exaggeration or not.)  The way they looked from below against all of the other enormous plants and trees around them and against the beautiful Amazon sky is almost impossible to describe in words (or pictures).  Some of the trees were so enormous that we couldn’t get any perspective on them with our cameras to even indicate their size. 
We tasted Brazil nuts fresh from the tree, star fruit, guava, a tree milk that is used to cure colds and sore throats, and some other fruits and berries selected by our local guides.  We watched monkeys high up in a tree tasting fruits as well and we noticed when we caught their attention as we found them staring at us full of curiosity. 
Our guides knew about our work in the other community and they kept pointing out trees that our nursery would help to propagate.  They talked about fires that had eliminated groves of native trees and about general deforestation, mostly from outside entities profiting from the sale of the hardwoods that were harvested without clear planning.  They gushed about how important it is to restore these species to the rain forest and they assured us that our nursery would play an important part in this process.  We were thrilled.
We swam a bit in the small fresh stream that we crossed and used the muds along its walls as a refreshing exfoliating treatment for our skin.    We learned that the mud is used by organic products companies for just that purpose. 
We had lunch in a pousada much like the place where we stayed in Anã and then went to one of the farinha huts to take in the various parts of the process involved in making use of the manioc plant. 
Once we said our farewells in the community, we drove the boat to a long, low sandbar way out in the river called Ponte Grande (POHN-chee GRUN-jee).  All of the SMC Amazon vets will remember this stretch of sand and beach.  We bathed in the river wearing our swimsuits and then we all walked out to the farthest point we could reach on foot out on the point of the sandbar.  We watched the sunset then came back to the boat to set up a beach dinner for Jesse’s birthday. 
We stayed in awe of the cloudless Amazon sky (though it’s incredible when big fluffy clouds are everywhere too) and all of the colors that emerged as the sun dropped below the horizon.  We kept snapping pictures, knowing they were all inadequate but wishing that somehow we could store and share the beauty that we are experiencing here. 
We sang happy birthday to Jesse and gave him a feathered headdress much like the one we gave Ali yesterday.  We had a big fish dinner on the beach and stared at the millions of stars that are visible when there are no artificial lights anywhere for hundreds of miles.  Louro made a very special birthday cake with chocolate and maybe some pudding and some crunchy cereal stuff on top.  It was excellent. 
Some people stayed out on the sand while others headed into the boat to stretch out their hammocks or to work on videos.  Tomorrow we head to another community, this one with an emphasis on craftwork as its main economic engine.  More on this subject as soon as we have learned more about it . . .