Monday, January 19, 2015

Day Thirteen: The Narrows

Day 13: Monday, January 19 – The Narrows

On the last night of our boat trip we needed a thrill and we got one in the form of a major thunderstorm all around us on the beach where we were docked for the night.  We saw lightning in the distance before we went to sleep and we knew that the rain would come at some point.  When it arrived, it was fierce! 

Lightning struck right on the beach in front of us and we could barely get our side tarps down fast enough to keep from getting soaked.  The thunder was LOUD and the lightning was CLOSE but we knew we were safe so we just rode it out for about thirty minutes.  When it all finally stopped, we were ready to sleep very hard.

We woke up at 7 to eat breakfast as we motored to our last community: Urrucureá.  This community got its act together on native crafts long ago and the work that they do as weavers (mostly baskets, placemats, and coasters) is incredible.  We toured their community and then hit their store, where we found lots of souvenirs (some for YOU, no doubt!). 

Before we even entered the community, we were entertained by a band of tiny playful monkeys that were frolicking in the tall trees where we docked.  We also heard the foreboding sounds of faraway howler monkeys, but we learned that they were more than a kilometer away, despite the volume of the sounds we heard. 

From Urrucureá we motored further to the place where the Arapiuns (the river on which we’ve been living), the Tapajós and the Amazon itself merge.  We floated on all three waters at different times and then entered “the narrows,” where small inlets lead to really tiny communities that are only temporary, as their properties are flooded four months per year. 

The narrows are peppered with very traditional houses, mostly made of thatch and lots of livestock.  There would normally be alligators out but this slightly cool and rainy day apparently sent them into hiding. 

We went to an area called Jari, where a prior SMC group had stopped back in 2002.  They remembered us.  We had one primary pursuit when we stopped in Jari: sloths.  The last group that came got to see sloths up close so we wanted to see if we could do the same. 

The main farmer through whom we had entered Jari before was off in Santarém when we arrived so we spoke to his wife and she gave us a tour of the parts of the forest that are sometimes underwater.  She thought we would find monkeys there but even though we could hear them, we didn’t see them. 

Suddenly, though, as we walked as quietly as we could through the deep forest, our host pointed high up in a tall tree.  It took us awhile to see what she saw but finally we got it in focus and learned that we had found what we came to find: a sloth! 
It very slowly started to climb down the tree and we thought it might grace us with its presence on the ground.  It didn’t.  Still, we noticed that there was another one on the same tree and a couple more on a different tree.  We were satisfied.

We made our way back to the boat and went further into the narrows to see their local church and community center, then turned around and headed back to our #1 Amazon home: Anã. 

We are glad that we got to see some different communities and learn the subtleties of how people go about things in a range of ways.  Still, we love Anã the best and we look forward to our return there.  We still have a lot of work to do . . .

We have an oddly strong cell signal out in the middle of the river today so we hope that we have made it possible for our California blog agent, Bryan Navarro, to post more of our videos.  If it all works, enjoy!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Day Twelve: The Rainforest

Day Twelve, Sunday, January 18: The Rainforest
The morning started REALLY early as our main plan for today was to complete a hike in the rainforest above Atodi.  We had eggs for breakfast (YAY!) to prepare ourselves and then headed to the pousada to meet our guides. 

Instead of breaking into three small groups, we decided to stay one large group with all three of our guides.  We probably sacrificed the chance to see a few more monkeys and other animals, but being all together is nice.  As we began our hike, our lead guide (Nilson) pointed out that we were in the “second forest,” as it had been cut and planted for agricultural purposes and then allowed to grow back about twenty years ago.  We were headed for the “first forest,” with trees at least 400 years old.

Our method for experiencing the forest was to walk in single file (“like the Indians,” according to Nilson) and as someone in the line learned something from one of the guides, that person would pass it on through the line.  We no doubt warped a few facts in this massive game of telephone, but it still helped us to mostly get the same information. 

We learned about lots of different trees and their fruits, nuts and barks.  Almost every nut tree included shells and hulls that have medicinal properties; it seems that every portion of the nut itself was put to some use.  We tasted some of the fruits and nuts on our way up the relatively wide path, quietly enjoying being immersed in the rain forest. 

At a certain point, Nilson took a sharp right turn and things were immediately different.  The forest was darker and thicker, the trees there were more huge, and there were massive palm fronds that probably reached about thirty feet high from the ground.  We were in the “first forest.” 

Some of the trees there were hundreds of feet high, including the one that we would call the brazil nut tree.  Nilson pointed out nearly every single brazil nut tree that we passed, rapping it hard on the trunk with his machete and saying its name in Portuguese: “castanha.”  We tasted the meat of the brazil nut and really liked it. 

He showed us lots more barks, nuts and fruits, many of which have healing properties for specific ailments.  One is for liver problems, one is for lung problems and one makes a tea that helps coughs.  We all tasted everything he offered us. 

At one point, we stopped at a tree of the same type that had been described in the mythical origin stories of Anã.  Like that story, this tree was said to be the home of a special spirit that keeps hunters in the forest from taking more than they need.

We hiked on through groves of cupaçú, açaí and guava trees, all of which we have tasted during our time here.  We soon reached a small stream that widened into a deep-ish pool where we stopped to swim. 

Not only did we manage to swim, but also we were introduced to a special mud in the bank there that locals rub on their skin to smooth and soften it.  We all coated ourselves with the gray clay and stood around trying to decide who looked the strangest covered in the stuff. 

We rinsed off and walked for another hour or so to make our way back to the pousada at Atodi.  There we discovered that we had walked about eight and a half miles, even though we didn’t really feel like it was that big a deal. 

We said our farewells and expressed gratitude to the people of Atodi and then headed back to the beach where we had camped the night before.  One of us had left sandals there and when we pulled the boat up to the shore, the sandals were right where we expected them to be. 

We then returned to the place where Shawny and Jesse went yesterday and all transferred into canoes that took us into a marshy everglade-like area where we were paddling boats right among the trees that were standing in the water.  The water would usually be even higher at this time of year but we got a kick out of floating through the silent eerie swamp with only about two feet of water beneath us.  We saw some birds and their nests and some really unusual plants, including lily pads just now blooming. 

Now we have returned to our boat and are headed to our last overnight destination, from which we will take a couple of quick excursions before returning to our work in Anã on Monday afternoon. 

Because this is our last dinner with Louro before we celebrate Ranjay’s birthday (1/19), Louro made a pineapple upside down cake that we all happily devoured one day early.  We are certain that more celebration awaits Ranjay in Anã but Louro didn’t want to be left out so he went ahead and joined in today.  Yay, Louro!  Yay, Ranjay!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Day Eleven: Into Atodi

Day Eleven, Saturday, January 17: Into Atodi

We awoke to a slight drizzle on Caracarai and to the sounds of kitchen noise and boat cleanup.  The crew just did whatever they needed to do, as did the cooks, and the fact that we were still sleeping was immaterial to their actions.  Because we remain so excited to be here, we don’t mind.

We had a lovely breakfast that did NOT include the food that we have eaten for every breakfast since we arrived in Anã: manioc.  Connor paraphrased Bubba from Forest Gump by saying: “There’s fried manioc and boiled manioc and manioc donuts and manioc squares and manioc cake and manioc crepes and manioc . . . “  We were getting a little sick of manioc, though we respect the range of uses to which the locals have put this essential local crop.  Today we had ham and cheese and lots of fruit and passion fruit juice, along with a cake NOT made from manioc.  Ahhhhhh.

We did some project work on the boat while Shawny and Jesse went to scout a new location in a motorboat.  They loved part of what they saw so we are planning to return tomorrow so we can all see it.  But first, we made our way to Atodi (pronounced like: ah-toe-GEE) to check out that community. 

Atodi has a guesthouse and area like the one where we stay in Anã.  They have a little song they sing when guests arrive and they have two special events that they offer.  One is a demonstration of the entire process for creating farinha, the cornmeal-like base that becomes a topping called farofa for almost everything we eat. 

The process is very complex and involves soaking the original plant (the manioc of which we have grown so tired), peeling it, grinding it, mixing it, straining it, squeezing it, and dry roasting it until it is crunchy and great.  It’s a pretty long but interesting process and we got to participate in different parts of it.

The second event that Atodi offers is a rain forest hike that we will undertake tomorrow.  For tonight, we are going to eat dinner in the community and then do some project work in the evening. 

We came down to our waiting boat and discovered that there was a faint cell signal available from our roof!  So now we are frantically trying to connect and post blog entries if possible. 

We’re cutting this entry short to try . . .

Day Ten: Bon Voyage

Day Ten, Friday, January 16: Bon Voyage
We are not finished with our time in Anã, but we are taking a short breather as we head out on a chartered boat to visit some other local communities.  Other guests had booked the guesthouse at Anã so we agreed to vacate for the weekend.  Because we intended to take a boat trip anyway, things worked out perfectly.

Our boat is a lovely 3-story one with two bathrooms, a kitchen, several decks to occupy for sightseeing and lots of hooks for hammocks.  We sleep in hammocks on the boat, usually while parked at beautiful river beaches or in gorgeous coves ringed by mango trees. 

We first made our way to a lovely sandbar in the river that is called Ponta Grande.  It wasn’t an official stop on our tour but because Shawny, Jesse and Jenny had been there before, we asked to take a swim there before moving on.  The sandbar is a huge peninsula that stretches far out into the river.  We can park the boat on one side, swim on the other and then walk way out into the center of the river in strangely shallow water because of the sandbar. 

We frolicked at Ponta Grande for quite awhile and then moved on to our actual destination for the day: another beach called Caracarai.  It is also a beautiful little cove with a peninsula that juts out into the river.  This one is much deeper on one side and can be a site where stingrays would be.  Needless to say, we didn’t swim there. 

We didn’t see any stingrays but we DID see a lot of little shiny fish that our Brazilian friends said were great to eat.  So, they got out a couple of hooks, tied on some fishing line, and started doing “research” on how to actually catch these clever little buggers.  We tried cornmeal and white bread and wheat bread and cheese.  We tried dropping the bait all the way to the bottom, resting it on the surface and dangling it at different distances between the top and the bottom.  We even tried singing to the fish and for a moment thought that they were especially attracted to bluegrass.  But we caught so few fish that we realized every one of them was the product of pure dumb luck.  Whenever we caught one it was a major event, with tons of cheering and celebrating each time we outsmarted a fish. 

We added our ten or so new little fishies to the menu for tonight’s piricaia, a traditional sandpit fish roast on the beach.  We already had some huge tambaqui to prepare over the embers so Louro (who has rejoined us as our cook, along with his sidekick Dona Maria) fried up the new ones and we each got to have at least half of one.  The tambaqui was exquisite, with all of our non-fish-eaters saying it was one of the greatest foods they have ever tasted. 

We then started a big bonfire and gathered around it to hear the mythohistory of Anã, complete with enchanted trees, spirit gods, possessed women and at least one shaman.  One group had gone out while the rest of us were packing for the boat to hear the stories of the community’s origins and record them for use in our upcoming projects.  Jesse passed the stories along over the campfire and one by one we straggled in, strung up our hammocks, and found a way to sleep. 

We talked about how there aren’t a whole lot of meals we will ever eat that we will remember for the rest of our lives.  But we all agreed that this was one of those kinds of nights . . .

Friday, January 16, 2015

Day Nine: 1200+ More

Day Nine, Thursday, January 15: 1200+ More

All right.  This bag thing is getting monotonous.  BUT!  Today was our last day to do it and we learned that there are still more than 1000 saplings that need new individual homes.  So, we got our motivation on by talking about rescuing these trees that would otherwise be doomed to death, and how such a fate would be against the will of the SMC students from last year and the community members here who helped to plant them. 

The morning crew stuffed at least 600 bags while Shawny and Jesse were off at the cellular oasis (a clearing in the forest) where there is enough of a cell signal to send off our blog posts.  After lunch, we returned to the beach to haul more loads of sand to the fish food factory.  After we transported about three cartfuls, the distress call came from the garden saying that we HAD to stuff more bags to save the saplings, so the whole group hustled back over there and got into position. 

We turned it all into a mock competition, where we were trying to produce a lot of filled bags really fast, but where we established absurd quality standards by which to evaluate them.  Jesse started doing ridiculous analyses of individual bags, eventually assessing grades on them.  We got more and more into the whole thing and despite the messing around that resulted from this crazed competition, we really cranked out a LOT of stuffed bags.  There was a count of 1250 or so that was the last official tally but more emerged after that moment. 

As we left the garden this evening, our hosts there – Zé (pronounced like the second syllable of José) and Adson (pronounced not that much differently from what you would think) – gave sweet tributes to our group about how the work that we have done with them has forwarded their plans.  Jenny gave a tribute to them from us, telling them how grateful we are that they invited us into their garden and how wonderful it was to work and laugh with them.  She talked about how much we appreciated communicating with them across language barriers, using music, gestures, and lots of sign language.  We will see both of them (and the garden) again, but we are ending that portion of our work as of today.

After work, we got up another beach volleyball game and kept it going until sunset.  Some of us swam during the game, some after.  We then had a leisurely dinner and hunkered down with our computers to get as far as possible on the various projects that we have going simultaneously. 

Each group is working on at least one section of the visitor’s guide to Anã (which currently consists of pieces on the beekeeping enterprise, the fish farm and food, the garden, and the water system).  Additionally, each team is planning three final projects, all of which meet parts of the College’s Core Curriculum.  One will cover issues related to the Common Good, another will address our understanding of Community Engagement and the third one will convey our broadened sense of Global Perspectives.  There are more details about all of these ideas but for now we are just getting organized about how to produce projects on each of these areas.

As a reminder, we are hoping to present at least one project from each team on Wednesday, February 18, at 7pm in Galileo 201 on the Saint Mary’s College campus.  Please join us if you can.

In the morning, we will focus on packing things up and heading off for a four-day boat trip, during which we will visit other local communities that have different enterprises and subcultures than what we’ve seen so far in Anã.  We will have a little bit of time to relax and then return to Anã to get back to the construction work on the fish food factory and the painting of the guest area (where we are staying). We will have a hard week next week, so we will be sure to use our boat trip to conserve our energy for our final blast here in Anã. 

We may have trouble posting from the river or we may find that there is actual clear signal out on the water.  Either way, keep looking and we will catch you up when we can . . .