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 . . .

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Farewell to our Future Forest

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 15

It’s Ali’s birthday!!!  More on this later in the entry . . .
Today was our last day to wake up in our fabulous hammock hut and bounce off each other to get out of bed.  We got a bit of a late start to work, mainly because the kitchen staff had been among the last to quit the cultural night last night, keeping the music going long after most of us had hit our pillows. 
Our job was to bring the nursery as close to completion as we possibly could.  That meant finishing the standing planter boxes and creating some new ground boxes to fill the space under the shade cloth.  We got it done. 
We also had some time to reflect on issues that are related to a question we got from the Happy Hollow sixth graders: “How does cutting down trees help the forest?”  We spent a lot of our time clearing spaces for future plantings, all in the name of reforestation.  What we learned during this clearing process was that many of the trees that are left are not hardwoods, as those have already been harvested, and few of them are fruit or nut trees.  Those kinds of trees belong in this area but the spaces they should occupy have been taken up by other trees and plants.   The work that we are doing will help to reverse this process. 
When the community finishes the workspace (for which we prepared the roof thatch), the nursery will be a place to nurture the new growth of desired trees and a distribution site for the community to start reviving the native trees that are currently in short supply.  It should be obvious to all readers that this project is not an “instant gratification” one, as it is more about the very, very, very long view of what the future will be. 
We left a beautiful little tree nursery behind when we trudged home to pack up our voluminous baggage once again.  We gathered all of our power tools, our first aid, our technology, our group shared items (including all of the items needed for our water supply) and – most daunting of all – our LAUNDRY, which was still hanging everywhere it could possibly be, including on clothes lines, bushes, ladders and trees.  It was still just a little damp (as usual) but we packed it up anyway. 
We made quick work of the packing job and got the hammock hut and bathrooms pretty clean pretty fast as well.  Shawny and Jesse hired some motorcycles to take them out to a remote part of the area where, strangely, there is cell phone reception and the prospect of posting blog parts.  They didn’t have much luck posting anything but they dumped some more items on DIRT veteran Bryan Navarro, our “man on the ground” in California.  Hopefully those items have been posted by now. 
When we got on the big boat again (after a nightmare loading process that included some impressive bucket brigades of luggage), we celebrated Ali’s birthday.  Louro had made a dairy-free cake for Ali and we all presented her with a big feathered head dress that we had gotten in Santarém before we left there. 
We got to reconnect with Jaclyn, Ana, our friend Josy (and, of course, Louro) once we were all on the boat.  Jaclyn, by the way, has clear x-rays and a good MRI, so she is in a Velcro brace and is using crutches.  She doesn’t move around a lot on the boat (where she sleeps on an air mattress rather than a hammock) so things are working out just fine.  She still has some pain and swelling but the situation seems as good as it can be at this point.  We are glad to have her back.
We have two floors of sleeping space for hammocks here, so we all established our spaces and tried to get the bags tucked away as well as we could so that they are not in the way when we are trying to move around on the boat.  The personal bags are crammed too tightly together to really be convenient, but we are all realizing that convenience isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. 
We look forward to the next few days on the boat and hope that we manage to report in from out on the water.  One thing is for sure: we are really, really, really in the Amazon . . .

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Get that chicken off the field!"

SMC Amazon 2014 Day 14

We got a “late” start to our day again, with a 7:00 a.m. breakfast rather than a 6:30 one.  We all struggled hard to get our heads out of our hammocks today, but we finally got things going and sent one group out to the rocky coast where we collect stones for our projects.  The rest of us went up to the work site and started building planter boxes and sewing the shade roof over the nursery area.  Things are starting to shape up in such a way that you can really tell what is going on here and what is supposed to happen in the long run.  The place is littered with drying palhas, But everyone here knows what that mess is about so we aren’t worried that things look too disorganized. 

We had lunch and then a very short sesta, as we had to squeeze in a couple more hours of work before prepping for the soccer rematch that is the talk of the town.  Our afternoon work was a bit draining but we knocked off an hour before match time to get ourselves ready for a respectable game.  We busted out some hidden Gatorade powder for our athletes and showed up to the field to find no one there. 

Our arrival, though, changed everything.  People started streaming over and our local friend Marcia even showed up with enough soccer jerseys for all of us to look like a real team.  Marcia agreed to play for us this time and another of our Brazilian friends agreed to be our sub. 

We started with Megan V. as goalkeeper and she made some heroic saves to keep the game scoreless for quite awhile.  The Brazilians eventually snuck one by her though, so Marcia took up goalkeeping.  Our team was hustling madly but not getting scoring opportunities.  We reorganized a bit during halftime and came out ready to score.  And we did. 

There was a mad scramble in the center of the field and lots of us got a foot on the ball but Ali was the one who finally drove it home.  We went nuts.  Actually, so did the locals.  Jesse turned into a frantic rodeo clown running all over the sideline (and sometimes the field) going crazy, chasing dogs and chickens off the field (to little effect). 

Our goal gave us confidence so we started get much closer and getting some more excellent shots on goal (that didn’t go in).  The Brazilians had scored again so we were eager to tie the game.  We got down to the last two minutes and Jesse encouraged our new goalkeeper, Benjamin, to leave the goal and play offense.  This move did not work out in our favor. 

The Brazilians scored not one, but two more goals in the last 1:30 or so, with us not even trying to cover the goal.  Oops.  But we didn’t care.  The celebration was a blast, the radio announcers were going nuts and the community offered us a night of cultural performances as a nod to our good sportsmanship. 

We went home and cleaned up and found our dining hall getting converted to a concert/performance venue.  A big amplifier, several microphones, an electronic keyboard and lots of other instruments and other performance materials showed up.  Musicians were sound-checking and dancers were rehearsing. 

When things got started, Jesse shared emcee duties with our friend Silvanei of Saude e Alegría.  They had Dona Odila tell the legend of the founding of Anã and they had a local music group sing some songs about the community.  They had us a sing a song, which, under pressure, Shawny, Kaylia and Samira agreed to do.  They then taught us to dance carimbó, which is a dance that involves stepping back and forth with your right foot over and over and over and over again until you can barely stand up anymore on your left foot. 

They sang some more songs, had us dance a bit (including dancing with the little kids in attendance) and then they busted out a surprise for us – they had voted on awards for our students!  Each award recipient won a local handicraft as a prize.  Our winners were: The American Ox Award – Dennis; Best Soccer Player – Ali; Best Dishwasher – Hoi; Most Beautiful – Kristina; and Happiest: Samira.  Each winner had to dance carimbó with a local as part of the award process.  It was hilarious. 

After all of the formal thank yous and goodbyes had gone by, they just cranked up the sound system and we all danced.  We got spun in all directions by the locals and the little kids got a kick out of dancing and laughing with us too. 

Tomorrow will be our last day here in this community and we are realizing that we have really settled in and will now miss our hammocks, our hammock hut, our friends here and even the work we’ve been doing.  We will NOT miss the spiders.  Or the gnats. 

We get back on our boat tomorrow and will head out to some other Amazon communities in the small tributaries off of the main rivers that converge here.  We will still be in hammocks on the boat, but we will be spread across two deck.  Our friends Louro and Josy will join us and Jaclyn, too, will be back with us for the boat trip.  We think we can post from “out there” somewhere, so keep watching this space . . .

"Landscaping the Rainforest"

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 13

Well, all of our good luck and pivoting came to a crashing halt today, as Jaclyn woke up having heard a huge pop in her knee (twice) that rendered her largely immobile.  She started as goalkeeper in our World Cup preview game but stepped out after going down for a save.  She rallied and walked home feeling fine, but sometime between that initial twist and this morning, things deteriorated. 

We got the local medic on the scene and he was pretty convinced that nothing was out of place or broken.  He tested her in a few ways and got even more hopeful.  Still, she was experiencing pain so we all decided it was best to call the ambulance boat and send her into Santarém to have a hospital check things out.  Jesse and Jenny T. went with her for translation help and moral support.  As the evening begins to fall, we still have no information about how things have progressed. 

We hope to have her back among us tonight or maybe tomorrow, though we will cope with the situation somehow if she decides that going home is the best move for her.  Jaclyn is a very sunny person with a twinkle in her eye, a huge smile always shining and a low song humming all around her no matter where she is or what she is doing.  Thus, she is a very important part of our group and we will all be diminished until we know that she is well. 

We woke up to pouring rain this morning, making the whole day somewhat more complex than it otherwise would have been.  It continued to rain through breakfast but stopped pretty soon after we finished eating.  Dona Odila has wanted some landscaping done here so we decided to work on that job for her while we waited for the palhas to dry out a bit on our usual worksite. 

The hammock hut where we live had some trees and bushes around it that were not conducive to excellent shade or privacy so she wanted to replace them with others that will do a better job on both of those fronts.  So, we dug things up, saving as many good plants as we could, and then amended the soil to make it even better for the new plantings that will likely go in tomorrow.  It took most of the morning to complete this job, which we took to be perfect because we were expecting a wood delivery for the nursery project today.

After lunch and our sesta, we headed to the nursery site and discovered that the wood had not yet arrived.  We decided to open palhas for as long as we could, which turned out to be as long as it took to get them all done.  We played music and talked and laughed as we practiced our now acceptable skills with the palm fronds. 

We learned that the boat with our wood on it had turned back and would not be coming today but we did not learn why.  Maybe tonight or tomorrow more news will come. 

We worked hard and kept our spirits up today, but having one of our team members in limbo was definitely a blow to all of us.  We decided to break out a secret weapon to help ourselves cope: more inspiring letters from the sixth graders at Happy Hollow Elementary in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Those letters really made a HUGE difference for us!  Almost all of them contained jokes to help us take our minds off our troubles and we were hooting and hollering and sharing our jokes with each other as soon as we got a chance to read them. 

Thanks again to those students, the third graders at Southwestern Elementary, and the fourth graders in Pittsburg, California.  We are very grateful that you are interested in our work and that you are supporting us from afar.  Watch for shoutouts once we manage to post our videos!

We’ll keep you posted on Jaclyn’s progress and we’ll tell you more about our upcoming plans.  We hope you are as interested and invigorated by hearing about our experiences as we are in having them!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fish, Bees, Turtles and the World Cup Preview

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 12

Sundays in the Amazon usually involve lower amounts of manual labor and this one was no exception.  We heard that church was at 8:00pm so we spent the morning touring some of the other projects going on in this community.  One is a fish farm out in a lake on the river that consists of cages on stilts that hold between 600 and 1000 fish.  There are ten or so of these cages in the lake and we went along with our awesome primary host, Dona Odila (pronounced “oh-ZHEE-luh) to feed the fish in the cages. 

Not only does Dona Odila stock and feed the fish with a collective of other local women but also she makes the fish food herself.  The food looks kind of like dog food pellets and we have no idea how she makes it.  We do know, however, that she aspires to start a fish food manufacturing plant of some sort here and that she hopes to produce the food she is currently producing on a larger scale. 

In any case, we took Dona Odila’s homemade fish food out on boats and paddled to the cages, opened up the tops, and watched the fish go crazy to eat the stuff as soon as it hit the water.  Dona Odila told us that this whole project is the result of the determination of a subset of very strong and determined women, all of whom persevered way beyond the rest of the community to be sure that this important food supply would be stabilized.  The need for the fish farm is a result of the rather acidic water in this particular tributary of the Amazon; Dona Odila’s fish food makes it possible for fish to live there even if they couldn’t find a natural food source in this water. 

After the fish farm we went to get a look at another local enterprise: beekeeping.  One of the community members who has worked with us since our arrival here, Alvaier, has taken up his father’s dream of keeping bees in the community.  He has dozens and dozens of unusual structures that hold different colonies and their corresponding queens.   The bees themselves do not have stingers, so this particular form of beekeeping does not involve crazy suits and headgear and smokers, etc., etc., etc.  The honey that the bees create is very thin and runny and tastes slightly sour to some of our palates.  We are investigating whether it is possible for us to bring any of it home for some of you to taste, as we think it is one of the things that customs forms list as forbidden to import . . .

The other fascinating thing at the same house as the bees was a set of pet turtles that the family has collected out of the forest.  We watched the turtles and fed them and heard the family talk about their affection for them.  It was a lovely distraction from our usual manual labor. 

We went home for lunch and sesta and then rallied for the biggest challenge of the day: the U.S. v. Brazil women’s soccer match.  The locals had invited us to play soccer on Sunday several days ago and we took it as a casual invitation like the one we got on our first day here to play soccer on the beach.  Over the course of the week, though, we learned that this was no casual issue.  People that we newly met would mention their excitement about the upcoming match and some of the women who work here at our camp would make little comments (talking smack?) about seeing us on Sunday. 

When we headed out at the appointed time, we noticed many more people on the paths than usual and we saw quite a few of them all the way down at the end of the community near the soccer field.  When we arrived on the field, the other team was nowhere in sight, but there were still lots of people clearly waiting for something to happen. 

Our women got organized and started warming up and psyching themselves up for the match.  A little observation tower at the field suddenly became the focal point of everything when we learned that a radio announcer was setting up to broadcast.  The radio guy was also the public address guy so suddenly things really cranked up with some serious volume and that unmistakable sports announcer cadence, even when the language is unfamiliar.

Finally, the other team arrived.  They had matching shirts!  Like real soccer jerseys!  The goalkeeper had cleats but most of the rest of the women played barefoot.  We already knew we were way out of our league just because we were playing soccer against Brazilians, but we got even more convinced of it when we learned that this is an actual team and not just a random group like ours. 

The announcer introduced each player by name and the match began.  We knew we had a ringer in Ali, who played college soccer before she transferred to Saint Mary’s.  We also knew we had a couple of other pretty serious athletes in Kaylia (captain of club volleyball at SMC) and Jenny T.  We also had some seriously game folks in Kristina and Megan V., who are willing to try anything, and then we had some reluctant participants who knew we had to step up and meet this challenge: Samira, Victoria, Lupe, Marisol, Jenny L., and Jaclyn. 

When the game got started, though, all of these categories fell away and we all looked like we pretty much knew what we were doing.  Victoria in particular came out of nowhere and turned out to be a fierce competitor and a pretty adept soccer player, having only done so before at ages 5-6.  Samira brought her poise and grace to the field and did some footwork that she didn’t even know she could do.  Jaclyn made three excellent saves at goal before switching out with substitute Ana.  Megan made an excellent armpit play that was a stunner to everyone (including her).  Once Ana got sick of the ants in the goalkeeper’s box, Benjamin jumped in and made four or more saves of his own.  And our obvious stars proved to be just as fabulous as we expected.  Everyone showed a ton of spirit, heart and drive.  Our team did our country and our school proud. 

We lost, of course.  We didn’t even score.  (Though Kaylia had three heartbreaking shots on goal that should have gone in.  All went over the top.).  The final score was a contested 3-0, as the second goal involved and off sides situation and the third goal was scored when a Brazilian had temporarily taken over as our goalkeeper.  We think that one shouldn’t count. 

At the end of the game, the announcer interviewed Ali and she spoke eloquently about connecting through sports even through language barriers.  The Brazilian captain spoke graciously about her team’s familiarity with the field and the advantage that they had because of it.  A rematch had already been set for Tuesday and she predicted that our knowledge of the field would give us the victory next time. 

Throughout the match, the announcer used the presence of the crowd to help promote the community projects that we are doing and to invite more community members out to join us.  We learned lots of new names, got lots of very sincere hugs and high fives, and really feel like the situation – that could have been a totally humiliating waste of time – invigorated all of us and the community too.  Nice. 

We came home and scrambled to get ready for church, only to find that they had decided not to hold a service tonight and that they held it this morning instead.  In lieu of church, then, we sat together in a circle and talked about the blessings that we have felt on this trip.  We spoke of the people that we’ve met, the warm welcomes we have felt everywhere we’ve gone, the insights we have gained about our own lives and the lives of our Brazilian friends, the things we’ve always taken for granted in our lives in the U.S. (like constantly flowing safe clean water), and how lucky we all are to be here in this incredible place together. 

We feel truly blessed, even though we miss all of you out there reading these words and we are surprised to be as disconnected from all of you (technologically) as we have turned out to be.  We hope you can forgive our jumpy correspondence and we assure you that we have many more things to tell you than you will ever have time (or interest) to hear . . .

Jorlando, one of our community hosts, was swimming with the fish that are farmed in a lake from a community project that started by some of the women of Ana.
 This picture shows the crafts that are hand made by some of the community members of Ana. The project is used to support the families that are involved  financially.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hunting Thatch

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 11

Continuing in “pivot” mode, we took up a job today that community members were going to do, mostly because they thought that we would be either unable or unwilling to help.  The job was to go deep into the rain forest and find just the perfect plant at just the perfect stage of development to serve as the future thatched roof of the tree nursery’s workspace.  We learned partway through the day that the missing materials are going to arrive earlier than we had heard, so we will continue to shift and change our plans accordingly. 

Anyway, we all decided to spend the morning chasing thatch.  The Portuguese word is actually “palha” or something like that, but the basic premise is that we needed to find the just-sprouted centers of palm plants before they open up.  Because we are unskilled at navigating the forest floor, each of us joined a small group led by a local who blazed the trail with a machete and spotted the perfect plants from a distance.  They would go in and whack the center of the plant and throw it back toward us like a spear.  Then we would pass it through the forest to walk it back out to the trail. 

As it turns out, the beautiful just-past-full moon that we have been admiring the last few nights was thwarting our ability to find exactly what we wanted, as the moonlight inspires the plants to open up.  Still, there were plenty out there; it just took lots of bushwhacking to get to them.  We ran into one small boa constrictor and one tarantula out there but otherwise we just made our way through as unobtrusively as possible to get to the palhas and then get them back out.  (The boa and the spider, by the way, wanted to get away from us just as badly as we wanted to get away from them.)  The forest was so thick that if you got about five or ten feet from the person in front of you, sometimes it took a quick game of “Marco Polo” to find each other again.  It worked. 

We worked until lunchtime and then loaded our newly counted bundles of 30 palhas onto what should have been an oxcart, except that we didn’t have an ox.  But we had Dennis, which is at least as good.  He ran that cart back with some assistance from some of the rest of us and we found that we had retrieved 24 bundles out of the 60 that we will eventually need.  Not bad for a bunch of rookies. 

After lunch we took a quick sesta and then went back to the site that we prepped on the first day to start working the thatch.  Each frond needs to be shaken madly to loosen its leaves and then each individual leaf needs to be twisted in a very particular way to make them all align just right to make a proper roof.  We had a very long and slow learning curve but after not too much time, we all became pretty adept at this local skill.  Despite our improvements, we were getting schooled by young girls, old ladies, and every guy that we have met here so far, as they can crank those palhas in their sleep. 

The effort that we have put into this nonexistent roof already is making us truly appreciate the roof over our heads in our hammock room and in our lovely dining area here in camp.  The number of people and hours represented by just these two spaces really makes us take note of what cushy lives we usually live. 

Tomorrow we get to have a “late” breakfast like we did today, as we don’t eat until 7:00.  That half hour of sleep is precious to us and gives us another thing to appreciate from our remote location in the Brazilian Amazon, far from our soft pillows, warm blankets and other comforts of home . . .

We caught a glimpse of a thunderstorm on the other side of the river while we were out 
swimming on the beach of Ana.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Of buckets, sand and rocks

SMC Amazon 2014: Day 10

We got the unfortunate (but not shocking) news today that the materials we need for the next phases of the nursery have not arrived (sound familiar, DIRT people?).  We had a few minutes of deflated “now what do we do?” conversations and then we did what DIRT people do best: we pivoted. 

We knew that there was a need for concrete at the new nursery and its surrounding components, especially the covered workspace that we expected to be our primary achievement here.  We carried up several 110-pound bags of cement on our first day here (ouch!) so we asked where the necessary sand and stone would come from to make it into concrete.  As it turns out, both would be “harvested” locally.  In other words, tons (literally) of sand needed to be carried up from the beach and approximately equal amounts of stone needed to be collected from a nearby uninhabited island, delivered by boat to our beach and then carried up the hill.  We took on those jobs. 

All of the old DIRT vets know that Shawny had an ecstatic day because it was a day full of bucket lines.  We distributed ourselves along the space from the starting pile of sand and rocks to the worksite.  At the piles, someone loads the buckets and then each person just touches each bucket once to get the entire pile to the top.  Of course, it takes the same amount of effort to do it this way as it does to just carry buckets (or push wheelbarrows) one by one.  Still, the fact that no one faced that daunting hill with a bucket of rocks or a bucket of sand all alone somehow makes it seem much, much easier. 

It’s a great learning experience in two ways.  First, it teaches us all that our Brazilian hosts had to go through to construct the lovely buildings in which we are living here, along with all of the other homes and buildings in this community.  Second, it teaches us about our role in the group.  That is, when the bucket lines first start, every person thinks that he or she has the worst job of all and that everyone else’s role is easier.  Then we do some shifting, changing and negotiating and everyone starts realizing that the entire line is pretty much equally difficult.  But also, we each start realizing that it’s all much better when we are together.  And suddenly, a huge pile of rocks that used to be far away down a bumpy hill is up where it needs to be for the project that the community is doing.  Nice. 

A couple of our group members also got approached with a distress call of sorts from a neighbor with a broken chainsaw.  Having seen that we all seemed to know about power tools, he approached us to see if we could help.  As it turns out, both Hoi and Lupe have Army training that helped them take on the job.  They got the chainsaw apart and saw what was stopping it from working but it might be difficult to fix it without any available parts.  Even so, we were happy to be able to offer our services to people other than our direct community partners. 

Our day today was all rocks, buckets and sand so we can tell you a little more about our lives here in Brazil.  We awaken at 5:50 if we are the breakfast crew so that we can back up the cooks here at the camp.  The rest of the group gets up at 6:10 for a 6:30 breakfast.  Breakfast is usually a sponge-y cake-y thing of one sort or another, mostly made from a root that in English would be called manioc.  They make lots of stuff out of what they call “mandioca,” including starchy little crepes that they call tapioca, donuts, a crumbly topping called farofa, and lots of other options.  We have eaten some version of it for almost every meal here. 

In fact, mandioca is one of the reasons that we could not continue on the tree nursery today, along with the absence of the materials.  The other really evident issue in the community today was that everyone was gone.  We didn’t notice at first and then we recognized how abandoned things seemed.  As it turns out, today was the perfect day to plant mandioca, due to rainfall and climate and a host of other issues.  Everyone made a run for the fields today and by the time we got up, we were just living in a ghost community, moving sand and rocks. 

We all start our days with healthy doses of sunscreen, insect repellent (Avon Skin-So-Soft has been working wonders for us here this trip) and malaria medicines.  Lots of us are also taking allergy meds, as we are pretty sneezy here.  A few people have needed Immodium but we haven’t had any serious scares just yet. 

One team joins the breakfast crew, as we already mentioned.  That teams backs up all of the meals.  Another starts filtering water, using our solar-powered water purification system.  Though the water here is already filtered, we re-filter it with ours anyway.  The water team takes care of all camp needs, including charging batteries for tools and reorganizing the first aid bags.  Another team has to take up the dishes after each meal and the last team is in charge of video.

We get to work at 7:00 a.m., mostly because it gets so hot so fast that we want as much work as possible to be done before the heat gets too oppressive.  We work until at least 11:30 (more like noon or later) and then walk home by way of the beach and jump in the river if we feel like it.  We eat lunch, take a sesta or swim, then go back to work pretty late in the afternoon (3:00 or 4:00).  We swim again on the way home, then shower off the river water before dinner.  There is always someone doing laundry at night, as we are completely dependent on hand washing.  We’re finally developing some skills at wringing things out. 

We aren’t having big problems with mosquitoes, but we have a few bites.  No one has gotten terribly sick but we feel like we are due.  No big injuries either, so we hope we can keep up that streak. 

We would love to take questions from the 3rd, 4th and 6th graders that are following us but we know that our technological issues will make it hard for us to be very responsive.  We’ll just keep showing pictures of big bugs and hope that those are what they want to see . . .