Thursday, January 21, 2016

Day Fourteen: The Forest Primeval

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

No one got any sleep.  It was partially because a few of us were a little too giddy to quiet down but mostly because we were all pretty excited about a few specific things: 1) being on a boat, 2) the strangeness and newness of being on a boat, 3) the tight quarters for our hammocks and 4) the fact that some of us managed to make phone calls off the boat roof last night and heard voices we miss dearly from far away. 

Sleep or no sleep, the noises of the boat (cooking and the loud diesel engine) got started long before sunup and so did we.  Our plan was to have breakfast at 6:00am and then get into Atodí by 6:30 to start our 7.5ish mile hike into the forest.  The little motorboat that we use to get from our big boat to the shore was acting up so the crew had to row us in instead.  That problem combined with our general slowness at that our of the morning meant that we didn’t start the hike until after 7.  That’s a late morning hour for our hosts.

We walked for about forty minutes on relatively flat terrain to get out to the turnoff to what they call “the primary forest.”  In the US, we would probably call this area “old growth” or something like that.  Along the lowland trail, we stopped to examine some fruits and nuts and saw a monkey or two watching us move along the path. 

The guides were particularly interested to show us a little coconut like thing that they hoped would be a viable source of biodiesel fuel.  They did the research to find out how to process it via a machine and learned that their idea was too cost prohibitive to be feasible.  They still love these little coconuts, though, as they eat the oily and juicy meat inside them, use the inner husks for fiber and use the outer husks for making charcoal.  Additionally, these fruits often – but not always – contain a larva of some sort, most likely a caterpillar.  It’s a bit like finding a pearl in an oyster.  The locals particularly like to eat these larvae, because the larvae have been feeding on this oil-rich fruit, so when they fry them up (without any oil) they are very tasty.  The locals also eat them raw.  And so did we.

They scared up a few of the fruits and scraped the larvae out.  They offered them to all of us and we asked what they tasted like.  They asked, “have you ever had armadillo?” None of us could use that particular delicacy as a point of reference (though we loved the question!).  We popped them in our mouths and reacted in different ways.  Some people said that they tasted nutty, some sweet and some thought they had no taste at all.  Not everyone tried them, so we don’t really have a solid data set to analyze.  Let’s just settle on: they were weird. 

We went further up the path and noticed a change in the forest around us.  Our guides pointed out that we had gone from a sand-based version of soil to a clay-based version of soil.  One clear outcome of that shift was that palm fronds that seemed huge at fifteen feet high/long were now dwarfed by huge fronds that ranged from 20-40 feet high/long.  (These aren’t like Hollywood palms.  With these palms, the fronds rise right out of the ground and arc far out in to the air.)  Above some of these palms we saw monkeys frolicking happily.  We couldn’t help but think that there was no more perfect place for a monkey to frolic. 

We were suddenly on much steeper slopes than the path on which we had started and we rose and rose until we reached huge castanheiras (Brazil nut trees).  Our guides guessed that one of them was 500 years old.  We saw at least one that had died and was decomposing.  It’s hard to guess how old that one was. 

We learned about many trees, plants, nuts and seeds and even tasted the milk of one tree that is used to combat coughs and colds.  We smelled barks, flowers and seeds, tasted fruits and touched a number of different kinds of leaves (some of which were almost as tall as the shortest ones of us!). 

We eventually reached a semi-clearing where we could get a wide vista of the river basin around us.  We could see all the way back to where our hike had begun (about four miles away) and loved taking in the view of the tops of the trees from far above them.  We snapped tons of pictures from up there, then began our descent back down toward our waiting boat. 

We stopped at an igarappé (a small waterway between two bigger ones) that had a tiny swimming hole complete with a mini-waterfall.  It also had walls of natural clay that the locals use to soften their skin.  Our skin needed some softening, so we all covered ourselves in grey mud and waited for it to dry.  We looked like quite an unusual tribe doing a mysterious ritual.  We took lots of pictures there too. 

We finally washed off the clay and headed back out.  When we got back to the main part of Atodí, we realized we were really tired (and hungry!).  Before getting on the boat, though, we had to gather every container we could find to hold water so we could bring enough on the boat to purify it with our portable system.  The intensity of the labor related to figuring out how to maintain a safe water supply for ourselves is a real awakening for us.  We struggle daily with the job of supplying our own water but we find it to be an enriching experience that helps us recognize the privileges of our everyday lives. 

We motored to a beautiful beach called Caracaraí and swam for an hour or so before returning to Ponta Grande, the place we waded and swam yesterday.  The evening plan involved only a festive piracaia (grilling fish on an open fire in a sand pit on the beach).  Before leaving Caracaraí, we had to add to our fish stash by catching some of our own.  There are little fish that swim in the shallows all around our boat that have a confusing multisyllabic Portuguese name but that in English might be called “shad.” 

We usually try to catch them with bread balls on small hooks but we had the wrong size hooks on the boat today.  So, while Jesse and Louro went out in the motorboat to a nearby community in search of small hooks, the captain of the boat demonstrated a more ingenious plan.  He took a regular water bottle and cut of the bottom.  Then, he tied fishing line near the opening.  He left the lid on, put some farinha (manioc flour) in the small end, dropped it into the water and let it sink to the bottom (on its side), then waited.  Eventually, a little fish would swim into the bottle to get the farinha and we could just pull the bottle up quickly and pop the fish into a waiting bucket of water.  We had to leave quickly so we didn’t get as many as we could have, but we got lots of big cheers for the ones we caught.  Everyone who tried caught at least one. 

Once we returned to Ponta Grande, our captain, cooks and crew got to the serious business of digging a pit and building a fire while the rest of us swam and bathed (like, really bathed, with shampoo and soap and razors as needed) in the river.  The puffy Amazon clouds were just waiting for the sun to set to glow bright coral and orange.  We threw the football, kicked the soccer ball and basked in the glory and enormity and brilliance that make up the Amazon. 

Some big winds blew up and complicated our plans for a big bonfire, but we lit one anyway and gathered around three sides of it as the other side was blowing madly with the wind.  We switched floors for sleeping tonight, as the people downstairs have a much more inconvenient sleeping situation than the ones upstairs. So we traded off to allow a different group of people to wake up in the middle of the dining area and get thrown out of their hammocks so the tables could be set up. 

We settled in early because the boat is going to start its engine at 5:30am and start motoring.  We are due in a community at 7:00am so we have to eat breakfast and clean up some time between those two unappealing times of day.  Still, winding down after a beach bonfire in the Amazon is a lovely thing to do . . .

 “Let’s go to the beach, beach”
Traffic is everywhere, even in the Amazon.  
Closing out the hike with a nice spacious stroll. 
No one better than Francisco to show us around the forests of Atodi. 

Beautiful view from the top of the primary forest.


  1. We can't wait to see the mud covered DIRTIES!!!

  2. Dearest Julia. I am hearing all about your trip. It sounds so exciting! The different fish dinners sound great. So healthy. I miss you. I look forward to talking to you soon. Love Grandma Frances

  3. Dearest Julia. I am hearing all about your trip. It sounds so exciting! The different fish dinners sound great. So healthy. I miss you. I look forward to talking to you soon. Love Grandma Frances

  4. Great to read the interesting places and activities DIRTies! Visiting different localities in the Amazons must have been an amazing and interesting experiences to all of you. Well done, DIRTies! Keep your spirits high and keep up the good work!

  5. In memory of your father's anniversary .. He is looking at you in admiration with the choices you've made .. proudly carrying his name ! I love you Son .. from your dad downunda .. God Bless .