Monday, December 24, 2012

Montevideo, Uruguay

Dear friends and family,

In our last email we had just emerged from the low islands at the mouth of the Paraná River. It flows into the Rio de la Plata, which on the map looks like a gulf of the Atlantic Ocean but is considered a river because the water remains fresh, and turbidly brown from the runoff of five countries, until well out to sea.
Buenos Aires, Argentina, commences promptly on the south bank of the Rio. Yacht clubs, canoe clubs, and rowing clubs covered the entire waterfront. The Club de Veleros (sailboats) of the suburb city of San Isidro gave us a courtesy moorage.

From here we walked through a posh shopping district to a covered platform thronged with urbanites. When the train came we pressed in and hung onto overhead rails. After forty-five minutes we arrived at a tall station in the classic European style at the northwest edge of the downtown.

Our friend Addison in Atlanta had said that Argentines are Italians that speak Spanish and think they are French. That many are from Italy is clear from the prevalence of Italian foods and family names. As for francophilia, Citroens, Renaults, and Peugeots dominated the streets, which looked Parisian, with their solid flanks of mansard-roofed, seven-story buildings, packed with severe ornamentation. The immense theaters, government palacios, obelisks and statues dated from within a decade or two of the turn of the twentieth century. According to our readings, Argentina then nearly equaled Europe and the English-speaking world in affluence, but this promise faded with the populist totalitarianism of Juan Peron, the Dirty War of the 1970s (in which leftist terrorists vied with government death squads), and the monetary collapses caused by mistaken economic policies. On the Paseo Florida musicians and tango-dancers performed for tips. In the plaza fronting the President’s palace an unkempt band of Falkland Islands War veterans were in their third year of a campout, protesting for denied benefits.

We relished the cool nights and increased vegetable life of the temperate climate, Buenos Aires being as far from the equator as Los Angeles. We learned the quirky buses, trains, and subways. The stamps of twenty countries having filled our passport pages, we had new pages inserted at the American Embassy. At a clinic we got an ultrasound which revealed that our unborn baby is a boy! We will name him George after Steve’s father.


We didn’t intend to go any further south, but we faced two hurdles before we could start returning north. The first was that Brazil requires tourists to spend six months of every year outside Brazil, three of which months remained. The second was that our Honda two-horse motor was still crippled and the parts were unavailable in Argentina due to import restrictions. Ginny’s internet research showed that receiving parts from the States should be easier in Uruguay, a small country on the north coast of the Rio de la Plata. So after twelve days in San Isidro we sailed to the historic Yacht Club Argentino in downtown Buenos Aires, where we savored a week’s courtesy mooring and waited for the right weather to cross over. Two foreign yachts were present, ours and a German sailboat, so the U.S. and German flags flew from the Club’s yardarms, at the foot of which stood a polished brass cannon. The cannon pointed out at the harbor mouth, as if to threaten the ships coming in from sea.

Exiting was a hassle. Immigration detained us for four hours. Inexplicably, their records showed that we had already checked out of the country. Finally they checked us not out, but in. “You have to return just before you leave for us to check you out.”

“But we want to leave at 5:00 am!”

“That’s okay, we’re open 24 hours a day.”

It took three trips to the Prefectura to get their loftily-worded clearance. To reach Customs required taking a bus to a different part of the city, but that kind official emptied out his precious pocket change so we could get back to the boat. You need coins to get on the bus but they are almost impossible to find!

At 3:00 am we trudged about the port district banging on gates and rousing officials. “You gave us the wrong stamp!” Ginny exclaimed to the sleepy immigration official. “You need to put your seal there,” she instructed the Prefecto. We bore their fumbling with pretended patience.

At dawn on November 17, 2012 we motored out of the harbor into a light headwind. The Rio de la Plata was too wide to see across, the waves short and steep. The boat’s pitching caused the propeller to lift out of the water, briefly revving the engine. Every two hours we drifted while replacing the crankcase oil that had burned off due to our misshapen cylinder. A rural coast became visible. The wind changed, allowing us to raise masts and sail into Colonia del Sacramento, a town full of Portuguese colonial ruins and Argentine tourists.

Montevideo, the capital, lay two hundred kilometers to the east. The coast was a succession of forests and farms, surf-less beaches and low black rocks. Small rivers issued from the land. After leaving Colonia we pulled into one such mouth. We passed a ruined wharf, a quarry, a path where cattle came down to drink. The encompassing trees were a curious blend of willows, cactus, and palms. We tied to a branch and fell asleep.

“Something’s wrong,” said Ginny drowsily at 4:00 a.m. Thurston was sloping sharply down at the bow, and tippier than usual. We eased into the cockpit. The tide had dropped, catching Thurston’s skeg (a small keel at the stern) on a rock thirty inches above water level, while the rest floated free. We stabilized her somewhat by removing the masts. There seemed to be no remedy in the dark so we went back to sleep.

In the morning Steve slipped into the dark, chilly water and felt around. We were poised over a scattering of huge, sharp boulders. There was no place to stand and lift. The water reached its low and starting rising again. The Rio de la Plata’s tides are caused more by its mercurial winds, which pile up water one way then another, than by the orbits of the moon, so we didn’t know what to expect.

Unfortunately, at noon the tide started to drop again. The stern was still a couple feet high. We hated to pry it off because it would slide down a sharp ridge of rock, but we didn’t want to wait another day, either. “Okay, let’s do this,” said Steve. We inserted a lever between the skeg and rock and lifted. Thurston splashed into the water with a cracking sound; the skeg we had installed in Guajara-Mirim had broken off. The dense wood sank straight to the bottom. Something else to fix.

As we proceeded east mud gave way to sand. Dunes and pine forests blanketed the shore, reminding us of Washington State’s Pacific coast. Reeds grew thick in the estuaries, where little red fishing boats bobbed at their anchors. Leaving Thurston in a hidden riverbend we walked to a nearby town for groceries and marveled at the clean roadsides and newly-mown pastures, like a Latin Illinois.

On November 27 we entered the Rio Santa Lucia. On the east bank we found a small yacht club. The facilities were few but well-tended. The employees were whiskery men who in their spare time tended ducks, dogs, and caged birds. The members, who came mainly on weekends, had elected as their captain Pancho, a husky retired fishing boat skipper. Pancho gave us a courtesy mooring at a dock that the other boats couldn’t use because the water was too shallow.

From our cozy new berth a five-minute walk took us to the heart of Santiago Vazquez, a town with two grocery stores and a gas station. From here a forty-minute bus ride got us to downtown Montevideo, like Buenos Aires only smaller, less hectic. The Old City stands on a peninsula protecting a large harbor. Here we found the customs building, where we learned how to get yacht-in-transit status, and the historic Hospital Maciel where Ginny got more pregnancy screenings. After spending 20 years avoiding doctors she is making up for it now. Our errands took us on many long walks, with time-outs to sit on park benches and watch people. They seemed like Argentines but with a subtle difference, perhaps as Canadians might be compared to Americans. 

For entertainment we looked for rubber bands along the wide, tiled sidewalks. It was practical as well, because in a small boat you hate to buy a whole package of anything. We also made a game of sniffing for pot-smokers in the plazas, because marijuana is legal here, but we rarely smelled it. Perhaps legalization has made it uncool. We are told that Uruguayan politics make a virtue of compromise. Controversy and crime seemed nonexistent. The president was a leftist flower farmer who prefers overalls to fancy suits.

Back at the yacht club our fellow sailors owned small boats of modest value, but their enthusiasm was keen. One such is El Ruso, so called because of his Russian ancestry. Tall and thin, he has worked as a Vespa mechanic in the same shop for thirty-five years. His wooden sailboat is old but the seams are tight. With him and two other boats we went on a weekend outing up the river. It was the first time since Florida we sailed in company with other boats. The wind was perfect, the boats were tilting, and the variable currents added complexity to our speed comparisons. We rafted up for the night at an uninhabited island. The Uruguayans ignited dry branches and banked the embers so that heat, not flames or smoke, cooked their steaks and sausages.

The Brazilian consulate in Buenos Aires said we couldn’t get new visas until March 5th,  but at Montevideo they issued them promptly. Sometimes you just keep asking until you get an answer you like. The club employees pulled Thurston out on an old trailer so we could fix the skeg and paint the topsides. We await the package that will allow us to restore our outboard motor to health and head back toward Brazil. We stay busy, George included. He practices his butterfly kick in Ginny’s bulging belly.

The heat here seems inconsistent with Christmas, but we nonetheless wish you all the best during your holiday season.

Lots of love,
Steve & Ginny

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Dear friends and family,

You may recall from our last email that on September 2 we came to where the Rio Paraguay joins the much-larger Rio Paraná. Below the confluence, in the city of Corrientes, ocean-going ships were being unloaded at a tall dock. From the downstream end of the dock streamed a line of two-story floating buildings. These concrete structures served as breakwater for about fifty sailboats and power-craft. One of the structures housed the Club Nautico Corrientes, a representative of which waved us over.
“Tie up here,” he said, indicating the dinghy dock. “You won’t be in the way. My name is Carlos. Is there anything I can help while you are our guests?”

“Well, we would like to get our smaller Honda motor going again. It’s been broken down since Brazil. Do you know a good outboard mechanic?”

“Sure! I can take you there myself, no problem.”

After we had settled in Carlos led us up two flights of stairs to a busy city scene. Parks and walkways overlooked the river. Everything was clean and orderly. We loaded the motor into his vehicle, a new mini-panel van made by Renault, and took it to a shop on the outskirts of the city.

The next day we returned to the shop. “The rings are cooked like spaghetti,” the mechanic said. “The rod broke from being fused onto the crankshaft bearing. We can’t get imported parts in Argentina because la Presidenta won’t let us have dollars.” (He grimaced referring to President Christina Kirchner.) “But our after-market industry can make most things.” We gave him some money to get the process started.

The crankshaft had to be sent to a distant city for rehabilitation. In the meantime we had much to learn about Argentina. For example, there were oddly few restaurants, and they rarely opened before eight o’clock. It took several days to figure out how to adapt our cell phone and computer modem for use in Argentina, the technology and plans being very different. The buses only accepted coins, which were acutely scarce. And to get market rate for our dollars we had to ask around until we found a shopkeeper who dabbled in the “parallel market.” He took us into his office and gave us 35% more pesos than we could have gotten at a cash machine. At the resulting rate of exchange Argentine goods and services were very cheap.

 Hardest to get used to, however, was the long siesta. Businesses closed at noon and didn’t reopen until 4:00 or later. Everybody went home and enjoyed a long, mysterious interval. Some used the time to go windsurfing, as we knew from the colorful sails that zipped back and forth across the river in the afternoons. This mid-day idyll lost its luster, however, when we considered that everyone had to return to their shops and offices for another four-hour shift, which explains why the restaurants didn’t open until eight o’clock.

We went to a clinic for Ginny’s thirteenth-week pregnancy checkup. The ultra-sound showed our child to be vigorously dancing around inside her womb, perhaps the tango given our location. We spent a month completing various projects and taking in the sights. We attended a Kafka play where men in leotards portrayed apes and aggressively shouted incomprehensible monologues while waving canes dangerously near our faces. We also attended a dramatization of poetry by Garcia Lorca and checked out every museum in the city. 

Finally the mechanic called. “I got the motor running, but the cylinder is ovalled,” he said. “It will burn oil until you get the cylinder repaired.” We were glad for this partial success because going downriver the outboard would outperform the “little-tail motor,” which was incompatible with sailing. So we broke the little-tail down into several parts and stowed them away, to be re-assembled whenever we should travel upriver again.

On October 4 we went to the local Prefectura Naval office to get a permit to leave Corrientes. A group of neatly-dressed officers began crafting a legal document.

“You’ll have to carry a pilot,” one informed us. We made faces of disbelief and waited until a superior officer exempted us from this real or imaginary requirement.

“Your boater’s license, please.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have one,” smiled Steve. “In the U.S. they don’t give licenses for pleasure boating.”

“Then how do you avoid collisions?” he asked, astounded.

We could think of no proper response to this, nor to their dire warnings regarding thieves and storms, having concluded that they exaggerated all dangers. After three hours of supreme patience we signed in quadruplicate.

“Where will you sleep tonight?” they asked.

An answer was required. “Barranqueras,” we said, it being now too late to go any further.

In the following days the Prefectos (Prefectura officials) kept close tabs on us. They insisted that we contact them by phone or VHF at least once daily. If we stopped near one of their major offices we had to report ourselves and get new paperwork. The Prefectos were paranoid mother hens, friendly busybodies. But they never lost patience with us, and in one town invited us into their barracks for much-needed showers.


Listless heat alternated with blustery cold snaps. We rowed and sailed some but mostly motored due to headwinds. The river was a sheet of brown water with huge islands and adjoining swamps. Innumerable side channels added to or subtracted from the torrent, maintaining a complex balance between the river and its surrounding lagoons. Cattle now outnumbered alligators and capybara; the woods were full of their trails. Once a sudden storm obliged us to douse all sail and start the motor. In the building waves a sheet got caught in the propeller, disabling us. We washed up on a sandbank beset with breaking waves, but by wading chest-deep in the chill water were able to manhandle Thurston into the lee of the bank. Here we strung our clothes along the horizontal masts to dry and waited out the gale.
In the city of Paraná another yacht club hosted us. It was large and immaculate. The yachties had us over for barbeques in a community shelter equipped with a big fireplace for roasting beef and sausage. Most were of Italian descent; they kissed each other on the cheek in greeting and were exquisitely polite. Twice a week the five-to-ten year-olds launched tiny Optimist sailboats. They milled about the basin, working their tillers and sheets, until someone in a powerboat tied them together in a long line and towed them upstream so they could race back to the yacht club. Teenagers sailed Lasers or went wake-boarding.

 In Rosario, our biggest Argentine city so far, we ghosted past miles of grain-loading terminals. The ships’ homeports were Limassol, Manila, Monrovia. When we stopped at a marina to ask directions, an athletic-looking yachtsman, who turned out to be a symphony cellist, offered to arrange a courtesy mooring for us. Thinking this a good place to make further progress on the Honda 2 HP motor, we accepted.

This time we took it apart ourselves. We removed the engine then split open the crankcase, marveling that something smaller than a lunch box could propel us so effectively. We removed the piston and took the cylinder to a specialist. “These are meant to be disposable. Can’t be fixed,” he said. We bought a torque wrench and reassembled the motor, tightening the bolts to specification. We hadn’t stopped the oil consumption, but now we knew which parts to have shipped down from the States.

Below Rosario we entered the delta of the Rio Paraná. The channels became smaller and more numerous. Willows and vacation homes lined the banks. People paddled about in canoes and kayaks. The Prefectos became increasingly obsessed with monitoring us. Ginny, a great lover of privacy, started calling them “Prefucktos.” They called us on our cell phone so much we learned to turn it off at night. One day we forgot to turn it back on until 2 pm. Our phone service immediately sent us a text message saying we had missed a call. “It’s a Prefuckto number,” spit Ginny. We immediately got another. And another. For a half hour the phone company notified us of our accumulated missed calls. There were twenty-nine of them, all from Prefucktos!
On October 30 we exited the right-most river mouth and found ourselves in the suburb city of San Isidro. Beyond stood the Buenos Aires skyline. We had completed the southward leg of our voyage. Starting at 29 degrees north of the equator in Florida, we were now 35 degrees south of it. 

The waterfront was entirely occupied by yacht clubs, canoe clubs, and rowing clubs. The Club de Veleros (sailboats) gave us a courtesy moorage. We called the local Prefectura. “We’ll be right over!” they exclaimed. For the rest of the day we were at the center of a swarm of happy Prefectos, customs agents, and sniff dogs. Everybody filled forms to their hearts’ content then left us to our devices in the shadow of a great metropolis.

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Over there!

We now have a page of Steve's voyage haikus and a map of our travels thus far.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Corrientes, Argentina

When we last wrote to you we had just completed a four-hour transport from Vila Bela, at the head of the Rio Guapore, to the city of Caceres on the upper Paraguay. Here the waterfront was lined with aluminum skiffs and plush, three-story “hotel-boats” for taking sport-fishermen on multiple-day outings into the Pantanal, the world’s biggest swamp. We planned to transit the Pantanal via the Rio Paraguay, which runs through it from north to south, through the Brazilian states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sur. Our next point of re-provisioning would be the city of Corumba, 850 river kilometers downstream. 
We left Caceres on July 29, 2012. What a relief to be travelling downstream again! The river was gentle and moderately wide. It being the dry season, the cactus and scrubby trees covering the hills were a dusty brown color. On the second day these hills receded. Now all was swamp. The river meandered deeply, sometimes nearly doubling back on itself. In addition to the flowing channel there was usually a previous channel nearby, the upstream end of which was silted in, the downstream end still open, allowing access to a long, curving inlet. We knew from the satellite images that the swamp stretches for hundreds of miles, dotted with varying grades of marsh and lagoon.

We saw no mineral earth, just water, vegetation, and wildlife. Otters, capybaras, and monkeys abounded. Now and then something bellowed in the marshes, whether alligators or bullfrogs we never determined. The birds were a summary of those we had been seeing since the Amazon plus new species, such as a busy fellow with a body the size of a golf ball and a bright red head who often rode the drifting hyacinths snatching up insects. A cold snap hit, easing the severity of the evening and morning mosquito hours, but not enough to dispense with the nets that we erected in our night hours, when we rested in convenient inlets.

Big clumps of water hyacinth (free-floating lilies) floated in the stream and stuck to anything anchored to the earth, like tree snags. They also adhered to the adjoining, bottom-anchored plant communities, constricting the channel. Most of the wetland was covered with grasses and leafed succulents that grew thickly in the ooze and stood chest-height above river-level. Short trees also grew in patches.

The only people we saw now were the sport-fishermen inhabiting the hotel-boats. They would park at some secluded spot and the guests would disperse, three or four to each aluminum skiff, with a guide driving. In the evenings they reconvened in the air-conditioned comfort of the mother ship.

Our regimen was less luxurious but pleasant nonetheless. First we rowed a couple hours for the exercise and to save gas. Then we motored peacefully at quarter-throttle, which burns far less fuel than the wider throttle openings which are necessary to go upriver and is consequently quieter (you can almost have a conversation)! If it was hot we put up the awning. The water had become cold, so while one of us steered the other bathed on the foredeck in the afternoon sun, dipping the bailer into the river and dumping the contents quickly over our bodies, braced against the chill.

On our third day in the Pantanal we came to its western edge: a razor-sharp range of mountains running north and south. We climbed about 1500 vertical feet through thorny scrub and sharp boulders to a vantage point. To the west lay Bolivia. To the east stretched two hundred miles of pantanal, far further than we could see. The swamp, being more water than land, conformed precisely to the curvature of the earth. Its brilliant green and scattered sky-reflecting blues contrasted sharply with the dusty brown of the uplands of its western edge.

At the foot of the range lay a chain of large lakes. The river skirted and sometimes flowed right through them. Where a lake butted against a rock cliff we found petroglyphs consisting of curved lines concentrically nestled with a dot at either end of each line.


On our sixth day out from Caceres pink-blossomed trees appeared on the riverbank. The land, though still flat, became dry. Native dwellings appeared. Ginny, as always, became depressed that a wilderness sojourn was drawing to a close.

Corumbá, southern gateway to the Pantanal, stood on a high plateau. At the seawall we moored among the work boats common to this stretch of the Paraguay: about thirty feet long, crudely made of wood, with a sharp bow, wide transom, and a big, boxy cabin. A beautiful plaza adjoined the waterfront. Strolling teens thronged this space of evenings. A sound system broadcast its medley of hits, among which “I’m Sexy and I Know It” was unfortunately prominent. Fields across the river were being burnt, as a result of which ashes like black snowflakes sprinkled the boat.

In this city of 110,000 inhabitants we stayed a week. We scoured the city for such necessities as a new fly-swatter (we had worn out our old one!), earplugs, and Vaseline to lubricate the oarlocks. Across the border in Puerto Suarez, Bolivia, we bought a wonderful Nikon Coolpix S900 with 18X zoom. May you notice an improvement in our wildlife shots henceforth! At internet shops we built our GPS map of the upcoming river.

We now faced a bureaucratic dilemma. Our next country would be Paraguay, which also requires that Americans get visas beforehand. In their website Paraguay claims to have a consulate in Corumbá. This proved untrue. A lady at a tourism office made some calls for us. She found that the nearest place we could get visas would be in Sáo Paulo, a thousand miles away, but that officials at the border might issue us a temporary transit pass. We decided to proceed on this hope. Since Corumbá was the last Brazilian city on our route we checked out of the country and got a naval clearance for Argentina.

On August 12 we continued through a flat landscape covered with chit-palm trees. The tall tuiuiu stork with a black head and scarlet band around his neck stood passively on the bank like a wooden Indian. Barge tows up to four barges wide and five long now carried iron ore to smelters downriver. On the second day the west bank became Paraguayan. The first naval post had no boat, only a building with a uniformed guard out front. Steve approached him nervously. It would be so easy for him to make trouble for us!

"Pardon me, with all respect,  I am stopping to notify you that we are passing through your country on the river. Are there any rules or regulations we should be aware of?” Steve got this out haltingly in Spanish, which he hadn’t spoken for six months.

“No señor, you are welcome. The regulations here are no different than elsewhere. Here on the border we cross freely across.” At a subsequent, larger post the comandante typed out a naval pass for us. That was the sum of our paperwork in Paraguay, where our passports were never stamped and no official ever approached us, but all responded courteously to our approach. A huge relief.

After travelling for five days with Brazil on the left and Paraguay on the right we entered Paraguay entirely. We typically covered a hundred river kilometers a day. A pointy hill or two would pop up in the morning and by night we would be past them. In one stretch a dusty white mineral, perhaps limestone, was being mined from the tall riverbank, packed into sacks, and stowed into rusty boats. The Paraguayans lived in rough-hewn plank homes and rowed their planked dories, a means of propulsion strangely absent elsewhere in Latin America. Though most of the people were mestizos, they spoke among themselves the language of the Guarani Indians, and switched to Spanish for us.

We were now far enough south of the equator that steady winds were frequent, so we re-arranged the hardware on the transom to allow either the motor rabeta to be mounted or the rudder, with a switch-over time of fifteen minutes. Henceforth we often sailed. The trees tended to block the wind and the river bends resulted in constant changes in apparent wind direction, but the favorable current eased any frustration.

In the small city of Concepcion everyone enthusiastically drank yerba mate, an herbal tea, from a special leather-armored mug using an engraved silver straw incorporating a filter at its lower end. Unwilling to depart from her morning ritual, Ginny searched the whole city until she found a market woman, a Brasileira as it turned out, able to prepare instant coffee. 
Horse-drawn carts outnumbered cars, but small motorcycles were most numerous. The principle buildings were monumental antiques in the heavy Spanish style, with ridiculously tall doors and ceilings. The 10,000 Guarani note was worth only $2.30 U.S.; they had suffered crazy inflation at some point but saw no need to remove the zeros by issuing a new currency, as is the practice in most Latin American countries.

Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital and only large city, lay on high land on the left side of the river. The river traffic intensified, mostly small rusty freighters. Some had been secured to the sloping bank at a time of high water then abandoned; now these hulks lay at awkward angles, partly immersed, with sections missing. Rowing men retrieved fishing lines they had set the night before, each secured by a rock on the bottom and a plastic bottle on top. We passed a belt of shanties and tarp shelters, the refuse from which was dumped over the bank. Behind rose skyscrapers. Turning left into a bay we found ourselves in the heart of the city. We moored at a pier crowded with arriving and departing passenger boats. No one questioned us as we ventured through the thronged terminal and out into the street. We had only one mission here: to gather cash for use in Argentina.

Downstream of Asuncion Argentina occupies the east bank. There we could legally enter because they don’t require a visa. Unfortunately, like Venezuela, Argentina maintains an artificially high exchange rate vis-à-vis the dollar. We had deduced from scouring the internet that we could stretch our funds by buying pesos in Paraguay, where the free market prevails. So at a cash machine we withdrew Guaranis and exchanged them with a net result of 6.11 pesos to the dollar, compared to 4.5 if we got our pesos from a cash machine in Argentina. We also withdrew dollars for use in the Argentine black market. That day and the next we withdrew to the daily limit allowed by our bank, hoping that would get us to Buenos Aires.

Before leaving Paraguay we couldn’t help investigating something we had noticed on Google Earth. On the other side of the river, where Paraguay meets Argentina, the border is a clogged slough called the Pilcomayo River. On the Argentine side is the city of Clorinda. The Paraguayan side is rural except where, by zooming way in, we discerned a footbridge over the Pilcomayo. On both ends of this walkway the streets were highly congested. What could this mean?

To find out we crossed to the west bank and entered a swamp-lined channel. This led to a low-density slum. At a car bridge Ginny hid in  the boat from the freezing winds which the penguins were sending up from Antarctica while Steve walked for a kilometer along a street paved with broken rocks set by hand. Suddenly the street was constricted by parked vehicles and tarp-roofed stalls covering most of the roadway. Continuing down this chaotic gallery of shops, typical of border crossings where “free trade zones” blend into condoned smuggling, men bent under the weight of huge bundles started passing Steve. Some carried impossibly tall stacks of eggs, the tiers separated by sheets of molded cardboard, the mass of eggs far exceeding the mass of the man! Others carried cases of beer, maybe twenty each! Their bundles were expertly tied. Clearly these were professionals. Some carried their loads to a crowded bus stop, others into dark doorways. 

Concluding that these were Argentine goods arriving in Paraguay, Steve retraced his steps. At an inconspicuous entryway he had just passed he noticed an especially high volume of pedestrian traffic, including porters emerging with merchandise or returning with their canvas-and-rope bundling gear collapsed under their arm. Inside the semi-lit space were tiny shops hustling watches, cell phones, underwear, shoes, etc. The walls were splotched, the ceiling low. At the far end was a light like at the end of a tunnel. Emerging into this light, Steve found himself at the approach to a double footbridge about a hundred yards long. One carried regular pedestrians, the other was for porters. On the far side was relatively affluent, spacious downtown Clorinda. A new country! No one asked to see Steve’s documents, but rather than risk being caught on the wrong side he returned to his wife.

The next day we descended the Paraguay to Puerto Pilcomayo, a ferry landing by which people and goods crossed the river. Here we found an office building full of armed men in neat tan uniforms with black ties. They pertained to the Prefectura Naval Argentina, a non-military force which controls Argentina’s waterways. It being Saturday afternoon, the immigration and customs officials were gone for the weekend. We didn’t mind waiting because it was too cold to travel, but were not excited to be limited to the small swamp-surrounded plot of land which constituted their station. Grey clouds streaked across the overcast sky, blown by a frigid south wind. We cuddled in the cabin, hatch closed, and warmed it up with our body heat. It’s times like this that the smallness of our living space really pays off.

When Monday, August 27 arrived the Prefectura Naval officials launched into our paperwork. They were friendly but obsessed with legal language and protecting us from ourselves. They made us sign a document promising, among other things, to always sleep in established ports and to present our pass at all Prefectura stations along the way.

Warm weather slowly returned. With Paraguay now on the east (left) bank and Argentina on the west (right), we entered a land still flat but green with the verdure of early spring. On the banks were huge silos and conveyors for loading soybeans onto barges. At Formosa we got a load of clothes washed. With our adjusted exchange rate a continental breakfast for two in a fancy restaurant cost only $3.67! We sometimes violated the terms of our pass by sleeping in estuaries and ignoring Prefectura posts when no one was looking, but the authorities seemed more interested in making rules than enforcing them.

On our last night on the Paraguay River we stayed at a place called Puerto Bermejo. The “port” consisted of a creek mouth ten feet wide with a snag in the middle. Using the oars as poles we pushed ourselves fifty yards up the gushing creek then tied to a stake among some rowboats. The bank was steep and muddy. On the dusty flat above a chubby Prefectura Naval guard sat on a chair watching, but quickly rose and greeted us when we approached. Behind him was a series of row-houses, about half of which were in ruins.

“What happened to this town?” Steve asked.

“Bermejo is very old,” he said, “but it is declining now because of the 1983 flood, which destroyed many of the houses.”

“Were you here then?”

“Oh yes.”

A boy on horseback picked up a parcel from the store, a tall brick structure with no sign, and left. A drunk got Steve to take his picture with Ginny, and Ginny to take his picture with Steve. He wanted to take our picture too, but we were loth to hand over the camera. In the middle of town were low spots from which came little calls of descending pitch, like babies crying. “Frogs,” said the drunk. The cemetery was calving off into the river. At the foot of a tall vertical bank broken vaults and headstones lay half-immerged in the brown current. Torn metal caskets exposed their ancient, disrespected occupants.

The next day, September 2, the Paraguay emptied into the much-larger Rio Parana. Both sides of the river were Argentina now. Twenty kilometers downstream on the east bank we stopped at Corrientes, a city of about 700,000 counting Resistencia, its sister city on the west bank. Here the local yacht club has adopted us! We will tell you about it next time.

Now, if you’ve made it this far you must be news hungry. So here, we’ve saved the best for last! In the fashion of our native land we took the opportunity of beating our way upriver to spawn. Ginny is now 3 months pregnant and we’re planning to have a Brasilian river baby, so when the world goes to Hell s/he’ll always have the freedom to run away to the Amazon!

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Caceres, Brazil

 Dear friends and family,

We last wrote as we were leaving Manaus after a stay of over two months. On June 14 we motored to where the Rio Negro joins the Amazon, the black and tan waters mixing only slowly. The combined river averaged four kilometers wide.

On the banks were half-immersed houses, the Amazon being in flood. At dusk green parrots cawed as they flew overhead, and monkeys scampered in the trees, their presence noticeable by waving branches. We motored into a matrix of inundated forest and open waters, not knowing if the latter were normally clearings or lakes, and tied to a tree. A current flowed through, streaming us away from the tree. We were within view of ocean-going freighters on their way to Manaus.
When Ginny slid open a floorboard to start dinner she found three inches of water in the bilge! We found a small hole through the hull just below the waterline aft on the starboard side. On our last disembarkation in Manaus, to get fruit and vegetables at the municipal market, the boat had bumped against something projecting from the seawall. It must have been sharp! Fortunately the inflow was slow.

The next morning we found a solid bank to work on. Positioning Thurston under a tree we ran a line from the starboard quarter to an overhead branch. By hoisting upward we raised the hole above the water line. Steve patched the outside with fiberglass cloth and epoxy resin. To the average person the hole was inaccessible from the inside, but Ginny managed to squirm in and patch it there too.

Rather than proceeding to the mouth of the Amazon we had decided to first explore southern South America. Consequently on the third day we turned right up the Rio Madeira. We hoped to ascend it and its tributaries along the Brazil/Bolivia border to the head of navigation in Vila Bela. From there a short transport could put us in the Paraguay/Parana river system, which we would descend to Argentina. We had only 80 days left on our Brazilian visas. If we failed to reach Paraguay in time we could enter Bolivia, but then we would be stuck for six months because there are no river routes through Bolivia and Brazil requires tourists to leave the country for six months before they can re-enter.

We motored from sunrise to sunset every day. At first the Madeira, like the Negro and Amazon, was so vast that land could not be seen on portions of the horizon. As we proceeded upstream it narrowed. The flooding decreased until muddy banks were exposed. The shore was primitive forest interspersed with altered scrub. The trees become shorter indicating less rainfall, but remained exquisite in their varied shapes and smells. Each homestead was a gap in the forest with a planked house on stilts, a few banana trees, farm animals, dogs, kids, and a canoe out front.

The same craft plied the river as we had seen on the Rio Negro: canoes, river boats, and tugs pushing tows of up to six barges. The upper Madeira also had hundreds of garimpeiro barges: small wooden flatboats that anchored in the river and sucked up bottom sediment with a thick hose to extract gold dust. They often tied up side-by-side for companionship while they worked.

We minimized contrary current by hugging the insides of the banks, swerving in and out to avoid projecting snags and branches. Leaves and twigs littered our decks whenever we brushed against vegetation. Grasses and lilies often crowded out from shore, requiring detours. Dead canes swirled in the current. We took turns steering. The other person would sew, fill water bottles, write, or do laundry. Thurston often had clothes drying along the horizontal masts. When darkness fell the mosquitoes came out, so upon stopping we hurriedly snapped the mosquito net around on the cabin hatch. We made one for the cockpit too, so Steve could sit there while Ginny cooked dinner.

Every few days we passed a town. Borba was named for a long-ago monk, a thirty-foot tall statue of whom stands before a blue-and-white church. At Nova Aripauna the main street was thronged with uniformed school children celebrating a scholastic milestone. Each had paved streets busy with motorcycles and pedestrians but no roads connecting the towns. The heart of each was the municipal floating dock, where passengers waited for boats to depart and goods were hurried to their destinations. Stevedores carried refrigerators, bicycles, etc. ashore via a wobbly gangplank while plantains and similar exports moved in the opposite direction.

We always wondered how long the Honda 2 horsepower motor could be ran at ¾ throttle. On June 24 we found out. It had started using oil. Its oil capacity being only a quarter liter we failed to check the level often enough. Sounds of destruction issued from the engine. It stopped, compression-less. Probably a broken valve, unavailable in Brazil.

Should we give up and go to the mouth of the Amazon? We would still have time to row and sail there if we hurried. Or buy another motor and continue up the Madeira?

Deciding in favor of the latter we rowed back down to a line of garimpeiro barges and tied up to them. Twelve of them lay at anchor in the full stream of the river, secured side-to-side to each other. Each had two horizontal wooden cranks for controlling lines. With one the operator lowered or raised the suction head. The effluent gushed out of a large hose onto a carpeted ramp. The carpet caught the flecks of gold. Every half hour or so, when the excavation became too deep, they would all start whistling to each other, a sign to crank the second roller and pull themselves closer to their anchors. They would then re-lower the suction heads and start a new hole. Each morning they turned off their engines long enough to remove the carpet and agitate it in a tank of water with a mercury additive. They then collected the gold dust that had settled at the bottom of the tank.

The garimpeiros were young men. They worked in two-man teams, many with their brothers or cousins. They operated twenty-four hours a day, six days a week, on six-hour shifts. The off-duty man slept in a bunk in the attic of a thatched roof. Twelve diesel engines powering twelve suction heads made for a formidable round-the-clock rumble.

One of the garimpeiros offered to sell us a used motor rabeta. which means “little-tail motor.” No one in the Amazon uses outboards under 15 horsepower. Instead they use 5.5 horsepower stationary motors with horizontal crankcases to which a long propeller shaft is bolted. The unit is mounted to the stern with the propeller shaft angling down and aft. They steer via a tiller pointing forward. The motor rabeta in question failed the test drive, conking out repeatedly, so we waited for a tow to the next city, Humaita.

After two days with the garimpeiros one of them took Steve in his skiff to speak with a passing boat. They were Catholic missionaries providing scheduled services in tiny communities along the river. A woman Ginny’s age said that they would gladly tow us to Humaita, where their diocese was based, but that it would take them four days to get there. We accepted, bade goodbye to our garimpeiro friends, and tied Thurston to the stern of the Edigio Vigano, a stately one-story wooden river boat.

The woman was Ianda, a nun from southern Brazil. She wore blue jeans, never a habit. The priest was a tall, jovial Cameroonian named Cristian who had moved to Brazil six years before. The boat also had a skipper and a cook, so there were six of us. The Edigio Vigano was well-organized, with mosquito screens for all the windows. The skipper showed us below decks, where a low-ceilinged engine compartment ran the length of the vessel. On deck she had one main room plus sleeping cabins, pantry, galley, and head. Once we were sure Thurston was being safely towed we spent our days aboard the Edigio Vigano and shared meals with them.

In the following four days we stopped at nine communities. Each had five or ten wooden houses. The staple food was manioc, the crumbly kernels of which they roasted in a huge pan over a fire, stirring with paddles. They also grew cacao, from whose large pods come the dark seeds that become chocolate. In the evening they cast-netted little catfish.

The church was a small door-less structure. The attendees were mostly mothers and children. They had a lot of Indigenous blood (but Cristian warned us not to call them indigenas because they consider this derogatory). Cristian donned his vestments. His theme was that changes were occurring in their world. “Some of these changes are good,” he said. “America has a black president now, did you know that? Other changes are bad. Beware the evils that will affront you and rely upon the guidance of the Church. Because the world changes but the church does not change!” He affirmed their worth as individuals, and advised them not to use condoms! (They evidently don’t, because most families had eight or nine children.)

That night over dinner Cristian pointed out an irony in that their work is to advocate, revolutionarily if necessary, for the poor riberinhos (river people), yet the Church oppresses its own workers. “The bishop has a car, air conditioning, everything, we have nothing!” said Ianda. “And women are kept in subservient roles. But this will change!”

But Cristian said the Church does not change,” Steve noted.

“Actually it does,” she said.

The Edigio Vigano’s chairs were all semi-broken, so when we got to Humaita we bought them six nesting chairs as our thank-you. Then the captain showed us a shop where for $775 we bought a motor rabeta and had a mount fabricated that attaches where the rudder normally goes.

Three days later, on July 3, 2012, we arrived in Porto Velho, a city of 400,000 and capital of the state of Rondonia. Huge barges were moored along the bank. One was being loaded with soy beans via a chute that emitted a plume of chaff. At the small-boat waterfront laborers were paving a new plaza. Brazil’s highway network extends to Porto Velho, so for once we felt connected to the rest of the country.

We tied up to a passenger terminal built on floating logs and started looking for transportation around the dams and rapids that block further navigation. A naval official said that above Porto Velho the river is navigable only in short isolated stretches. However, the local fishermen and our own satellite-image research said we could boat from Guajara-Mirim, 200 miles north on the Bolivian border, to a place called Vila Bela in the neighboring state of Mato Grosso.

We roamed the city looking for a boat trailer. The manager of a boating store connected us with someone who had a trailer and a Toyota Hilux pickup. We agreed to pay him 900 reales for the move, about $475.

A couple days later we met him at a boat ramp. The road to Guajara-Mirim was pot-holed, the land flat and studded with termite mounds. Guajara-Mirim was dusty and spread-out. The driver unloaded us at a ramp and left, but we kept Thurston on land another day in order to install a wooden skeg (a small keel at the stern). We needed one because without the rudder Thurston had wanted to swerve left or right. Then we launched Thurston in the Rio Marmore, a tributary of the Madeira.

Guajara-Mirim would be our last large town, so we filled up two extra fuel jugs. From the local capitania dos portos we got a clearance to Corumba, a city on the Paraguay River. That night, as we slept afloat at the landing, boats kept arriving quietly without lights, unloading gas drums or household goods, then departing. They were smuggling Bolivian goods, avoiding the high Brazilian duties. One load delivered consisted of nothing but wooden tables and chairs!

To get a map of Bolivia we crossed over to Guajara-Mirim’s Bolivian sister city. The officials there didn’t require us to legally enter Bolivia just to shop, the Bolivian side being a free trade zone. The first sign that we were in a new country was the traditional clothing of many of the women: long skirt, a colorful smock, braids connected in back, and a hat.

On the Rio Madeira we had ascended 1,056 river kilometers. On July 9 we left Guajara-Mirim to finish our upstream leg: 1,462 kilometers up the Marmore and Guapore rivers to the head of navigation at Vila Bela. On the Madeira we had travelled southwest, now we went southeast.

Operating the motor rabeta took getting used to. It was so loud we wore ear plugs and used sign language. The motor vibrated so much the bolts holding the tiller in place kept breaking. We drilled the holes larger and inserted larger bolts. The motor rabeta is also very sensitive to lateral weight distribution. The boat wants to turn in the direction of the lighter side. You have to balance the boat exactly or exert constant pressure on the tiller. Our extra-long tiller got us further away from the noise, but the tiller and “little tail” got in the way. One day as we were rounding a sharp turn with the throttle wide-open the whole motor jumped up out of its mount and landed in the cockpit with us! We kept it tied down after that. Though we got little exercise we were exhausted by the end of the day.

The boats above the rapids were fewer and entirely different. Instead of curvaceous “Popeye” boats we saw flat-bottomed, diesel-powered barges made from heavy timbers. Some were open, others had boxy houses of one or two stories.

At the junction of the Guapore and Marmore rivers we kept left on the former, which remains the international border. After a week we reached the town of Costa Marques. We refueled there and at Porto Rolim. The towns kept getting smaller, the river traffic less.

The river slowly changed. The Guapore meandered deeply, often doubling the distance compared to a straight line. Muddy banks gave way to sand. We were glad to see the mud go, but as the river got shallower sand bars became a problem. Often we were no longer able follow the insides of the bends. We constantly probed for depth with our boat-hook. Our GPS map (created with Google Earth at a cyber café in Porto Velho) told us which way to go at forks. Its speed read-out helped us decide how to position ourselves laterally in the river. A GPS shows absolute speed whereas speed relative to the water remains constant at a given throttle setting. Therefore a faster GPS speed means less current. We averaged eight kilometers per hour (four knots).

A cold front hit! We were still only twelve degrees below the equator and 550 feet above sea level, but July is mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere. A frigid wind blew off the Bolivian Andes, 250 miles away to the southwest. We wore all our clothes and slept with the cabin hatch closed. There air smelled like autumn.

One night we slept tied to a dangling vine on a long, skinny island. When we cast off at 5:30 a.m. it was still dark but there was a rosy line on the east horizon. A thick mist was rising from the river. The motor wouldn’t start! It had gas and spark but wouldn’t fire.

We waved our flashlight at a passing canoe. Three Bolivian fishermen were returning home from a night on the river wth several large spotted catfish. They couldn’t solve the mystery either so they towed us upstream to a low-tech Bolivian naval base.

The comandante welcomed us and gave us a mechanic. This fellow tinkered for hours. The calls for breakfast and lunch came and went. The sun got hot as it rose high in a cloudless sky. At a bugle call a hundred joyous men came down to the river, stripped to their skivvies, and bathed all around Thurston. Ginny demurely kept her distance but she counted them, so she must have been looking. Steve and the mechanic worked with the motor on an old upside-down boat under a tree. It was challenging to switch back to Spanish after long immersion in Portuguese. Finally the mechanic found the problem: a sticky intake valve.

“But I don’t have any emery cloth,” he said.

“I’ve got some!” said Steve, and came back with a piece.

“The American has everything!” he said, impressed. He cleaned it up, put the motor back together, and got it running. We had lost only six hours!

The rabeta consists of a long shaft running through a tube. We discovered that the four evenly-spaced bushings holding the shaft in alignment inside the tube are made, in true third-world style, of wood. By July 21 these had become worn, so in the town of Pimenteiros d'Oeste we had a woodworker replace them. Meanwhile, at the local internet service we ran into a missionary from Mississippi, the first American we had met since Cartagena. Ernie C. had blond hair, blue eyes, and a thick Southern accent. “I had a misguided youth,” he said. “In fact I was even shot once. Oh, you might say it was a drug deal gone bad. But God had plans for me. I could only ignore Him for so long.” Working alone through an interpreter he must have been lonely because in the few hours we spent together he loaded us with details from his life and how he had ended up in a small town in western Brazil. “This here’s the end of the road,” he said. “You don’t come to Pimenteiros unless you mean to come here.”

It’s a shame to travel so quickly, and torture for Ginny to get up early, but the ticking clocks on our Brazilian visas roused us the next morning at our usual 5:45 a.m. There would be no more towns until Vila Bela, where the Guapore issues from the Mato Grosso pantanal (swamp) like a trickle from the world’s largest sponge. Mosquitoes like dawn almost as well as dusk, but in this case they made a weak showing, numbed by the mist and soon brushed aside by the eight-kilometer-per-hour wind of our progress through the stream. When the sun rose high, however, a heat-loving insect began his stalk. The black fly with clear wing-tips intercepted Thurston as she passed and awaited its moment to pierce our bare feet with his syringe. If we made the mistake of stepping onto a sandbar with bare legs a striped no-see-um like that on the Casiquiare (our magnifying glass justifies itself at times like this!) would hurt us until the distinctive sting of his bites dissipated.

Not much larger than a no-see-um, a tiny beetle of unknown eating habits and life-cycle had long since invaded the cabin. Moths lived in our noodles. Two varieties of weevil subsisted in our flour and rice. (Sifting removes them but our next food purchase would probably bring more.) Two or three species of ant generally walked around wondering what to do with themselves now that they are cut off from their colonies. (We don’t spray ant poison unless they come in strength.)

On the positive side, likable spiders and grasshoppers fell aboard when we scraped against branches. New species of butterflies, dragonflies, and wasps were always touching down. After the mosquito hour had passed the various mayflies, gnats, and crickets crowded aboard, attracted by our headlamps. Some passed through the mosquito nets and tickled us by crawling on our faces while we read. But our favorite nocturnal visitor was something we have no name for. Two inches long, it flies aboard then scurries without stop, every now and then executing a back flip. On one such flip Ginny swears he caught a mosquito in the air! His body is flexible. His abdomen is similar to that of a cricket but his thorax and head are more like a tiny lobster with powerful “forearms” of unknown purpose, unless it was to catch that mosquito.

The further we got upriver the more wildlife we saw: turtles, alligators, river otters, dolphins as always, capybaras by the dozen! The latter is a 150-pound rodent with a body the shape of a hog, a square head, and rich brown fur. They sat on low marshy banks feeding on the vegetation as we passed. We now saw green kingfishers in addition to the red-bellied ones. Cranes, storks, herons, egrets, mergansers, and cormorants abounded. On a given beach among several dozen such birds we sometimes saw a few roseate spoonbills, the color of pink flamingos but with spoon-shaped beaks. Several types of hawk or eagle were common. We’d love to have had a bird book, and a camera without a broken screen! Only the upper right-hand corner works so we have to frame shots seeing only that much.

At night we couldn’t identify animals by sight, yet this is when they were most active. We usually we slept in marshy bays that once had been river channels. All night we heard splashes, sighs, chortles, chirps, peeps, and grunts. We also need a device that identifies animals by their sounds!

Bedrock occasionally appeared through the green mantle. We passed to the left of a Bolivian mountain range and came within sight of a Brazilian one, the Chapada dos Parecis. Upon passing the mouth of the Rio Verde we left Bolivia behind. The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso now occupied both banks. Masses of filamentous vine cocooned the tall bushes among the swamp grass. The vines then died, leaving what looked like haystacks.

The river shrank to as narrow as fifty yards, then twenty yards. The scenery changed more rapidly. We no longer saw native dwellings in the sense of modest shacks, only a few ranches. For a while sport fishermen in small aluminum boats were common, then nothing. As we neared the head of navigation we wondered what could go wrong. We’d never met anyone who had been to Vila Bela. Steve got sick but soon figured out it was a cumulative effect from the water we had gotten from a roof tank in Guajara-Mirim. He filtered some river water using our pump-action filter, drank it, and immediately improved.

By July 25 the Guapore was a minor stream gushing through forest, swamp, and range land. The bends were so sharp we had to slam the tiller hard over causing Thurston to heel as she rounded up. Sometimes we miscalculated and crashed into the bank Then we saw a rabeta-powered canoe; somebody lives here! Rounding a final island we saw buildings: Vila Bela da Santissima Trinidade. We had completed our ascent!

Within two days we had arranged for a truck to carry us to the Rio Paraguay. Its bed was short so we unloaded Thurston to make her light. Then Steve, the driver, and five friends slid her bow up over the cab. The stern hung over the back of the truck but she was secure. For $370 the driver took us 300 kilometers across dry, flat land to the city of Caceres on the Rio Paraguay, where we are now.

This is the beginning of the Mato Grosso Pantanal, the world’s biggest wetland. We will descend the Paraguay as it snakes through it. Our next town, Corumba, is about 850 river kilometers away.

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny