Friday, March 9, 2012

Sao Gabriel da Cachoiera, Brazil

 Dear friends and family,

We last wrote you from Puerto Ayacucho, where we obtained the permits necessary to continue up the Orinoco River into Brazil. The grand finale was a boat search by the Department of Military Intelligence that took seven men three hours. They even checked our camera and computer storage devices, but still couldn’t find any incriminating material. During the process a couple of them sidled up to Steve and whispered that they want to go to America. Like this was the Cold War and they wanted to defect to the West!

On February 17, 2012 Virgilio, our hard-working friend and tourist agent, loaded Thurston onto a trailer and towed us with his old Toyota pickup over a paved road to Samariapo, a landing upstream of the rapids. About a hundred boats were there, mostly bongos (long, slender, steel canoes with outboard motors), transporting people and supplies on the upper river.

As we continued upstream Venezuela was still on our left, Colombia on our right. If the current was too strong in one channel we found another. There were now hills on both sides of the river and the forest was denser. At the town of San Fernando de Atabapo the river turned away from the border; both banks were now Venezuelan soil. It was a relief to get away from that source of tension. The armed forces of the two countries are hostile toward each other, and Colombian guerrilleros still operate along the border on a reduced scale.

After Atabapo we followed the river southeast. It shrunk as we passed tributary mouths but it never became less than a quarter mile wide. Running our motor at 2/3 throttle we circled around sandbars and globular granite rocks. Sometimes we hugged the bank, other times we went down the center. At times we walked the boat when it became too shallow, the river being very low at this time of year. Our 100 liters of fuel resided in 20-liter containers lashed to either side of the cabin. We gave away the containers as they became empty. We used up the last of our bread and fruit and dug into our canned food. We passed a couple indigenous communities per day, typically ten or so neat mud-and-wattle houses and an open assembly hall around a grassy common. The foreign missionaries who organized these evangelist communities were expelled about ten years ago, though Venezuelan missionaries still visit. In some villages they spoke Wotuja, in others they spoke Kurripako. The people mostly ate fish, yucca, and plantains. They were friendly and quiet.

In Venezuela gasoline is virtually free. To keep the Venezuelans from reselling their gas to Colombians across the river the government requires all boats to stop at a string of Guardia Nacional checkpoints and get their papers stamped. We stopped at six such posts. Some coincided with indigenous communities, some were just a building in the wilderness. The young soldiers were bored and listless.

All day we droned upriver with our earplugs in, probing with our boat hook to check water depth. We now passed among tepuys: huge mesas such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle popularized in his book The Lost World. Scarlet macaws flew overhead in twos and threes cawing like crows. Large black-and-yellow birds tended their young in teardrop-shaped nests that hung from the trees. Rust-breasted kingfishers flew from one overlooking branch to another. Then Jackpot! Ginny spotted an animal swimming across the river. Steve motored to it. A giant ant-eater! It reached the far bank and pulled itself out of the water. We gasped as it revealed its great length, six feet counting its big bushy tail and long, droopy snout! It tried to climb the bank but it was too steep, so it followed the waterline until it disappeared in some vegetation. Someone told us each anteater paw consists of a single gigantic claw! Another time we surprised a swimming cougar! When it saw us it turned around and swam with surprising speed to the shore it had started from, where it stared at us until we were past.

On our seventh day out of Puerto Ayacucho we reached the geographic phenomenon we had long yearned for: the Brazo Casiquiare distributary! There was no signpost, no break in the uninterrupted jungle. Maybe one twentieth of the Orinoco simply split off and disappeared southward toward the Amazon. Both branches would eventually reach the Atlantic but via mouths that are thousands of miles apart! We had reached the hump. Until now any mechanical malfunction could require us to give up and follow the Orinoco back downstream. Now we could row with the current. Until our gas should run out we fell into a new pattern of rowing three hours per day and motoring for six.

Local tributaries quickly added their translucent black water to the turbid brown Orinoco water that the Casiquiare had started with. Initially only fifty yards wide, it grew and became blacker and clearer. This was the most isolated part of our passage. The communities which our maps showed along the Brazo Casiquiare didn’t exist. For four days, averaging seventy kilometers per day, we saw no sign of man on shore and few boats on the water. When not steering the boat or admiring the scenery Steve practiced the guitar or sewed, Ginny read or washed clothes.

On the Orinoco we had slept moored in front of native settlements or well-hidden in tributary creeks, for security and privacy. Here there was no need to hide. We camped at scenic confluences or next to dramatic rocks. In the twilight bats fluttered about like large moths. It was frustrating to hear strange night calls and have no idea what was making them: birds, bats, insects, monkeys? One morning a coral snake slowly swam along the swampy shore we were tied to. “Red next to yellow you’re a dead fellow, red next to black you’re alright Jack,” recited Ginny. “He’s got red next to yellow so he’s poisonous!” By day a new species of biting insect plagued us, between a mosquito and a no-see-um in size, whose itchy bites have a red dot in the center. We battled one ant invasion after another and learned to tie up to trees that stand in the water so they can’t come aboard.

On the fourth day we arrived at a Yanomami settlement. These people are usually photographed wearing loincloths and with narrow sticks inserted horizontally through the skin of their faces. Our Yanomamis, like the other indigenous people we had met, wore factory-made shorts and skirts. We landed where a crowd of children were playing in the river. Ginny swam with them while a tiny man showed Steve around the thatch houses. On the packed earth under an open shelter a young man was hypnotically chanting and dancing. He wore paint on his face and arms and had feather arrays projecting from either side of his head. Steve’s Spanish-speaking guide said he was under the influence of a drug, a powder that one person blows into the nostrils of another. He said that the song was traditional and is for communicating with nature spirits.

Tribal villages proliferated as we neared the mouth of the Brazo Casiquiare. On February 29 the latter joined the Rio Negro. Each was a half kilometer wide, of the same translucent black. We now had Colombia on the right bank again. On the left bank was San Carlos del Rio Negro, administrative center for this remote part of Venezuela.

San Carlos didn’t have internet or a restaurant, but it had a Guardia Nacional post and a naval base. The naval comandante, a fastidious man with a golden retriever puppy, invited us into his office. He fondly reminisced about living in Alabama as a teenager while his father attended F-16 flight school. He showed us his cherished photos of Epcot Center and Disney World, but he also defended Chavez’s policies. We responded just enough to be polite. He complained that the U.S. won’t sell them spare parts for their Hercules air transporters, and that CNN distorts the news about Venezuela. He went on for hours in a curious balance of friendliness and tension. He seemed torn between Chavez’s xenophobic demagoguery and a repressed fear that Venezuela was becoming increasingly isolated. “We need a change!” he murmured. He also had nothing good to say about the Colombian navy, who had a base just across the river from his own. “They buzz by here and goose their engines just to provoke us!” he scowled.

On March 2, when our GPS indicated that we had left Venezuela, Ginny high-fived Steve. “Adios assholes!” she bellowed, referring not to the generous people but to the government. Their policies had complicated our lives in ways we have explained and in another matter which we can divulge now that we are out of the country. It pertains to their currency.

The bolivar is a controlled currency, meaning that the government sets its official value relative to other currencies. The value it sets is artificially high, so if a traveler exchanges his or her native currency for bolivares in a Venezuelan bank or ATM (which automatically converts the withdrawal to bolivares) his or her cost of living while in Venezuela will be about twice as high as the free market would dictate. We had gotten around this by:
1) estimating how many months we would be the country,
2) multiplying that by our past average of expenses per month,
3) building up a stash of US bills in that amount while in Colombia (we had to convert to pesos then back to dollars), and
4) exchanging our dollars for bolivares on the black market in Venezuela.

Carrying thousands of dollars in cash had added to our stress. So had the black market transactions. In some towns it was easy: you just ask around at stores. In other towns it was difficult to find a dealer. Then we ran out of dollars due to the fees levied upon us and the long waits for permits. We got around this once by a quick visit to a Colombian ATM and another time by using PayPal to transfer funds to the U.S. bank account of an affluent Venezuelan. Once the transfer cleared he gave us our bolivares at the good rate. We’d had to hide all this activity from scrutinizing officials as it is a crime punishable by huge fines and possible imprisonment.

All that behind us now, we hungrily opened our senses to this new country. Brazil was huge and flat, still totally forested but with isolated mountains here and there. We had entered a region still in its rainy season; showers were frequent, otherwise it was very hot. The banks were often inundated forests. There were palms with upward-radiating fronds and hardwoods with buttress roots. Some trees sported yellow or magenta flowers, others had large pendant pods. Giants with thick, straight trunks held spherical canopies above all the others. Vines smothered many trees. Curlicue rope vines dangled here and there, their tips often dragging in the river current. The people, mostly indigenous, drove dugout canoes sporting outboard motors with long propeller shafts projecting aft into the water. One had a radio playing. To Steve’s unaccustomed ear the music sounded like Cajun: rock-and-roll chord progressions at dance tempo with accordion and strings. The settlements had plank-built homes, old stucco churches, and stands of coconut and banana trees.

One campsite deserves special description. As the sun dropped low we descended a side-channel of the river, mainland to right, island to left, until it squeezed through a rocky defile. On the mainland side of the gap, obscured from the river by a heavily-forested hemispheric peninsula of igneous rock, was a small, semi-circular cove, the walls of which were of the same smooth rock. We tied to roots and pulled ourselves up. It was the same geology we had been seeing since Caicara, but here the immense rainfall caused trees to root in the bedrock and a deep leaf litter to form. The forest floor was like a soft, springy mattress! A gentle chaos of stray eddies wafted Thurston left then right. A pink dolphin hunted among the stronger currents at the cove’s neck as the setting sun turned the clouds pink and blue.

On March 5 we passed through a vast archipelago of forested islands interspersed with rapids where the river dropped over shelves. While Steve concentrated on the chutes Ginny watched the GPS while its latitude readout run down to º0.000.000: the equator! Just beyond, on the left bank, lay Sảo Gabriel da Cachoeira. Cachoeira means waterfall, the city being located just above where the mile-wide Rio Negro falls thunderously over a shelf. The shoreline was crowded with wooden boats, many of them roofed and inhabited by large families. Boats with fish and yucca were arriving while others loaded to the gunwales with cooking oil and bags of rice were heading upriver.

We landed next to a barge on which cane liquor was being served to drunken Indians. They held their hands out to be shaken. To shake with them was like squeezing a sponge: passive, soft, and wet! There were cars in the streets and government offices where we were politely escorted through the Brazilian entry procedures. Portuguese is similar to Spanish except for the pronunciation so we are getting used to its soft, lisping sounds via the Rosetta Stone course which we have on one of our laptops.

They have internet here. We will catch up on our writing and Google Earth mapping then begin the 1000 river kilometers to Manaus. We’re not sure what we’re doing after that but we are thoroughly enjoying this new phase of our journey.

Bye for now,
Love Steve and Ginny

New photos can be found in the Venezuela album here:
And Brasil album here: