Saturday, April 21, 2012

Manaus, Brazil - Mass email

Dear friends and family,

We last wrote you from São Gabriel da Cachoeira, a city of perhaps 50,000 people in Brazil’s remote northwestern corner, where it adjoins Colombia and Venezuela. The dry llanos of those countries had fully given way to equatorial tropics, though the land remained predominantly level and low.

We managed to exchange our leftover Venezuelan and Colombian money for Brazilian reais (pronounced hay-ishe). We had no navigational map of the Rio Negro so again we found an internet shop and created our own using Google Earth. The distance to Manaus was about a thousand river kilometers. Though we represented shorelines by only about one click per kilometer, and rapidly traced our route via the satellite images, the task took twenty-five hours. Most of the way the river contained at least one long, sharp-ended island, sometimes as many as ten abreast! In some regions vegetation and water intermingled in vast swamps, visually fascinating but hard to map. In a few arbitrary clicks we categorized untold watery wonderlands. 

The river’s undulating shapes as viewed from above reflected its slow writhing over time. In places vast striations reflected the river’s accretions, its migrations toward the outside of each bend. The striations mimicked the river’s curves, each line representing a former shoreline or silted-in channel. There were also breaks in the pattern where the river had cut new short-cuts. We saw “hollow” islands with lakes almost their own size, channels that tapered to nothing as they stabbed into land masses, and dozens of converging tributaries, some so large as to merit their own delta archipelagos.

The imagery couldn’t tell us where heights of land might exist, nor which areas of dense tree canopy would be dry and which would be inundated. The presence or absence of whiteness, however, told us that the only significant rapids were those near São Gabriel. A riverboat owner named João took Steve for a motorcycle ride along the river road, pointing out the best route through the first and worst drop.

It was March 12, 2012. The river was at moderate height and rising. Ginny, though scared, chose to accompany Steve through the rapid, in case the inevitable capsize should leave him in need of superhuman assistance. Just downstream of our tie-up the river compressed from a mile in width to a mere quarter mile. The shoreline there was whitewater but the middle was black and roiling. Casting off, we motored at an upstream diagonal to the river’s centerline, just missing the first set of rocks. As we entered the apparently placid narrows, patches of river suddenly boiled up and whirlpooled around us! Current speed far exceeded our through-the-water speed, so we noted the horizontal alignments of near and far objects to sense how fast we were going and in which direction. When we were clear of the first hazard we angled back to shore to avoid the cachoeira itself, where the river drops over a ledge of perhaps eight feet. By staying close to the granite bank we sped down a swath of unbroken water which soon deposited us, swirling and bobbing, in a quiet embayment.

For twenty kilometers the river remained broken into islands, rocks, and riffles. Then the river compressed once more, mightily. Here we had no choice but to bump through a series of white corduroy waves. To Steve it was fun, to Ginny it was anything but.

Thereafter the current was mild. The hills and round granite rocks we had been seeing since Caicara slowly subsided until only flatland remained. In spots we could see an actual bank. More commonly the competition for sunlight in the foliage was so intense that branches and vines extended well out over the river. It did so in varying degrees, forming “vegetative coves.” We kept our distance just enough to prevent Thurston’s projecting parts from catching on something. The forest edge was a verdant wall with varied adornments. There were vertical stalks with tiny white flowers in a “zipper” pattern, vines with leaves like elephant ears, maroon trilobytish lichen, small red and green bulbs like Christmas lights hanging off the brush, and a thousand other mysterious plant forms which we gazed at as we floated past.

 You may remember how we hurried along the coast of Panama, Colombia and Venezuela to avoid the stronger winds that begin in December. Inland Venezuela was also rushed as we desired so strongly to escape the clutches of their Big-Brother government. For once we were in no hurry! The water was fresh and clean, facilitating bathing and washing. There were almost no waves. The wilderness was pristine. There were no more biting insects, due, we were told, to the tannic acid that makes the river look black. So we decided to slow down. 

Our first indulgence was to ascend a randomly-selected tributary on the north bank called the Rio Cauaburi. About the size of the Washington’s Skagit River, its watershed is within the Parque Nacional do Pico da Neblina, named for Brazil’s highest point, on the Venezuelan border. We motored along as close to the bank as possible to minimize current, weaving in and out to avoid branches. We connected the steering lines, left the awning up to shelter us from the intermittent sun and rain, and had great fun navigating our miniature ship from the companionway hatch.

After a couple hours we arrived at a rapid which we were unable to climb. Upstream the river braided around rocks and thundered toward us, but in a bay at the outside of a bend we found a forested slough leading into the jungle. By lifting a few branches we squeezed inside.

Here under the forest canopy there was no wall of leaves separating us from land. We parked between two trees and explored, minding our track with a compass, observant for any dangers. There were small palm trees covered with long spines which we had to avoid grabbing whenever vines tangled our feet. Ants crawled up and bit us if we lingered in the wrong place, and unidentified animals had burrowed holes which needed avoiding. Where big trees had fallen they had pulled the vines down with them and the hole in the canopy had allowed dense shrubs to proliferate. Elsewhere the forest was walkable. Only the newness made us careful. Overhead a copper-colored monkey returned our stare. We found a five-inch-long grasshopper that wasn’t afraid of us, a cinnamon-colored tarantula on a rotten stump, and a small mantis-like stick bug. Then a cloudburst hit, and the leafy forest floor, though well-drained, soon puddled from the intensity of the rain.

No people detected our presence, but a river otter examined us while chomping a fish nearby, his big, round head above water. We felt isolated yet safe. We were at peace and had everything we needed. But, since that is an unnatural (and therefore unstable) state for humans we left our satori after two days and continued on our way to “civilization.”

The wilderness and the monotony of our travel resulted in much philosophizing and introspection. We ruminated on the meaning of life, human purpose, and the existence of God. We wrestled with the concept of remoteness. Since Puerto Ayacucho the towns had been far apart with no connecting roads. Nor had we noticed any long-distance trails. Native villages exist here and there on the rivers and streams, but what about the vast forests beyond that? Is much of Amazonia simply uninhabited? Steve found this idea subtly disturbing, while Ginny relished it. We struggled with the desire to keep exploring deeper into the wilderness and the logical impracticality of it. In wilderness travel is there always someplace even more remote you can’t reach?

With the right gear could one hike into lands of which even the natives know nothing? Could one ever find a nirvana in which sloths could be cuddled, being too slow to run away, and spotted agoutis minutely observed? When if not now would we ever penetrate nature’s next layer of secrecy? The rivers injected renewed enthusiasm into our voyage. We daydreamed of following them into Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina. We even fantasized about trading Thurston for a riverboat, becoming beekeepers, having a kid, adopting a cat and turning our voyage into a permanent lifestyle.

Then what of our families, friends, professions, possessions? Might we not eventually become lost to our former senses of belonging? Our subconsciouses suggest this is already occurring, to Ginny and Steve in different ways. We have already been traveling for over two years. When will the wanderlust wane? Setting these dreams aside for future voyages we agreed to continue toward the mouth of the Amazon then turn left, back toward the States.

With this sobering decision in mind we continued down the Rio Negro. Typically we rowed for two or three hours per day and motored for five or six due to mild headwinds. With the awning always up clothing was optional. Sometimes the river was so wide that large extents of the horizon were land-less, like we were looking out to sea. Other times we were in a maze of islands. Sometimes the only dry land was a narrow strip along the river, its natural levee. Then even those went away and we could no longer go for walks. Fortunately, rowing with a sliding seat exercises the legs as well as the upper body. Pink dolphins were common, but never so active or interested in us as were those on the Portuguese and Apure rivers. The narrower channels abounded in lime-green parrots and macaws of both the scarlet and blue species. All flew in pairs or larger groups and were very vocal during the day. At night monkeys howled, cicadas whirred, frogs “croaked” in strange new ways, and bird calls of every description reverberated through the forest. Once we even heard the guttural growls of a wild cat accompanied by lots of splashing. Closing her eyes Ginny could have sworn it was her dear cat Snazz munching on a hotdog. 

It being the rainy season, the river was seven or eight meters higher than in the dry season. This allowed us to camp under full canopy in drowned forests. We also stayed along quiet banks and in open water with scattered trees and brush. One night we anchored in a swampy cove of a bay in a lake inside an island! On another we settled into a side-channel not knowing if an island or a peninsula separated us from the river proper. As it turned out it was neither, because in the morning a boat passed by, which we heard but could not see. Its wake came right through the forest and rocked us.

It was springtime for the trees. Fist-sized “acorns” often splashed from the canopy into the water. The locals were gathering wild Brazil nuts, whose container case resembles a cannon ball. There were big crimson bean pods; and grey-green discs which, when opened like a clam, revealed a horizontal stack of thin, seed-bearing wafers.

At first we supposed that a tree standing in water wouldn’t have ants. Wrong! Our worst invasions came from contact with vegetation on which there were thousands of desperate small ants. Perhaps they get “treed” as the river rises then die off unless they find another home. We have also heard they make bridges with their own bodies to move among the inundated plants. We spent hours washing them off with bucketfuls of water and smashing them as they scurried about. We executed mercilessly, though in Ginny’s case it was not without remorse. After that we reached down and tied our mooring lines below the waterline of branches or trunks so nothing could climb aboard. We tolerated spiders and crickets. We would have exterminated the tiny flies and beetles that appeared in the cabin if we knew how to. Most mornings we had to get an early start because honey bees swarmed us at about 7 AM, but they soon flew away when we left. 

Sometimes we passed a paddled dugout, a planked canoe with a “stick-out motor,” or a barge. We saw fish traps along the bank looking rather like half-submerged outhouses made from slender poles fastened close together on a flimsy frame. Here and there trees had been cut, milled with chain saws, and the rough lumber removed. The wood was red and heavy. We dropped a scrap in the river and it sank.

We took a side trip up the Rio Branco for a couple days, stopping at a small community to trade an empty gas bottle for 10 lbs of fresh brazil nuts! Otherwise we rarely stopped at indigenous communities because they often had “entry prohibited” signs. We assume they just do not like visitors, though we have read there are still communities remote enough to be threatened with extinction by the common cold.
There were only four towns big enough for provisioning and we spent time in each. Barcelos was our favorite and the one in which we spent the most time. It was peaceful and clean, active and friendly. The military guys we passed as we pulled up to town merely gave us a smile and a thumbs-up. The first and only drunk who approached to beg for money was quickly halted and criticized by his friends. “Don’t bother them, they are tourists!” We marveled at the contrast of this Brazilian experience to our Venezuelan, feeling like we were still healing from the escape of an abusive relationship! 

The other three towns were unique and equally charming. They were Santa Isabela, Moura, and Novo Airão. Other "big" towns showed on the map, but if they had ever existed they were overgrown now. The towns generally had few restaurants or stores, but we had no trouble stocking up on the essentials. In towns we moored alongside other live-aboard families, many of whom had traveled long distances to provision or sell their crops. Some lived in boats with thatched roofs and removable side tarps; others in miniature river boats with forward pilot houses, diesel engines, and fantail sterns. They were poor but happy with infinite kids, a dog or cat and plenty of hammocks. Our pathetic Portuguese hindered communication, but they were friendly and accepting. We had finally found a boating community to which we could relate. 

The world’s biggest fluvial archipelago, the Anavilhanas, began near Novo Airão. They were a profusion of inundated islands, up to fifty kilometers long, like emerald ribbons streaming in a current. Some were bulbous with interior lakes to which we could find no access. The water’s commonest mood was steel gray and oily smooth. When we exited these islands the river was several kilometers wide and thirty to fifty feet deep with very little current. A diagonal crossing from one side to the other took two hours, during which the daily rainstorm packed with lightning and black clouds passed over, blinding us and kicking up waves.

After days of nothing but riverine swamp we began passing tall red river banks. Then on March 6 we saw skyscrapers in the distance. The river corridor had remained relatively untouched until its very end, where Manaus sits on the north bank. The transition from wilderness to a metropolis of two million people was abrupt and kind of painful.

In Novo Airão we had met a charming couple traveling from Trinidad. They had come up the Amazon in their famous motor-sailer, the Passagemaker. We were the first sailboat they had seen coming up the river and they were the first we saw coming down it. A friend of theirs owned a big shipyard in Manaus and on his behalf they had invited us to tie up there. We approached the city with this in mind, exploring the little inlets along the way as is our custom. We were overwhelmed by everything. There were motor yachts, jet skis, skyscrapers, barges; everywhere activity on a large scale. We tied up beside Passagemaker on a huge floating dock where barges were under repair. A new bridge loomed nearby, separating us from the downtown. 

We expect to be in Manaus another couple of weeks. Having already tried your patience with this novel (in which we could only scratch the surface of our experience), we will reserve an in-depth description of Manaus until our next email. Enjoy the many new photos to be found in: