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