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
New photos can be found here: https://picasaweb.google.com/ginnygoon/BrasilPart2