Friday, March 8, 2013

Foz do Iguaçu, Brasil

Dear friends and family,

We sent our last email from Concordia, where we re-entered Argentina. On January 30, 2013 newfound friends trailered us around the Rio Uruguay’s Salto Grande dam. Above it we found ourselves on a reservoir with thick arms extending west into Argentina and east into Uruguay. Continuing north, we cut from point to point, camping in the many coves formed by tributary valleys. We stuck an anchor in the beach or tied to a branch. One night we tied to a cattle fence sloping down into the water and were visited by a curious herd.

As the lake narrowed, the river current again opposed us. Whoever built the dam had not bothered to first cut down the trees growing along the banks. The water rising to nearly the tops of these groves had drowned them, but they still stood, their trunks obstructing the near-shore where we wished to navigate. The above-water parts rotted faster than the immersed parts, so many stumps lay just below water level. We hit some, but they were soft, harmless. Every few days the sluggish heat built into a violent storm that we fled by tucking into a lily-filled inlet flanked by tall, viney forests. In one such refuge we celebrated Ginny’s thirty-third birthday eating watermelon and recuperating from the ill effects of a batch of bad drinking water, discovered in time to prevent serious sickness.

The banks were low, the forest increasingly tropical. Most of the trees were massed broad-leafs, but interspersed among these were pines, palms, bamboo, and a species much taller than the others, with delicate, wispy boughs and white bark. We also passed vast, regular plantations of eucalyptus trees for making paper pulp. There were few houses, but we sometimes passed swarthy fishermen standing shoulder-deep in the river, immobile except for their heads, which slowly turned to watch as we passed. This posture kept them cool while allowing them to cast their hooks further out into the river. We gave them a wide berth to avoid catching their lines in our propeller.

Uruguay gave way to Brazil on the right bank, but we didn’t land for fear of angering the touchy Argentine officials. We stranded on a sandbar, and in cutting the motor heard the familiar cry of howler monkeys. In the distance stood the skyscrapers of Uruguaiana, a city in this southern appendage of Brazil.

After a long day of sailing or motoring we welcomed a cool bath and a quiet evening under the southern stars. Yellow and green fireflies flew about us. When we washed our dishes in the river, bending over the gunwale to reach the whirling, semi-transparent water, hordes of minnows fought for the scraps. They also bit us we when bathed, but their tiny jaws never broke our skin.

Our little outboard motor developed a fuel system problem, so we pulled into a creek mouth to fix it. “Damn, it’s a Prefectura!” said Ginny, noting a boat and a little building with a radio antenna on the upper bank. But the usual hassles did not occur. A lanky officer, off-duty in shorts and T-shirt, told us how boring the work was. “Nothing happens here except sometimes the Brazilians cross over with contraband fireworks,” he said. “For a month at a time we don’t see our families.” He offered us ice, water, mate tea, whatever he could help us with. We located the problem, a restrictive gas filter, and left in the morning.

A week out from Concordia we reached Santo Tomé, a small city where the Uruguay River passes within a hundred miles of the Paraná. It had a boat ramp and good highway access, so here we looked for transportation to the larger watercourse that would take us to Foz do Iguaçu, where we planned to have George. No friendly fellow boaters materialized, but the local Prefectura connected us with a chunky, tattooed businessman with a trailer eager to earn $400.

Upon backing the trailer into the river we found that Thurston didn’t fit because its side posts were too close together. “No problem,” he said. He dashed home, got a grinder, and cut the posts off. Once we had loaded Thurston Steve noted that the trailer’s tongue weight was dangerously negative, but he drove off anyway. The hitch soon lifted off the ball, got jerked forward by the safety chain, and smashed his trunk in. We shifted equipment from stern to bow until the tongue weight was positive. 

It was now midnight but he preferred to leave right away because there were fewer highway checkpoints at night. We stipulated only that he put us in the Paraná River upstream of the Yacyretá dam. He chain-smoked and drank beer while we dozed in the back seat. At 3:30 a.m. he backed us into a water body with suspiciously strong current for a reservoir. “Don’t worry, you’re above the dam,” he said, and drove off. We anchored in shallow water and fell asleep.

In the morning of February 11 we looked up and saw the downstream face of the huge Yacyretá dam shared by Paraguay and Argentina. Whether our driver’s geography was mistaken or he had deceived us we never determined, but we weren’t too worried because the dam has a lock. We were in a city called Ituzaingó. We found our way to a large Prefectura compound and surrendered ourselves to their smothering care. Data was entered into books, papers were checked, an entry document was created. “To open the lock requires written request forty-eight hours in advance,” they said. We got that started.

A meeting was convened in the chief’s office. Various officers gravely warned us how murderous the Paraguayan smugglers are, how dangerous the lock is, how perilous the reservoir, how calm weather can quickly change into a killer storm. “The waves come at you from all directions at the same time! And you can’t go ashore because the coast is too hazardous. No one boats up there!” Someone asked to see our certificates of boater training. We had none, since such a requirement had never existed in Washington State. We showed them the authorization already granted us by the Concordia Prefectura to navigate to Foz do Iguaçu, and some magazines in which our articles had been published. “You can see that we’re experienced sailors,” we argued.

“I am sorry,” said the chief, “but without such proof of competence I cannot permit you to navigate the reservoir. But I have a friend who might be able to give you a ride to Posadas, beyond the reservoir. Good luck!”

A plump, young officer took us in a Prefectura vehicle to a company that gives boat rides. “I have no trouble giving you a ride to Posadas. Just give me some gas money,” said the manager. He hooked a Land Rover to a trailer, loaded us in the car with him, and drove to the waterfront. “I didn’t want to tell you in front of the Prefecto, but I can’t take you all the way to Posadas. I’ll take you past the dam, to a ranch on the lake.” He pulled Thurston out of the water and drove us out of town, our second transport in three days.

We rumbled along twenty miles of red dirt roads through pasture and forest, avoiding the highway for the same reason our previous transporter had avoided travelling during the day. When we got to a cluster of buildings on a big lake he backed the boat down a gentle bank. We untied and climbed aboard. “When you pass Prefectura stations stay at least a kilometer from shore so they can’t bother you,” he advised.

As we motored out into this new reservoir we wondered what about it so terrified the Ituzaingó Prefectos. It looked no different from the one we had navigated near Concordia. After a couple hours we reached an island consisting of a single huge sand dune, uninhabited and barren. We climbed to the top. Was this a drug-smuggling base? Were we were being watched? Paraguay was visible to the north. The “deadly” lake was like a mill pond, hot and airless.

Resuming our transit we stayed far from shore until we had passed what looked like a Prefectura station, given its tall tower, then pulled into a cove surrounded by open grazing land and rolling hills. We relaxed in the cockpit as the air cooled and the sky turned purple and red. Doves cooed, cicadas whirred. Ginny cooked vegetarian spaghetti. We had just started eating when we heard a boat approach.

“Goddamn it, it’s Prefucktos!” Ginny swore. They pulled alongside, their twin high-powered outboards idling. “I’m sorry,” they said. “This area is unsafe due to cattle rustlers. We have orders to ask you to accompany us.”

They tossed us a line. We morosely finished our meal as they towed us to the station we had passed. The senior officer came out. “The Ituzaingó Prefectura is unhappy with you,” he said. “They prohibited you from going out into the lake and you went anyway. You’ll have to stay here until I get authorization from Posadas.” We turned in with repressed anger. Our little cove had been protected but here waves made sleep difficult.

In the morning they let us go after a few phone calls provided we report to headquarters when we reached Posadas. As we continued the reservoir narrowed and a current asserted itself. Posadas was our last large Argentine city, capital of the Province of Misiones, named for the Jesuit missions that claimed this region. Our Google Earth-derived shore outline was inaccurate; it turned out the dam had been raised higher after the satellite imagery was taken. The old yacht club was underwater. The new basin was unprotected and without docks, but the courtesy was great as in all Argentine yacht clubs. The club gave us a buoy to tie to, a canoe to get to the buoy and back, and rides into town for gas and laundry. The water was too rough to sleep so we set up our tent on land, the first time we’d done that since Colombia.

It was now mid-February, a month from Ginny’s due date. Steve read the chapter in our Where There Is No Doctor book pertaining to midwifery, just in case. The Prefectura continued to plague us in this final stretch. Armed vessels sometimes accompanied us. They said it was for our safety, but we concluded that they exaggerated the dangers to justify their overbearing control. Why do the Argentines put up with this? Why does Peronismo still govern the country decades after the death of those demagogues, Juan and Eva Peron? We camped where the Prefectos told us, or hid deep in swampy holes, among trees adapted to seasonally flooding like in the Amazon, pushing past floating logs and squeezing under spider-filled branches until no searchlight could reach us.

Butterflies swarmed wherever the sun penetrated to a solid surface, be it Thurston or a muddy bank. We had entered a rainy season, or simply a region that has no dry season. The land became hills and tall basalt cliffs. Every few kilometers we passed an indent in the shoreline at the base of which, maybe a hundred meters distant, a stream fell off the cliff into the river. Waterfalls peeped out through the forests that blanketed the canyon walls. Occasionally a red dirt road sloped down to the river. Those on the Argentine side of such a road might feature a house or two, a boat or two, but on the matching Paraguayan side the steep, diagonally sloping track would be lined with wall-to-wall wooden shops, those on the downhill side perched on tall, precarious stilts. “Argentines go to the other side to buy cheap clothes, shoes, etc.” we were told.

The river narrowed to as little as three hundred meters. The current increased, the banks became rocky. We retired the two-horse outboard and put the five-horse long-tail into service. It was too brutish for Ginny to steer for long. Taking advantage of the countercurrents in the many coves we still averaged seven kilometers per hour. In its middle the river flowed at a steady five knots, but the current along its margin was splintered into a myriad of whirls. Thurston spun this way and that as we negotiated from one patch of water to another, watching for rocks that didn’t quite reach the surface. We clung close to shore at the risk of hitting the sharp black boulders and outcroppings on the forty-five-degree bank. After a hard bump we felt under the floorboards to make sure we hadn’t sprung a leak. 

We skirted around nets strung from the shore out to an anchor, buoyed by a string of plastic pop bottles. The Paraguayans, poorer than the Argentines, fished from wooden rowboats, and constantly snuck over to the Argentine side for illegal purposes such as smuggling and tree poaching. Ferrymen rowed passengers across, dropping them off at trails leading up the 500-foot-tall banks. This was a feat given the current; in order to land where they wanted they first had to row far upstream in the long-shore eddies, then pull across while the current swept them back down.

On February 22 we turned right into the Rio Iguazu (Spanish spelling), which entered at ninety degrees from the east. Its canyon walls, like those of the Paraná, were heavily forested, too steep to see the cities above: Puerto Iguazu on the Argentina side and Foz do (Mouth of the) Iguaçu on the northern, or Brazilian side. Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, lay on the west bank of the Paraná. Each country had a prominent monument marking its corner of the Triple Frontier.

Puerto Iguazu was the smallest of the three. Its waterfront consisted of a flat spot with a road down to it, a few boats and government buildings. After paying homage to the Prefectos we walked up and got our bearings. Busy streets ran at all angles. It was a tourist town, a base for people going to see the Argentine side of the Iguaçu Falls, ten miles upriver. We took the first of several bus rides across the bridge into Brazil.

Crossing over for the day required minimal paperwork. Our first priority was to find a place to live aboard Thurston until Ginny’s mom, sister, and sister’s boyfriend came. A sewage outlet just upstream spoiled our mooring in Puerto Iguazu. Due to cliffs Foz do Iguaçu has almost no waterfront access, but directly across from our current tie-up was a sand terminal. A steel boat sucked up sand from somewhere up the Iguaçu River then slurried it up to a de-watering enclosure, where a front-end loader hefted it onto trucks for construction purposes. There was a boat ramp, an office, and a minor Policia Federal post. No one objected to us tying up there.

With this assurance we went through the Argentine exit procedures. The Prefectos invented a new twist: they called ahead to the Brazilian authorities to see if they would grant us entry, failing which, presumably, they would not let us go. This was ridiculous because no bureaucrat would think of answering such a question unless we were standing in front of them with our papers. “Someone will call you back,” they said. But we had a trick up our sleeve. Knowing they would pull some stunt like that we had left our clothes at a laundromat and in reality we weren’t ready to go yet! By the afternoon our clothes were done and the Prefectos, giving up on their attempt at international relations, granted us a flowery new clearance paper, the last in a sheaf that we aren’t very sentimental about, but which we respect for its sheer absurdity.

We then rowed the two hundred or so meters to the sand terminal and started work on that side. After taking buses to the Capitania Fluvial and the Policia Federal headquarters we discovered that all we had to do was go to the international bridge and get our passports stamped. No customs document, no capitania papers, no equipment checks, nothing! Steve always had a soft spot for Argentina, due to the hospitality of the kind people we met there and of course because it was cheap, but Ginny was ecstatic to be back in Brazil where supplies of coffee, chocolate, mangos and wilderness are seemingly infinite.

Our next priority was to find a place for us, Lois, Carley, and Matt to stay from March 14 to April 17. Lois would be paying, so we tried to fill her specifications: three bedrooms, kitchen, air conditioning, close to downtown, at a good price. After scouring the city’s real estate offices, classified ads, and web sites we concluded that such a place did not exist, but Lois graciously lowered her expectations a bit, and a place was reserved.

We have been at the Foz sand terminal a week now. The dredger is usually off someplace sucking up sand. Periodically they return and pump it up to the terminal. Twice a week they load it onto dumptrucks. A couple of tourist outfitters and police boats use the ramp. There is a watchman at night, and three cute little dogs that no longer bark at us. Otherwise hardly anyone comes here. It’s quiet compared to the Argentine side, where carnival music plays until dawn.

We are next to the ramp, one anchor out in the river and another up on the bank, bow to shore. The river raises and lowers as much as two meters a day in a pattern we have not yet discerned, due to variable rains in the Iguaçu basin and greater or lesser releases from the Itaipu Dam, a few miles up the Paraná. We have to keep adjusting the anchor lines accordingly.

From the sand terminal a road leads along a cliff face then up over a steep hill. On the other side the city starts, first a scattered poor neighborhood, then a wide arterial leading downtown. It’s a city of 250,000, of recent construction, the result of a boom when the dam was built and the immense tourist draw of the Iguaçu Falls. Ciudad del Este, meanwhile, is a famous duty-free zone and smuggling center. Over there the canyon faces are lined with garbage tossed down from the slum homes along the brink of the cliff.

Steve has bought a used bicycle. Ginny tried one and decided against it. Her body isn’t as balanced or agile as it once was, so she is learning bus routes. We have found a good private hospital and paid a deposit. We don’t need to go there again until Ginny enters labor, which could be any day now. Ginny now sleeps in the wide end of the cabin, by the big open hatch, where it is cooler and easier to get in and out. Still the hot nights, back pains and inevitable worries of a mother-to-be keep her awake most of the time. She stays positive however, knowing she’ll have to learn to live without sleep sooner or later.

See our new Rio Uruguay photos at:
and photos from this portion of the Rio Parana at:

Lots of love,
Steve & Ginny