Monday, July 15, 2013

Presidente Epitacio Mass Email

Dear friends and family,

We last emailed you on May 10 from Foz do Iguaçu, where George was born. After the month in the apartment we moved to the Lake Itaipu Yacht Club and worked on Thurston, sleeping in a bunkhouse behind the restaurant when the boat work was too disruptive to live aboard. George created a steady stream of dirty clothes and diapers. Ginny washed them in a sink with a built-in scrub-board in the camping area. The wi-fi reception was good there, so she often Skyped with her mother and grandmother, who were eager to see George. We dried the clothes on lines by the bunkhouse, taking them down during the cold rains, and at night when the dew was heavy.

On May 30 we started up Lake Itaipu, a reservoir on the Paraná River. Paraguay was still on the left (west) bank but now we had Brazil to our right. The reservoir was an inland sea with wooded shores. As in our two previous reservoir experiences they hadn’t removed the trees before filling the reservoir, so snags protruded wherever the lake was shallow. Sport fishermen fly-fished from aluminum skiffs, and commercial fishermen in planked boats tended nets. The Honda 2-horse outboard conked out, but we tracked the cause to the ignition cable, for which we had a spare. Ginny rowed for the first time since she was five months pregnant. The wind was rarely good for sailing.

George was fine with living aboard. As necessary we applied his life jacket, ear-protectors, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Ginny created a wrap for him whereby George is carried snugly on her chest leaving her hands free. We shared colds, always harder on George than on Steve or Ginny. During meals Steve read Brazilian history books, looking up the words he didn’t know in a Portuguese-English dictionary. We dried diapers on a line stretched between the masts.

On June 2 we reached Guaira, a small city where there used to be falls similar to Iguaçu, but the dam has drowned them. Somebody invited us into a creek, so we paddled in until we came to a long, ramshackle boatshed with fifteen or so long, slender, wooden fishing dories. We squeezed in among them. We stepped onto a low, grassy bank, crossed a street, and found ourselves in a neighborhood of new and in-process small homes inhabited by fishermen and their families. They were excited to meet us. They had us over for meals and took us on errands in their rattly cars. The local press interviewed us. Little girls brought ramen noodles, bottled water, candies. We were told, for the umpteenth time, of someone who some years before had kayaked the same stretch of river.

Leaving Guaira we were in current again. We weren’t in a hurry so we ran the long-tail motor slow. averaging seven kilometers per hour. Now both banks were Brazil, so the naval patrols dropped off. It took two and a half days to get past Ilha Grande, our longest riverine island to date at 130 kilometers. With the river undivided again it was three kilometers wide: big considering how far upstream we were.

Rather than take one long break at mid-day we tried stopping every couple hours for a quick stroll on a sand bank, a forest trail, or in a town. On June 9 we reached the mouth of the Paranapanema River. Thereafter São Paulo State lay on the east bank. The water became wonderfully clear as we approached the next dam, because it had settled out the sediment.

The Sergio Matto dam has a lock, but could we use it? The fishermen said it’s only for big boats. We put up our masts to look more like a sailboat, therefore deserving. We entered a canal chiseled down through bedrock and stopped within sight of the lock. We called for assistance on VHF Channel 16, afraid we wouldn’t understand the operator’s Portuguese, but we managed all right. Someone took our data, consulted their superior, and said to approach the lock. The operator was a tiny figure in a glass structure high over the downstream gate, which he now lifted. We paddled into the chamber, which was big enough for a hundred Thurstons, and tied to a floating bollard that slides vertically on a track. Creaks and groans echoed through the chamber, flowed by a gentle swirling as we rose about twenty feet. Then the upstream gate opened, this time vertically downwards. It was dark when we emerged into this new reservoir, but we soon found a cove to anchor in.

The next day was Steve’s 60th birthday. The sun shone brightly, the water was clear and cool. The sandy bottom lent itself to wading. In the following nights we camped in equally lovely coves. They were generally creek mouths, marshy at their heads, with forested banks and rising farmland beyond. We saw capybaras, otters, parrots, macaws, and tapir tracks five inches across, but so far no tapirs.

On June 14 we reached Presidente Epitacio, a small city on the east bank. We pulled into a lily-lined inlet and nosed up to a grassy bank among some other recreational boats. The land was park-like, gently rising. To our left a couple of steel boats were getting welded up. To our right was a restaurant with open-air seating. As in Guaira, people took an interest in us. Reporters arrived. The marina manager invited us to stay in a guest house. Downtown was a ten-minute walk away.

We needed to go to the U.S. consulate in São Paulo city to get George an American passport. Pleased with what we had seen of Presidente Epitacio we decided to leave Thurston here and catch a bus. We had heard of something called Couch Surfing, where people register themselves on a web site as being willing to put up travelers. We checked. It’s popular in Brazil and we soon got an invitation from a guy in São Paulo!

We packed light, using just our day packs. A fellow boat owner helped us secure Thurston and took us to the bus station. At 8 PM we caught a modern bus with reclinable seats and rolled off into the night.

Dawn found us in a huge São Paulo transit terminal. We took a subway to Praça da Sé (Plaza of the Old Cathedral), at the city’s core. The crowds included gold-buyers with special vests, policemen of varying uniforms, and homeless people snoozing under brown blankets. Nearby stood the former Jesuit school where the first mass was held in 1554, inaugurating Brazil’s first inland settlement, seventy kilometers from the coast and a cool 2,600 feet above sea level.

São Paulo grew as the jumping-off point for the bandeirante explorations, wherein hardy Portuguese canoed the rivers for years on end in search of gold and Indian slaves. Another new type of man, the gaúcho, ranged southward, adapting the plains to cattle herding. Here and in Paraguay everyone spoke a lingua franca based on Tupi-Guarani. In Paraguay Guarani remained the language of the people while in Brazil further European influxes caused Portuguese to prevail. The bandeirantes discovered gold in Ouro Preto (Black Gold). Coffee was introduced. Millions emigrated from Italy, Germany, Japan, and Eastern Europe. Now São Paulo, population twenty million, is the biggest city in South America, and in the Southern Hemisphere.

We obtained an atlas that broke the city up into 445 pages worth of maps, the minimum number capable of depicting all its 131,249 streets. São Paulo is actually a city of many centers, each a cluster of skyscrapers, the whole spreading over an area forty by sixty kilometers.

We found our amiable host, Vinicius, in a sub-city called Butantá, west of the Pinheiros River. He, his wife Fernanda and a couple friends, all recent graduates of the U. of São Paulo engineering school, inhabited a common-wall house in a hilly district. They gave us the bedroom of a roommate temporarily out of town, keys, and bicycles. Our hosts were leftists, active in the anti-corruption demonstrations then shaking the country. They spoke English, which facilitated communication. We soon developed close friendships with Vinicius and several others.

Next we found the U.S. Consulate, a bus ride and train ride away. A State Department official originally from Seattle interviewed us and approved George’s citizenship. On the public conveyances George inevitably made new friends, men and women of all ages who cooed at him phrases like, “Ay, que pequeninho tao bonitinho e branquinho.” (“My what a lovely little boy, so cute and white-skinned.”) George now smiles ecstatically in response to such entreaties. The other day we caught him befriending a cardboard cut out of a man in the grocery store!

In the following days we toured the Museum of the Portuguese Language, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Paulista Museum (a native of São Paulo state is a Paulista). We did a walking tour of downtown architecture. We found our way through subway stations four stories tall, interconnected with other caverns via conveyor-belt tunnels. The old financial district was entirely vehicle-free: streets curving in medieval patterns, paved with black and white stones, with fountains and street musicians. Here and there demonstrators marched with banners. Mounted policemen marshaled their forces in ranks of groomed horses and shiny black leather. Our new friends took us out to see places we may have never found ourselves. We toured an alley famous for its graffiti. At a street fair we sampled regional sweets and listened to a family performing folk classics on flute, clarinet, ukelele, guitar, and tambourine.

With time to kill pending the arrival of George’s passport, we got another Couch Surfing date and took an all-nighter to Ouro Preto, in the mountainous state of Minas Gerais (General Mines). In 1696 – a hundred and fifty years before the California Gold Rush! – bandeirantes found gold in these steep hills and the creeks draining them. Nobles and commoners, Europeans and creoles, African slaves and everyone else. rushed up from São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro to get rich (or help their masters do so). And before the problem of provisions was solved (the soil being inadequate for farming) many died with gold in their hands! 

With their new wealth the survivors built a city of steep cobblestone streets and two-story townhouses with mud-and-wattle walls. Those that occupied intersections often had alters like little false balconies set high in their salient corners in the hope that the saint represented therein would protect the residents from ghouls. The well-endowed brotherhoods of the day flooded the town with baroque and rococo churches such as are no longer seen in São Paulo, where the first generation of churches were demolished and rebuilt in newer styles. Their interiors are packed with primitive but colorful paintings, wooden statuary, carved soapstone, and gold-leaf. The most famous architect and sculptor, Aleijadinho (Little Cripple), was a leper who completed his final works with prosthetics attached to his limbs because he no longer had hands.

Our hosts were a young couple who spent their days trying to sell illustrated poetry in the streets. They were anarchists, simple in their lifestyle and pure in their beliefs. Their only furniture was scrounged mats and wooden crates found on the street after market day. We stayed three days with them in their rental house on top of a hill so tall that it was usually in the clouds, cold and misty.

To complete our side-trip we took a bus down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s most beautiful city and long its capital. Set among sugarloaf mountains, scalloped bays, and luxurious beaches, the city rises from a commodious harbor to steep urbanized hillsides. When Napoleon occupied Portugal in 1808 King Joáo of Portugal moved his court there, promoting Brazil from colony to seat of a world-wide empire. When Joáo returned to Portugal his son remained to became Emperor of an independent Brazil. Various separatist movements were crushed, preserving Brazil as a single whole while Spain’s New World empire crumbled into eighteen separate countries, all relatively weak. This allowed Brazil to win the race for the interior of the continent, its settlers spreading out in the footsteps of the bandeirantes, protected by imperial soldiers.

Our Rio host was a friend of Vinicius, a chemical engineer with a demanding job and a new condo near the beach. In the city center, among more grandiose attractions, we discovered the Real Gabinete Portuguese de Leitura, or, roughly, “Royal Portuguese Reading Library.” A gem of arches and spires, it consists of little more than a three-story atrium filled, from floor to glass dome, with antique books, a sort of Gothic altar to the beautifully soft language of Portugal. 

Friday night fell as we meandered back, George in his wrap. We crossed a glittery theater district, then stopped in a scruffy back street with tall building fronts and hole-in-the-wall booze shops. Drinkers drank in the light emanating from the shops. Families sat on their steps. We bought a big rum drink for $1.50 and sat on the pavement, our backs against a dark wall. Skateboarders tooled around. Kids on bikes passed through. A drunk raved harmlessly.  A hippie jewelry vendor tended his wares, spread out on a cloth. He must have been charismatic, because a baseball-capped teenager brought him marijuana to smoke, and one young woman, then another, came and sat on his knee. Everyone just relaxed, as they must do every Friday night when the weather is nice.

Back at Vinicius’ place in São Paulo we celebrated our third wedding anniversary. Has it really been three years? Our friends Francisco and Berlane, from Manaus, were in town so we got together for a trip to Santos, the port city nearest São Paulo. What a treat to see old friends! George’s passport came, then a debit card to replace one that had expired. We bicycled to new neighborhoods. Kids flying kites were a common sight. If no park was nearby they flew them in the street, their first challenge being to get their little squares of paper and balsa up through a gap in the cables and power lines that filled the air overhead. Once the kite was up the boy had to stay put, but his kite was free to fly far and high, a brave symbol of joy.

On July 11 we caught another night bus back to Presidente Epitacio. Thurston was fine, our hosts still welcoming. We now plan to finish our ascent of the Paraná and a series of tributaries as far as they remain navigable. In upstream order these additional rivers will be the Paranaíba, the Dos Bois, and the Verdáo, the latter two in the state of Goiás. At some point we will arrange transport to Barra das Garzas on the Araguaia River. Around that time our visa will expire, so we will leave Thurston someplace and fly back to Atlanta. We plan to drive around visiting friends and relatives for six months, then return to Thurston and descend the Araguaia River to Belém at the mouth of the Amazon.

Lots of love,
Steve, Ginny, & George