Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Goiânia, Brazil - Mass Email #27

Dear friends and family

We last emailed you on July 15 from Presidente Epitacio, São Paulo State, Brazil. From there we continued up the next reservoir on the Paraná River. With no current to fight we ran the Honda 2HP slow and cruised for four hours on one liter of gas! We cut across the lake’s huge arms, navigating from point to point, threading through forests of dead standing trees. Weekend fishermen anchored their boats in the river and sat fishing under colorful umbrellas. We camped behind low islands and in secluded creek mouths, luxuriating in the quietude. The landscapes were open and watery, full of low greenery and wildlife, with farmland beyond and bright southern constellations overhead.

Steve read books about Brazil’s expansions in the 1700s and 1800s, aided by the fact that we had already travelled many of the waterways by which the country was opened up. He looked up unfamiliar words in a dictionary but, having found that he couldn’t remember from one time to the next the meanings, he made lists of synonyms. There are so many ways to say something in Portuguese! Similarly, when he tired of trying to remember the conjugations of the words for “to see” and “to come,” which are maddeningly similar (ver and vir), he made flash cards, one for each conjugation (I see, you see, we came, they came, etc.). We then drilled each other until we knew them all.

The reservoir narrowed, current increased. At the next dam up, the Jupiã, we caught a ride into the city of Tres Lagoas, Mato Grosso do Sul State. Our host was minister of a new congregation. “This area is growing like wildfire,” he enthused. “Soon we will have all the major fast-food chains!” The land was perfectly flat, the city widely spread. A pair of blue macaws sat cawing on the cross of yet another new church. We got a four-monthly vaccination for George and worked in a cyber café, then caught a bus that meandered through dusty new neighborhoods back to the fishing settlement where we had left Thurston.

That dam locked us through, for a rise of twenty meters. The next one up, Ilha Solteira, didn’t have a lock, but our Couch-Surfing host Vinicius in Sao Paulo had connected us with his friend Vicente there, who quickly got a truck and trailer together. When he pulled us out of the water Ginny and George were still in the cabin and Steve was sitting on the bow to put weight on the trailer hitch. We expected him to stop once we were out of the water but he just kept going, so we all carefully stayed put, with the wind in our hair, as he drove eight kilometers to the ramp above. Dam number six under our belts. Only one more to go!

With our visas running out on August 26th we needed to buy advance tickets back to the States. But where should we fly from? Projecting our progress we saw we wouldn’t reach Belém in time, so we bought tickets online for a flight leaving from Goiânia, the capital of Goias State.

A cold front hit. The southerlies were too cold and violent to sail with George aboard, so we rowed, the waves rocking Thurston as they passed under. The flatland gave way to low, rolling hills with few houses. It reminded Steve of the big Missouri River reservoirs in Montana except the grass was greener, often growing right down to the shore. The sun was blocked by flying grey clouds until it reached the horizon whereupon it peaked through a slit, firing to golden-red the trees growing interspersed among the pastures. Many were palms with small nuts growing in long clusters. As we veered left into a bay the waves diminished. We then steered into a the full protection of a small, north-facing cove.


The best thing about the way we cruise is the campsites. This cove was formed by a hook-shaped spit of pebbles the size of raisins and the color of peanut skins. After washing and hanging diapers we stepped from the bow directly into the colorful, crinkly gravel: no mud, no wading! Beyond a narrow belt of woods stretched pasture land of low, soft curvature. We hiked cow paths with George in his “wrap.” At one point we almost stepped on a big armadillo! His scales were yellow-brown with sparse, coarse hair. He played dead until we stooped down, then scuttled into a nearby hole. We also saw green parrots with patches of red on their shoulders and a flock of hopping emus, the South American ostrich. Here and there the land was split by tapering waterways where the bay divided, its armlets extending further into the land. The only sounds were of wind, waves, and birds.

On July 24 we arrived at the junction of the Paranaiba and Grande rivers, which together form the Paranã. We had followed the latter to its source but still had plenty of navigating to do. We continued up the Paranaiba, now with Minas Gerais State to our right. Then Mato Grosso do Sul State, to our left, gave way to Goias, the most central of Brazilian states.

We had chosen cotton diapers to avoid garbage and to be good citizens, but it wasn’t easy keeping up with all that laundry, not to mention the bottomless pile of clothes and blankets which needed to be washed as well. Ginny scrubbed and rinsed in the river a few hours every day. Steve wrung them and hung them on a line running overhead from bow to stern, with room for about fifteen articles. Fortunately, wintertime in central Brazil is extremely dry. On big days we filled up and emptied the clothes line three times! We missed out on some good sailing because the working of sails and booms was incompatible with clothes-hanging.

The days were hot and sunny, the nights cold and dewy. A new kind of no-see-um appeared, with butterfly-like wings, and a new mosquito that, when biting, aligned his body vertically, looking like a little thorn stuck in our flesh. One evening, as we relaxed by a brushy bank, a giant ant-eater strolled past, like the one we saw on the Orinoco!

On the 28th we reached the final dam, São Simão. Here we hung out at a boat ramp a couple days until the president of the local fishermen’s union loaded Thurston on his trailer and took us to the upper ramp.

This final reservoir was smaller. It took only two days to reach the mouth of the Rio Dos Bois (River of the Cows), whereupon we turned left. Steve, tired of rowing, turned the sliding seat over to Ginny. Per custom he then gave her a “Port!” or “Starboard!” order until she was on course, then said “Mark!” so she could row directly away from the landmark of her choice. Steve plucked his guitar until he noticed she was drifting off-course. “Port! Watch your mark!” he said.

“I was using a cow!” Ginny laughed. “I guess they move too much.” She went back to using hills or trees, and we stayed on course.

At first the Rio Dos Bois was impounded by the São Simão Dam. Then it became a river. A new species of tree now grew out over the river with long-extended branches, as if evolved to catch more sun than the others. The river corridor included long strips of marsh separated from the river by slender natural dikes. Where openings revealed these swamps we saw spongy waters full of floating grasses, lilies, and algal clusters. From our campsites we walked the fields. What we had taken for harvested corn was actually millet or sorghum, with hard, red seeds the size of baby peas.

On our second day on the Dos Bois we hit our first rapid. It was too shallow and fast for the Honda 2 HP outboard so we got out and pulled Thurston through. At the next rapid we switched to the 5.5 HP little-tail motor. This reduced our draft and increased our power. Even so we barely made it, Steve poling with a bamboo staff while Ginny wrestled the long little-tail tiller. There were rapids around every island, and sometimes in between as well. Our progress slowed.

On August 2 we turned left (northwest) onto the Rio Verdão. We had been studying the upcoming portage off-and-on since Manaus, when we decided to hop over into the Paranã basin. The transfer from Vila Bela, on the north-flowing Guaporé, to Caceres, on the south-flowing Paraguay, had gone well. Now we were a thousand kilometers ESE of that portage, ready to jump from a different tributary of the Paranã to a different tributary of the Amazon. As for the latter, the 2,000-kilometer-long Araguaia was the logical river. We could launch in the city of Barra do Garças.

The best place to pull ourselves out was less clear. The Verdão went in the right direction, but we didn’t know how high up we could navigate. Google Earth doesn’t show topography; so we didn’t know how tall the banks would be. There are no big cities on the Verdão, therefore fewer transport options. Only one town touches upon it, Maurilandia. But would we reach it? Would there be a place to pull out?

The river was 150 meters wide, lined with fist-sized stones, rarely more than waist-deep. Sharp rocks protruded here and there. We swerved left and right looking for at least a foot of depth. The rapids got more and more frequent. They would have been easy for a kayak, but for a sailboat they were nearly impossible. With a narrow stern (no planing surface) and nineteen feet of waterline length Thurston’s maximum hull speed is about 5.9 knots. “We’re not going to make this one,” Steve kept thinking, but we always kept creeping up, motor wide open, our GPS registering one or two kilometers per hour. We reached the critical spot, where the cold water bubbled over a shallow ledge, swirling white around the black rocks. Thurston’s bow lifted perceptibly; we stopped dead relative to the banks. Then we shifted a little to left or right, found a slower eddy, and inched through.

Eight kilometers before Maurilandia we stopped for the night at an island. Three interrelated families were vacationing at a rancho consisting of a kitchen, bunkhouse, and bathroom in separate cubicles of stuccoed brick. “Bem vindo, fica a vontade!” they said. (Welcome, make yourselves at home!) They had tents and coolers full of cold beer. While the men and boys went fishing in an aluminum boat the women and girls gushed over George. He loved the attention and the jumping they all gave him, their arms lifting, his legs pushing against their laps.

The next day the river was faster than ever. Once we hit a rock so hard that two floorboards clanged together, pinching Ginny’s toe! Each rapid had only one possible route. But the banks were low and here and there dirt roads touched down; so one way or another we would get Thurston out. Then, at 11:00 am, August 3, we reached Maurilandia.

It lay on the left (west) bank. A bridge entered town from the east. Under the bridge raged the worse rapid yet. We tried it but the current was too swift. No matter, just below the bridge on the east side was a little ranch with a smooth bank and shady trees. Seven months after heading back upstream in Uruguay we had reached the head of navigation! We were later told that only five people navigate the river up to Maurilandia, in aluminum skiffs with 15- or 40-horse outboards, and no one navigates above.  

The property consisted of a couple acres of bare red earth, well-scratched by chickens. Numerous mongrels barked but never bit. There were four houses of tubular red brick, each inhabited by a section of the Nortenseu clan. The oldest member, João, spoke softly if at all. He might be seen watering a dusty mango tree with a bucket, but mostly he sat in a shady spot in front of his house. Diego, a young truck-driver, his wife Evelyn and their 2 year old son Pedro also lived there. João’s stepson, Aldin lived across the way in a modern ranch style home with his wife Kelly and eighteen-year-old daughter Karen. Aldin dredged sand for a living. He was knowledgeable, hard-working and always grinning. “Maurilandia began right here,” he said. “My granddad came in 1945, mining diamonds from the riverbed. There used to be a ferry here before the bridge got built.”

We started walking across the bridge and were promptly enveloped in a cloud of dust as a huge truck loaded with sugar cane barreled past. Dust, the bane of Maurilandia! The truck-trailers haul cane from the fields all around the town to an alcohol plant near the Nortenseu place. The locals attribute their colds to the dust and the extreme dryness of the winter air. We learned to cover our noses and mouths with a cloth whenever trucks passed.

A water truck sprinkled the main street, settling the omniscient red dust. The town was five blocks wide and fifteen blocks long. The cyber café manager said we were the first foreigners he had ever seen there. A loudspeaker car slowly worked the street, detailing a new loan now available at the local bank. Another car with a loud sound system passed the other way blaring bizarre electronic music. In front of a construction materials outlet a guy tied a fistful of half-inch rebars to the tail of his motorcycle and zoomed off, the steel rods snaking behind him with a zingy sound. Everything was loud and dusty, but the people were the soul of hospitality. 

We looked for transport, but nothing economical fell into place. Meanwhile the Nortenseus offered to store Thurston for us, so we decided to leave her there and do the portage when we got back. Whenever we stopped by João’s or Aldin’s house they offered us a shower, or a meal if there was food in the kitchen. Lunch was their big meal of the day, with rice, beans, chicken or meat, and cucumber or cabbage salad.

On Sunday there was a birthday party for a five-year-old relative of Aldin’s who lived in town. Family members came from all over. Babies were compared. Everybody held and “jumped” George. It may have been his best day so far! Then we went for a long walk along a farm road where the cane fields butt up against the riverine scrub. Toucans flew from tree to tree, and small owls stood guard next to their burrows.

On August 15 our friend Douglas took us to a junk yard where we borrowed a chain-fall and some tubes suitable as rollers. Back at the Nortenseu place we used these implements to pull Thurston up the bank, beyond the rainy-season highwater mark. She now sits under a mango tree, which will cover her with mangos while we miss the mango season. Where’s the justice? We found a hole in the bow below the waterline, caused by a sharp Rio Verdão rock, perhaps when the floorboards pinched Ginny’s toe. It hadn’t leaked because the hull there is backed up by pour-in-place foam. We will repair it when we get back in six months.

On the 17th Aldin and Kelly drove us to a nearby city where we caught a bus to Goiânia, a city about the size of Seattle. Ginny had a Couch Surfing date with a sweet couple, Felipe and Waldeska, lined up in advance. We are at their house now enjoying their company and our last taste of Brasilian hospitality for awhile. In a few days we will be in Atlanta, Georgia.

Warning: we have encountered a real live Brazilian Wiggle Monster and are bringing him home with us! We call him Georgie, but he also answers to “Georgão” and “Gordinho” Wish us luck getting him through customs.

See our new photos starting with #215 at:

Lots of love,
Steve, Ginny, & George