Friday, March 28, 2014

Barra do Garças, Mato Grosso

Dear friends and family,

We last emailed you from Larry and Karen’s near Atlanta. On February 26th we took an overnight flight to Brasilia, then a half hour flight back to Goiania in Central Brazil. There we stayed with Felipe and Waleska, our Couch Surfing friends from before. After a short visit with them we caught a series of buses to Maurilandia, where our boat was waiting for us at a friend’s chacara (small farm) on the Rio Verdao.

It now being the rainy season this farming town’s dust had turned to mud. Our friends, Aldin and Kelly and their 19-year-old daughter Karen, kindly put us up in the master bedroom and bombarded us with delicious Brazilian food during our first week in Brazil. Right away we patched a hole in the bottom of Thurston and installed a new motor mount that will allow us to adjust the height of the motor. With these things completed we resumed our search for the 200-mile transport to the Araguaia River. This would be our longest and most expensive portage yet.


We wandered around introducing ourselves to truck drivers until we met Marcus, the owner of a produce store and three trucks of varied sizes for moving his fruits and vegetables. He finally agreed to transport us for $500 in his largest truck, which is like a moving van in that it has a tall box in back. With a lot of hard work, five men and three boys got Thurston up inside and closed the doors.


It was the early afternoon when we said our farewells to our Maurilandia friends, Aldin, Kelly, Karen, Diego, and Douglas. Karen promised to visit the US when she’s older. Kelly asked that we leave Georgie behind. We hope that by denying the latter request Kelly and Aldin will have a reason to come visit us too!

As we drove northwest the land changed from a rolling plain covered in soybeans, corn and sugar cane to hilly uplands with picturesque escarpments and valley floors studded with palm trees. We crossed the divide into the Amazon basin and descended to three adjoining towns where the Araguaia and Garças rivers join. One lies on the east side of the Araguaia, one lies on the west side of the Garças, and the third lies on the tapering peninsula between the two. The largest is the western-most city, Barra do Garças, which means Mouth of the River of Storks.

 In crossing the Rio Araguaia we passed from the state of Goias to that of Mato Grosso. Like in the U.S., Brazil’s states get steadily bigger and wilder as one proceeds west from the Atlantic. Mato Grosso is all the way at the west edge of the country. We had travelled along its western margin, opposite Bolivia, when we ascended the Guapore and descended the Paraguay. Now we would descend a river dividing it from Goias.

We arrived at the Barra do Garças boat ramp at nightfall. It had a good grade and good pavement yet Marcus was reluctant to back down it. He checked his brakes by having Steve pump the pedal while he checked the escapement of air at various locations. Then he acted impetuously. He backed down until his rear wheels were underwater and the floor of the box was at river level, then shut off his engine. We were relieved that we could simply push Thurston into the river. But suddenly Marcus started pumping the brake and yelling for someone to chock his wheels. We hustled out, Ginny with George in her arms, but before we could run ten paces in search of a rock or log the truck had rolled backward into the river! The water pushing against the box quickly rotated the truck ninety degrees, leaving it parallel to shore, facing upriver. It rolled backward until it came up against an underwater obstacle, then came to rest thirty feet from shore with the driver’s side tilting downward toward the deeper water further out. The cab was almost entirely underwater, the box half-submerged. Marcus swam out from an open window. There was no telling how long the truck would stay where it was.

Ginny watched with mixed horror and awe as Steve jumped in the river and swam to the back doors. The current was swift, the water turbid, reddish brown. The current gushed violently around the truck but left a calm eddy at the back. Opening the double doors he found Thurston afloat inside. The masts and booms were also afloat. He closed himself in the truck and ordered the floating objects. Then to Ginny’s great relief he emerged, swimming Thurston out, much as one would lead a horse from a burning barn. Someone tied the boat to a concrete post while Steve returned to the truck for the spars, which he pushed to people on the tall concrete steps that lined the shore.

Ginny’s daypack and Steve’s shoulder bag were still in the cab. Steve found them floating inside and retrieved them through a window. They contained a camera, a Sony Walkman, and a Kindle, all ruined, also our passports and other vital documents, which would require careful drying. The leeboards and the heavy aluminum floorboards were still in the box. The rest of our equipment had been stowed in Thurston and was therefore safe. Ginny paced impotently and swore in disbelief while facilitating people who wanted to coo at George. Then she made up a bed for him in the boat and put him to sleep amidst the chaos.

Soldiers, firemen, news media (see: An article here ) and a crowd numbering in the hundreds quickly gathered. A pair of scuba divers suited up. Due to the hazardous current they worked with agonizing slowness, but eventually they attached one cable to the front of the truck and another to the side facing shore. Then two massive tow trucks slowly winched these respective cables in.

By 2:00 a.m. the truck was back on dry land and the crowd had dispersed. Steve retrieved the remaining gear and paid Marcus his money. Apparently he had lost control because the hand brake didn’t work, the air leaked out of the road brakes, and the transmission got stuck in neutral. Normally breezy and boastful, he was a sad sight. “My mouth is dry with shame,” he said as he left with the tow-truck drivers. The towing and repair bills would be huge and he had no insurance.

The next day we began recuperating. Ginny dried the passports while Steve filled our water and fuel tanks. We quickly made friends, attended an excellent barbeque, and got shown around. The towns downstream being smaller and further apart, we bought provisions. Then we motored a bit upstream to verify that the motor was functioning properly. It wasn’t. First it wouldn’t run except with the carburetor fully choked, then the clutch slipped intermittently.

We returned to the port, which is frequented by jet skis and light pleasure boats. There are no large watercraft. The upland consists of small parks and outdoor bar/restaurants. There is also a floating restaurant upstream of the boat ramp. We moored Thurston at the downstream edge of the port, her hull nudging against a sandy bank overgrown with tall grass. At night musicians performed folk ballads in the parks and restaurants. They played guitar and sang with great skill.

One of our new friends, Doctor Chu-en-lay, took Steve and the motor to a mechanic on the other side of the river. This fellow, a retired specialist in outboards, helped Steve replace the bottom oil seal. But in the next trial the motor ran rough and oil gushed out through the crankcase vent.

This time Steve and the kindly mechanic opened the motor all the way to its single piston. The clip holding one end of the wrist pin had come loose. The pin had drifted into contact with the cylinder skirt and eroded a groove, lowering compression and causing the piston to pressurize the crankcase, hence the escaping oil. We needed a new cylinder and piston, which we didn’t have. We had replaced them in Uruguay and didn’t think it would be necessary again so soon.

After sleeping on it we decided to buy the parts on the internet, have them shipped to ultra-dependable Larry, and have him ship them to us. To double our odds of getting the parts quickly through customs, and to end up with a spare set, we bought two cylinders and two pistons. Larry shipped the two sets independently, to different addresses, of friends on either side of the state line. One of the shipments also included a new camera and other items. The shipping and import duties will be horribly expensive but we want to leave as soon as possible, before the river drops to the point where exposed sand bars and rocks hamper navigation.

We are putting our delay here to use. We have George-proofed Thurston, improved storage arrangements, repaired our awning, and mended our mosquito and no-see-um nets. Barra do Garças is home to Parque National do Serra Azul, which is a treasure-trove of trails and waterfalls! A steep mountain in the park with a statue of Christ on top overlooks the town. We have hiked up there ascending the infamous 1220 step staircase and back down via a chain of 8 waterfalls that follow a cleft in the mountain.

We are getting to know Barra and its little sister cities. One day while we were lunching in a restaurant Steve tried what looked like a stewed potato. It didn’t give way as he expected so he bit harder. Suddenly his teeth broke into a soft interior and dozens of tiny spines became lodged in his tongue and the walls of his mouth! Concerned employees explained that it was a fruit called pequi and you are only supposed to eat the outer flesh. They assumed we knew, because who doesn’t? In fact we had been told of it back in Maurilandia, but thought it would be something fruitier and less potato-like! Ginny labored an hour removing most of the spines with tweezers. A dental surgeon got the last few. 


 The days are hot but the nights are bearable. Rainstorms hit every couple days. The river has gone up and down, mostly down since the rainy season is tapering off. On March 19 we celebrated George’s first birthday party with new friends in Kiosque do Lazaro, a bar/restaurant directly above Thurston. Lazaro himself brought a giant cake which George relished. He and everything within a three-foot radius quickly became covered with white frosting to the amusement of all. Georgie enjoyed the attention. An unexpected birthday surprise came in the form of Marcus who was back in town with a new engine for the truck.

Now that George crawls and gets into everything the boat seems smaller than ever. One of us must constantly monitor him. To ease our stay here Heltor and Mari, who run the local ice cream factory Sorvetes Heytto, have installed us in a spare room inside their walled compound downtown. When the motor is fixed we will begin our descent of the Rio Araguaia to the city of Belem at the mouth at the Amazon. This will take months, so vast are the distances.

For those of you wondering how George is adjusting to being back in his native land here’s a little glimpse of the average day in the life of George. He wakes us up around 6:30 am jabbering and crawling all over us with a big droolly grin. He plays what are to him hilarious games with his dad awhile, then paws through the fruit and veggie department taking a bite out of each item he finds. We share our breakfast with him and he smashes it around his face and our clothes. The morning is topped off with a map of the constellations made of cookie crumbs, then a nap. A nice bath when he wakes up then he wants to go out and crawl around.

We take him up to the park and he maneuvers among the palapas, collecting dirt and looking for old or new friends. When he sees someone smiling at him he stretches out his arm to them, “Ooooh!”. They come over or he crawls to them, then begins a scene of mutual cooing which can extend infinitely as George works his way from one set of arms to the next. We are invited to lunch with new friends, George taking over their home and pets. When it cools off we go for a walk, George in his carrier. He is well known in this town and people often stop us to talk to him. Sometimes they talk to us too. As 8pm approaches he turns up the squirms and we have to get him to bed. On a good day he’ll conk out, limbs spread to take up as much room as possible. When we crawl into bed a couple of peaceful hours later we have to settle for the tiny gaps of bed he has left us, but we’re usually so exhausted by then we hardly notice. In short, George is about as happy as a baby could be, which it turns out is pretty damn happy.

And a final George note, he now has a college fund, so if anyone wants to make a donation for his birthday please contact us and we’ll tell you how.

More new photos may be found at:

Lots of love,
Steve, Ginny, & George