Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Maraba, Para, Brasil - Mass email

Dear friends and family,

Should one travel slowly, relishing each unique locale, or fast, knowing as many lands as possible? Right or wrong, we have always roamed toward the vigorous end of the scale. We enter a place, walk it, talk to some people, then move on before it gets stale.

It has been seven years since we ran away together, first in the little pickup truck with a canoe on top, then in Thurston. To help keep our memories straight we often play a game whereby one of us, reminiscing on a town or campsite, gives the other clues until they guess it, which they usually do rather quickly.

Lately, however, we have been experiencing “town blur” as we descended the Araguaia River quickly in order to reach the Xambioá rapids before the low-water season. It doesn’t help that many towns have had similar names: Aragarças, Aruaná, Araguacema, and Araguaná, for example. We were there so recently, yet we need quite a few clues to distinguish one from another in our memories.

We last wrote from Conceicáo, Pará, where a pawn-broker named Geraldinho (Little Gerald) welcomed us into his home. Steve plugged our laptop into an outlet, sat in a corner, and typed. Later Ginny uploaded photos at a cyber café while Steve, with George on his back, explored the city’s edges, where paved streets became dirt, the houses became poorer, and green hills poked up in the distance. It was hot, and whoever carries George in the carrier can’t reach around behind, so Steve periodically stopped at shops and asked the proprietors to feed him some water, which they were ecstatic to do.

On May 15 we left Conceicáo. We rowed two hours per day and motored maybe six on average. Now and then we passed a planked canoe with a little-tail motor. Whereas in Barra do Garças the dry season had fully arrived, here we started experiencing brief but fierce storms of wind and rain, thunder and lightning. The tempests always came from the east, so we learned to camp on the east bank, where the waves couldn’t build. The days remained seeringly hot, and the nights offered little relief. Ginny’s heat rash has spread all over her back.

The land became higher, less swampy. Tall, wispy palm trees appeared. Lagoons and creeks became rare. Dense emergent brush grew along the shores, making it difficult to reach land. Often a floated line ran along just outside the brush with short hooked lines dangling every couple feet, for intercepting the fish that hang out in the immersed vegetation.

In the towns, in addition to brick houses we now saw wooden ones as well, with vertical plank siding and thatched roofs. The waterfronts often had rustic shelters, half underwater, where beer and snacks would be served when “summer” arrived and the beaches became exposed. The locals spoke eagerly of the crowds that would then flock from all over to party, enlivening the local economy. For now, though, these settlements were quiet.

People hearing us talk together sometimes overcame their shyness and initiated conversations. English is greatly esteemed in Brazil. Many knew some words but few had heard it spoken except in movies. Most people were of mixed European, African, and Native American descent. They often marveled at the whiteness of George’s skin and the blueness of his eyes.

Our GPS maps being based on low water, the rocks they showed were still covered. In these places the river roiled and ran two or three knots faster than usual, nothing more. We hoped that we could also transit the serious rapids that commence at Xambioá (the “X” is pronounced “Sh”), but upon arrival in this lovely town on the Tocantins side, refreshingly hilly after so many flat places, we learned otherwise. The local boatmen, who earn their living ferrying people to a sister city across the river, decided that it wouldn’t be safe even to tow us through. Just downstream of Xambioá is a long rapid whose roar is audible from town, and after a gap comes another rock-patch extending to a point sixty kilometers downstream. A month sooner high water would have covered all the rocks, but now they were exposed, and the whirlpools and gushers were too violent in an under-powered boat such as ours.

Fortunately, across the street there lived a man with a long flat-bed truck. He had no engagements and his price was reasonable, so we reconvened at a nearby ramp where many hands helped load Thurston, and we were off on our twelfth transport.

Our route took us down seventy kilometers of paved highway then fifty kilometers of rough dirt road with little traffic. We passed through rangeland and forest, arriving finally at a hamlet called Antonina where there was a ferry to the Pará side. Ferry employees, an agricultural inspector, and a local teenager helped us lower Thurston into the water.

Relieved at having passed the rapids, but sorry we wouldn’t see them, we spent half a day observing life at this remote ferry crossing. Antonina had about ten humble houses and an open store/bar. Now and then a vehicle would appear. If arriving at the other side they would honk their horn to make their presence known. Then the skipper would saunter down to the landing and fire up the diesel in a tugboat whose bow was attached, via a pivot, to the midpoint on the downstream side of a barge. A deckhand raised the ramp. The skipper, pushing with his propeller and rudder, rotated the boat 180 degrees while the barge remained stationary. Then they chugged to the other side, lowered the ramp, and picked up their passengers, whom they seemed to know well. When the sun went down we drank beers at a patio overlooking the river, while George played with local children and two men tinkered with a little-tail motor.

In the Araguaia’s final two hundred kilometers it flows through wild forest. We passed through long stretches where patches of emerging brush, and barely-submerged rocks, pocked the surface of the mile-wide river. There was no main channel, just an imponderable volume of greenish-brown water passing through a sieve of rough bedrock. We kept our eyes well ahead, picking our route, slipping over low shelves, swirling left and right as the water sucked and surged, not violently, but impressively.

 On May 21 we reached the juncture of the Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. Though the Tocantins is the smaller of the two, its name applies to the combined stream, so we had finished with the Araguaia. Downstream there would be no more rapids, and the state of Pará would occupy both banks.

Later that day we went under a bridge, passed a flat where upside-down boats were being caulked and tarred, and reached Marabá, population 230,000, on the left bank. Needing to extend our tourist visas, we hiked blindly away from the river, asking directions to the Policia Federal. We eventually found it and got another ninety days. In the process we learned that this city is divided into three parts, separated by large expanses of swampy floodplain.

The only section of interest to us now is Marabá Pioneira, the old town. Here the houses are small and the sidewalks are a mish-mash of irregular and broken surfaces, often encumbered by rubble. The riverfront is a tall seawall with park benches on top and, at intervals, stairways leading down into the river. We are tied to a heavy, 30-foot wooden passenger boat, one of about ten at this landing, whose livelihood is to carry passengers to a party beach on an island in the river. The beach is visible from here, a line of colorful tents and golden sand, surrounded by boats, with music loud even from a kilometer away.

The boatmen are expert. On a busy Sunday afternoon they zip back and forth, their open, roofed craft crowded with gay passengers, their poorly-muffled Diesels bellowing and belching smoke. The landing is crude: just a narrow stairway disappearing into the river and a makeshift float streaming parallel to the waterfront. They compensate for the current and jostle each other to get their bows onto the stairway so their passengers can clamber on and off. When the sun goes down and everyone wants to go home at the same time, they squeeze in together at the landing, newcomers wedging their sharp bows and round bellies between the other boats. When the skipper has finished his loading he stands on a stern deck, pushes a tiller hard over, and gives a deep pull to a string by which opens his throttle. “Brraammm!” and he’s gone.

There is a park here with a play area covered with shiny brown pebbles that George loves, and good shade trees. A new friend has made their living room and electrical outlet available to us. Here we write.

Some new photos may be found at: https://picasaweb.google.com/ginnygoon/Brasilpart4

Lots of love,
Steve, Ginny, & George

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Conceiçao do Araguaia, Mass Email

Dear friends and family,

We last emailed you from Barra do Garças, Brazil, where we awaited parts to fix our outboard motor again. We bought two cylinder/piston sets and had them sent separately via UPS in hopes of getting at least one set soon. On March 25 both packages reached São Paulo, whereupon we were instructed to go to a bank and pay import duties amounting to 100% of their value including exorbitant shipping costs. But they didn’t come anywhere near when promised, and our inquiries produced vague results.

We were holed up in a covered storage compound belonging to our friends the ice cream makers who were off travelling in their motor home. We had a room, a shower, and a refrigerator. Life was good. To fill our days we took hikes. We visited a popular hot spring, where we lounged in a series of beautifully landscaped pools, and hiked to misty waterfalls in the nearby hills.

Thurston was tied up to the floating restaurant down at the port. One day while getting something from the boat we noticed rat turds and chew marks! Steve looked for the culprit with no luck and we assumed he had left. When we were ready to leave it was clear he was still aboard, so we moved Thurston to a beach and shifted everything from the cabin onto the sand until there was no place left to hide. Suddenly the small rat broke cover. He scrambled about until Steve killed him with a bamboo pole. He had torn holes in our packaged food and various articles made of fabric. This would be the easiest rat to kill.

On April 8 the first cylinder and piston arrived! Overjoyed, we took them to our mechanic, Godó, a retired native of São Paulo. He had no sophisticated tools but was wonderfully wise and pleasant to work with. The cylinder had factory defects, so Steve hopped on a motorcycle taxi and took it to a machine shop, which installed missing threads. Finally we got the motor back together. Neither Godó nor the machinist accepted any money for their services.

We moved aboard back Thurston, re-immersing ourselves in life at the port, where grandstand-like steps marched down into the water. By day people sat looking out over the macho jet-skiers who zoomed back and forth, turning on a dime and shooting up maelstroms of foam. One guy specialized in riding backwards. Another guy acted like a matador. While spinning his machine he stood with both feet on the floorboard to the inside of the spin, one hand on the throttle, the other arm waving gracefully in the air as if he were waving a flag at a bull. The jet skiers stayed in front of the steps as if they were a grandstand. It was purely a spectator sport.

That was the daytime. By night the port rocked with folk music and happy partiers. In the morning municipal workers picked up the garbage and woke up the drunks still asleep on the steps.

The motor required further debugging due to a leaky oil seal and a dirty carburetor. The rats kept coming and the stove and backup stove were nearly out of commission. We were beginning to feel like Barra do Garças was against us! However, it would be weeks before we reached a town as large as Barra, so we had to be sure everything was in order. Five trips to the mechanic, two aborted attempts to leave and two more increasingly clever rats later brought us to April 12. Though leery of our cursed Honda, we cast off! We kept the motor barely above idle to break it in gently. We were eager to get some kilometers under our keel because the rapids two-thirds of the way to Belem would get worse as the dry season progressed, lowering the river level and exposing rocks.

The tall hills soon melted away, leaving only low, green banks. Almost nobody lived along the river, nor was there any farming. If we managed to squeeze past the matted riverine brush we found vast expanses of twisted trees, tall grass, and palm shrubs with thorns like six-inch needles. We settled into travel routines, waking at day break as George crawled over us. Steve made breakfast in the cockpit, then rowed after if it wasn’t yet too hot. Motored through lunch, George splashing in the cockpit off and on all day as we dumped water on him. An afternoon break to explore a beach, town or bank, late afternoon row, then a sunset stop in the least buggy place we could find. George played in the cockpit with Steve reading “As Viajens do Gulliver” (Gulliver’s Travels) over and over and over again, while Ginny prepared dinner. Steve operated the stove while Ginny and George read “As Viajens do Gulliver” over and over and over again in the cabin. Eat, clean up, pass out. A simple life can be quite exhausting!

The river, initially around 500 meters wide, spread more and more with the addition of new tributaries. Because these were relatively clear, the soupy-orange Araguaia became clearer until visibility reached one foot. At first we ran onto sandbars and had to pull ourselves off. But perhaps the tributaries were at a higher stage than the Araguaia because as we proceeded north the banks got fuller, the sandbars fewer.

Every morning the temperature quickly rose into the 90s and up and stayed there until late afternoon. The only time we saw a thermometer it was 94 in the shade and 114 in the sun. We all developed itchy heat rashes. The cockpit was okay with the awning up and the artificial breeze of the moving boat, but the cabin was unbearable, partly because the varnished cedar of our cabin absorbed too much heat. So, we stopped in a small town and painted the sides white (we had previously painted the top white). We frequently doused ourselves and George with the bailer bucket. At night, even with the fan on the cabin became too hot for all three of us, so Steve slept curled up in the cockpit footwell, a space about two feet by four feet!

Clothing was optional except to combat insects. By day midges caused swollen bites if we stopped at a beach. Biting flies sometimes found us on the river. Mosquito necessitated nets from sunset to sunrise. Other insects were simply a nuisance. At night our headlamps attracted beetles and flies small enough to get through our nets and tickle our faces. Flying crickets swarmed the cockpit, crawled under Steve’s net, and pestered him. They all died during the night and required mopping up in the morning.

Ginny laundered incessantly. Sitting in the cockpit she stretched the articles out on deck, scrubbed them, and rinsed them in the river. They dried lightning-fast on the line running from stem to stern. Steve ramped his rowing up to two hours per day, mostly in the early morning and late afternoon when the heat was less intense. He soon felt the beneficial effects in his arms and shoulders.

We saw toucans, roseate spoonbills, and tuiuius, the big white stork with a red neck. Blackbirds gobbled like turkeys until they all roosted together in a tree, then they whirred like cicadas. We were happy to reacquaint with our old friends the Venezuelan Mohawk-Hairdo Chicken and the Paraguayan Eagle. We call them by these names, never remembering what they are really called. They are probably neither chickens nor eagles.

Fishermen in aluminum skiffs were a frequent sight. They were friendly, not nosy. Every couple days we passed a town with a hotel or two which catered to them. We took the opportunity to stretch our legs. We walked a wildly grinning George between us, each holding one of his hands, until he got tired. Then we put him in the carrier on Steve’s back. The towns were small and neat, with buildings of stuccoed brick, painted with a darker band on the bottom. Their river-fronts were protected by walls of mortared stone, atop which plazas faced the river. To see the surrounding country we walked to the edge of town, where a connecting ribbon or dirt or asphalt roadway receded across the limitless plain or swamp. Then we walked back to the boat, stopping for a 600-milliliter bottle of Skol or Antartica beer on the way. With any luck the bakery might have some bread rolls and the fruits and vegetable store might have some mangos or carrots.

Because mosquitoes congregate around vegetation we got into a habit of getting as far as possible from greenery when evening came. Sometimes we followed still channels into offshoot lagoons and anchored out in the middle. The mosquito hour was milder there than tied to a bank. We also slept where islands were about to immerge, tying to brush or anchoring in sand. On one such night, far from any real land, we waded in current-swept shallows as the sun set. The coarse sand had the disconcerting tendency to give way until one was buried up to ones ankles. Suddenly Steve saw a flash of silver and felt something brush against his ankle. He had bumped into a freshwater stingray but its spiny tail had failed to penetrate his skin. Stingray wounds are notoriously painful.

As we travelled downriver the land got ever swampier. On our right, over the course of a week we passed Ilha Bananal (Banana Tree Island), supposedly the world’s largest fluvial island. It was more swamp than island, a vast maze of channels and lagoons studded with gnarly old snags. There were no signs of people on land, and few on the river. Dark grey dolphins (apparently the same as the pink dolphins we encountered before) often followed us. Otters snorted and tumbled in the water. Alligator eyes glowed pink in the night along the marshy shore. Howler monkeys raised their cacophonous din, unseen in the forest.

Ginny had probably spent a hundred hours on Google Earth building our GPS map for the Araguaia due to its countless islands and channels. Her map was reasonably accurate except that the imagery was shot during low water, so the river was much bigger than the map showed. We often navigated where it showed land. Once we got stuck in a dead end, when a strong current dissipated into brushy swamp, forcing us to motor back to the main channel. We often never knew if channels we passed were tributary rivers or sister portions of the Araguaia, delineating islands. To build that level of detail into the mapping would have required three times as much work.

Rarely was the river completely calm. Minute swirls etched its surface. Whirlpools and upsurges suggested bottom disturbances such as rocks or sunken logs. Ripple lines marked the downstream end of sandbars, where shallow water became deep again. If we got to that line without running aground we would be back in deeper water. The islands were rarely flat or of one piece. More often we saw a myriad of small islands separated by knee-deep channels. They were studded with pools, dunes, and copses of low trees.

On April 30 we reached São Felix, Mato Grosso. By Facebooking with our friend in Barra do Garças we found that our second package had arrived, so we waited four days while he shipped it by bus. São Felix is in the land of the Carajás, a major indigenous group. Every second person on the street was Carajás, and the town was full of government offices catering to their needs. They generally had tattoos, the women with geometric bands around their calves, with men with crude circles around their cheekbones. We befriended a Carajás biologist with a spotted leopard running down his arm who told us a little about his people. Many of them live in small aldeias with mud and wattle houses covered by thatched roofs. Other people are allowed to visit, but it is against the law to take photos of anyone. In his youth they used to grow manioc and maize on the emerging islands, but now many depend on government provided food. He also explained a little about their spiritual beliefs, how they greet the sun when it rises, say goodbye when it sets, and how they salute the river and other natural spirits. This biologist had once travelled to Wyoming on an exchange program to visit with the Arapaho tribe. He said he saw many similarities between them and the Carajás.

São Felix’s outskirts contained new subdivisions for the rural poor. They had dirt streets and tiny brick houses. The houses often had only of one pitch of roof, but after they had accumulated enough building materials they built the other pitch, doubling the size of the house. We often saw stockpiles of sand, covered with bricks to protect them from rain, the mounds looking like graves. Crude signs advertised cottage industries such as popsicles, fish, and culinary specialties.

Travelling downriver is such joy! This is our third such leg, the other two being the Casiquiare/Negro and the Paraguay/Paraná. For weeks on end one drifts with the current, supplemented by such movement through the water as one cares to effectuate. Rowing is feasible and motoring can be done at slow speed, thus quietly and with little fuel consumption. The scenery changes quickly. We started seeing hills. The state of Tocantins now lay to right, the state of Pará to left. We saw our first sea horizon: a short patch of horizon with no land, however briefly, though we were still far from the sea. The river was now a mile wide.

On May 11 we reached Conceicão (Conception), a city the size of Barra do Garças. The shore was lined with planked canoes with long-tail motors. We tied up to an out-of-service tourist boat and explored the city. A local family has adopted us, feeding us delicious fish and cakes and showing us around town. It is a good place to pause for a while.

We are happy to be cruising again. It is a life full of continuity yet renewal. We are always the same Steve, Ginny, and George in the same Thurston, yet we are always in new places. We keep things fixed, keep ourselves clothed and fed, and make progress toward our goal. We set a leisurely pace, yet we are barely able to stay awake until 9:00, so full are our days with parenting, small-boat contortions, and the myriad labors of travel.

Some new photos may be found at: https://picasaweb.google.com/ginnygoon/BrasilPart4

Lots of love,

Steve, Ginny, & George