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

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