Friday, July 18, 2014

Belem, Brasil Mass Email


Dear friends and family,

We last wrote you from Marabá in the state of Pará, Brasil, on the Tocantins River. When we left there, on May 28, we weren’t in a hurry, yet we rarely stopped because shade and trails for walking were hard to find on shore. It was more comfortable to keep going than to stop.

Rowing and motoring downstream we soon reached the reservoir of Tucuruí Dam. The surrounding hilly jungle distinguished it from the low, dry land we had experienced on the Paraná River reservoirs. The water was like that of the Rio Negro: translucent black and devoid of mosquitoes. Hundreds of tall islands dotted the lake, but they were generally inaccessible due to natural hedges composed of a plant reminiscent of a ten-foot-tall asparagus growing densely on the banks and on the immersed foreshore. Our best campsite was on a small island where someone had cleared just enough to step ashore. Inside the perimeter the rainforest was virgin and relatively open, the trees tall and large-leafed. We hiked to the top of the single hill which made up the island, trudging through deep forest litter. The tree cover was too dense for views, but it was good to reacquaint ourselves with the rich, clean Amazonian smells.

After three days travelling north on the lake we reached the 75-meter-tall Tucuruí Dam. They wouldn’t lock us through, so we found a cheap transport to a ramp below the dam in the city of Tucuruí, population 100,000. The common launch now was a wooden boat 20-30 feet long with a Diesel engine, a steering station forward, and a stern so long and tapering that no weight could be carried aft of amidships. A seaman of a bygone era would have described them as having “cod’s heads and mackerel tails,” in contrast to the modern tendency of boats to be wider in the stern. These streamlined vessels were gracefully fitted with a variety of roofs and cabins, and their paint jobs were often quite beautiful.

The river level dropped nine feet each night and rose again in the morning, presumably due to uneven operation of the dam’s hydroelectric plant. To avoid drying out we crossed the swift, mile-wide river and found a steep bank with an overhanging branch to tie to. Here we dropped and rose without unpleasant surprises. We learned to loop the line over the branch and back to the boat to avoid having to climb the tree in the morning! We stayed several days, protected from the storms that blew from the east, shifting in the morning to an adjoining beach with shade trees where we could work on our projects while George played in the sand. In the afternoon we crossed over to the city for errands, then returned at dusk to our secluded spot.

As we continued downstream a powerful oceanic tide started combining with the dam’s artificial tides, confusing us totally as to when we might rise or fall. In the riverside communities the boats were moored to tall poles set in the river bed. The streets were of bare dirt, the houses of stained planks. Yellow school boats brought outlying children into town for school. On the docks were burlap bags full of acaí, an un-sweet fruit that looks like a purple grape. The locals boil it into a pulp and consume in vast quantities.

Our last town on the Tocantins was Baiáo. A woman we had met in Sao Paulo, a friend of our couch-surfing hosts there, was from Baiáo and had arranged for us to stay with her mother. We found her and a grown nephew living in a modest brick house near the port. She put us in a spare bedroom and immediately began serving us the famous foods of Pará, including manisoba, consisting of a certain leaf that has to be cooked for a week! It was nice to be made to feel at home with such giving people. Steve took the opportunity to fiberglass and paint Thurston’s weather-worn tiller.

When we left on June 14th the river quickly widened. The land-less horizons looked like the ocean, but the Atlantic was still a hundred miles away. Now a current ran against us on the rising tide.

On the 16th, just shy of the Tocantins’s juncture with the Rio Pará, we opted for a sheltered back route into Belém by turning east into a maze of islands and tidal rivers. We learned to wait out periods of contrary current, but the usual six hours of flood followed by six hours of ebb was complicated by how the waterways branched and joined at odd angles; we never knew how the current would run in the next segment. The land was low and swampy, the shoreline lined with shacks on stilts. The houses often had large boats propped up next to them, the explanation being, of course, that they had come at a high tide and could leave at another high tide. Being unable for several days to go ashore was a burden for George who, at fifteen months, was eager to exercise his wobbly little legs. He compensated by standing in the companion-way and marching in place!

Everything moved by river. Each community’s waterfront was a bee’s hive of boats loaded with bricks or fish traps or people. We even passed a boat transporting heavier-than-water logs. Several of these massive trunks, as long as the boat, were suspended from each side, below the waterline, parallel to the keel. Members running transversely across the gunwales supported the heavy ropes that looped down and cradled them.

The waterways became small, then big again as we approached Belém, at the southern margin of the vast Amazon delta. On June 19th we reached this city of one-and-half million inhabitants. Our final approach was across a mile-wide channel which was ebbing swiftly; forcing us to angle sharply into the current to cut across. The skyline was a mass of high-rises while the waterfront was an chaotic succession of docks, sawmills, and boatyards.

We found a yacht club we had heard about, and were immediately welcomed. Their dock was unprotected, but a sailing instructor with an extra trailer soon hauled us out and set among a hundred other boats in a big fenced area. Two other foreign vessels were present, a Swedish yacht with a female single-handed skipper named Eva, and a boat with a Russian couple that had recently been robbed by pirates while anchored at a nearby island. “The joke was on them,” said Anton, “because our stuff was mostly broken!” Now they were waiting for a new starter motor so they could escape to Trinidad.

Thurston was still on the trailer, so we used old tires and our aluminum floorboards to make steps. Someone gave us a worn-out boat cover, which we stretched out between tall boats to either side for shade. To make more room in the boat we pitched our tent and put a lot of our stuff in it. The nights were cool but by noon the sun and humidity bathed everything in suffocating heat. In the afternoon an intense storm usually hit, testing the web of ropes stretching our tarps and covering the ground with an inch of water. And this is the dry season! Steve finally broke down and bought a pair of flip-flops, the standard Brazilian footwear.

Belém, founded in 1616, is densely built on a low peninsula. The Old City, twenty minutes away by bus, was very beautiful, but slums were more prevalent. Beyond the marina gate the neighborhood was tumultuous and fetid. Drainage and sanitation were sorely lacking. Our immune systems were in a state of constant challenge, challenges we sometimes lost. Loudspeaker cars passed by piping out commercial spiels. Over-amplified music emanated here and there. We had a lot of work to get ready for the next phase of this voyage. New-found friends took us looking for epoxy, fiberglass, paint, etc.

The World Cup was going on and Brazil was host. Yellow-and-green flags and bunting filled the streets. When Brazil played every house and store had a TV tuned in. When Brazil scored a goal you knew it from the fireworks and horn blasts all over the city. They even rang the church bells!

The Brazilians use the word saudade (sow-dáw-jee) a lot. It means tenderness, or a longing for loved ones. The word applies to us with a vengeance now, because on July 17 Ginny and George took the red-eye to Los Angeles, where her mother and grandmother live. We always knew this day would come, because the sea would not be safe for George. Steve will single-hand Thurston back to Florida.

Some new photos may be found at:

Lots of love,

Steve, Ginny, & George