Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 37 – Belo Horizonte

We had a great day in downtown Belo Horizonte! First a good breakfast at the hostel (café de manha is a sacred tradition here in Brazil, and no matter how simple the hostel/hotel they always put out a great spread), and then the brilliant decision to leave the car at the hostel and spend the day walking.

Belo Horizonte is a relatively young city, founded in 1897, at the site of a small ranch. To start with, the founding commission set the few houses in fire, so they could start with “a clean slate”, and then proceeded to overlap two grids, rotated at 90 degrees from each other, to set the plan of the city. The coarser of the grids is oriented north-south/east-west, and separates the city in big barrios, originally intended to house the different classes (the politicians lived in one, the military in another, and so on). Then, in 1940, the mayor of the city hired a bright young architect, Oscar Niemeyer (yes, the same guy who designed Brasilia 30 years later), to revamp the old city, and plan the expansion of the next stage of growth. Finally, in 2000, centenarian Oscar Niemeyer, had another go at it, moved the state government to its own complex north of the city, and turned many of the old government buildings into a cultural mall, not unlike The Mall of Washington DC.

Unfortunately we entered the old downtown by the bus station, and had to cross the ugly part of town on our way to the museums of the cultural mall. It was unfortunate because our first impression was of a dirty city. The image changes considerably as you move into less marginalized portions of the city, but we short-circuited the transition by crossing through the Municipal Park (an equivalent to Central Park in New York) to enjoy the refreshing shade of enormous trees and the happy laughter of kiddies playing in the merry-go-round.

Once we reached the cultural mall we went into the Vale Museum of Minas Gerais. Vale is the name of the main mining company of Brazil, and the museum is their gift to the people. It is a fabulous museum that touches on many of the historical highlights of the sate of Minas Gerais, through the use of a few exhibits, many interactive displays, and clever use of computers and film. The discovery of gold in the 16th century, and diamonds in the 17th century, made Minas Gerais the original example of the Gold Rush and Diamond Fever. Because of the mineral richness the state was for a long time the leader in art, literature, and social change.

We have learned our lesson, and at 12:30 headed for our nearest restaurant, and had a wonderful by-the-kilo lunch, with churrasco. This is a very common type of lunch, where you go through the salad bar selecting what you want to eat, then pass the churrasco counter, where the friendly chef cuts you select morsels from all the meats he has on the grill, and then you go weight your plate, and pay by weight, at the rate of 38 reais per kilo. Besides being delicious I learned that this is the best way to have Annie eat her plate clean. Normally, you see, she has to leave something (or a lot) on her plate, daintily hidden under a crumpled napkin. Not here, though, she feels she paid by the gram, and she is not going to waste any of it!

Our second museum was the Museum of Minerals and Mines, which not only elaborated on the incredible diversity of mineral deposits in Minas Gerais, but using very clever exhibits discussed the history of the Mine of Morro Belo as you went down the 2,500 m deep shaft (a very cool effect), the uses of the different metals, the lives of the great geologists and engineers of the state, and the history of Xica Da Silva, a black beauty who became world known for her extravagant diamond jewelry, among others. They also had a great display of minerals!

Tired of museums we went for a bit of people watching to the Mercado Municipal, one of the cleanest markets we had ever seen. The variety of wares for sale was fascinating, the food was enticing, and the colors and aromas were mesmerizing. We took advantage of the beautiful veggies to buy the necessary items for supper.

Having done our duty, we came back to the hostel jut as the sun was setting. Plenty of time to cook to cook a potato-leek-broccoli soup for supper (and a very fine cream it tuned out to be).

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 36 – Another long travel day

We dutifully woke up early, and drove at a steady pace through beautiful country, including an area devoted to the growing of sugar cane and its conversion to ethanol fuel. Incidentally, our Silver Bullet runs on either gasoline or ethanol, and we have been using the latter because it is cheaper.

We also drove through hills and hills covered by very orderly coffee plantations. They grow the coffee in tight rows, with the plants being trimmed to be no taller than a man, and to judge for the planted area the output of coffee must be enormous.

But even though we drove at a steady pace it took us until after nightfall to go the 700 km to Belo Horizonte, which we reached at peak traffic hour. It is Brazil third largest city, so you can well imagine the traffic that Annie had to contend with. Once in downtown I took the wheel, and with the help of a couple good Samaritans, and a ton of good luck, managed to navigate to the rather obscure location of our hostel. It is a brand new hostel, opened in 2012, at the place of a mansion high in the hills. We have a small apartment with bathroom, and had a nice dinner of spaghetti and tomato sauce that Annie had been craving.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 35 – Travel day

Today was a hard travel day. We drove for 12 hours, with very few brakes, and ended covering about 800 km. We went from the good roads of the state of Paraná, to the woeful ones of the state of Matto Grosso (Annie drove this stretch, and assures me she had never seen so many potholes, and so many trucks swerving wildly to avoid them), back to the nice roads of the state of Sao Paolo. We also drove under shining sun, pouring rain, hail, and wicked winds. Ah, but at the end we prevailed, and covered half the distance between Iguaçú and Belo Horizonte!

We spent the night at Itápolis, a small town along the road, in a very nice country inn. We went out for supper and found a pizzeria with 50 pizzas to choose from! But of all those 50 there was none that had the tomato-based sauced we are used to. Brazilian pizzas tend to be heavy on the meat, light on the cheese, and have no sauce. If you want tomatoes you have to ask for them as a topping. Also, Brazilians do not eat with their hands (hence Mexican tacos have not made any inroads in Brazil), so you are brought fork and knife with your pizza. Funny, isn’t it?

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 34 – The cataracts

The day is cold and dreary, but this did not slow us down. We had to drive 20 km to the entrance of the park, where you park for the day. The entrance is not cheap (50 reais, plus 15 reais of the parking), but once you are inside you can use the shuttle anytime you want. Also, there are some additional attractions (bicycling, parachuting, kayaking, etc.), but you have to pay additional fees for them.

Anyway, we took the bus to the third stop, where the trail to the cataracts starts. Just as we were getting under way it started to rain. Annie was already clad in her rain suit, and additionally pulled out a poncho, while yours truly had zero protection against the elements. I bought a cheap poncho as soon as I could, but by that time I was already “damp” and had to live with it for the rest of the day.

There are no words with which I can describe the cataracts, so you will have to wait until I show you the photographs. Enough to say that I had never seen such a beautiful spectacle (and I have seen quite a few in the past), and that the site is rightfully considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world. The Rio Iguaçú breaks into more than 200 waterfalls as it precipitates itself at the edge of a basaltic plateau, so no matter which way you look there is always a marvelous sight to behold.

The path culminates in a walkway that extends almost to the middle of the river, so for a moment you seem to be suspended right between the upper and middle waterfalls. The water rushes under your feet, and plunges down, down, down as the void almost drags you with it. Of course you get totally drenched while you imagine being a part of the torrent, and sooner or later you have to come back to reality and head for the drier shore (dry being a relative condition, because by then we were in the middle of a tropical downpour).

We had brought stuff for lunch, and were lucky enough to find a cafeteria where we could sit out of the rain, eat our sandwiches, and buy two cups of chocolate. It tasted sooo good!

For the afternoon we thought we would like to go for a hike through the jungle, but to our surprise found there were none! The trail to the cataracts was the only “free” trail. To use the other three that exist in the park you had to pay, and I am not sure at all you can actually walk on them without a guide. Apparently the park administration is paranoid about tourists getting lost or being attacked by a jaguar, so they don’t let one to just roam around.

Rather put down by this development I proposed to Annie taking a power boat excursion, from downstream all the way to the base of the falls. She automatically said no, but I could see by the glint in her eye that she was certainly intrigued. Even though she has bowed to not let me push you into crazy trips anymore, she kept going round the issue until, in a moment of weakness, she went for it. That is my BA Annie!

First we took a tram ride through a couple of kilometers of jungle, where we learned to identify the palmito palm. Did you know it takes 10 years for a palm to grow to the point where one kilo of palm hearth (palmito) can be extracted? Alas, the palm is now a threatened species because of the gourmet market for this delicacy.

Finally we got to the dock, where we were informed we would get completely soaked, so it was better to leave our valuables in a locker (foolish me, I left the camera there, so I don’t have hard evidence of the adventure to follow). We wrapped ourselves in our ponchos as best we could, donned a life vest, and boarded a rather large inflatable boat (seating capacity for 20 people) with two enormous outboard engines. And then we flew upstream! I have been in rapids going downstream, but with the power of the outboard engines we could actually climb through the holes and standing waves of the rapids! Annie was in pig heaven, smiling as wide as she could, and throwing caution to the winds. As we approached the base of the cataracts the boatman circled a couple of times to allow smart people to take pictures (while dodos who had left their cameras behind got to salivate with envy), and then plunged straight into the waterfalls with all the power of his engines! He didn’t get all the way there, because the force of the water was more powerful than the motors, but hovered right under the waterfall. Annie was wild with joy, wet as a mouse, and asked for an encore time and time again. In total we must have tried to plunge under the waterfall three or four times. Wet to the bone we finally turned around, and had another wild ride flying down the huge waves of the rapids. My Honey was ecstatic!

The tale has now been told. We shivered all the way to the car, where we finally thawed enough to talk excitedly about the experience. BA Annie gave it her highest praise when she said “I wouldn’t mind coming to Iguaçú again.”

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 33 – The Itaipú hydroelectric project

We did start reasonably early, but Iguaçú was still 150 km away, so we didn’t get there until 10 am. A helpful young man gave us directions as we entered the city, and also some brochures about hotels. Foolishly I thought maybe we should get the issue of lodging settled at the time, which made us lose valuable tourist time. After half an hour of futile confusion I came to my senses, and we headed to the Itaipú hydroelectric project. I must confess that the presence of this enormous hydroelectric dam was a total surprise to me, largely due to the fact that I had not read the travel guide. I am glad Annie did, for I would not have wanted to miss it.

The Itaipú dam is built across the Rio Paraná, which is the border between Paraguay and Brazil, about 20 km upriver from the cataracts. The dam, which is 8 km long, was built by a bi-national self-sustaining entity between 1973 and 1978 (with the actual construction accomplished in three years, between 1975 and 1978), for the sole purpose of generating 14,000 MW of electricity, which is split 50-50 between the two countries. In reality, Paraguay only uses about 10% of the output, and sells its other 40% to Brazil. The project meets 90% of the power needs of Paraguay, and about 20% of the power needs of Brazil, and is the ground reason for the prosperity of the Sao Paolo industrial powerhouse.

The dam complex is magnificent. The Paraná is one of the great rivers of South America, and the idea of building a dam across it was bold and ambitious. Yet, the project moved along at a fast pace, staring with the diversion of the river unto a side channel, so both the main body of the dam and the spillway complex could be built. I need to check my statistics, but in the peak of construction the crews were pouring enough cement every single day to build a couple of skyscrapers, every single day! The spillway has three enormous concrete dams through which the excess water of the Paraná is conveyed out of the reservoir, and they are active almost every day of the year. In full operation they have the capacity to move three times the average volume of the cataracts, and they look like white, roiling rivers on their own right.

When finished in 1978, with an installed capacity of 14,000 MW, the Itaipú project was the largest hydroelectric project in the world, a title it maintained until the Three Gorges dam came on line in the late 2010’s. In contrast with Three Gorges, however, the inundation are of Itaipú is a mere 1,300 km2, so the ratio of inundation area to power generation is a low 0.1 (in contrast to the common ratio values of 0.3 to 2 observed in other hydroelectric projects). An interesting factoid is that, when they were getting ready to fill the reservoir, they estimated it would take a good 60 days to fill (which must had been a small tourist catastrophe to the cataracts, which would have a reduced flow for nearly two months). As luck would have it, just as they were getting ready it started raining, the Paraná swelled up, and in less than two weeks the reservoir was full!

You can see from my description that we were very impressed by the Itaipú project. Annie still likes the elegance of Hoover dam better, but there is no question that Itaipú is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

When we came back to Iguaçú it was time to tackle the hotel question. Now, I have mentioned before that my Honey has some difficulties making up her mind, but she has really improved as of late. This time it took her only two hours to settle on a place, and I only had to drive her to ten different hotels over town! At the end she harnessed the services of a travel agent to broaden her net, and we ended in a comfortable hotel on the outskirts of town. I am so glad she decided to come here. Had I decided, like it happened last night, I would have been treated to the cone of silence, the carita de caca, and the many other little ways my Honey has to show her displeasure.

Tonight we were in good spirits (even though it is chilly out in the open), and thought we could eat a cow, so we treated to a banquet at a famous churrascaría in town, O Bufalo Branco (or The White Bison). The way these restaurants work, is that there is a buffet of pasta, salad, and desserts, but the meat courses are brought to you by a swarm of waiters who carry choice morcels of beef, pork, lamb, or chicken, impaled on a sword! They certainly look like swords, but are really skewers that are kept rotating on a huge grill, to which the waiters go back from time to time to pick up a new delicacy. Leg of lamb, filet mignon, chicken hearts, broiled onions, hump stake, roasted pineapple, prime rib, toasted cheese, and pork ribs floated before our eyes, and we made our best to sample them all (we couldn’t, but you could at least feast your eyes and inhale deeply). It was fairly expensive, but was indeed a dining experience.

And know to sleep, because tomorrow we are spending the whole day at the cataracts!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 32 – A hard travel day

I am beginning to think renting a car and driving was not such a chili red-hot idea. Brazil is just too big! The roads are OK (a 7 in a 1 to 10 scale), but are handicapped by (1) the mountainous quality of the landscape, which causes them to meander and go up and down; (2) the fact that they are narrow, one- or two-lane roads, so passing is difficult; and (3) the large number of slow, heavily loaded trucks, which accelerate on the downhill and make passing difficult, and then crawl in the upslope when passing is dangerous because the vehicles in the opposing lane are careening down the slope like banshees. In other words, it is just like driving in la libre in Mexico. Thinking in la libre (“the free” highway that in Mexico has been largely overwhelmed by the toll highways), reminds me that the highways here are toll, so a day of hard driving is likely to cost something like 60 or 80 reais (US$30 to US$40).

Annie and I have been trying all sorts of things to keep ourselves entertained. She has learned to play Adivinar el Personaje (Guess the Character) and stomped me with Mother Nature. I, in turn, almost stomped her with Amelia Bedelia. Then she taught me Twenty Questions, and I stomped her with a speed-limit road sign.

We have driven across some beautiful country. Now and then we cross across true mountains, but for the best part of the day we have been crossing a landscape of hills, where vast plantations of bananas are operated. Other use of the landscape is seasonal pasture (we happen to be in the season when the pastures are green, so it is very soothing to see them extending as far as the eye can see), and cattle grazing (definitely happy Brazilian cows).

From a geologic point of view, in the morning we drove through the sedimentary foothills of the Paraná Basalts Plateau, where some limestone units have given their name to the Rio Cavernoso or the Caverna del Diablo. Most of the day was spent driving through the eroded basaltic plateau, which has been a thrill because the Paraná basalts were erupted shortly before South America and Africa separated from each other, so one half of the province is here, in Southern Brazil, whereas the other half is now in western Africa. This is thus hallowed ground as far as Plate Tectonics and geology are concerned.

We arrived at the town of Cascavel around 9:30 pm, rather tired and ready to hole for the night. My Portuguese is good enough by know to ask for a good hotel (but not good enough to further elaborate that we need something that is good but not very expensive), so we got directed to one of the best hotels, and had to pay top reais for a room (170 reais, or US$85). We need to try to get to our resting place earlier, so we can search for better deals.
Anyway, we are now less than 200 km from Foz de Iguaçú, and look forward to seeing the famous cataracts early tomorrow.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 31 – The road trip starts

Nothing like starting a new adventure! In a way is like having a third vacation, and we are ready for it. I have felt great from my dehydration, and by taking my medicine faithfully plan to avoid a second visit to the colorful health care system of Brazil. We landed in Rio de Janeiro to a beautiful, balmy morning, and the plane gave us a beautiful birds-eye view of the city with its many bays and valleys. We are going to like it here!

The car rental was relatively smooth, except that the workers seemed to have forgotten that their outfit, Unidas, had been created by the merger of National and Alamo. So it took a few confused phone calls to figure out that yes, we were at the right place. They were also kind of amazed to have two international clients coming to disturb the peace of their morning routine. Once our credentials had been duly validated we were quickly attended, and in 15 minutes were the proud “owners” of a silver VW Fox, which Annie immediately dubbed The Silver Bullet. We were ready to jump into 9 am Rio traffic (a task only for the stout of heart) when a Good Samaritan came to our rescue (I am glad to acknowledge that Brazil has more than an average amount of good Samaritans). He was also renting a car, and in five minutes he would be heading out of the city toward Sao Paolo. He could lead us out of the maze if we cared to wait for him. We did wait, and he took us out of the city without a hitch. Thank you Lord for the good people of Brazil!

The more we saw of Rio the more we liked it. It has so many small bays that it is difficult to describe, but the combination of the indented shoreline, the old churches atop hills, and the affluent new and poor old gives it the comfortable look of an old port city anxious to welcome the tourist.

Our goal in the next two days is to reach Foz the Iguaçú, 1500 km away, so we tried to do good time by looking out of the window a lot and stopping not too often. They have a speed limit of 110 km here, and our Good Samaritan warned us that they have many checkpoints with cameras waiting to catch the speeder. The problem is that once you approach a speed check point they mess with your mind, by dropping the speed limit to 80 all of a sudden. Do you know how hard it is to drop from 110 to 80 in a long-distance trip? I suspect that somewhere out there there is a pretty picture of yours truly, wanted for being a speed felon.

Crossing Sao Paolo was my big fear. Located at 400 km of Rio, it is the largest metropolis of Brazil, and we were planning on crossing it at 3 pm. Imagine going from San Francisco to San Diego, and having to cross Los Angeles at 3 pm! Well, our good luck held, and we successfully navigated the maze of freeways and surface streets without getting snagged. It is a big, Los Angeles-like city, but we were glad to put it behind us by 4:30. I had planned to drive until 6 pm, and we would have followed the plan perfectly, but 100 km from Sao Paolo we crossed a chain of mountains and that was pure torture. Big trucks were crawling up the slopes (and going even slower on the downhill) and even with my best Mexican reckless driving it was 6:30 pm by the time we were down. At 7:30 pm we reached the town of Registro, where we hurriedly booked a hotel, ate a quick (but very tasty) pizza, and zonked out for the night.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 30 – A do-nothing day

Not to tempt the fates, today we did nothing but rest, rehydrate, read, and watch TV (mostly in Portuguese). Annie went out for 20 minutes to roam around the hotel, but was otherwise a home body. I held until 4 pm, at which time hunger forced me to leave the hotel in search for food. Of course the hotel has a restaurant, but like other high price places they are closed between 3 and 7 pm.

My good fortune guided my steps to a nice store, Lider, where I had a big bowl of minestrone soup for less than 5 reais. Annie and I will have to look for big supermarkets once we start our road trip, because you can eat very well in them for very reasonable money. Afterward I took the escalator to the third floor, where I bought a book for my Beloved (G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories), and then back to the ground floor to buy her a bar of chocolate (big bonus points when I got back to the hotel!).

The supermarket is three or four small blocks from the hotel, at the edge of a totally different part of town. All around me were very tall, very elegant condominiums, and the folk walking around had morphed from everyday Belemians to fashionable and chic Brazilians. One block into the ritzy part of town I found a big mall with icy air conditioning, glamorous stores, and the hustle and bustle one could expect at the mall back home.
Since I was still in recovery, at least in concept, I decided not to overdo it and headed back home. My Babe was delighted with the chocolate and the book, and had enough appetite to order frago a laranja (chicken in orange sauce) and a chocolate mousse. We are happy and contented and plan to sleep from 8 pm to midnight, wake up and shower, and then head for the airport around 1:30 am. Here we go again!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 29 – The “fevers” of the Amazon

Do you remember that all daring explorers of the Amazon were sooner or later laid down for a day or two by the miasmatic fevers of the Amazon? From Francisco de Orellana to Alexander Von Humboldt everyone has had to pay with a little discomfort for the privilege of following the equator. Today was my time to do so. It all started three days ago, when in the boat I had some of the suco de maracuyá (some cool water mixed with the juice of the maracuyá fruit), which in turn gave me a mild case of the runs. Nothing too severe, mind you, so I tried to ignore it in the best way I could, only mildly increasing my consumption of water.

Today in the morning I had a couple of cups of coffee, and gladly ventured with my Honey unto the discovery of Belém. First we did some walking trying to find a place where we could get some laundry done. Once we left the dirty clothes in the charge of a nice old fellow we headed for the old city, intent of visiting a couple of museums and the original fort that was the seed from which the whole city grew. Unfortunately it was Monday and all museums were closed, so by the time we stopped for a rest in the gardens around the fort it was approaching noon and was getting very hot. Belém is the first big city we have visited in Brazil, and we did quite a bit of walking, so I didn’t quite noticed that I was getting tired and thirsty. After going around the fort we stopped at a kiosk and I had a coke sitting on the friendly chairs provided by the vendor. After another half hour of walking I was again deadly tired and thirsty, and I bought a cold beer at a supermarket and drank it on the spot. Finally we were standing kitty corner to the hostel, and I had a second cold beer in a little café. Because we were both hot Annie had suggested that we find a cool shopping mall and spend a couple of hours there, a suggestion that I enthusiastically applauded. We were a few steps from the hostel, however, so we decided to stop there for a quick rest before going farther afield. I made it to the little garden in front, where a shady bench provided all the allure I needed to lay down and take a nap.

Ten minutes later my Honey came back, and suggested I stepped inside where we could both lounge in the shade and the breeze of the fan. I thought it was a grand idea, and made as to follow her inside. All of a sudden I see her panicked face hovering over me, asking if all was right (a rethorical question since I was sprawled on the floor). I mumbled something about being clumsy, got up, and went down again barely missing hitting myself on the head with a concrete cornice. Next I remember my Honey is asking for somebody to call an ambulance (I wonder why she wanted an ambulance), and a nice big fellow assisting me to my feet, along the narrow corridor, and then plopping me on the couch. Poor Annie was very scared, not really knowing if her request for an ambulance had been heeded (it had). Thank God for her iPhone, which at considerable expense can be used internationally, so she was able to reach Jake and Katie, who stayed in text contact with her for the following few hours, providing us with medical and spiritual support.

Half an our later two nice paramedic ladies came in, took my vitals, and expressed great concern about the fact that my blood pressure was very low (90 over 70), and that I was all cold and clammy. They questioned Annie about what had happened, and she explained I had my eyes fixed and rolled back so only the white of the eyes could be seen, as if I were dead or possessed by the devil. It was a great description, and from it I can see the fear that must have gripped her soul at the fear of loosing me on the spot. But alas, they didn’t speak any English, so all the poetry was lost on them as I made a feeble attempt to translate into Portugese the flowing narrative. Finally they decided the case merited hospital attention, and around 1 pm took us in the ambulance to the Hospital de Pronto Socorro, the first-aid municipal hospital. The hospital was doing brisk business that day, with people in gurneys and wheel chairs everywhere, waiting in corridors hooked to IV lines. I was wheeled straight into the reception area, where a young doctor looked at the report of the paramedics (they had taken my name and other info from my passport), wrote a few lines of conclusion (they must have bought a million sheets of Xerox paper with copy marks all over them, because all case histories were written on this paper that was barely legible), and then filled a bunch of half pages with the orders for what needed to be done: chest x-rays, electro-cardiogram, blood tests, IV fluids, and final medical evaluation. So off we go into the hospital maze, with my poor Babe pushing me from the x-rays, to the IV ward (where my place was going to be, on a plastic chair, right under my name neatly posted on a piece of paper stuck to the wall), the ECG/EKG lab, and back to the IV ward.

The IV ward had about 8 to 10 gurneys, and me sitting, with people in all sorts of degrees of pain. Almost everyone had a companion (I had my fabulous Babe with me), who was in charge of providing the basic comforts. Half of the gurneys were bare steel, and the other half had thin pads, and almost everyone had some sort of blanket (the nice paramedics had told my Honey to take the blanket I had used with me, no doubt knowing that it was a fend-for-yourself world inside the hospital). In the middle of the ward was the nurse station, managed by a half dozen very capable and very busy nurses. One of the male nurses took it upon himself to be our protector, and it was him who chaperoned us to the x-rays and EKG labs. In between I sat on my chair, fearing that I would be forgotten there, among so many cases who were clearly in worst shape than I. Not for a moment did I see a drop in the level of activity. Gurneys came and went, people got their IV going (mine was dripping at such a slow rate that I though it would take days to finish), the packets with the illegible Xerox cover went flying, and from time to time a doctor would come in, make a final evaluation, and the patient mysteriously disappeared to either be discharged or to be sent to another long-term care hospital. It seemed chaotic to the untrained eye, but the nurses and doctors knew what they were doing, and they did it efficiently without dropping a beat.

My time came at last. With Jake on the other side of the phone to provide a second opinion, Annie in the middle to ask questions, and a very nice lady doctor doing the explaining, she concluded that the ECG/EKG was normal, the X-rays were normal, the blood work normal in everything except elevated levels of leucocytes (which she interpreted as my body fighting the intestinal infection). She concluded that I had dehydrated due to the runs, and that trying to do its job the body had started shutting down peripheral functions and that had caused the drop in blood pressure (me, I would think that efficient blood pumping would not fall in the category of a “peripheral function”), and this in turn had caused the loss of conscience. So she wrote me a prescription for an antibiotic to take care of the intestinal infection, an electrolyte to bring me back to normal, and millions of metachlorians to replenish my intestinal fauna and flora. With that, and an enthusiastic shake of the hand, I finished my tour of Brazil’s socialized medicine system. It is not pretty, but they were kind, efficient and (I hope) effective. I certainly thank them for the care and concern they gave to two lowly tourists.

A taxi brought us back to the hostel, and Annie (with the invaluable help of Katie and Jake back home) took charge. She moved us out of the hostel into the Crown Plaza Hotel, picked up the laundry, had the prescription filled, and decreed that for the next 24 hours I have to do nothing but recover. I am in fine fighting trim by now, but will gladly heed her directive, and muster my strength luxuriating in this fine hotel until it is time to go to the airport for our flight to Rio.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Days 24 to 28 – Cruising down the Amazon

My Honey had been complaining that a true vacation should include a cruise, so I made her dreams come true with a five days-four nights cruise down the Amazon. First, we chose the jewel of the fleet, The Amazon Star, for its spacious suites and decks. Then we retained the best of the suites (through judicious application of an advanced tip) with a view that dominated the top deck and the Amazonian jungle. Air conditioning and an in-suite bathroom completed the amenities, but of course you were encouraged to simply plop on a hammock and read while the river unfolded in front of you. In chose, in fact, to spend my nights swinging in my hammock and listening to the sounds of the jungle!

Two restaurants attended to the dietary needs of the travelers, one of them on a 24-hour basis. Or you could order from land restaurants if we happened to be in a port of call. They use quite an interesting system for this: Youngsters carry very long poles with a nail and a bottomless plastic bottle of coke at the end. They put the food in a plastic bag and hook it to the pole, and in that way bring it to your deck. You in turn put the money in the plastic bottle and the transaction is completed.

Unfortunately 5 days on a boat is a bit too much, and although we read a lot we were in need of some exercise and change of scene (you could always walk around the spacious decks of the boat, but even that needs a break). Fortunately we did a port-of-call stop at Santarem, so my Honey and I went for a vigorous walk to see the sights and by local knick-knacks. Originally we had the idea of spending a couple of days in Santarem, because the nearby river beaches are reportedly very pretty. But that is only when the river stage is low. Right now, with the river at flood, the beaches are underwater. Furthermore, we were enamored with our comfortable ship, so we figured we would retain our spacious suite all the way to Belém. I have certainly racked big time cruise-credit with my Babe!

So we finally made it to Belém, which is a huge city compared to all the other river town we have looked at. A taxi brought us to the local Youth Hostel, which is located in al old rubber baron mansion. It is rather quaint, with its high ceilings and old-world architecture, but we miss our suite and its luxurious bathroom (here we have collective showers, which my Lovey does not like). I had the idea of retaining the services of a small plane to fly over the Island of Marajó, the island formed at the mouth of the Amazon, which is larger than Switzerland, so we went looking for the airport, found a light plane service, and regretfully found out that the cost was much more than our finances could afford (3,500 reais or about US$ 1,750). Oh well, you win some and you lose some.

We have rearranged the rest of the trip, because truth be told we are pretty tired of lugging around Annie’s bulky luggage. In a couple of days we are going to fly to Rio de Janeiro, and once there we are going to rent a car and turn the last three weeks of our vacation into a road trip. The idea is to go from Rio to Foç de Iguazú, and from there to Brasilia, and finally back to Rio (via Belo Horizonte) to complete the triangle. Unfortunately this is a big country, and each leg of the triangle is about 1,000 km long, but we plan to stop often and see a lot in between our major stops.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 23 – Bosque da Ciencia

Today we had a big agenda, planning to visit several museums and natural areas. We were so efficient that we were waiting outside the Bosque da Ciencia by 8:30 am, waiting for it to open at 9 am. This bosque is a research station that has been expanded to welcome visitors. They work with river otters, manatis, and caimans, but the enclosed area of about 40 acres is home to wild monkeys, sloths, and the agouti (a large rodent, about the size of a cat, that runs along the ground on agile, delicate legs). The bosque has been improved with a couple of shops where Annie bought some bead bracelets, a model home made of wood that can be pre-fabricated for about US$2,500 (not bad for a house with the three rooms and a small living room, although I imagine one of the rooms would have to serve as kitchen, and the model did not have a bathroom), and a couple of cafeterias. We had a delightful morning, walking under the jungle canopy.
Emboldened with our success we pushed on to the Museum of Natural Sciences, which is also known as the Japanese Museum because it is in the Japanese(-Brazilian) neighborhood. We took the bus, only to find out that it was the same driver who had brought us to the Bosque de Ciencia, and he was a bit perplexed when I told him we were going to the Japanese Museum, but he took us to the Japanese neighborhood and there left us with instructions about asking for directions (Brazilians are so sweet with us foreigners). It was a bit of a hoof, but Annie and I got there, just to find that the museum had closed permanently on April 1 (no wonder since it was practically unaccessible and only devoted tourists like us would have made the effort to get there.
The way back was looking like a hot and thirsty hoof, but God (who loves foolish tourists) sent us an angel in the form of a friendly Brazilian, who brought us out of the concrete jungle and put us on a suitable bus stop to get back to downtown. Lunch was delicious but afterward we had little energy left, so the afternoon was lady’s choice. The lady chose to go shopping for organic products to a store she had spied from the corner of her eye in a previous bus ride. We got there and the prices were outrageous, but my little organic Honey was happy, and while I napped in the coffee shop she spent the equivalent to a small fortune buying God-knows-what. She is happy, so I am happy.
Tomorrow we will board the slow boat to Santarem, so it may be three or four days before I come back on line. I am looking forward to our slow float down the Amazon.    

Monday, July 8, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 22 – Lazy day

Last night, while the chickens and I went to bed, Annie got an attack of the munchies (maybe a direct consequence of the fact that all she had eaten were two cones of ice cream). In any case, she saw the little cafeteria along the sidewalk offered hamburgers, and she decided she had to have one. The hamburger was indifferent, the ketchup and French fries were OK, and the mustard was plain strange. The entertainment, on the other hand, was first rate: She was sitting in one of the eight small tables, when all of a sudden a glass gets smashed and an altercation starts in the table farthest from her. A few young people had been imbibing there, and one of the boys apparently had one to many, and his girlfriend was a bit too flirtatious, and . . .  reminds of the Mexican saying that reminds us that la mujer es fuego, el hombre estopa, llega el Diablo, sopla y  . . .  said boy went into a rage, lifted the table from which rained glasses and bottles, and attempted to clobber the girl with the table. Fortunately he was too drunk, and the friends intervened, and the owner came out a kicked out everyone of them, so Annie was able to finish her burger in peace. Not bad for a measly 16 reais!

I only learned about her adventures when we woke up, with no serious plans for the day. We wanted to find a bookstore where we could buy the book A selva, and if possible the film as well, and I needed to buy a new charger for my computer, the old one finally having died the night before. Two simple errands that took us half the day to accomplish successfully, but not much to show in terms of hard core tourism. We had Chinese for lunch, and then went to the Museum of the Amazon, where just by chance they had a special exhibition on the art and rite-of-passage costumes of the Ticuna! This is the same community we spent two days with back in Leticia, and we were delighted to confirm that indeed, we had had the real experience, visiting the real Ticuna. The houses, the canoes, the faces, everything was just as we remembered them.

We also find confirmation of a strange coming-of-age ritual that accompanies the first menstruation of young women. The new woman is isolated and kept separate of the community until the feast of initiation can be organized. Relatives prepare scary masks and costumes, sometimes with big phalluses, to wear during the first day and scare the bad spirits. On the second day there is feasting and much dancing, and somewhere along the way the hair of the new woman is cut by her parents or pulled out by her relatives! According to Joel sometimes the hair is pulled out in wads, and there is bleeding. Finally, on the third day the masks are thrown away, once again there is much dancing, and the young new woman is now allowed to rejoin the community. Must be scary like hell to the poor girl who just had to get over the surprise of her first menstruation.

Our next stop was the Teatro del Amazonas, a grand theater built in 1896, when Manaus was at its apogee as the world capital of rubber. No expense was spared to give a European quality opera house to the Pearl of the Amazon, and the theater still has active opera, theater, and children’s theater programs. It reminded Annie very much of the Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato.

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 21 – Museu do Seringal

Another fine day dawns in the state of Amazonia, and Manaus all of a sudden looks friendlier than the night before. Our Hotel Plaza has definitely been one of the low points (though at some point was a four star hotel), and even the generous breakfast offer was marred by weevils in Annie’s oatmeal (after discovering which, she was unable to eat anything but pineapple, and that only after inspecting it through her stink eye). But immediately after breakfast we got to change to the Hotel Brazil, which is cheaper and has a bigger room in the eighth floor, with a grand view of the hospital).

Having settled the issue of shelter, we devoted the morning to securing our departure from this fair city. That involved going to the port to find a boat that would have a suitable cabin. After receiving the cheerful help of the lady selling the tickets, she finally gave us passes to go on board and check a couple of the boats. The Amazon Star seems to be clean, has AC, and a private bathroom with shower, so we settled for it. Before making up our mind, however, Annie sent me on board another boat, and I suffered a massive cramp in my left calf as I jumped aboard; oh, it was extremely painful and left me limping on the left leg.

After getting our tickets for next Wednesday at noon (today is Sunday), we boarded bus 120 with the intention of going north of the city to visit the Museu do Seringal, a display in the jungle whose purpose is to educate the visitor about the hard life of the rubber collectors or seringueiros (caucheros in Spanish). Our driver was positively insane, and Annie and I hung to each other for dear life, fearing an untimely demise from one moment to the next. After 20 km of this wild ride we were dumped in the area called Punta Negra, only to discover that we could have continued riding the bus for another kilometer to the terminus, which is where the boat to the museum took off. Fortunately a good Samaritan took pity of the clueless foreigners, and he ran us all the way to the port, where I managed to trip and bang myself badly, this time in the right leg. Great, now I am a double gimp! Having recovered what little was left of my self esteem, we took a fast boat that would take us another 10 km up the Rio Negro to Vila Paraíso, which is where the museum is located. Talk about a long way to go to visit a museum!

Well, it turns out that it is not quite a museum, but the left-behind set of the movie A Selva (2001), which presumably follows the book of the same name written by a seringueiro in the late 1800’s. The set is quite remarkable, and is a faithful copy of a rubber plantation located 450 km farther north along the Rio Negro.

To make a little history, back in 1842 Charles Goodyear developed the vulcanization process in the US, and in 1892 John Dunlop from Ireland invented the pneumatic tire. All of a sudden there was a huge demand for the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree. This is where the history of the seringueiros plugs in. The Brazilian’s tried to keep the monopoly of rubber, but the Brits stole some seeds, and by the 1910’s Malaysia, Singapore, and Cyprus were hard competitors in the rubber market. The market became quite depressed during the 1920’s and 30’s, but revived during World War II, when Japan invaded Malaysia and the flow of Asian rubber dried out. The US, in need of the strategic material, offered Brazil a bonus of US$100 for every new seringueiro they could put to produce rubber. The Brazilian government gladly accepted the challenge, and conscripted 50,000 young men from the northeast, which was suffering from a devastating drought,  to either work on the rubber plantations or go to war. Put between a rock and a hard place most chose to become seringueiros, without knowing what they were signing for. For the following five years they fought solitude, tropical diseases, savage and poisonous animals to keep the United States supplied with rubber for the war effort, which led them to be referred to as the “rubber soldiers”. Unfortunately about half of them perished in the effort, making them one of the “units” that suffered heavy “casualty rates”. To date, natural rubber is still exploited in Brazil, as it is preferred for uses that require great flexibility and resistance, such as latex gloves used by surgeons.

Getting back to the museum, the life of a seringueiro was as tough and hopeless as that of the black slaves of the South, or the miners of northern Mexico. The “colonel” or owner of the plantation was always a Portuguese, and he was a true son of a bitch. He would bring single men (no married men were allowed) to the plantation, and they would never leave. The first thing after they signed on was to outfit it out of the company store with head lamp, the tools of the trade (scraper, knife, collecting dishes, pot), and some basic victuals, everything on credit. The seringueiro then went to work and every week would bring big balls of rubber (called borracha, which is why tire repair shops advertise as borracharia, which in Spanish could be interpreted as the place to get drunk), which the colonel would weight and credit to the account of the seringueiro. Like with so many company stores it was almost impossible for the worker to get out of debt, so he was stuck in this position forever. To make the hole even deeper, from November 8 to December 8 the plantation would celebrate the feast of the Virgin, and everybody was encouraged to feast, drink, and spend. At the end of the feast the workers would be called to the store one by one, and would be charged for all they ate and drank during the month of festivities. In the rare cases where the worker freed himself from debt, then he was encouraged to spend his money in cognac, caviar, or high class white prostitutes. If this was not enough the worker would depart, but he would have to be fast in getting out of the area, before the colonel managed to get them killed (bad for discipline if it were known that one had walked out).

On a day to day basis the seringueiro would scrape clean the bark of nearly 100 trees, would cut a furrow in the bark, and hang a small tin cup to collect the sap. The sap flows rapidly at night, when the temperature drops, so the seringueiro, would collect it in the wee hours of the morning (no doubt while preparing another tree for the following day (each tree could only be tapped once every three days). Back at his camp, the seringueiro would start a smokey fire, and would cure the rubber milk by placing a coat on a stout stick and then smoking it over the fire. Add another coating and smoke again, and so on and on and on, until the ball of smoked rubber was the size of a watermelon. This would be the borracha that would be taken to the colonel for weighting and credit to the account of the seringueiro. Most of these workers died on the job, because of smoke inhalation as they processed the rubber, or being killed by the Indians, or malaria, or dangerous and poisonous animals. It was a miserable existence and a death sentence from which very few escaped.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 20 – Second day in the Crystal I and arrival in Manaus

As I said before, the Crystal I is tearing down the river at high speed (30 to 40 km/hour), but it still takes a long time to cover 1,000 km of river. The second day was pretty much the same as the first, and we are ready to reach our destination (hopefully before 6 pm).

The shore really looks flooded now, and one can only guess at the number of esteros that extend behind them. What amazement Francisco de Orellana and his men must have experienced when they explored the river in the mid 1500’s? The river is so “flat” that at times it is hard to decide what is a tributary and what is the main channel, so how did they decide where to make a stop for the night?  

Now and then we pass a village, where the houses appear to be floating. Up in Leticia the community was hard at work planting, cutting boards, or making boats. These folks in contrast are still flooded, and the river does not show a lot of signs that it is going down. I wonder how many days of dry-land will they have to get a crop in.

Manaus is not along the Amazon itself, but tucked in a few kilometers along one of the tributaries. It is easy to see why the site of the city was selected, as it occupies one of the few hilly promontories we have seen, and is thus not subject to flooding. We arrived around 5:30 pm, picked our luggage, and headed on foot for the hotel I had picked through Expedia, only five blocks away from the port. The city reminded me a bit of Lisbon, but it appeared run down and not very clean. The neighborhood of the hotel did not look that attractive, and the hotel proved to be below even my very lax standards. Annie had a look of panic in her face. So we hoofed it another four blocks to the Youth Hostel, but they didn’t have space. We tried a third and finally fourth hotel before we found a room, barely Annie acceptable and quite expensive, but we need a place to spend the night. Tomorrow we will move to Hotel Number 3, where we made a reservation for the next two nights.
We complain about the room, but the first thing we did was turn it into a Chinese laundry, with three different lines of clothes set to dry. Annie made the mistake of skipping one day of laundry and dirty clothes accumulate in a hurry!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 19 – The fast boat to Manaus

We woke early, packed, had breakfast, and took a very rickety taxi to the port in Tabatinga. There we presented our documents, had our luggage thoroughly inspected by the Federal Police (we are not quite sure what they are looking for, but on two later occasions the Federal Police conducted a similar inspection, with plenty of show of force), and finally boarded the  the Federal Police conducted a similar inspection, with plenty of show of force), and finally boarded the Crystal I. It is all we could ask for. It has a wide boat with three airplane-like seats on each side, and a broad corridor in between. The best of all is that the run is practically empty, so both Annie and myself had a row for each of us, where we expect to lounge and sleep comfortably at night. (Later, at different ports of call, new people came in, and in the wee hours of the morning I had to give up my kingdom and go bunk with my Honey.)

We are flying down the Amazon, and it is easy to get distracted by the TV and not see the landscape as it unfolds past us. The best place to see the world going by is the aft platform, where you are out in the open, enjoying the fresh air and the roar of the engines.

The river is very much in flood down here, so sightings of the shore are rare and far between, where the river has undermined reddish cliffs on small hills. The red are lateritic soils typical of the rainforest. For the most part, however, all you see is the flooded shore, with tree tops coming out of the water. Now and then you sight a community of houses on stilts, with people moving around in canoes. We have stopped a number of times in “ports of call” that range from a few huts spilling off the bank, to old, elegant, and rundown waterfronts, probably going back to the years where rubber was the gold of the Amazon (late 1800’s and early 1920’s).
Food is included in the price of 430 reais per person (about US$ 215), served at your seat by the numerous members of the crew. They also have a small store, where Annie got us a big bag of popcorn for Happy Hour. It has been a painless trip, with plenty of time for reading, listening to my Portuguese lessons, watching TV, and being basically lazy. Morale is high!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 18 – Our continuing stay in the jungle

I forgot to narrate a funny event from yesterday: As we were preparing to go in our jungle walk Miguel warned us to wear long-sleeve shirts and lay on the repellent “because the mosquitoes are coming”. What did he mean? There had been very few mosquitoes so far. Then, all of a sudden, the mosquitoes came in big swarms. Ah, but Annie and I were prepared and promptly donned our secret identities: Mosquito Man and Mosquito Girl, archenemies of Batman and Wonder Boy. For this trip we bought expensive repellent-treated REI pants and shirts. Totally useless. But we had also bought rather dorky, but inexpensive jackets with hoods and pants made of mosquito netting. We looked pretty silly, but these dorky garments were like magic against the mosquitoes. And the kids rather enjoyed seeing us “in costume” while I told them about the perilous adventures of Mosquito Man and his inseparable companion Mosquito Girl.

Anyway, I awoke rested like if I had slept for 24 hours, and in nice fighting trim, only to see a sorry lot of bleary-eyed zombies slowly coming back to life. It was then that I heard about the poking and the calls for “Haonnie” together with the more radical ideas about moving me and my hammock to the school house, or just tossing me in a boat and letting me go adrift.

It took a while to get some coffee on the table, followed by Huevos Perico (scrambled eggs with onions and tomatoes), but by 8 am we were fed and ready to go. Our goal was to have a cruise in the Titanic to see birds and monkeys. Miguel pointed to all sorts of moving things, and Joel rattled off their scientific names in Latin. Joel is a dear old man (younger than I, but with a lot more mileage in himself) who has had a rich and interesting life as a guide. He speaks English and French rather well, and he used to guide expeditions through the jungle, before the jungle became a touristy place. Unfortunately he had a stroke not too long ago, and at times gets confused, has little sensitivity on his right arm, and gets tired easily when walking with a pronounced limp. Still, he is a super interesting guy with whom it was a pleasure to chat.

Our next adventure was to go fishing for piranhas. Miguel had prepared himself for this portion of the trip with four long home-made poles, a few scraps of chicken skin, and chicken gizzards. Contrary to Hollywood’s depiction, piranhas do not swarm all at once to devour a body in just a few seconds. They live near the bottom, feeding on dead fish or fruit that sink to the bottom, or the scraps left by the kill of a bigger fish. We used this latter trait to our advantage by making a big splash in the water with the tip of the fishing pole and then letting the bait float to the bottom. Almost right away Miguel and Josué started pulling out little piranhas, but we caught none. We changed spots three times before finally heading for the shore of the actual Amazon, which is apparently a fool-proof place for the fishing of piranha. Again Josué kept pulling fish after fish, and Joel managed to be bitten by a little piranha (an amazing amount of blood for such a little guide), but I still came up blank. After half hour I felt pity for our fearless leader and declared myself satisfied and ready to go home.

So we went back home, where I took a delightful siesta, while Doña Betty worked out her magic cooking over an open fire. Lunch was, once again, delicious: Deep fried piranhas over white rice, and a stew of chicken, potatoes, and tomato sauce that was to die for. A side salad of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions completed this delightful meal.

Finally it came time to say goodbye to our gracious hostess and the kids. Wow, we only spent a night here and they all feel like family! It was probably the simplicity with which we are taken into the fold of the family that worked out the magic.

Our excellent Miguel took us directly to the commercial port of Tabatinga, where we took motorcycle taxis to go to the main wharf, where the fast boat to Manaus departs, to buy our tickets for tomorrow. Annie once again threatened to fly directly to Los Angeles rather than go in another boat like el Golfinho. Since I was not ready to spend an additional week in Leticia I told her that no, we could not go look and buy the tickets later (my Lovey has some problems being decisive); this was it: We were buying tickets and going. Our good luck came to the rescue, in the form of the Crystal I, a rather upscale fast boat, with place to move, four bathrooms, TV, and a real galley. With some reservation my Honey has tentatively agreed not to abandon me, so tomorrow will be the big day of our 1,000 km trip down the Amazon to Manaus.
When we got to the hotel, tired and dirty, I jumped in the shower while Annie went across the street to the pharmacy. I got out of the shower, washed my clothes, put on my swimming suit, went for a swim, and finished writing my blog for the previous day, and still no Annie. Where could she have gone, all sweaty, without first taking a shower? I was beginning to think kidnap and how to raise a ransom here in Leticia, when she finally came back. She had been for over an hour at the pharmacy, torturing the poor attendant, by going over the list of ingredients of every brand of shampoo they had, looking for the most “organic” of them! And then, after finally buying the first she had been presented with, she remembered she also wanted some sunscreen lotion, so she repeated the whole performance, this time involving even the pharmacist, in her search for a lotion that would not cause her pores to clog. I wonder what kind of memory these poor people will have of foreign tourists from now on.

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 17 – The Ticuna folk

Ah, a new day, with infinite possibilities for adventure! Unfortunately my first adventure was a call to the bathroom last night. Wiracocha’s Revenge has finally caught up with me! But I trust the magic Chinese yellow pills and am pretty sure that this little bout will not be anything more than a “cleansing”.

Before I forget, and for the benefit of those who shall follow in our footsteps, we are staying here in Leticia at the Hotel Yurupary. It is a good hotel, with swimming pool and an excellent breakfast, even though a bit expensive. I chose it to give Annie a break, and want to believe that the four nights we spent here have had some cathartic effect on her. At least it is now only every other day that she threatens to take the plane to Los Angeles (a bit of an empty threat, because from here it would take a couple of days of very imaginative travel to reach an airport of the size to support flights to the US), and only once did she regaled the administration with some complaint about the “nasty little room” (the room is neither nasty nor little; it just happen to have a very hard bed and no hot water like everywhere else in subtropical areas).

But I divagate. Today we are starting our 2-day jungle adventure, with the Jorge and Miguel Jungle Explorations outfit, which operates out of the Hotel Divino Niño. Sounds a bit sketchy, and we plunked down a bit of money for this outing, but Annie liked the guys, who offer an alternative to the commercial tours. We were not picked up in a van, but had to walk to the port, where our expedition vessel was waiting, the unsinkable Titanic. The Titanic was a typical river canoe, with a shade canopy, a Styrofoam cooler as ancient as the jungle itself, an outboard motor with a very long shaft (I have seen the same outboard motors in China and Malaysia), and a smiling captain named Josué. He was the expert technical staff behind all our adventures, and truly we could not have hoped for more. The rest of the expeditionary force was composed by Miguel Mendoza ( our young guide in his mid-thirties, and Joel Mendoza, a fifty-something supernumerary who came along for the ride and ending being an entertaining source of information about the jungle and its inhabitants. Both Miguel and Joel spoke good English, so Annie was a happy pup.

Well, the first thing we did was cross the Amazon into the Peruvian jungle, where we got lost inside a small estero or estuary tributary, which was going to be our home for the following two days. About a mile upstream we found a small Ticuna community, where we stopped to unload all the food (Miguel had gone shopping the previous afternoon) and become acquainted with the place where we were going to sleep. The Ticuna are “typical” of the inhabitants of the Amazon. They dress just like us, and enjoy turning the generator for a couple of hours in the evening so the family can enjoy the flat-screen TV, but they are true jungle people in that almost all they need for daily living I provided by the jungle, and they are happy in their semi-isolation. They live in stilt-houses, because every year during the rainy season (November to April) the river floods and their low jungle becomes a swamp in which you move from place to place by canoe. During the dry season, just like now, the river stage drops, the islands emerge from the water, and they resume their happy lives. At the height of the dry season (August to October) the river stage will drop so much that the estero will go dry, and then they will leave their boats at the edge of the Amazon, and trudge the mile through the jungle every day to fetch water and fish. We are delighted, because we have finally met the true inhabitants of the Amazon!

We were staying at the house of Doña Betty, who may be the mother-in-law of Miguel (but we were never sure of the relation). Both Miguel and Joel seemed to have lived here in the past, but again the details were vague. In any case, Joel took us around to visit the community, which extends for about half a mile along the shore of the estero. We visited the one room schoolhouse, and said hello to the professor and the kids (all 29 kids from all grades combined into one class!), and then went to the community store and community center, where Joel invited himself to the grilled fish that seems to be always cooking at the Ticuna houses. More than grilled it is smoked or turned into charcoal, and everyone is welcome to take a snack while visiting. For all we could tell kids move fluently from one house to the next, playing and browsing as they go through. They do have chores (like washing dishes or fetching stuff from the river with their tiny canoes, but have plenty of time for homework (which they like doing all huddled together, the younger ones learning from the older ones), play and mischief. They are a motley crew of ragamuffins, but their mothers work hard at keeping them scrubbed and wearing clean clothes (which with kids means that laundry seems to be a never ending activity of the womenfolk).

Back at the community center I had to pass on the offer to much on a small, broiled caiman’s head (you know I am really sick when I let such a unique opportunity pass), but got to play with one of the two little monkeys kept there.

On the way back we stopped to see a fellow use his chain saw (Husquevana, so they go for top of the line) to cut planks off a felled tree. The planks were close to what we would call 1-by-6, and he could cut them by eye, without ever varying the dimensions. Not all in one cut, but letting the saw “sink” by its own accord little by little. The planks are not for sale, but will be used inside the community to build the stilt houses, canoes (a group of two men can build a plank canoe in a day!), or the ubiquitous “bridges” that are used to connect different rooms in an elevated house.

Once we returned from our stroll, and just as we were starting to wonder if we were going to spend all day doing nothing, Miguel called us to the boat and we went on an expedition to spot sloths. To our untrained eyes the little animals were practically invisible, but they know the type of tree where sloths feed, and once you have located the tree it is relatively straightforward to look for the slow moving animals. Annie and I speculate that that particular tree must have some active drug, so the little fellows are stoned most of the time, not unlike the Australian koalas.

Back at the community I had to lay down in a hammock, and pretty quickly was profoundly asleep, trying to get rid of my stomach malaise. I missed lunch, which according to Annie was delicious (big words of praise coming from her). The sleep was very good to me, though, and prepared me for the afternoon walk through the jungle. Josué took us a couple of miles upstream, and there he left us, with Miguel and his machete, to walk back through the jungle. What a great trek! Miguel showed us the rubber tree, the poison tree (with a poisonous sap that is deadly if ingested or used in the tip of an arrow), the walking tree (which walks by the simple expedient of throwing out new roots in the direction it wants to go, and then letting the old roots die out), the water-producing vines (yes, we got to drink from them), the footprints of a jaguar, and all sorts of interesting birds, flowers, and edible fruits.

Back in the community our hammocks had already been prepared (with a clever “tent” of mosquito netting around them), and a tent had been provided by Joel in case we were not keen on the use of the hammock. Annie chose to be a ground dweller, but I right away signed up for one of the hammocks. Next we had to wait for supper to be ready, and in the meantime made the acquaintance of another group of “explorers” who were also going to be spending the night. Three nice Israeli young men, who had come to the jungle to fish, hunt, and drink beer. Supper was a delicious spaghetti with fish, which we all enjoyed very much. Doña Betty is a superb cook!

For the evening adventure Miguel and I went for a short night walk to look at tarantulas, and then Annie and I boarded the Titanic to go for a caiman hunt (caiman in Spanish, alligator in English, and yacaré in Poutuguese). The technique is in theory simple: You shine your light against the banks, and the caiman eyes shine back bright red (not as easy to spot as it sounds). We went for quite some distance before spotting any, but once Miguel warmed up he would shake his light, the captain would cut the engine and head for the bank, and Miguel would dip his had in the water to catch the animal. He got three in close succession, from small (1 foot) to large (2 foot), and we were suitably amazed. Ah, but he had to try it one time too many. The fourth was the only one for which I saw the red eyes, we cut into the bank, Miguel leaned forward, and with a shout to back up threw himself backwards into the boat. . . A large, 9-foot gator splashed into the water, giving us the fright of a lifetime!

We were laughing so hard when we got back to the house and sought our “beds”. The Israeli boys were already in their hammocks, Annie took possession of the tent, and the kids slept around her, under a big canopy of mosquito netting, when all of a sudden a roar was heard inside the house. Everybody jumped up . . . everybody, that is, except Annie, who calmly explained to them that it was not a jaguar in the house, but her Honey snoring. Then followed a few hours of torture, where nobody was able to sleep. Apparently the hammock position was most conducive to me snoring particularly loudly, and every time people started to doze I woke them up. Annie and the kids made a game of it and were giggling their heads off. Miguel was holding his head in his hands in despair, and the Israeli boys were begging Annie to make it stop. She told them that she normally pokes me and says Honey, and that sometimes that helps, so there is Joel poking me gently, and the Israeli boys singing Haonnie in chorus, but alas to no avail. It was a hard night for one and all, except for me. I slept like a baby!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 16 – The jungle canopy

Today we did something that was a lot of fun. We took a ride to one of the many jungle preserves (here, anyone with a few acres can immediately open an eco-tourism jungle preserve). The purpose was to climb a tree and zip through the canopy like wild monkeys.
We started with a walk through the jungle, where we saw the rubber tree and other botanical wonders. We also saw vines, which according to legend are the hammocks of the benevolent spirit of the jungle. Whenever you see vines you know that the protector is nearby and that the jungle is healthy.
After about half an hour we arrived to our tree, a giant that rose 50 m up in the air. The platform we were going to climb to was perched at 35 m (about 100 ft), and from it hung several stout climbing ropes. We were going to go up using jumars, a gadget that slides up the rope but not down. There were three women, including Annie, and myself. The guide explained how to climb, using the force of your legs and not your arms. The girls took to the jumars like fish to water, while I, alas, was only able to climb a few feet before being totally exhausted. My arms felt numb, and I could barely hold on. The guys helping us were wonderful, and in no time hooked me to a winch, with which they hoisted me up to the top. I was feeling a bit ashamed when compared to the great performance of the girls, but you do what you have to do.
Once we were all reunited on top we spent a good time looking around, trying to eye a sloth or a monkey, but all to no avail. With all the noise we had made all fauna was probably several miles away.
Next step was to take the zip line to the next tree. It looked like you had to jump into the abyss, and as soon as Annie saw that she declared that she was happy where she was and had no intention of splatting herself onto the jungle floor. I figured that this was going to be my only chance of trying something crazy like a zip line, so mustering all my courage took a leap of faith and . . . enjoyed myself very much. Still, our helper had to pry my fingers open once I got to the platform.
The next zip line was not as dramatic, but was fairly long (110 m), and it was here that I learned to enjoy myself. Still, you are way up there and it is not easy to let go an “fly like a bird”. For the grand finale we rappelled down the tree, and made it back to the original tree to see Annie finishing her own rappel. We had all done something unique for each of us, and left the jungle with big grins pasted all over our faces.
Back at the hotel we made arrangements for a two day trek into the jungle, tomorrow and the day after, and are still agonizing on whether we want to take the fast (30 hour ride departing on Friday) or slow boat (three days and two nights departing Saturday). Our guides for the next two days have promised they will take us to Tabatinga as soon as we get back, so we can buy our tickets.
Dinner was, as promised to Annie, pizza. We enjoyed it very much and Annie ate two and a half slices, which is a lot more than she has eaten to date. We are all happy.  

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 15 – Leticia y Tabatinga

Not much to report. Today we meant to take it easy, doing immigration formalities, but we ended walking like dogs. To cross from Leticia, Colombia to Tabatinga, Brazil is a simple matter of crossing a street. There are no checks on either side of the border, so we just walked up the Avenida de la Amizade. We found, to our great interest, that everybody here seems to have a light motorcycle, and that motorcycles provide de taxi service. You simply flag down one of the men wearing a yellow and green vest, mount behind them, and off you go to your destination.

Getting money was not easy. Not all ATM machines give money, and its was not until the third attempt that by trial and error we found one machine that was willing to disgorge 1,000 reais into our waiting hands. There are two reais in a dollar, so all we need to do is divide by two to figure how much we are spending. In contrast, there are 2,000 Colombian pesos to the dollar, so I was quite in shock when I paid 300,000 pesos for a two-night stay at the hotel (US$75 per night, which is pretty pricey given that the bed is hard like a sheet of plywood!).

After a long hoof along the Avenida de la Amizade we got to the Federal Police Post, where we were going to request official entry into Brazil. The agent was very nice, but he told us that we first had to check out of Peru before he can give us entry to Brazil, so with all our honors we had to go to the port, take a boat across the river to Santa Rosa, and go through the formality of leaving Peru. We took the opportunity to have lunch, although Annie barely touched the mound of ceviche we were served.

Back in Tabatinga we got our Brazil stamp and we came back to the hotel for a well-deserved rest and swim in the pool. Later in the afternoon we went out to dinner, but once again Annie decided to go in a hunger strike. She has this trick where she scratches the meat with her fork, pulling out little tendrils of meat (a beef stew this time), and after that declares herself satisfied. I wish I could use this technique to lose weight! Tonight I will have to take her out to pizza, to see if a familiar food makes a difference.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 14 – Iquitos to Leticia

We woke up to the sound of thunderous rain! There is a deluge outside, so we had to re-pack our stuff to make sure that nothing sensitive could get wet. We brought dry bags with us, so it was not difficult to do. Annie, who had done marvels trying to “travel light”, was betrayed by her shopping alter ego, and now is carrying three pieces of luggage (one more than hands she has), and one of them is so bloated and heavy that there is no way she can carry it on her back. Imagine trying to pile such a burden in a moto-kar under the rain and you will get an idea of the sorry figure we cut.

We had been advised to be at the dock at 5 am, for a 6 am departure, and like good travelers were there at 4:40 am. The dock was deserted. Even more important, there was no place to shield ourselves from the rain, so we pulled against a palm tree under my little travel umbrella, and waited and waited. At 5:15 am a whole big mess of people came in, and two minutes later the “Golfinho” pulled in. Gee, it looked awfully small, particularly for all these people. This was it alright, and under the rain we had to pull passports and tickets out, and slowly board. Annie wanted to be one of the first on board, to select the best places, but there was none that was clearly superior to another. Imagine a bus, a Grayhound bus, and that is what the inside of the Golfinho looked like. The inside was not uncomfortable, but there was precious little space to stand or walk around, so it became clear that the nine-hour trip was going to be like any other long distance slug in a bus.

The Golfinho was remarkably stable and fast, and they even served us breakfast (café con leche and an egg sandwich) and lunch (arroz con pollo). However, it is not a trip I would care to repeat. We slept, read a lot, and looked forlornly at the distant shore. Not much to be seen, to tell the truth. At this distance even the biggest trees look small, and at this speed there is no time for the landscape to make an impression in your mind. I think it was a mistake not to take the slow boat.

We finally made it to Santa Rosa, but right from the landing wharf we took the boat to cross the Amazon to Leticia, Colombia. Tomorrow we will have to come back to Santa Rosa to go through the immigration formalities for leaving Peru, but tonight we need a hotel and a shower as soon as we can. As it happened, we landed in Leticia on Sunday, the day of the feast of St. Peter, so the town was in a festive mood, with carnival in the main plaza, a parade, and dancing of salsa on the streets. I wish we had been less pooped so we could have joined on the merriment. Tomorrow will be a better day! 

Oh, I almost forgot. To celebrate our coming to Colombia I had four fat grubs for dinner. They had been grilled and were a but chewy. Annie almost puked!

Peru-Brazil 2013 – Day 13 – Iquitos

For our last day in Iquitos we hired the services of a young man, Roberto, and his boat, to take us around the four rivers that bound the island of Iquitos: Intay, Amazonas, Nanay, and Momó. The Amazon has a high load of clay, so it looks like coffee and milk. The others, in contrast, are dark due to the abundance of humic substances, so it is quite interesting to see the place where any two rivers meet. (This is the shock zone I described yesterday). I remember seeing something similar in Venezuela, where the Rio Orinoco meets the Rio Negro. Well, this time we got our chance of seeing pink dolphins in the wild, and that was pretty exciting.

After chasing after the dolphins we crossed the Amazon and entered the Rio Momó, where an enterprising tribe of natives, the Bora, have established an outpost that tourists can visit. For a flat fee you get to visit the outpost village (the true village is a few kilometers inland), see their traditional costumes (including women who go around topless), see some traditional dances, and look at some of their crafts (I wish I could have bought the anaconda skin they had, but I am pretty sure it would have been illegal to bring it to the US). The Bora plant pineapples and manioc, but the main crop is coca, which presumably they sell to narcos to be processed into cocaine. Nobody talks about that part of their business.

We then stopped at a little zoo/animal rehabilitation center. This is a non-profit organization that receives animals that have been impounded by the customs service, and which come to them dehydrated and emaciated. They nurse them back to health, and after a while send them to a mid-way facility, where they are released back into the wild. Apparently there are several of these non-profits, which works well for everyone. The Peruvian government saves itself the cost, the non-profits do good and meet operational expenses by charging a small fee to visit the zoo, and tourism has one more thing to look forward to. For Annie the hit was the sloth, who was happy to hang on to her as if he was a baby. I got to carry the anaconda, while Annie cringed in fear, and we both enjoyed the monkeys (including a tiny mono leoncito, who followed us from cage to cage).

We also visited a sand bank with lots of aquatic birds on it, but no soon had we set foot on the bank that the whole colony took to wing, expressing their disapproval for the intrusion with loud sqwaks. The Amazon is now receding from its maximum flood, and in a month the sand banks will coalesce into a continuous beach as the river stage falls to its winter minimum.

We got back around 2 pm, not quite sure about what we wanted to do with ourselves for the rest of the afternoon. Roberto took us in his moto-kar to look for a bookstore (I bought a collection of short stories about the jungle), and then dropped us at a restaurant on the plaza mayor for us to have our lunch. It is reputed to be the best restaurant in Iquitos, but I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary.

Annie went back to the hotel to pack for tomorrow’s departure, and I went to walk along the famous Pasaje Paquito in the Mercado Belem, where all the herbalists and shamans display their wares. Pretty interesting to see, but I didn’t buy a thing. Back in the hotel we loafed for the rest of the afternoon, getting ready for tomorrow.