I am now in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil after a long period of limited internet access. I will be visiting southeastern Brazil until early November. After my time on the north coast of Colombia, I flew down to Leticia, a small city right on the border with Brazil and Peru along the Amazon River (also known in those parts as the Rio Solimões). Here I stayed in a hostel on a guava, starfruit, and mango orchard owned by an eccentric, but helpful Colombian man named Gustavo who spoke fluent English… with a Flemish accent! Born in Bogotá, he had lived in Belgium for many years before retiring and starting the hostel. The only other guest was a French industrial artist who was trying to build a giant snake sculpture out of plastic bottles to promote recycling. Gustavo introduced me to a local farmer named Ferne who agreed to spend a day showing me around in the forest. The next morning I took a small bus literally to the end of the highway (there are no roads connecting Leticia to any other part of Colombia), where I joined Ferne, his mule, and his shotgun-toting neighbor. He assured me there was no danger of being kidnapped by guerrillas, because they prefer to hide in cloud forests at higher elevations rather than lowland rainforest since the former more effectively conceals smoke from campfires. After a brief snack of tucupi (bitter fish stew made with cassava) served by the neighbor´s wife (who I later learned was almost 25 years younger than him), we hiked about 2 hours to a small stream in the forest called “Tacana”. Using cane poles and chunks of a palm fruit for bait, we caught a few small sabalo fish, which looked like sardines. Due to it being the dry season, the level of the water was low and there were almost no mosquitoes around. This was a surprise to me because it had been raining so much in the other parts of Colombia I had just visited. They also showed me how to layer palm leaves to form a thatch hut. Returning to Leticia, I spent a few days shopping for a hammock and going through immigration, then boarded a riverboat called the Voyager III. In order to get on board, we first had to wait in a long line for several hours for the federal Brazilian police to inspect our luggage, and ensure we weren´t smuggling drugs. I was the only American on board, and there were only about 5 or 6 other foreigners, from Australia and Europe. The boat proceeded continuously for 4 days down the river to Manaus. During this time, I finished two 500-page novels (Zodiac by Neal Stephenson and The Firm by John Grisham), played about 50 games of Solitaire, and ate way too much rice and beans. I also got to chat with many of the other people on the boat, including an elderly Peruvian man from Iquitos, a Brazilian woman who was living in Palo Alto, California, and a large Haitian family on vacation. The Haitian guys were very friendly and taught me a game called “casino,” and I tried to teach them “hearts.” They explained that there are permanent Haitian communities in both Manaus and Tabatinga (a small Brazilian town near Leticia). Sleeping in a hammock every night was tolerable, but the boat was very crowded and they kept the deck lights on all night. I was glad when we finally reached Manaus (pop. 1.7 million). Here, my friend Raniere, who is a fish biologist and had spent a summer at Washington & Lee, hosted me for almost a week. I´m very grateful to him for showing me both typical aspects of family life, the city, and also the countryside nearby. We spent a few days on his sitio (farm), where I planted ajambo fruit tree (scientific name Syzygium). His two nephews had a good time laughing at my slow progress digging a deep hole in the blazing tropical sun. Overall, my impression of Amazonia is that it is vast. Anyone who has driven across Kansas or Nebraska knows how the great plains seem to go on forever. The Amazon is the same way, except it is mostly covered with trees. I say mostly because as you know deforestation is extensive and ongoing in many areas, and many of the forested areas I visited had been logged within the last 50 years. Furthermore, it is not uniformly an isolated wilderness- many people live there, and their hopes and dreams are sometimes shockingly familiar. In a testament to the ubiquity of American popular culture, one giggling teenage girl from a tiny village near the river asked me in Portuguese if I had ever read a book called Twilight, about a vampire and his lover. I just laughed and told her I had heard about it, but that I had no plans to read it. I guess Amazonian people really aren´t that different from Americans after all!
October 15, 2010
travel | Tags: Amazon, Brazil, Colombia, forest, Leticia, Manaus, Tabatinga, travel |