revisiting the amazon

unconquered_large_paperSince the start of the new year, it has been mostly damp, cold and a dull gray in Vancouver, with just a couple of short days of sunshine. In other words, perfect weather for reading a book that transported me right back to Amazonia, marvelling at parrots, macaws, and monkeys, and ineffectively trying to prevent insect bites.

During our July stay at the Napo Wildlife Center, an Indigenous-owned and operated eco-lodge deep in the Ecuadorian rainforest, we crossed paths with author Scott Wallace. He was stopping for one night on his way home after spending time even deeper in the rainforest, working with a photographer and researching an article for National Geographic. The resultant article and photos, decrying illegal logging in the rainforest, are in the January issue, now on the newsstands.

When we talked, he looked rested and in good health. It was a short assignment, perhaps without the discomfort, hunger, fatigue, and uncertainly he experienced when he traveled for three dramatic months by dugout canoe and on foot through virtually uncharted territory deep in the Brazilian rainforest in 2002. It is that perilous journey that is so compellingly described in Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes.

The purpose of the expedition, led by rough and tough frontiersman Sydney Posuello, at the time head of the Department of Isolated Indians, was to gain some sense of the numbers, range, and relative health of an uncontacted tribe known as flecheiros, or People of the Arrow. The trick was to do this without actually making contact with this extremely isolated group because contact inevitably resulted in the transmission of disease for which isolated Indigenous people’s had no immunity or cure. This meant the 30-person crew had to forge their own trail through untamed jungle, camp overnight and hunt for food without drawing the attention of the Arrow People, whose reputation was to greet visitors/intruders with a shower of poison darts. The expedition didn’t always go as planned.

With every page I was back in the rainforest myself, sometimes in a large canoe gliding along a flooded area between tall trees and hanging vines, watching monkeys watching us; sometimes struggling to manage my way along a narrow trail as birds and snakes scattered around us. Admittedly, most of the time on land we were following a modest trail and not blazing one ourselves, but we faced similar challenges, especially the voracious appetite of unknown insects. Every time Scott describes being bitten, I feel again the sting of the tiny wasps that attacked us along one trail, or the fire ants that didn’t appreciate our presence along another rough path. We were told the caimans were not as aggressive as their crocodile cousins, but like Scott we stayed clear of them just the same.

Although our chance encounter with the author was in Yasuni National Park in Ecuador, later in the year we travelled by boat on a stretch of the same Amazon tributary (Solimoes) he travelled in the book. Of course he ventured hundreds of kilometres further upstream from Manaus than our small tourist excursion would ever dare – but along with wildlife sightings and insect bites, we also experienced the stormy weather he frequently describes in Unconquered. One night our boat pulled into a side channel and then abruptly ran hard into the jungle – we thought the captain had left the helm or lost his marbles until we saw the crew throw ropes around the trees to hold us fast to shore – a storm was coming.

From our protected spot nestled in the trees we watched lightning crack across the sky and the rain come thundering down. It was only in the morning that we learned that the captain of a larger boat loaded with tourists had decided to brave the storm. The Amazon, however, can clearly be very unforgiving – the boat was completely blown over and capsized; initially several passengers remained missing and presumed drowned. Eventually all 28 passengers and crew were accounted for, but the boat and everyone’s luggage went straight to the bottom of the Amazon.

We were in the area for only a few days, but we also witnessed a rapid drop in water levels, just the way Wallace describes – fortunately our paddlers could still find a way around shallow areas and tangled treefalls where just a few days before roaring streams had carried us through a flooded forest. Thankfully, unlike Wallace and the rest of the expedition, we didn’t have to carry our luggage overland through the mud and bugs to catch our flight back to the city. Maybe it was a good thing I read this book after my own forays into the Amazon!

The Unconquered provides an exciting view from deep inside the rapidly disappearing Amazon rainforest. Despite the effort to designate and protect areas of the jungle for Indigenous use only, enforcement is minimal and as ineffective as the bug spray in our backpacks. Non-Indigenous loggers, miners, and hunters are taking everything they can get and leaving nothing behind but destruction and death.

This book is a great read, but for the sake of the People of the Arrow and other Indigenous groups under threat throughout the Americas, I encourage everyone to engage with groups like Amazon Watch, Amnesty International, and others working to protect human rights and the environment before it’s too late.

swimming with pink dolphins

As planned, we made our way to Manaus, 1500km up the Amazon River from the coast, to do a 6 night, 7 day boat trip on the Amazon. Manaus has a population of around 2 million people, the largest city on the Amazon. When we arrived in Manaus it was quite warm… 40 degrees. After checking in to a B&B we asked our host about a place to have dinner. He told us not too much was open in the neighbourhood, as it was Sunday, but gave us directions to a brand new shopping mall about six blocks away. Now, I am not really one for food fairs, but we wandered over and found a very nice, but expensive restaurant/pub tucked in behind the food fair. On the menu there was quite a few imported beers… one was $78 for a 355m bottle. Needless to say, we didn’t buy that one. The food was good though.

The next day we started our boat cruise on the Amazon. We arrived at the Tropical Hotel for our 2pm departure and met our trusty guide, Hugo. Along with five other men, we walked to our home on the river, the Amazon Clipper. Turns out, I was the only female passenger. At first I thought how weird it would be, but these guys were pretty nice… three from the States and a dad and his son from Mexico.

It was a pretty amazing trip. We hiked into an eco-reserve to see giant water lilies, we enjoyed numerous early morning canoe rides (getting a wake-up call by Hugo at 5:30am) as well as afternoon and evening canoe excursions. We saw dozens of species of birds (the photos below just scratch the surface) and lots of creepy creatures on the jungle walks. The evening canoe rides brought us face to face with caimans, boas, and many nocturnal birds.

Our second day in, we put on long pants, tucked our pants into our socks (just in case ants decided to climb on us) and jumped off the canoe onto a very muddy bank to do our first jungle walk. We were happily walking looking at trees and stuff… Don was third in line and I was behind him. Suddenly, we were being stung and slapping at something we couldn’t see and damn, did it hurt. I took off running and the little beings that turned out to be some tiny, gold wasp, stopped stinging me. I was told I should have stayed still, but who can do that when you can’t see what is getting at you. Unfortunately, someone stepped on another wasp nest and I was stung again, as well as the young man from Mexico. In all I had 20 stings and Don had about half a dozen or so. The bites are still resurrecting themselves and still bother us. Hopefully they will stop soon. I must say I lost patience with walking in the jungle that day.

After our walk, we could go swimming in the river. Don and Ernesto, the Mexican dad, were the only ones to take advantage of this opportunity. Hugo, our guide, told Don to get away from the bank of the river as that is where the anacondas live… he quickly did that… no anacondas were spotted that day.

Day 3 we went to the “meeting of the waters” which is where the Rio Negro and the Rio Amazonas (aka Rio Solimoes) meet. The line between the two rivers is very distinct; Rio Negro is dark and slow moving while Rio Amazonas/Solimoes is cooler, faster and muddier. They finally mix about 15 km downstream. Apparently, lots of fish hang out at this spot (confused by the change in water speed and temperature), attracting lots of grey dolphins who feast on the disoriented fish.

That afternoon, we dropped off our Mexican friends as they were only doing the first portion of the trip. We were told we would be getting off the Amazon Clipper and would transfer to the Premiere to join with 11 others. The new folks were from Australia, England, South Africa (newlyweds… she was originally from Germany), Spain, Italy and a young man from Germany, along with us and the three Americans we were now a group of 16.

It was wonderful to chat with the women… no offense to the men, but I really enjoyed hanging out with kindred spirits.

The Premiere boat is much bigger and you can walk around your bedroom (couldn’t do that in the Clipper… just had room for yourself to go from the door, past the bunk bed and into the bathroom… shower was over the toilet… pretty tight space), the air conditioner worked really well and the bathroom was more conventional.

We did the same type of things as the first leg… canoe rides, jungle walking, swimming (which I did do this time… the water is amazingly warm). On both legs of the journey you could go piranha fishing. I didn’t do either one, but Don went on the second outing with observer status… he didn’t fish, but watched others do their best. According to our American friends, fishing during the first leg was more lucrative, everyone caught piranhas that day… the second time out only half the group got a bite.

My favourite part of this section of the trip, and maybe overall, was hanging out with the pink dolphins. We did see some from the deck of the Premiere boat, but it was fleeting glances, they don’t jump and arch the way other dolphins do. One of the afternoons we went down one of the many channels of the Rio Negro to Recanto do Boto, a dolphin preserve. We were told that the young man, who fed the dolphins, swam in the river as a young child. The pink dolphins started to swim with him and over the years, the spot became a sort of protectorate for the dolphins. They come to him when he slaps the water with fish and the dolphins allow people to touch them as they are being fed. They are totally free, no cages, no nets… just the river.

It was pretty cool to touch this huge being. Their skin is really smooth and they have peg like teeth. I was wary of the teeth, but nothing untoward happened. All the folks who were there had a marvelous time and the dolphins were happily fed.

On our last jungle walk, no wasps were sighted, but our guide, Fernando, found a tarantula and her babies in a hole in the ground. It had been covered by leaves and a web that the mom had spun to protect her babies from predators. I didn’t think much of this until someone gave me a flashlight to hold so others could take pictures. The tarantula was huge!! It didn’t move out of the hole, but the babies were getting a bit active… likely because of the light. After we all had a look, Fernando put back the leaves and the mom now had the job of making the web again.

We also learned on the walk how to protect ourselves from jaguars when you are lost in the jungle by yourself and you just have a camera and a machete. We learned how to make a spear to pierce the jaguar as it is lunging at you. I personally think one should set up your camera to take photos of the incident so when someone coming along the trail finds the camera, there will be a record of your demise. One quick lesson won’t stop a hungry, irritated jaguar.

We also learned how to quickly make a blow gun out of palm trees, make darts, in order to hunt if we are lost in the rainforest.

Last day was kind of sad… I really enjoyed our fellow travellers and many have promised to stay in touch. I hope we can do this.

We’re now on our third day of rain in Panama City. The first two days featured thunderstorms that lasted about two hour followed by partial clearing and the return of heat and humidity. Today however, it started raining three hours ago and shows no sign of letting up. Feels like Vancouver!

Happiness to you, our friends and family!
Keep smiling!

(The video posted below is low resolution because we have a poor internet connection here in Panama and couldn’t upload the HD version — will try to post the sharper version at a later date)

return to the amazon

After a month on the beach in Rio, it was finally time for us to pull up stakes and head north, to the 400-year old city of Belem near the mouth of the Amazon River. We really loved Rio and have many, many more stories to tell, it wasn’t all just fun on the beach! We visited the official Carmen Miranda museum (ironically, for such a flamboyant actor, it is located in a virtually unmarked and non-descript concrete bunker, plunked in the middle of a desolate strip of old parkland, hardly visible to the three lanes of highway traffic zooming by on two sides). Fascinating historic information, film clips, and costumes inside.

We also visited several museums and art galleries, including the famous Oscar Niemeyer-designed “spaceship” art gallery in Niteroi (awesome building, less than awesome art inside), and we discovered a pedestrian-only souk (market) just north of the downtown core. We climbed small hills to look out from old forts, and took the train up to the top of Corcovado and stood in the shadow of Cristo Redentor. The concrete figure is perhaps the most well-known landmark in all of South America; it certainly enjoys the best view of the city one can imagine.

We also took in the national museum, the museum of modern art, a cultural centre downtown with a Salvador Dali exhibition (works based on the Divine Comedies) and an exhibition of illustrations and designs by Argentine cartoonist Linears, and another arts centre with several floors of photo-based exhibitions, and more – Rio is a big city with lots to do. We also did a one-day trip to Angra dos Reis for a boat cruise through coastal islands. It was not much of a cruise, too crowded, a lame itinerary, and a long bus ride there and back. Not recommended.

Of course we sampled more than a few bars and botequims – very small bars where most of the clientele is seated in plastic chairs on the sidewalk, or standing – glued to televised futbol matches, or talking loudly (we noticed the men and women here have BIG voices). We mostly avoided gringo bars – they often charge as much as the equivalent of $15 US just to enter – more than our entire beer budget for the night.

Having said that, one late afternoon we had been walking along the beach and stopped in at a gringo bar that not only did not charge admission, but was offering free happy hour snacks. We sat at a table away from the entrance, next to a table of young women, one of whom introduced the group as students. Later when I went to visit the restroom, they asked Deborah if we were interested in taking one of them home! Deborah gently turned down the offer, and they apologized for saying anything. When I returned and Deborah told me what happened, we then realized there were a lot of women in the bar, and we watched as men came in and the women would take turns offering their services – like you would see in the saloon in old westerns.

One last remembrance of Rio for now: we were lying on the beach, soaking up the 29 degree Celsius sunshine, when Deborah noticed something in the water about 100 feet out or so. We watched for a few minutes; others were also starting to take notice. Was it a shark? A sea turtle? It came closer, and then we could tell for sure – a penguin! We had travelled all the way to the very southern tip of South America to see penguins, and here one was splashing about at Copacabana Beach!

We scooted up the Brazilian coast to Belem on Friday, and on Saturday did a 6-hour boat cruise to get ourselves near the mouth of the Amazon River. The water was surprisingly warm (well, surprising to us, anyway), fast moving, and very green – no underwater visibility at all. After a dip in the river it was time for lunch – and just as we got into line the wind picked up, the clouds moved in, and within minutes there was a tropical thundershower that dumped more water on us in 15 or 20 minutes than a whole day of rain in Vancouver. It was quite amazing, the clouds moved on, there was a bit of sunshine, then the process repeated itself an hour later with another deluge. During the following break, we made a run for the boat (docked 20 minutes away) because sure enough, we were in for one more cycle of thunder and rain before getting back to the city.

Belem is a large city with a population approaching two million – and quite a skyline as you’ll see below. Oil tankers wait in a long row along the river opposite the city, it happened that a large group of fellow passengers were in the marine shipping business – we’ve never seen so many people get so excited every time we passed a tanker or other freighter. Oh by the way, the most common question we got from the Brazilians on board (there were no other non-Brazilians on the cruise, even though there were at least 100 passengers), was “what are you doing here?” – apparently not many foreign tourists bother visiting this isolated outpost. We were an oddity, and some fellow passengers even asked to have their pictures taken with us!

At the end of the day, we headed for a brewpub we discovered the night before, the Amazon Beer bar and restaurant. A brewpub overlooking the Amazon River – how amazing is that! The timing was also good; as the first round arrived, one more cloudburst soaked everything it sight so it was just as well we were under a very protective patio roof.

Last night we moved again, this time to Manaus, another isolated city of 2-million but 1500 km upriver. We’re here to do a six-day boat ride that takes in the junction of Rio Amazonas and Rio Negro, at the very heart of the Amazon as they say, complete with canoe excursions and rainforest walks, so we’ll be out of internet range for about a week.

A happy long weekend to our fellow Canadians!

dog days and favelas

Hello to all you wonderful people who are enjoying the dog days of summer.

We, here in the southern hemisphere, are just entering the third month of winter… 26 degrees, sun and surf… I love this kind of winter!!!

So now, a thought for you… a home with an incredible view of the beaches of Rio, you pay just a smidgeon for your home, no property taxes, great community feeling, no drugs in the community at all… that would be pretty good, wouldn’t it!… Welcome to the colourful community of Rocinha!!!

We did a tour with the Favela Tour Company to this favela and the Vila Canoas favela. We traveled in an air conditioned van with five other tourists… one originally from the Seattle area and her partner, originally from Montreal (now both graduate students in New York City) and three people from Brazil.

After we were picked up, we were driven through the posh neighbourhoods of Ipanema and Gavea (home to Rio’s most exclusive fashion mall), up the hill past incredible upscale mansions, past the American School (where only the children of the very rich and foreign ambassadors attend – there were SUV’s parked all along the road with drivers waiting to pick up the students after school… no moms or dads in sight). We stopped on the east slope of Rocinha for the view that looked down on this exclusive neighbourhood and across the bay. Truly a million dollar view!

Our guide, Brenda, was a great source of information about the favelas. We talked drug gangs, education, political life, and practical things like sewage.

Years ago there were reportedly 950 favelas in Rio, but somehow the number dropped to 450 in the most recent census. Brenda, bless her heart, was quite open with her opinions and suggested that this “reduction” is promoted because Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. This is a familiar strategy – whenever FIFA or the IOC decide to hold their events in a country where human rights are an issue, selected countries announce “progress” in the lead up to the games and are allowed to make empty promises about the future. My opinion… let me ask Don what he thinks… Don is nodding his head, and whispering “China”.

Drug Gangs – Eight months ago, there was a “pacification” in Rocinha (this is what they call clearing out the drug lords and implementing a number of programs so the community could take back control of their lives and neighbourhood). Prior to pacification, the drug lords looked after all “policing” in the favela. There was almost no crime reported (drug lords didn’t want the police to come into the favela, so made sure nothing would draw police attention). Now that the police are in charge, the crime rate is going up, although there are far fewer murders or people showing up at the hospitals with gunshot wounds. It was interesting to see small groups of heavily armed police all over the place – but mostly standing around chatting.

They have the power to go into anyone’s home to check for drugs (this wouldn’t work well in Canada) and often there are complaints of police taking items from people’s homes in the process. Unfortunately, there is a lot of police corruption in Brazil, and as such, a lot of people do not trust police or the system.

The pacification of Rocinha was the 20th such project; the number is now up to 28 favela pacifications. Time will tell how the drug lord evictions work.

Education – we were told that many of the 100,000 or more people living in Rocinha, (as in all other favelas) are poorly educated and many are illiterate. This of course, leads to much hardship, as you are not able to get good jobs. There are 3 kindergartens, 3 primary and 3 middle schools in this favela… not nearly enough to meet the needs of the populace. We were also told the colour of your skin is no longer an issue in Rio… it is education or the lack of it that draws a societal prejudice.

Political Life – There are city elections later this year and there are signs everywhere you go. On every sign there is a picture of the candidates, their names and a number. When you go to the polling booth you will punch in the number of your candidate, a picture appears which you confirm is the person you are voting for and then you push the button to vote.

Sewage and other concerns (for us) – The favela concept started in 1886, when a promise by the new Republic of Brazil to African Brazilians was reneged upon. African Brazilians (who had just been freed from slavery) were tasked with wiping out a city of 25,000 who were not in agreement with the new Republic and had started a community of their own. The Africa Brazilians completed this task with, unfortunately, great success and returned to Rio to get the land the new government promised them. The Republic turned their backs on the African Brazilians and told them to go find land themselves. As there was none in the city, they built on the hillsides around Rio, covered with fava plants – thus the nickname for their impromptu communities, now used to describe squatter settlements throughout Brazil.

There is a law in the Republic of Brazil that states if you find a piece of vacant land, build on it and improve it, and if no one contests this, after 5 years it is yours.

So, people started to build up the hillsides. They would make a dwelling and then sell their roof to someone else who would build a home on top of the first, they would sell their roof space, someone else would build, and so on… all this with no property taxes (no public services either, though).

There are few roads in the favelas… a lot of walkways to homes… some of it looks pretty dark to me. The folks who live close to the roads often pay for electricity, but the majority hook their own lines up to electrical lines and use the power without paying for it.

The concept of roads or non-roads is very important. When you are living on a road or street, you have an address and if you don’t, you don’t have an address… this can affect all kinds of aspects your life… you can only vote if you have an address, you can only get credit or bank loan if you have an address, you can only get ambulance help if you have an address, etc.

Speaking about ambulances… when ambulances were called to the favela, the ambulance driver would stop at the entrance as they were too scared to go inside the favela. This meant people had to be carried through the narrow passage ways to the ambulance. This favela is huge, so you would think people may not make it in time to medical attention, especially if they were having a heart attack or something else very serious.

Things have changed a bit in that area. The government built a hospital a few years ago, but before pacification they couldn’t get any doctors or nurses to work there. Now there is better health care for the folks living in Rocinha.

Sewage also is a problem. When people build their homes they stick a pipe out of the toilet to the outside of the building and it is connected to other pipes that seem to go into the ground (I couldn’t see the bottom of the building, so I am not sure where the pipe ended up).

Brenda was very encouraging about the life in a favela. She said, yes we saw poverty and people having to look after themselves, but… we don’t see misery. That was true, but often misery is hidden whether it is in the favelas of Rio or the comfortable homes of people in the lower mainland of Vancouver.

We also went to see Vila Canoas, which is a small favela that started as a place for golf course staff to live on a patch of land near the exclusive club, but eventually expanded right up to the edge of the upscale neighbourhood. It consists of 3,000 people and is a favela that has never been ruled by a drug gang. It is orderly and quiet, but I think I would find life more interesting in the vibrant community of Rocinha. It is all a matter of taste.

So, we were back in the van heading back to our hotels and in our case, apartment. I found it ironic that on the way home, just after coming face to face with poverty, our Brazilian passengers got off at the Gavea shopping centre… the one I mentioned that sells the most expensive clothes in Brazil…

Now back to the dog days of summer, here’s wishing all of you lots of sun, great sense of community and, as always, happiness.


heavy metal trombone trio

We’ve passed the one-week mark in Rio, with three weeks to go. We’re in a very small apartment just one block from Copacabana Beach, and with only one day of rain so far, we’ve been down at the beach almost every day. We’ve also done lots of walking around the area, and everywhere we looked we saw people in restaurants, bars, and on the sidewalks outside, watching the Olympics. We watched quite a few competitions ourselves, including the infamous women’s soccer match between Canada and the US and many other Canadian near-misses.

Brazil earned one less medal than Canada, but took three gold medals against our one. They finished with more medals than any other country in all of Central and South America, including the Caribbean. Rio hosts the 2016 summer Olympics, but we haven’t seen anything that celebrates that just yet, although we are aware that work has started on converting an old Formula 1 racetrack at the west end of the city into what will be the main Olympic site.

We fit in a visit to the National Museum, housed in what was originally home to the Portuguese royal family when they fled Portugal and established Rio as the capital of their empire early in the 19th century. Oddly, the museum features an extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts, and tucked into a small cabinet in the next room is a dubious gathering of First Nations artifacts from “Vancouver” – in the photos below. One of the other photos shows the massive cannon and bunker installed in 1914 at nearby Fort Copacabana, designed to fire 305mm shells at invaders, curiously now pointed at Copacabana Beach!

Oh, and the pink Beetle – as a child Deborah desperately wanted one of these, now if we could just figure out how to slap a FedEx sticker on it and sneak it home!

Last night we caught up with a young couple from Australia we first met in the Ecuadorian Amazon; they’re heading for Argentina and Chile before returning home in October. They are both health professionals and like us, took a year off to travel.

Together we went over to the Bourbon Street Festival, a free outdoor concert beside Ipanema Beach with musicians from New Orleans. After a late start a number of bands did very short sets before the main acts performed, including Bonerama, fronted by three wild trombone players – I swear they covered a Rage Against the Machine tune to give the phrase “heavy metal” a whole new meaning!

Speaking of sounds, after seven months of listening to Spanish and working hard to pick up key words and phrases, it’s quite a challenge for us to figure out Portuguese. In print the words look very similar to their counterparts in Spanish, but spoken it is a dramatically different language. When we’re laying on the beach, we try to figure out what the food sellers are offering as they wander by, and on one occasion I picked up the word ‘frango” which means chicken, but with this one translated word in mind, what I thought I heard, clear as a bell, was “buy my chicken you sons of bitches”. That got my attention!

hangin’ with the girl from ipanema

Happy long weekend to our Canadian readers!

After more than three months at high attitude (except for a few days in Lima and our time cruising the Galapagos Islands), we are firmly lodged at sea level for the month of August. And there may be no better place on earth to enjoy sea level than Copacabana Beach.  Blue sky, blazing sunshine, soft clean sand, and no high altitude sickness!

We’re in a small studio apartment about 100m from the south end of the beach, with a side view of the beach out our 11th floor window. We’re also just a few blocks from the west end of Ipanema Beach, so we have a huge decision to make every morning – will it be Copacabana or Ipanema today?

Copacabana Beach is about 4 km from one end to the other, so we’ve decided that a good way to start the day is with a walk along the water’s edge from one end to the other and back – followed by a few hours soaking up and sun and surf. Everything you’ve heard about sun-lovers here is true, men and women alike sport swimsuits manufactured from postage stamp-sized bits of fabric and string. But it’s a very democratic beach – people of every shape, size, and colour enjoying the sun and sand.

There are several kiosks along the side of the road overlooking the beach, offering glasses of ice cold chopp Brahma (draft beer) for about $2 each – the perfect way to cool down late afternoon.

Of course we’ll check out all the attractions Rio de Janeiro has to offer, museums, galleries, parks, interesting neigbourhoods and more – but they can wait for cloudy or rainy days!

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro