Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Amazon 2009: Day Twenty (Saturday, January 24)

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We began our day on the banks of a community called Jamaraquá, one of the first communities that SMC travelers visited seven years ago in the College’s first Jan Term trip to the Amazon. In the center of the town is a house occupied by the leader of the community, Pedrinho, and his wife, Conceipcão. They and their children have helped to build this community over the last several years so that now it is probably the most developed one we have visited since we left Santarém.

When the SMC group visited in 2002, the community shared one communal pump and a series of dirt paths connected various houses to it. They had no electricity then, but now they have spent two months on and off “the grid” of public utilities. They actually have huge utility poles and cables strung alongside a large, graded, but still unpaved road that leads between Jamaraquá and its neighboring communities. When we arrived today and marveled over the presence of electricity, they told us that they were on their fourth day without power, as their new poles and cables work only sporadically.

They have also developed a plumbing system by which their well water is now pumped to individual houses within a certain ring from the center of the town. Additionally, we saw a few cars and trucks motor down the new roadway – a sight that would have seemed entirely alien to those of us who visited over the last several years. There was always an almost-daily bus to Santarém from the outskirts of town, but now vehicles were driving right into the center of the community. (Only three vehicles moved in the five or so hours we were there, but that still marks a significant change.)

The highlight of our visit to Jamaraquá was a hike into the primary rain forest. According to our guides, a fire 80 years ago stripped much of the old growth that should surround the community, so it takes about a two-hour hike to reach the actual “forest primeval” that still stands. When SMC students took this hike in years past, the trail was not yet cleared and our guides carried machetes to help us find our way. Now the path is so well-traveled (by tour groups nearly every day) that it is easy to follow (though strenuous).

On the trail we learned about some of the medicinal uses for the plants that we were passing, as our guide still used a machete to remove chips of bark and let us smell the oils from the trees as he described their usage. Some were used in teas to fight off malaria, some were chewed or eaten to deal with stomach problems or overall aches and pains, and others were licked to ward off sore throats. Their smells were strong and medicinal and our guides convinced us that they were very effective remedies.

We also saw some awesome insects and spiders, including the stunning crab spider that is a big, hairy, brown thing as large as our biggest students’ hands. It is marked with dots and striping that look like eyes inside a hollowed out tree. Our guides knew just where to find the spiders, so they rousted one out for our different groups and laughed at us when we reacted like we were under direct attack from these apparently harmless beings.

They also showed us full trees made of the Brazilian hardwoods whose names we have seen in furniture stores or in flooring commercials. Some of the trees were as large as California old-growth redwoods and our guides used similar methods of describing their size to the “big trees” areas of California (“22 people can hold hands and barely surround this tree.”) They have stopped harvesting the oldest and largest trees, as they are catching on to the idea of conservation, recognizing that even apart from tourism, the old-growth forest is of great value in and of itself.

The guides took us to a grand vista point from which we could see the hills and valleys of the rain forest as it stretched along the Amazon basin. We were glad to see that there were swaths of forest that stretched for miles and miles, without the clear-cut sections that have become familiar in some regions along the Amazon and its tributaries.

Among the trees native to this region is the rubber tree; our guides demonstrated the primitive practice of extracting the latex from the tree by cutting a diagonal stripe into the bark and guiding the liquid latex that “bleeds” from the cut into a bowl. We later visited an outbuilding where they process and dye the latex to make products that they consider eco-friendly and sustainable, as it does not require the destruction of the trees to produce purses, bags, and notebook covers made of thick latex.

We also visited some artisans who make jewelry and other curios out of seeds, nuts, and plant matter. Most of us picked up souvenirs, some of which will no doubt end up with people who are reading these pages. We got necklaces, rings, earrings, notepads, and figurines. In fact, we are beginning to look like our own little tribe, as many of us have a whole series of bracelets that we have accumulated along the way and some of us have taken up wearing long feathers that seem popular among the women who live along the Amazon full-time.

As we finished our walks in and around Jamaraquá and its neighboring communities, we headed back to our boat to begin to motor downriver back to our Santarém home. We realized that we were about as hungry as we have ever been, so we were thrilled to learn that Louro had made our very favorite dish: fried chicken. Louro hopes to open a restaurant some day, and we think that if he served only his special-recipe fried chicken, he would make a fortune.

Because we were dirty, sweaty, and now covered with chicken grease, we looked forward to our next (and last) stop for an Amazon bath. We went near the beach that we visited during our first week, Alter do Chão, and found a strip that was largely unoccupied in which to swim and get clean. From there we headed back to start the long process of packing up to leave. That last leg of the boat ride brought a sense of quiet to most of us, as we began to feel pangs of sadness about the impending conclusion of our Amazon odyssey.

We decided to get up early on Sunday to go to mass, then work with the children one last time, then skip siestas to get ready to fly out after midnight on Sunday. We want to get the most out of the last day that we can . . .

Our guides showing us one of the trees that the people in the community get latex from to make crafts.

One of the groups on their way through the forest.

A fallen tree one of the groups had to go around on their hike.

One of the canoes we took on our hike to get from community to community.

The local bartender hard at work.

Our tour guides took us on a majestic canoe ride through the rain forest.

A plethora of lily pads engulfed the waterfront.

The local community members we visited make stunning handcrafted jewelry beads.

Shana’s bravery prevailed as she was able to hold the big red ant.

This is the view from the canoe ride after our hike through the rain forest.

The tarantula we saw along our hike.

The view of the entire Tapajos river from a view point during our hike.

Our trek through the rain forest.

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