Thursday, January 29, 2009

Amazon 2009: Day Twenty-Two (Monday, January 26)

An hour after leaving Santarém, we arrived in the Amazon capital of Manaus. Thus, at about 2:00 a.m. we were met by vans that took us to downtown Manaus to check in to hotel rooms that we would keep until we left about 20 hours later. We didn’t get to sleep until after 3:00 a.m., so we agreed to meet at noon in the lobby to chase down lunch nearby.

Our rooms in Manaus were pretty sparse, but they were fine for us to just sleep until mid-morning. We got lunch at a nearby self-service where everyone loads up on food and pays by the kilo for what they have selected. We got to enjoy fish and barbecued beef, among other things, but we already missed the cooking from back at our camp.

After lunch we went to visit the most famous site in town: the Teatro Amazonas, a beautiful opera house that was built at the height of the rubber boom. Though it is strangely (and exclusively) European and therefore a bit out of place where it is, the theater is striking, no matter how little interest one might have in architecture. The main auditorium is ringed with 5-person boxes and the overall décor is still stunning even after the passage of more than 100 years. The acoustics are great too, and the guide even let Shawny belt out a quick melody to give us a feel for the way sound carries in there. Though few of us would have predicted that we would be interested in a tour of an opera house, we had no regrets about going to this one today.

We did, however, have regrets about our next stop: a shopping center recommended by our hotel as a good place to buy clothes and souvenirs, as well as a source of good food and entertainment. After about an hour inside, we decided that we totally disagree with the hotel’s assessment. We got so bored so fast that we cut our plan short by one hour and headed back to the hotel. Maybe what we learned is that we just aren’t that interested in our lives as consumers anymore, as we were truly just plain bored in that mall.

Despite this shopping let down, we weren’t disappointed with our next move: dinner at a churrascaria. A churrascaria is kind of a Brazilian barbecue or steakhouse where waiters come around with huge pieces of meat on skewers and cut off big slabs for the diners at their request. Every part of a cow comes to the table at some point, along with various parts of chicken and even barbecued cheese. We took over a huge table in the center of the restaurant and just ate and ate to our hearts’ content.

We cleared out in time to beat a huge cloudburst that poured down on Manaus unexpectedly. We hurried to our hotel before we got drenched, then just stood and watched as massive amounts of rain fell. The end of the downpour pretty well matched the timing of our need to load out all of our gear and head to the airport.

Once on our plane, we were surprised to discover that we were joined by only about 5 other people in our flight to Atlanta. We therefore each got a row to ourselves, meaning that we all got pretty solid sleep on that 6+ hour flight. Our flight to San Francisco was equally painless (though not as spacious) and we arrived home before noon on Tuesday.

From here our job is to finish media projects in time to present one from each team at our big public speaking gig on Tuesday, February 17. We will camp out in the computer lab until we are done. Please join us on the 17th and see what we produce!

This is the famous Amazon Theater in Manaus.

These are the fabulous mirrors inside the ballroom in the Amazon Theater.

The inside of the opera theater.

A beautiful chapel in Manaus right by the hotel where we spent our last 25 hours in Brazil.

The ceiling of the actual opera room. The four different paintings represent tragedy, dance, music, and founding of the theatre.

Part of the ceiling inside of the Ball Room of the Amazonas Theatre.

This is the famous Amazon theater in Manaus.

This statue was erected for Brazil’s independence. All continents were represented except Australia and Antarctica.
We walked past this church on our way to the theater. Beautiful songs were being sung for mass.

These were the ceramic spittoons found in the theater.

The shopping center where we went to do the last of our consuming.

We ended the day by going to a fancy barbeque restaurant. Here, they were serving chicken hearts.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Amazon 2009: Day Twenty-One (Sunday, January 25)

Shawny woke us up at 5:45 today so that we could finally make our way to mass at the beautiful church in the center of town. The last two Sundays, we missed mass, one because we (she) overslept and one because we had to help facilitate the television interviews that would highlight Jaime and Georgete’s program. On our last Sunday in town, then, we were determined to get ourselves to mass.

Brazil is more than 80% Catholic, so even for those of us who are not Catholics, attending mass is an important part of our cultural understanding of the place we have lived. Thus, some of us were eager to go so that we could get spiritual enrichment while others’ interests were more anthropological. In either case, we must report that – once again – we missed mass. For some reason, the regular 7:00 a.m. service did not occur at 7:00 a.m. today. In fact, some other church several blocks away got the 7:00 timeslot for today. We waited on the church steps until others came along and told us that today’s mass would be at a different time (though no one knew when that hour would be).

We weren’t terribly disturbed by this news, as the weather on this particular morning was perhaps the most beautiful temperature that we had experienced in our whole trip. There was a light river breeze blowing, the sun was shining (but not beating down on us), and the morning was clear and quiet.

At Cassidy’s suggestion, we decided to start our own service. We recognize that no matter what our religious affiliations might be, we feel blessed by our experiences here. We also feel thankful. Thus, we opened up a conversation about blessedness and thankfulness, in which different ones of us expressed our gratitude about our time in the Amazon, about each other, about the people we’ve met, and about the experiences that we’ve shared.

Just as we were reaching the end of our session, a woman appeared from around the corner wearing a big smile. She leaned down toward us from the top of the steps and started singing a lovely hymn that Jesse said predicted that we would all go to heaven. We recognized this woman from our first day in Santarém; that day, she also approached us out of nowhere and sang us a song about her love for Jesus and his blessings upon us. We hadn’t seen her again until this moment on the church steps, but it seemed like the perfect bookend to our trip.

Once she sang her first song, she began to speak in a voice that sounded sermonic and she delivered a message that Jesse flash-translated about hope and goodness in the world, overcoming sadness, and rising to new challenges. She sang another song. We clapped for her then Erik delivered a prayer for all of us. It was one of the most beautiful and moving “services” that any of us had ever attended.

We thus decided to head back toward home to eat breakfast and change clothes for our last morning of working with the kids. Before we were anywhere near the worksite, some of us already had tears in our eyes. We hadn’t even seen the kids yet today and we could tell that we were about to miss them desperately.
As we headed down into the beach area where we work and play with the kids, they started streaming out of every house and pathway to head down to meet us. They were hugging us and telling us they missed us because we had been gone for only four days. We started taking pictures of us with them, either individually or in small groups, and they quickly took over our cameras and showed us what to shoot.

We played lots of games, sat and painted, danced and sang. The capoeira group returned for a further demonstration and training session and a HUGE volleyball broke out on the beach. A different TV station showed up and followed us around to understand what had happened for us and for the kids in the last month.

As the end of the morning approached, we all gathered on the newly-roofed new deck on the boathouse for a big group picture. The kids all stood on the deck and we all stood below while Marcia and Shawny took pictures on about 20 different cameras. Then one of our favorites of all the kids, Luis Felipe, took over Marcia’s big camera and took the definitive final picture of all of us. (Luis Felipe, by the way, had a stunning day on the volleyball court today, where he managed a few saves that would have seemed impossible a couple of weeks ago. His euphoria over his achievements was contagious, so he was the hero of our day.)

As we walked away from the beach for the last time, the kids each took one of our bikes and pushed it up the hill for us. They followed us out to the main paved road where we ride and we told them that this was the place where they should probably turn back. They cried, we cried, everyone hugged and we parted ways waving back to each other until we were out of sight.

A few of our hosts joined us for lunch back at our camp. Jaime and Georgete were there with two visiting friends and Seu João came with his daughter, Josialda. We ate together, then Seu João delivered a tribute to us that brought us all to tears again. The women of our group presented a backpack full of clothes and other belongings to Josialda, who loved every item.

Once they all headed home, we kicked into full-fledged packing mode so that we could be ready to head for the airport tonight. Everyone got one more spin on the internet to let their people back home know when to expect them. We cleaned and cleared out the camp and then just gathered on the porch one last time to play cards, listen to music, and reflect on our lovely Amazon home.

Just before we left, Jaime returned one more time with a big box of mysterious goodies for us to take home and with another tribute to our group. In his tribute, Jaime named each one of us individually and reflected on the character traits that revealed themselves during the course of our stay. We were amazed by how well he knew us – each of us – and, of course, we were all brought to tears again.

We left the camp by saying goodbye to Zilly one by one. Our departure was a bit delayed leaving the Santarém airport, but none of us really minded. We may have left Santarém today, but we know that it will never, never leave us.
Special note:

We have some questions that have been posted by another set of elementary school students in Indiana, this time from third graders at Southwestern Elementary School (taught by Shawny’s other sister, Shelly). Here are their questions and some brief answers:

Dear Shawny and Class,

Mrs. Anderson Hamilton's third graders in Hanover, Indiana, have a few questions...

1. How did you keep the camera dry when it rained? Jade (cousin to Larry Bird)

--Jade, you are smart to think of this problem. You are right that we had to think about rain every day, even when it was not raining in the morning. Here in the rain forest, rain just comes and goes constantly, so it is a problem that we always have to think about. We have waterproof cases for all of our equipment, so we usually keep the cameras in those. When we need to carry it in a smaller form, we sometimes wrap the camera in a towel and put it inside a backpack or we even sometimes put them inside our shirts and rainjackets.

2. Why is there white paint around the trees? MiKaela

--We asked this question too, but we still aren’t sure about the answer. We think that the paint fights off some kind of fungus that would infect the trees if they weren’t painted.

3. Why were you painting the building blue? Jacob

--We painted the building the same colors that it had had been before: blue and white. Those are the colors that our hosts wanted.

4. How are the college students doing? Briann

--Everyone is okay. Almost every person got a little bit sick somewhere along the line, but when that happened, that person just sat out for half a day, slept, and then got better. We were lucky that no one got hurt or got really, really sick.

5. Which side of the river was salt water and which was fresh water? Nate

--Both sides of the river are fresh water. They stay separate because they move at different speeds and therefore they stir up different levels of silt and mud. The Amazon, the brown one, is the faster one, so it stirs up more stuff.

6. What kind of fish is the one in the market? It was giant! Triston

--The fish have really weird names (to us, anyway). The one you are thinking of us probably called tucunaré (too-coo-nah-RAY).

7. What's been your favorite activity so far? Katelin

--Each person would say something different. For most of us, though, it has been working with the kids because they are so warm and loving. We will miss them terribly.

FYI - We had a two hour delay today for weather, and probably won't be here tomorrow, so we spent some time watching your videos for each day. We will continue to check them for the rest of your trip. This is very strange for 8,9, and 10 year-olds to understand! Also, they'd like to know why some of the video sound is not as good - they couldn't hear everything that was being said!

--Sorry about our sound problems. Sometimes they are due to bad microphone placement, sometimes due to background noise, and sometimes because we forget to turn up the volume when editing.

We'll check back later!
Shelly and the class.

--Thanks for writing!

This was the beautiful inside of the church.

The children made these toys and Mercedes was eager to play along.

On our last day these boys wanted more pictures taken.

The children playing in the water.

It was very early when we arrived for morning mass.

This is a picture of the finished deck on the boat house.

Seu Joao at the worksite on the last day poses for the camera!

Jaime, Georgete, Seu Joao, the kids, SMC, and the Capoeira Crew get together for one final picture.

Shawny taking a brief time out from her hard work to learn a local dance.

Shanna giving a big smile as she says goodbye to the kids.

Jesse and Josy showing that goodbyes don’t always have to be sad.

Erik and Josy saying goodbye after an unforgettable trip.

A bittersweet end to an amazing trip.

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.

Amazon 2009: Day Nineteen (Friday, January 23)

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The boat started moving this morning while we were all still asleep. Rionaldo had decided to stay at the ghost story beach but then move early to get to our next community. We all awoke at 4:00 when the motor started, but most of us managed to figure out what was going on, then go right back to sleep. We motored for about two hours to get to the village of São Miguel.

Before venturing into the community, we had breakfast on the boat. Along with our usual fruit, meat, cheese, and cake, we also added leftover fish from last night. Louro cooked up some eggs so that we could swirl the fish in for a very Amazonian breakfast. Of course, he had also prepared fresh juices for us, including graviola and acerola. We are in food heaven despite our otherwise pretty primitive mode of living.

São Miguel is a lovely community that operates almost entirely cooperatively. Their main sources of income seem to be crafts and the products of the manioc plant. Manioc is more than just a pantry staple here, as virtually every meal involves manioc in some form. The farofa that we sprinkle over most of our food comes from manioc, as does every form of tapioca that we eat. It is cooked into soups, including one of our favorites to say: tacacá. To visit the manioc-processing hut in São Miguel is like visiting a historic reenactment of a 19th century U.S. town. They hand-process the roots of the plant to grind it, cook it, dry it, and prepare it for consumption.

The town is made up of dirt roads and paths, with a few horses or other work animals (usually oxen) trundling along sometimes. Motorized vehicles are rarely visible, though we are told that buses run along the messy roads outside of the main cities to connect these various communities to the larger commercial site of Santarém.

There is a clinic in the town that looks pretty clean and efficient, even if small. There are satellite dishes to be seen, but they are all part of the telephone network and have little to do with other forms of electronic communications. Occasionally we see solar panels that power some portion of a community (usually the clinic, the post office, or the school), but this particular town did not have any.

What this community DID have that fascinated all of us was a family with a pet monkey. The monkey was like another child in the family, except that when we saw it, it was tied to a tree. Apparently it is not always on a leash, but when big groups like ours come through, the family is more careful. The matron of the family was quite proud of the monkey and told us that it was not only vaccinated, but also baptized. We each had a chance to hold the pet if we wanted and to snap a picture with it. Ana was, as usual, the favorite, as the monkey got very attached to her very quickly and was reluctant to let her leave.

We finally managed to tear ourselves away from the monkey and the rest of the community and headed off for another bath in the river. We actually carry our toiletries to the edge of the water, go in wearing swimsuits, float our shampoo beside us, and wash our hair, shave, and lather up to feel cleaner. Though we know that the water is polluted, it definitely makes us feel better. It is, admittedly, a bit odd to bathe all together like this, but no one seems too troubled by that issue.

At the end of the day we needed to cover quite a bit of territory to set ourselves up for tomorrow’s early morning hike through the rain forest. We thus spent several hours on the boat trying to make it to the village called Jamaraquá so that we could wake up and meet our guides by 7:00 a.m. We’ve gotten used to moving with the daylight now, so that hour won’t be terribly difficult to face.

And now for our final honored participant! Today’s Purple Biker will hereby be known as the Supreme Ruler of the Order of the Purple Bike. Though everyone on this trip has far exceeded expectations (even their own), no one can surpass today’s honoree: Ana Ahnen. As a native Brazilian, Ana has demonstrated an easy comfort in adapting to an entirely new environment (even for her, as the northern region of Brazil might as well be an entirely different country from her native region in the south). She has been our unofficial translator, backing up Jesse at all times and sometimes leading her own group when we need to divide up. She is beloved by the children we’ve been working with and she is also loved dearly by all of us. Thus, now and for all time, at least symbolically, Ana will ride the Purple Bike. Congratulations, Ana, and all of the members of the Order!

We spent the morning fishing for these piranhas, which we ate for dinner. Yummy!

Within a community we found a family who domesticated a monkey!

This community makes money by weaving reeds into bracelets from the rainforest; first they must cook them to get the desired light brown color.

The dominant religion in Brazil is Catholicism; a church like this one is found in most communities.

This giant dragonfly jumped on Erik before landing on Marcia’s sweatshirt.

A local from the community making a craft.
Kids from a local community on the banks of the Amazon river.

A contraption used to squeeze water out of the manioc root.

A pet monkey at a local community.

Our boat and home for 3 days.

A pet monkey that we all got to hold and take pictures of.

A local woman talking to us about her pet monkey.

Starting at a young age, the children prepare to fish using nets.

An example of homes built by the local community