Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Santarém and the Rio Tapajós

In a short two weeks from today Jeff and I will leave Brazil until sometime in 2014.  We will return to the Pacific Northwest and our home in Seattle for Christmas and New Year’s and the first part of next year.  How can it be almost three months since we arrived?  Despite my moment of expat angst a few weeks ago I feel very much at home in Brazil.  The time here has flown by.  I am just now finding that my Portuguese is entering the next stage of fluency and I haven’t had a chance to do everything I planned to do.  Instead I will continue Portuguese lessons in Seattle so as not to lose ground.

I have not yet told you about a wonderful part of our trip to the Amazon region that happened almost two months ago.  So this week’s blog goes back in time to our visit in October to the city of Santarem in the equatorial state of Pará.  As a quick note I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving or at least as good a time as we did at the beach!  More on that later.

Santarém Pará Brazil, October 2013

I am looking at the Tapajós River, one of the largest tributaries of the Amazon River.  The Tapajós is roughly comparable in size to the Mississippi River.  It flows north into the Amazon River past the jungle city of Santarém.  The Tapajós is famous for its clean “clear” sometimes called blue water and its white sandy beaches.  When Jacques Cousteau visited the area many years ago he predicted a tourist-filled future for the Tapajós as the Caribbean of the Amazon.  Fortunately or perhaps unfortunately for the local economy that future did not happen.  The region is largely undeveloped and absolutely beautiful.
The Rio Tapajós
The clear water river rises south of the equator in the ancient (pre-Cambrian) Brazilian shield.  Unlike the geologically young Andes Mountains that form the headwaters of the Amazon, the Tapajós watershed is very old and heavily weathered.  The river doesn’t carry the Andean sediment loads that make the Amazon look like café com leite.  The Tapajós’ upper watershed is rich in copper, nickel, iron and manganese.  International mining companies vie to extract the valuable metals from this part of the world’s largest jungle.  Millions of dollars can be made but the conditions under which the mining moves forward have, over the years, been at the cost of lives, the environment and the health of the area. 

Now, strict environment laws require “sustainable development”: the use of water quality treatment systems for all mining discharges to surface streams.  Mining conditions for the workers have improved a great deal.  Inevitably, there is still much to do before sustainability for people, the jungle and the rivers is real.  Prior to flying to Santarem my husband and I visited with one of his colleagues in the coastal Amazonian city of Belém to learn more about the upstream conditions, the water quality and hydrology of the Tapajós.

The mining is happening far upstream from where I sit beside the big swimming pool at the Hotel Barrudada.  I am watching small black and yellow songbirds flit in and out of the trees.  The continuous chatter of birds blends into background music from the poolside café and the intermittent noise of workmen carrying food and construction materials beyond the pool deck.  The light rustling of straw brooms being swept across the deck reminds me that I am in Brazil. 

The harsh heat, the strong winds, the heavy rains, and abundant vegetation that characterize the equatorial region seem to invade everything.  The men and women who make this jungle their home work continuously to counter these forces and bring order to their part of the world.  Along the streets, in front of houses and businesses, inside gardens and public parks, everywhere I look, there is a never-ending parade of owners and workers sweeping dust and vegetation; re-painting buildings; patching and fixing sidewalks and roads; cutting overly-zealous bushes and trees; cleaning windows and walls.  Our hotel, a giant concrete building that looks like an over sized bunker, seems to be in an on-going state of remodeling.  On the wide stairways, there are painters and plasterers fixing holes and re-painting; in the lobby there are men re-tiling the floor; in the west wing the sound of drills and saws is an on-going cacophony that blends with the other noises.

Late one afternoon during our visit to Santarém, I decided to have a manicure and pedicure at the Salao de Beleza (i.e., the beauty salon) in the Hotel Barrudada lobby.  Every woman in every country knows that having a manicure and pedicure is a delicious personal luxury.  I often have such treatments when I travel.  It is an instant way to connect and feel part of the local, girls-together community. 

I sat on a banquette and one young woman filed and massaged my hands while another attended to my feet.  They were half way through the treatments when a young girl who didn’t look more than nineteen walked into the salon carrying several large bags.  It turned out she was a dealer in fancy underwear and designer purses.  She had arranged to show the shop girls and the other clients her wares. 

The buying and selling that ensued was a most entertaining experience.  There were only seven women in the shop – plus the vendor – but the young entrepreneur sat down on the banquette and started taking endless sets of sexy undies and low cut bras out of the bags.  Each set was wrapped in a small cellophane package.  She unwrapped more than sixty or seventy sets.  That is a lot of underwear in a pretty small space.  The sets were sitting on my knees, their knees, the footstools, everywhere. 

The underwear came in every color and every design you can imagine – red, blue, black, leopard print, hot pink, Kelly green, lavender, deep burgundy and violet.  The styles were highly varied also – underwires, plunging v-cuts, push-ups, cut-aways…I honestly don’t know what the styles were called but they were something.  And the panties were tiny.  I mean REALLY tiny.  And pretty much all a thong cut and I don’t think I need to explain what that means.  But here was the crazy thing.  Most of the women who were buying were actually fairly hefty in terms of hip and thigh dimension.  But the size of the panties was not big at all.  No worries.  Everyone was buying.  By the way my mani/pedi was excellent.  All in all a most successful salon visit. 

On our last day in Santarém we went to an extraordinary beach – Ponte de Pedras…the Point of the Rocks.  We were invited guests at the weekend home of the in-laws of one of Jeff’s colleagues, José.  Saturday morning we drove out of Santarem down the only road out of town.  It penetrated the jungle, past many tiny villages or vilas as they are called in Portuguese – Santa Luzia; Sao Bruz; Santa Maria.  At first the road was well paved.  Along its margins were small stores, an occasional restaurant, subsistence farms and wealthier looking fazendas.  After about 40 minutes we turned from the paved road onto a rough dirt road.

We went as far as we could in the borrowed Fiat and then our friend Troy – an American scientist – and another of Jeff’s colleagues who married a Brazilian woman years ago, picked us up in a much-needed 4-wheel drive.  When we arrived at the house, the “Dona da Casa” – lady of the house – greeted us like members of the family.  She was José’s mother-in-law and a grandmother to boot.  She ushered us in and showed us the path to the beach.  It was an elevated wooden walkway that led through the jungle to the water.

At the edge of the beach a small deck with built-in benches gave a perfect view of the beach and the low-lying peninsula across the bay.  Troy ran down the beach and, using his t-shirt as a flag, waved to the folks on the sandy peninsula.  Soon two men started the outboard motor on a small aluminum boat and crossed the channel to pick us up.  José’s mother-in-law told me that we should get in the boat and enjoy a swim and be back in time for lunch.  She was a small woman in a cotton housedress, her hair cropped short and graying.  Her hands bore witness to a river life of outside work but she was relaxed, welcoming and very articulate.

We walked across the white sand to the water’s edge, took off our sandals and climbed into the boat.  It was similar to the aluminum fishing boats I know from the San Juan Islands back home, but longer and narrower.  The outboard motor however was a primitive affair - sort of like an old lawnmower engine with a long shaft that stuck almost horizontally into the water.  Troy pulled the outboard alive and off we went.

 The crossing was a mere five minutes.  The peninsula was a low-lying spit of fine white sand, with a few trees and almost no elevation.  At the nearest tree, our friends had erected a sun shelter with a yellow tarp and rope.  Under the shelter were chairs, packs, baskets and sand toys.  Several women, all about thirty something, were sitting and chatting.  They greeted us in lyrical Portuguese.  Two small children, about six or seven were playing in the sand and laughing. 

On the other side of the spit, I could see a small group of adults sitting in the water, each cradling a bottle of beer.  Two small kayaks were anchored beside them – one with a cooler on the front seat.  Troy told us to come on into the water and have a beer.  The water was lovely – warm and welcoming he told us in Portuguese.  I didn’t need more encouragement.   I took off my shorts and shirt, adjusted my bikini and walked into the water.  In the distance, near the other side of the wide river, I could see the faint rise of a distant island. 

Troy was right.  The water was amazing.  Like a great big warm bathtub.  No wonder everyone was sitting so happily.  I walked to the group and sat down in the shallow white sandy-bottomed water.  Someone opened the cooler and handed us cold beers.  We sat in a circle and chatted.  Somehow or other every time I just did not know a word, someone who spoke more English than I spoke Portuguese volunteered it.  Most of the folks were Brazilian academics who had some English skills.  But I also had some Portuguese skills.

Later everyone told us to walk down to the end of the spit.  It is beautiful they said.  Jeff and I got our camera and walked down the sand.  The sand was strewn with very small smooth quartz river rocks, all in different colors, white, pink, yellow, grey.  I collected several round and crescent shaped ones as we walked.  The spit was special – we walked half a mile or more until the spit ended where the main river channel entered the closed bay.   There were no bugs.  The air was clear.  The sky was blue. 

Soon it was time for lunch.  Our hosts had prepared a feast for the almost 20 person group: barbequed tambaqui (a delicious Amazonian fish); pork spareribs; linguisa; chicken; rice; vinaigrette; a potato salad and a curious dish of tomato sauce, onions, peppers and cut up hotdogs.  There was farofa (fried manioc flour) and the wonderful Amazon hot sauce, tucupi.  We sat on the open veranda in the jungle and feasted.  There was more beer, coca cola, and orange soda; cut up pineapple and ice cream.  At one end of the veranda three tables were set up for everyone.  At the other end, the grandchildren and their hard working grandma lounged on swinging hammocks.  We piled our plates and sat down to enjoy the meal. 

Later Jose’s father-in-law showed me a standing tray he had built at the edge of the forest where he called for, and then fed pieces of banana to a troupe of small monkeys.  Like his wife, he was a simple but elegant man – they had grown up along the river but clearly were very capable and intelligent.  All five of their children, he told me proudly, have college and some even have graduate degrees.  He had built the house from his own design.  He grew peppers, bananas, and tomatoes.  He was a master barbeque chef.  He knew all the plants in the forest.  He and his wife welcomed us into their house as if we were family.

Jeff and I left the Amazon the next day on an early morning flight back to the south.  We won’t forget Ponte de Pedras or the wonderful hospitality of our hosts.

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