Saturday, February 27, 2016

Walking Solo in Alter do Chão

The central praça in Alter do Chão
I’m traveling in Brazil by myself.  I’m in a small village, Alter do Chão more than six hours by plane from São Paulo.  Alter, as the locals call it, is on the banks of the clear water Rio (river) Tapajós, a tributary to the mighty Amazon.  The village is a few degrees south of the equator and several kilometers upstream from the confluence of the two rivers.  Years ago Jacques Cousteau dubbed it the Caribbean of the Amazon.  It is a beautiful place.

I am not naturally someone who likes to be alone, certainly not someone who likes to travel alone.  I much prefer being with family and friends.  I’m perfectly happy, in fact enjoy, working alone – I’m a writer after all – but during the social times of the day, even in my own home, I prefer company.  Being “on the road” alone is worse.  It isn’t a matter of logistics – I’m an experienced and relaxed traveler.  It’s about sharing the experiences.  Plus I’ve never been very comfortable sitting in a restaurant and eating a meal by myself.  My husband told me to bring a notebook.  That is a good tip.

I grew up in a large, close-knit family.  My first few years were spent in the company of my older sister.  I was never alone.  We were only two years apart and we played endless games together.  In retrospect I don’t remember who invented the games – what I remember is their infinite variety and inventive delight.  I remember how much fun we had – making paper dolls, creating families of little teddy bears out of plasticine (a type of colored modeling clay that was common in the 1950’s), building dioramas and theatrical events for the paper dolls’ and teddy bears’ lives, inventing and playing imaginary games in which we travelled to alternative universes where the rules and the powers we had were quite different than in our universe. 

Often we “travelled” on these adventures with our cousin who lived next door but one.  I put “travelled” in quotation marks since our vehicle was our grandfather’s tool shed.  The engine was the vice on his workbench.  It was remarkable how, when the toolshed door was shut and latched, and we got the heavy handle of the vice spinning fast, we could take off to unknown worlds.  Once we landed and unlatched the door, we found ourselves on a completely different planet far from our own backyard.  Sometimes, on lucky days, his older sister – older than me by a then unfathomable six years – joined us.  These were particularly good adventures since my older cousin knew about horses.  When she was along, these magnificent animals were added to our adventure.  Although our steeds were just broomsticks or thick branches that our grandfather cut for us, they transported us to even more exotic locales – wild sandy deserts complete with camels and palm trees.  We had tremendous fun and I wonder if today’s computer savvy kids have as interesting escapades as we did.  I think my early experiences and imaginative games are part of why I like to write stories.  But for sure, the closeness I experienced is part of why I don’t like being alone for too long.  That’s probably why I got and stayed married! 
Whatever the reasons, I don’t take naturally to traveling alone.  But here I am, alone in Alter, while my husband is on a scientific expedition measuring the hydrology and geochemistry of the lower Amazon.  Of course, I chose to be here and I think it is a good choice.

Let’s say you, like me, are hoping to make progress on your current writing project.  You’ve been working on it most of the day and you desperately need to stretch your legs.  You are a lifelong walker and decide to go for a walk.  That is what I did the other afternoon.  It was about 90and very humid – even my weather app said it felt like 100!  After about 3 miles I returned to my pousada (bed and breakfast).  I was too hot to walk in the heat any longer.  I hadn’t reached 10,000 steps but in fairness, that number isn’t set in stone.  Especially not when you are practically on the equator!  After my hot walk, I needed to stretch.  When you are sixty-something you almost always need to stretch.  I decided to do some simple yoga poses in my room. 

Now I know why hot yoga is popular.   After pulling off most of my saturated clothing, I tried a downward dog.  It felt good and I moved easily into plank and cobra.  Good again.  Body felt supple and I am normally a pretty stiff, albeit fit, older lady.  I tried a few warrior poses – my arms stretched gracefully out to an imaginary horizon.  My back bent a little further than usual.  I tried a couple more poses.  I was definitely more flexible.  Maybe being very hot helps my yoga.  I managed to do a half-baked dancing Shiva without completely losing my balance.  Perhaps the original yoga masters, who presumably lived in India, did their practice in similarly hot and humid climates.  Either way it felt good and what a benefit to be able to stretch properly.  Sitting at a computer all day isn’t good for you at any age.  Of course I was glad I had a shower to wash my sweat off and that my room had an air conditioner so I could stay cooler.  That is a privilege that I have as an American tourist who can afford to stay in a pousada that has such amenities.  

The Martin Pescador at its home port
Writing, walking and doing yoga are not my only pastimes here in Alter!  On Monday I tagged along on an expedition organized by Big Tree Adventure Tours (,
a unique Amazon adventure company that operates out of nearby Santarém.  In 2014, I blogged about two wonderful trips I went on with the company.  Karim Abu Bakr, who organized both trips in 2014, organized Monday’s boat trip as well.  Karim, one of two partners in the company, is a well-informed charming guide.  We travelled on a traditional Amazonian flat-bottomed wooden boat, the Martin Pescador, to a floodplain area on the far side of the Tapajós.  

A traditional floodplain house
There we visited a traditional floodplain house built on stilts.  The Tapajós River level can fluctuate by as much as 10 meters between high and low water.  Thus, any structure that is to survive the floodwaters must be either floating or built on stilts.

A contented Tapajós cow
The lady of the house shared delicious Sapacaia (a type of Brazil) nuts with us and showed us a huge Sapacaia tree on her property.  We hiked through her riparian (riverside) forest, saw lazy sloths hugging branches high up in the trees.  We watched colorful birds flit among the trees.  Interestingly, while traveling by boat to her small holding, we saw many cattle grazing on islands, even sitting contentedly on offshore floating mats of vegetation.  Who knew cows can swim?  The local floodplain farmers use low lying islands as pastures during low water and take their cattle by boat back to the mainland when the waters rise.  Floodplain cattle farms are an important part of the regional economy.  Later, after a delicious on-board lunch of local smoked pirarucu (the largest of all Amazon fish), we pulled up to a white sand spit and swam in the cool, sweet water of the Tapajós.

Yesterday I sat on another fine sandy beach enjoying a cold beer.  I was a two-minute rowboat ride from Alter’s central praça (town square).  A pleasant tropical wind blew in my face, drying my hair in minutes. It was hard to feel lonely since I shared the beach with many others on holiday

The benefit I have in traveling alone is the opportunity to know this extraordinary ecosystem; to see its unique, and impressive flora and fauna; and to understand its grandeur up close and personal!  It is an ancient ecosystem.  Near where I am staying there are some prehistoric cave drawings that are more than 10,000 years old.  It’s not surprising there were inhabitants here so long ago.  The region is rich in natural resources – clean water, white sandy beaches, abundant fish to catch and small mammals to hunt, wild fruit and nuts to enjoy and a climate so warm that clothes are practically optional! 

A Sapacaia nut "case"
Now you begin to understand why I am here.  It is a privilege to know the region, its history and its people even just a little bit.  It is also a privilege to have a place and a space to research and write– uninterrupted by the normal daily grind.  Perhaps these pleasures outweigh the challenge of eating out alone.  Just in case however, I’m keeping my notebook in my purse. 
A Sapacaia tree

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