12 March 2017 - posted on 13 March from Alter do Chao, Amazon River, Brazil
It’s a rainy Sunday, and the town we’re visiting is closed until the afternoon. So I’m catching up on blogging. We’ve had a full few days of visiting places along the Amazon, so much to report.
On Thursday, we visited the small village of Boca da Valeria. This really is a tiny place, with something like 120 inhabitants. This tiny town was first visited by the cruise ships by accident – a ship broke down and needed some work, so rather than sit in the middle of the river, the passengers were sent to shore in tenders. The inhabitants of the village had no idea what was happening, just that boatloads of strangers were descending on their community. So they did what anyone would do when invaded – they hid in the jungle and watched as these people came ashore. It took several visits until the townspeople were comfortable with these periodic foreign invasions. And now, they welcome us as a source of income.
The people of Boca da Valeria are mostly of indigenous origin, maybe with some Portuguese ancestors fairly far back. They live in stilt houses, because the river level rises during rainy season. In mid-March, we’re in the middle of rainy season – the rains will continue until about June, when the river level may be as much as 30-36 feet (10-12 meters) higher than it currently is. And the current level is pretty high, with islands and banks and trees totally submerged in the muddy waters of the Amazon.
At this point, we have mixed feelings about Boca da Valeria. It’s cute. It’s quaint. It’s also kitschy, and hard to say how much of what is presented as the traditional indigenous way of life is real, and how much is what the people think tourists want to see. Or how much has been suggested by publicists or marketers. Depends on how cynical one’s point of view might be. It definitely has a somewhat real, but somewhat Disneyland aspect to the town.
When a cruise ship stops by, it seems to be a school holiday in town. The children and some adults gather by the dock, and greet passengers as we come off the tenders. Some children want to shake hands, but others have learned to latch on and escort people around town, which of course means a cash tip at the end of the visit.
Other kids come up with their pets – sloths, snakes, baby alligators or caiman or crocodiles, I can’t tell which. Maybe even a monkey, or a parrot. People can hold the pets, pose for photos, all of that. I always feel bad for the poor animals, who should be free and in the jungle. But I also understand that for some families, this is their source of income. So I found some cute kids, took their photo, chatted with them in my Spanish and their Portuguese, and gave them two-real bills. (Real, pronounced ree-AHL, is the Brazilian currency. I didn’t give them real bills, I gave them real. Two real is equal to maybe 60 cents US.)
There were other little kids, mostly little girls, dressed in the traditional clothing, or some semblance of the outfits. Lots of colorful feathers on their heads or in their hair, and on their ankles. The littlest one wasn’t too happy about this job, because she really wanted the balloon another child had (and gave her after my photos). What can I say, I’m a sucker for kids, and so I took photos and handed over small money, and hoped it somehow helps the family finances.
Of course, I also asked the children what was their name, and what was the name of their pet. The little girl holding the baby caiman or alligator cracked up laughing when I then said hello to her pet and addressed him by name. What can I say, I enjoy being silly with kids.
There was a man at one end of town who really went to a lot of effort with his presentation – I asked him if he was the chief, or a medicine man, but he didn’t understand my Spanish, and I know only three words in Portuguese. So I don’t know if he’s dressed as a warrior, or what. It was a really elaborate headdress and all, so I thought he needed some compensation and that I needed a photo of him.
We wandered around the village, and then took a river tour. Actually, I ended up taking two river tours with friends we’ve made on the ship, the first being a 30 minute trip and the second being an hour. The boats are pretty small, sort of glorified canoes with a canopy, and several boards for seats through the center of the boat. The outboard motor has an extended metal bar with the propeller at the end, so it can be lifted out of the mud and plants in shallow water. (We saw these in SE Asia, so we knew the point of this odd looking system.)
And yes, climbing into the boats often meant getting our feet wet in the Amazon, but, well, we can only hope shoes and socks protect us from any parasites. I’m not usually paranoid, but when a river looks this brown and muddy, it tends to make me somewhat paranoid. (At one point our first boat captain was standing to see over the top of the boat, and steering with his foot! So funny, and of course I had to take his photo!)
Anyway, motoring up and down the river and a tributary and through the swamped jungle was really the best part, and why I went on two boat trips. We saw the giant water lilies which are famous – these really are huge! Each lily pad looks like a giant platter, some up to six feet (nearly 2 m) across! They have sort of a raised lip, a vertical edge all the way around, and this is covered in thorns, as is the underside of the giant lily pad. One plant, rooted on the bottom of the river, sends out a number of thorny branches that each have one of these huge leaves. The underside of everything has the spikey thorns so that fish and other water animals don’t eat the plant. And there’s usually a water lily flower in the center of the plant, which only opens at night. The flower also changes color throughout its lifespan, based on its pollination cycle. I’m not sure of the sequence of colors, but the flower can be white, pink, lavender, or green, depending on its age (which isn’t long).
The lily pads live long after the flower dies, though eventually insects and the sunlight cause these giant leaves to disintegrate and fall back into the river.
A specific bird seemed to hang out on top of the water lilies, sitting on the pads. No idea what the name of it is, but it has a dark head, russet body, and the wings in flight are sort of a pale butter yellow. Really fascinating bird!
There was another bird, fairly big in size (maybe crow-sized), with a bright neon yellow torso but black wings, head, and tail. They build nests that hang, almost like long straw socks. And they’re all in one specific tree, as if this is their town and they only build their nests in that neighborhood. My photos show a few of the birds, but you need to click on the photos to enlarge them enough to see the flashes of yellow in among all the foliage. I can’t crop the photos and get a decent image of these birds. (And again, I don’t know what kind of bird this is – in the Caribbean the bananaquits build nests like this, but they’re tiny birds so I don’t think they’re related.) And yes, this tree is surrounded by water at this time of year. I just hope all the baby birds are off flying by the time the river level rises to its maximum, since I suspect the tree might be covered.
We also saw monkeys in a few trees. Not sure what kind of monkeys they were, just pretty big and very dark in color. Monkeys are difficult to photograph, since they’re either snuggled up or in motion. Here are two photos of the monkeys in the tree, and they’re the very dark blobs. The greyish blob lower in the tree is a termite nest, so the monkeys might have been up there having a termite picnic.
I have no idea how one navigates around, because the Amazon isn’t just the one river. We went up and down tributaries, side branches, other rivers, and through what I can only think is the jungle turned into swamp or wetlands during rainy season. Really, it was like boating through a forest, along hiking trails that were underwater. Truly a strange experience to be in a small boat but surrounded by the jungle, with birds and monkeys chattering at us to get out of their home. I can see how visitors like myself get totally lost and never find their way out.
So we spent several hours either boating around, or visiting the village. It was interesting, it was fun, and it was also slightly disturbing. It really hit home when we were waiting to get back on the tender. Our boat staff have chilled washcloths for us, which is a nice refreshing way to wipe one’s sweaty face. But there I was surrounded by curious kids, who live a very simple life. One young girl asked me for something, and I told her I have nothing left, no money. (Some people brought pencils and things for the children.) The girl indicated that she’d like my used washcloth. Well, what could I do, I gave her the washcloth. I mean, she probably could use it, and I know our cruise line makes donations to this village. So I helped them out, right?
All I can hope is that my monetary contributions (including the boat ride prices) helped support some families. And that making kids laugh brightened their day. And that maybe, all of that somehow helped.