opinions about life, work, and spirituality

Travel Highlights 11: Iguassu Falls Day 3

September 27th, 2007

Once in Argentina’s national park, we take the short boat ride to San Martin Island. The roughly hewn rock stairs to the top of the cliffed island are steep and wet which makes the hike up them a bit of a challenge. The first trail leads to one of the more powerful falls. Thick mist sprays over us and into the pools beside us which brim with water and threaten to overflow. Yesterday was extremely rainy and the island’s crevices, holes and ponds are disturbingly full of water. The second trail leads to a view of a large, rock archway with a natural window that overlooks the “Gargantua del diablo” or Devil’s Throat, the most powerful of all falls. Crusty-headed vultures hulk in a nearby tree, soar above us and extend their thin, grizzled legs and pointed nails.

We head down another trail, away from the hungry vultures, along the northern edge of the island. Here there are views of the fast flowing river and steep cliffs, and smaller, misty falls. At the end of this trail, there is caution tape across the path. I guess we weren’t supposed to go on that trail, though I’m not sure why. Snakes (there are caution signs about snakes throughout the island), the risk of a landslide, the high level of water? We are all too glad we didn’t find out.

After a few last fleeting glances of the panarama of falls, we hike through a quiet forest trail. As we walk, the clouds part, sunlight filters through the canopy of the rainforest, and creates patterns like those of the paper snowflakes we used to make as kids. The trail is intensely peaceful and conjures memories of slow autumn meanders through crispy-leafed paths. We run across the now familiar “cutia” (very thin faced, fat bummed, cat sized rodents), who are typically skittish and tear away from us as though we were jaguars with barred teeth. An eerie, jarring song of mysterious birds is like an electric can opener set on speed dial; a continuously electric-sounding whir and pop.

We hike down a skinny path, and duck under bulging rocks, to a tranquil waterfall and pool. We don’t have much time, so after a few deep breaths, we turn and make our way back. As we stride homewards, I almost step on a startlingly bright leaf. I wonder about its colour, bend down to take a closer look and realize it is a leaf bug. It is a perfect replica of its surrounding geography, though brighter, with spindly legs and needle thin antannae. It moves slowly, like the ancient, wrinkled turtles we saw in Belem. As we near the exit, we watch a pack of giant vermilion soldier ants whose fierce scissor-like antannae are known to send humans into reams of pain. We stay comfortably distant.

Back in town, we lug our backpacks onto the luxury bus that will take us first to San Ignacio Mini, then to Buenos Aires.

Travel Highlights 10: Iguassu Falls Day 2

September 20th, 2007

We wake to the spatter of rain. Today we will visit the Brazilian side of the falls. I take out my trusty rain coat that covers so much of my body it reminds me of a burka; a sunshine yellow, transparent plastic burka. Ahem.

On our way through the Argentine-Brazil border we are the only two people to get off the bus to stamp our passports. Argentines and Brazilians do not need their passports stamped when crossing borders into each other’s countries. There looked to be one or two tourists on the bus with us, but I suppose they haven’t been notified that they need to take this pre-caution? We have read that tourists can get into trouble if they are caught crossing the border without stamped passports. Trouble in Brazil, at the hands of corrupt police or border guards, is not something we want to invite.

It takes a few minutes to stamp our passport, and afterwards we stand at the bus stop and wait for the next bus. We wait, and wait, and wait. There is nothing to do here at the border, and so we giddily amuse ourselves with silly games that involve jumping from one piece of cement to another. But as we continue to wait, the mood turns from giddy to annoyance. Where is the stinking bus? We try to think of another game, but there is not much to inspire us: a couple of cement blocks beside a roadway outside a looming industrial building, with fenced off fields behind us. And as it begins to rain more steadily, we try not to think about the fact that we are stuck on a couple of cement blocks in the middle of butt-nowhere, instead of at the beautiful falls. We’re in Brazil, I tell myself cheerily, we’re together as a couple. But as I think about the fact that we only have three weeks to experience South America, and that every moment is precious, I begin to feel even more at edge.

On our travels, we bump into many backpackers who tell us their shame and woe that they are “only in South America for five months” or “a pathetic eight months, man”. I grit my teeth at these backpackers, the spoiled brats of the travelling world. Most of them have cushy jobs at home in finances or advertising. Try being an underpaid artist, I think! We are here for three weeks, of which I intend to use to their very fullest. Except that, I am stuck at a border crossing, with cars speeding by, wheezing exhaust past us, as we stand in the rain on a couple of slabs of concrete. Grrrrrrr!! My agitation increases. Why couldn’t we have stayed an extra week, I think? Why does my job, er artistry, pay so poorly? Why do we have so much debt? And why do people complain about five months!!?? I am just about to rip my way into a long exposition about the injustice of our situation, when the bus putters up like a teenager on a Saturday morning. Finally, I think, and grab the steel handlebar to pull myself inside.

In the dryness of the bus, I am once again grateful. Three whole weeks to travel and experience! Many of the people on this bus will never travel beyond the border towns of Brazil and Argentina. Many of the people on this bus don’t know what a “holiday” is. I’m an idiot, obviously; a ethnocentric gringo. On our way to the entrance of Brazil’s national park, we are sidetracked by a woman who gives us information about the park, but then launches into a pushy sales pitch. I try to imagine the long expanse of three weeks and conjure my ethnocentrism, but at the same time, I watch the crowds line past us to purchase tickets, aware that we are now going to be at the end of a very long, deep line. The woman gabs on about the river tours, and I want to cut her off. In Canada, I most certainly would politely but firmly brush her off, but this is Brazil, and I don’t want to appear to be the ethnocentric, spoiled gringo that I am. Finally, she stops, a look of expectation on her pale, pretty face. “No, thank you,” we say,” sorry,” and we trudge to the end of the ticket line.

The trails through the Brazilian park are not as intensive or well planned as on the Argentine. Nevertheless, we take our time to enjoy the incredible sight, the earthy, leafy smell, the thunderous sound and the sensation of the mist that coats our faces. On our way to lunch, we run across a thick pack of scrappish coati who prowl amongst the tables and chairs for food. The coati here are nasty, as they have learned that unthinking tourists will feed them. They are known to be aggressive, stealing purses from underneath ladies feet, snatching food from people’s plates as they sit and eat. I am glad we saw these animals in a habitat untouched by people (in the Pantanal), peacefully lounging across the branches of a tree. Here, the coati are bandits and gangbusters, encouraged by unknowing visitors.

We end up at an all-you-can-eat-buffet. I never do justice to my wallet at a buffet. I am the kind of person the buffet owner loves because I hardly eat a quarter of any smorgasborg’s worth. I am lured in, however, by the mounds of passionfruit and guava on large silver platters near the entrance. As we tuck into our first plates, the rain begins to fall heavily outside. I am grateful for my tender cut of lamb (the best I’ve ever tasted), hot feijoada, and tropical fruit.

On our bus ride back from the falls, we must get out to have our passports re-stamped. We will be in trouble if we have an entrance stamp into Brazil, but no exit stamp. We reluctantly plod off the bus, into the passport office. Outside, the situation proves itself no different from this morning’s. We once again try to maintain cheer, but as the sky darkens, the temperature drops. Not only are we dulled by the sightless vista, we are cold. We wait for an hour, when a man in a tour bus says he will drive us to the Argentine side of the border for free. At the edge of Argentina, we wait still more. At least here there is a warm convenience store. Finally a bus arrives. We learn that our bus tickets are not valid for this bus, that we would have to wait for another fifty minutes for the bus our tickets are good for. Without a thought, we pull out some change, and pay the fare.

Long after dark, we arrive at our hotel. I wish that we had been like those ignorant tourists that simply stayed on the morning’s bus. Three weeks is a wonderfully spacious amount of time, but it is still short enough to feel precious. We are blessed to have the finances to spend such a long time travelling, especially (and I do not write this trivially) when there are so many in the world who have neither the time nor money to do so. It is our time, our life, which God has blessed us with, and I am anxious to experience it to the very fullest. I may be a spoiled gringo, but one who appreciates my blessings, the truly good in life, and who wants to revel daily in God’s creation and bounty. I thank God for every good thing I see, experience and sense, like a running soundtrack of gratitude that plays upwards and outwards – or at least I try my darndest to. Am I a hedonist? Oh, most certainly. But if I recognize and affirm from whom the bounty derives, and am sincerely thankful, is that so wrong??

Travel Highlights 9: Iguassu Falls Day 1

September 20th, 2007

The word for falls in Spanish (now that we are in Argentina) is “Cataratas”, a sound which bounces around the mouth like bumping down a watery canyon in a rubber tire. I use any opportunity to say “cataratas”, which causes pleasant, bubbly feelings in my belly. Even more pleasant, however, are the actual “Cataratas de Iguazu”; a paradise of tropical vegetation, brilliant flora, dominant powerful falls and pretty small and medium falls separated by moist green islands.

The cataratas in Argentina are surrounded and facilitated by a well planned national park. Steel catwalks, firmly embedded into river rock, lead across rivers and perch precrariously over the edge of falls. Stone walkways on the blade of forested cliffs lend the park a wild, untamed atmosphere. There is none of Niagara’s touristy exploitation here, but simply nature and extraordinary geography. The hundreds of separate falls which make up the total of Iguassu Falls are of remarkable variety. There are mighty, forceful falls with a strong convergence of sound akin to thunder, trains and rushing wind. There are luxuriously steamy falls, boldly exotic falls, scraggly stream-like falls and more and more. James and I walk the trails and catwalks for hours, explore the corners and nooks of this pretty park, and gulp down each stunning new view, like famished people at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

We take a boat ride beyond the mist of the falls, into the spray. This ride is no tame “Maid of the Mist” with octogenarians wielding cameras like champagne glasses. Here we, excited and nervous, are taken to the water’s massive eddies and swirls. The boat forces itself further into the turbulence, until waves crash over the boat’s edge, and soak everyone inside as they scream and holler. People leave the boat as if having swum in their clothes. (Except for me. I had a head to ankle plastic rain slicker complete with protective hoodie, which prevented me from getting all but a few wet patches.)

All in all, a fabulous day.

Travel Highlights 8: Pantanal Day 3

September 18th, 2007

Very early morning, while the howler monkeys still echo their gutteral growls across the jungle around us, and flocks of birds honk and “caroo!” above us, we hike to watch the sunset. Claire and Olivier, an amiable, well educated couple (she’s a neurosurgeon, he’s an architect) come with us, and we all tag behind the chipper, barefoot Mario through the back of strangers’ land and gardens. A partner of dusty mutts paw their way beside us, tongues already hanging out of slack jaws. From out of the twilight, unexpectedly, a trio of beagles sprint and lunge in our direction. I gasp. But the beagles force their way around us to the pair of mutts. One mutt speeds away, but the other is not so lucky. The beagles gang up on him, and all three pairs of pointy teeth sink into the mutt’s filthy fur and clamp down. The mutt cries in terror, a sharp yelp that makes me take a breath inwards. The mutt writhes with such quickness that he appears a tangle of skinny front legs, hind paws, long tail and body. I want to drive a shovel or tree branch into the beagles, who are relentless, but Mario treads on, and Claire and Olivier are right behind him, and even James urges me to stay close. There is nothing I can do, as I am a Canadian girl unaccustomed to dangerous dogs in Brazil. If I take action, I could end up with three sets of glinty beagle chompers through my ankles. So, frustrated and hoping for the best, I walk on.

The sunset is a beautiful vivid pink from where we watch it on the trestle bridge above the Rio Miranda, but my thoughts fly back to the mutt and the image of the locked jaws upon him. I suppose this is life in Brazil. Animals live and die without any of our silly human interception, let alone “dog spas”. Perhaps it isn’t a great way to go, but isn’t much different from the wild boar who tries to ungrapple herself from the caiman’s scissor teeth, or the capybara who, unlike Choochooga, finds himself in the strong grip of a rank smelling anaconda. It is the cycle of nature, is it not? And yet, I feel angry towards the beagles, those unthinking iron-fist militants of the dog world. On our way back for breakfast, I expect to see the dying mutt, blood spilling from its body and congealing in the warm air. I watch out for the beagles. But neither the bloody mutt nor the bastardly beagles I see. Back at the camp, I am startled by the sight of the mutt. He sprints and snuffles at the ground, nudges his nose into a mound of some sort of food. I look but can’t note any deep gouges, either. Did the beagles get tired of his wriggling? (Was it survival by wiggles?) Or did some owner mercifully call them off? Or did the beagles smell something else, something more satisfying, upon the air and leave the mutt for a potential meal? Mystified, but happy, I turn for breakfast.

After breakfast, we fish for piranha at the river’s edge with a simple bamboo sheath for a pole. I feel a pull on my line, and rapidly jerk my pole in the air, as taught to do. There is nothing though; the little bait fish has been nibbled away, but I have failed to catch the sneaky piranha. This happens several other times while people around me cry out joyously as they lure in big, fat fish. I begin to wonder if I am simply unlucky. I move downstream and stretch my line far into the water. Another pull on my line, and I wonder if I have been a victim of “the nibbler” again, but upon jerking the pole, a nice flat hand- sized piranha flies into the air as well. I dance a little at my success. Soon after, I catch three more piranha. I even unhook the steel piece out of the piranha’s mouth, (after learning how to do so), squeezing my fingers into the bloody, gooey part of the fish’s gills beside it’s teeth. Woowee! James catches a piranha and a very large fish as well, but only keeps the piranha for food. Later, our fish is fried, and in spite of my constant heartburn, I enjoy the fresh, moist taste of food I caught.

After a satisfying lunch, Mario’s eyes shine as he announces that we are to go tubing down the river. That is, down the river we just caught our piranha in. That is, the river that also sports caiman on its banks. It is the last day, and it is steaming hot, so I think, “What the heck! Why not?” Into the tin boat we pile once again, and our guide takes us upstream with black tubes in hand. A few of us are nervous. James and Olivier are trepidatious. Ed and Alice, the attractive British couple, head into the water first. Their tubes are nice and thick, the size of La-Z-Boy chairs. I look down at my patched up tube, thin and tiny, more like the size of a lifering. Mario is mischeviously splashing me, so I plunge my dinky tube into the water and kick water at him. Down the river I go…

We have all been told that piranha do not attack unless they can smell blood. While none of us have open cuts, it is still a bit troubling to think of sharp teethed fish swimming beneath our tubes. We watch as the caiman on the river banks slip into the water as we lazily pass. Oh dear. With something like gumption or stupidity, Claire slides out of her tube and begins to swim. Her toes are not nibbled, her breasts not bitten. Olivier, her partner, follows. Ed forces himself into the water, and even Alice foregoes the tube for a minute or two. Soon, I too am treading the slow moving river. James joins me quickly after. The water is refreshing, and all the more invigorating when one thinks of the perils beneath and at the side. I swim just long enough to call myself brave, and no more. Back into the tube I slide, happy to have swum, and all the happier to be in one piece!

Travel Highlights 7: Pantanal Day 2

September 18th, 2007

This morning, our horses await us outside the lodge. I am not sure whether I am nervous or apathetic; these are unpredictable animals, and yet the last few times I went horseback riding I nearly keeled over in boredom as we plodded along at the pace of children asked to come in from playing and clean their bedrooms. The horses saunter into the open fields of the Pantanal, and I ready myself for a morning of lethargy and yawning.

Immediately, our horses pick up speed, jauntily galloping as we struggle to stand in the stirrups so that we aren’t bounced around like a shaken baby. I laugh because it truly is a thrill, and somewhat dangerous. I’m galloping! Or rather, my horse is galloping, and I’m riding on top! The tree tops whizz by, and our horses bump each other as they race for the next turn in the trail. My leg grinds between my own horse’s body and the next horse. I fear my horse will run too close to the fence, and my bones will be crunched. But it’s good fun. I laugh as the horses break wind as they gallop, reminding me of a dear elderly woman at our old church whose steps often coincided with bursts of gas.

We have the afternoon off, and spend some time petting and watching Choochooga eat grass. (The guy loves to eat, and has a big round belly to prove it.) The same woman who nursed Choochooga to health brings a baby grey owl out to the dining hall porch on her sleeve. Through broken english, I gather the infant bird fell out of its nest. It is a sweet thing, with downy speckled grey feathers, and eyes like bowls of jet. The woman feeds the little bird small fish, which she gulps down her gullet whole.

After lunch Mario brings a wounded anaconda to the lodge. We watch it from several feet away as it slithers across the grass, and across itself. Mario assures us it won’t strike on land. I feel its skin, which is not slimy, but gummy, the texture of candy worms. I even take a turn holding it, but become nervous as it ropes itself around my hand and begins to tighten. Mario sets it free in the water.

Choochooga worries us by standing on the banks of the river, by the waterborne anaconda. Our group urges the capybara to saunter off, as he is anaconda prey. But Choochooga will not leave; instead he stands proudly at the edge of the water and huffs like a scoffing critic. Several children who live at the camp begin to cry, and Choochooga’s nurse calls to him repeatedly. Choochooga stands blazen still beside the water, a monument to stubbornness, fear or some other mysterious capybara sentiment. The anaconda wraps herself around a cluster of water greens, and eyes the thick bodied creature. Finally, without explanation, Choochooga extends his webbed feet and putters up the hill for a patch of grass to munch upon. There is no explaining the behaviour and odd ways of a Capybara, but we breathe a sigh of relief.

Somehow, on my way to our room, I discover that my hand smells disturbingly wretched; a powerfully ripe, reptilian smell. My hand stinks like something died upon it, only after leaking its body fluids across my palm. I take soap to my hand and scrub, but the stench leaks through the mild Ivory like acid through tissue. I find an old toothbrush, and scour at the lines in my palm, the insides of my nails, but the dense, almost mythical smell fails to scrub away. I scratch at myself with toothbrush and toothpaste until my skin stings. I lift my hand to my nose. The smell lingers, like the scent of cat’s piss in some dank apartment. I consider this an improvement and go about my day smelling like a crazy cat lady.

Towards the evening, Mario takes a long, steel boat out from the shore, and our group piles in. “We can’t all fit!”, the older Australian woman says, but indeed we do. Just under a gigantic wooden trestle bridge, fish begin to fly in the air around us, flop into the water beside us, and send reams of water into our boat. One fish flies straight towards the side of our boat, and Alice, a beautiful well maintained Londoner, squeals as it hits the steel beside her with a loud thud. It must have knocked itself out!

Mario gleefully parks our tin tube beside a myriad of marble-eyed caiman, who glare at us and dip into the water beside our boat. We have disturbed their sleep, and I loathe to think they are resentful of the interruption. The group squishes together, towards the middle of the boat. I feel brave and hang my neck out the side, but Mario tuts at me and giggles, waves his finger back and forth. We also spot: ten capybara, including a family with an deliriously cute baby, another toucan, seven giant river otters, five howler monkeys as they leap through the trees, and one beautiful liquid eyed red tailed deer.

On our way back for supper (probably more feijoada), we turn and watch as the sun sheds her golden skin, sinks down below the horizon, and spreads wings of intense crimson across the sky.

Travel Highlights 6: Pantanal Day 1

September 15th, 2007

Here is a partial list of the birds and animals we see today:

-Many Jabiru storks (Huge, fully white body)
-Many Maribu storks (Huge, black heads with white bodies)
-Amazon kingfisher (gorgeous little blue back, white body)
-2 Black collared hawk
-Black hooded cardinal
-2 Red blooded cow bird (tiny, crimson red)
-2-3 Tropiau (smallish orange with brown stripes)
-Cafezihna (small, light brown)
-Savannah hawk (large, browns and greys)
-Many Chacachacalacka (large, chicken-like body, white)
-Many Ibis (large white)
-Cocoya heron
-Black winged hawk
-Hundreds of Jacutinga (huge white with crimson red heads)
-6 toucan
-2 blue macaws

-Hundreds of caiman (crocodiles)
-5 giant otters
-Red brook deer
-2 Caititu (little pig-looking creatures)
-10 capybara
-5 Coati (South American raccoons)
-2 howler monkeys

A deliciously fun day. We take the safari jeep along dusty trails, stop at watering holes to spot wildlife and birds. The variety and quantity of birds is spectacular. Our guide, Mario, looks like a roughened, Portuguese version of Orlando Bloom and has the personality of Crocodile Dundee with a sharp wit. He walks us out into the mud beside a large pool of water to watch birds and caiman up close. Suddenly we hear barking, and trees crash and crinkle beside us. Giant river otters burst out of the bush like rowdies on a drinking binge. They dive into the water with great commotion. As they bark and flail by the pond’s edge, they compare to my teenage brothers and friends shouting and rough-housing in my parent’s pool.

Soon after, Mario leads us into deep mud-water. Many are wary to plunge into the dark sludge that reaches our kneecaps, but Mario confidently forges ahead. I follow close behind. It is best to stay near the person who knows what they are doing, I think. Reluctantly, the rest of the group treads the murky water. We follow the ever barefoot Mario though swamp, jungle and plain. We watch a group of long snouted Coati lounge lazily in a tree. We run stealthily to a tree with howler monkeys who move so quickly that half our group does not spot them. We tip toe across a dry plain to an armadillo’s homestead and watch as she blindly winds her way around our group.

In a thick bush area, I begin to feel a stinging in my scalp, then my back. I hear a strange noise and realize that I am being attacked by foreign bugs. I quickly run out of the thick onto a plain, my hands rapidly running through my hair, and over my clothes in an attempt to rid myself of the stings. Another group member sweeps off my back, picks into my hair. I pinch at my scalp, pull a thick bodied black insect from my roots. It felt as though it had been digging. Yuck. In the bush, another girl screams, but fails to run from the area of attack, paralyzed by fear. Mario runs back into the jungle, retrieves her. Our group is a little shocked, but otherwise fine. We tromp onwards.

By the time we reach our jeep safari, we have treaded for many hours through a variety of geography in the hot sun. We are tired and thirsty, though happy for all our sightings. We stop at a farm that also boasts a small convenience store to pick up some bottled water. While there, we are stopped by the tourist police who want to question every couple with a survey.

The farm is an entertaining place to be stuck for an hour. A mother pig with swollen teats is chased by her brood of squealing piglets who want to continuously suckle. She finally stops running, and relents, lays down in the grass and the piglets run over each other to get to some milk. Oddly, another large pig, likely a pregnant female, also suckles at her teats!

James and I buy a package of biscuits, and open opening it, several crackers fall onto the ground in little pieces. In no time, four skeletal cats and a whole troop of buttercup-coloured chicks and their plump hen mother devour the food. The mother hen pecks at the larger pieces, breaks them into tiny shards for her little fluffy babies.

After a supper of mostly feijoada (Brazilian beans and rice), we set to bed and sleep deeply.

Travel Highlights 5: Pantanal, Eve of Arrival

September 15th, 2007

I have a hard task ahead of me: to describe the beauty, variety and wonder of the Pantanal. I know I can not do it justice, but realize that what I write is only a small portion, like one sand grain on a beach, of the Pantanal’s fullness.

I have come to the Pantanal to see wildlife and in particular, I am eager to see a capybara. I have seen pictures of these endearing creatures, dog-sized guinea pig type animals. I have heard of their gentle nature, their mellow personality. Their faces are like a hamster’s, but more open, and they have none of the cloying squeakiness of their smaller cousin’s nature. From pictures, I note that they are dignified, unobtrusive, at home on earth and in water, and very cute. I am in long distance enthrallment with capybaras. I hope, I hope I can see one!

We arrive at our lodge, a series of long buildings on stilts, connected by wooden and concrete walkways. Almost immediately, there are two lime-green parrots in the tree nearby, shouting “hey!” like a couple of rowdy kids. I am impressed. And as I walk across to the dining hall, I see it. My capybara. It stands elegant on the small grassy plain below, and obliviously munches on greenery. I run like a child towards it, not even able to utter a word in explanation to James, who asks, “what? what?”.

Beside the capybara, I stand. Tears fill my eyes and my heart is light. James catches up to me, chuckles and watches the capybara too. With a stubbed but proud nose, round belly, coarse wheat coloured fur, webbed feet and a square back, the capybara is everything I’d hoped for. There is a gentle proudness to this beast, a natural dignity that defies human explanation. We watch for quite some time as the capybara uproots small plants, treads the field with his webbed feet. He is aware of us, but not particularly interested. This is not the haughy snootiness of a cat, but the natural behaviour of a wild animal going about his business. He seems not to mind us, perhaps even feels pleasant about us by his side.

I find out soon after, that this capybara is a camp creature. Some time back, as a baby, the animal had broken its leg. The people at this camp had set the leg, nursed the infant capybara back to health. His appearance before the dining hall is quite regular. He has come back to the plain in front of the lodge every day since he was cared for. He even has a name – Choochooga.

I eat dinner quite content. I have seen a capybara, even sat beside him. After we confirm that the hand sized spider above James’ bed is not poisonous, I settle to sleep with sweet dreams…

Travel Highlights 4: Belem Day 3

September 15th, 2007

Another hot, humid day as we walk to the local research zoo. The research park/zoo opened in 1984, and includes lovely old buildings surrounded by rainforest. The sunlight barely reaches our skin as we walk through the natural canopy of the forest. Sweet, shy cat-sized rodents called cutia run across our path.

There are aquariums full of turtles, big and small, who just like in Dr. Suess’ book Horton Hears a Who, pile upon each other in shelled-back towers. In many aquariums, caiman (crocodiles) lay and swim with the turtles in a peaceful co-existence. There is a large, smooth, anta with a snorkeled nose and sharp pointy teeth. The anta seems gentle and mild mannered until a lithe green iguana stands in its path, and the large creature urgently stampedes towards the reptile. The iguana flees, and appears frightened but thrilled, like a teenager who runs from a heavy handed officer. We see several furry sloths in the trees above us, as still as the branches they curl upon.

We find a small pool with gigantic lily pads, larger than a car’s tires, and strange fuzzy slipper-like flowers. There are more animals to be seen: the impressive but lethargic spotted jaguar who meows like any domestic housecat, the vicious harpy eagles, and the giant river otter that moves like liquid.

After dinner (a per-kilo buffet affair), we order cupaucu gelato. We have been told that cupaucu is the tropical fruit to end all tropical fruits, and we are therefore curious. The fruit tastes powerfully like vanilla, nuts, fruit and a note of marzipan all in one. It is good, but unlike anything I’ve ever eaten. Its texture is gooey like a gummy worm.

Back at our hotel, we take the bar of laundry soap we bought and wash our clothes by hand in the sink. We feel proudly like world travellers now, ready for the banks of the Ganges or an African river. We hang our clothes on the railings of our room’s loft, and head for bed…

Travel Highlights 3: Belem Day 2

September 14th, 2007

Our plan is to walk to a nature park on the outskirts of the city. The hotel manager says we ought to take a taxi as the walk there is somewhat dangerous. I am restless, however, and intent on getting some exercise. He notes my stubbornness, and tells us not to take anything of value, not even the cheap shell necklace around my neck. And he tells us we should not walk home after three or four in the afternoon. With small quantities of cash in money belts, devoid of any jewellery, we brace ourselves and begin our walk.

We walk quickly, with purpose. I try to give an air of steely confidence, as if walking down this busy commercial street is something I do every day. I am happy to stride, content to watch Brazilians go about their daily lives while I try to remain unobtrusive. The final stretch of the walk is indeed more creepy. The busy commercial street leads to an almost deserted, extra wide, run down avenue. Most disconcerting is the lack of people. Dogs roam the street and lick at garbage strewn on the sidewalks. A rusted car with a built in stereo on its roof roars past us, techno music blares.

Finally we reach the park and breathe a short sigh of relief. The park is an oasis of nature. Water runs through the rock and tree lined pathways. There are several exhibits – an butterfly conservatory, an aviary, a lookout tower and a boat museum. We pass a small pond where the Amazon equivalent of ducks paddle though water, their songs a high pitch squeal rather than a “quack”. Tall, slender white birds with long bills tread elegantly on stilt legs across our path. A low gravelly burble emits from them, a sound that defies their sophisticated appearance. A little further on, a gigantic green iguana slithers on its belly across a metal fence, then moves liquidly towards us. Its tail curls proudly upwards, like a ringmaster’s whip. It’s a beautiful beast.

Lunch consists of a bold pureed corn stew with teeny shrimp. It is tasty, though its strong flavour builds throughout the meal until I can eat no more. After lunch, the butterfly conservatory delights us with multi-coloured winged creatures that flutter and flit. In the bird sanctuary, a guide tries his best to communicate the different species of birds. He is very helpful, and obviously loves his job. A very calm bird sits on his hand, and the guide urges us to gently stroke her purple feathers as she coos. Meanwhile, an aggressive little bird speeds after people’s shoes, pecks and pulls at rubber and fabric with her long, skinny crimson beak. We rush away from her, as we’re wearing sandals, and don’t want our skin abused.

We grab a snack of strange muffins that look like they are made out of little styrofoam balls. They are rubbery, and dense with a forceful taste of anise. Once again, the punchiness of the flavour is delectable, but I can not finish mine. James eats my leftovers.

We take a taxi to an ornate cathedral, only to discover (we should have remembered this from Europe) that because we are wearing shorts, we can not go inside. We watch outside as a mass takes place. On our way back from the cathedral, a torrential downpour catches us. We are happy to experience rain in the Amazon, and it is a welcome break from the driving heat.

For supper there is Tucupi, a regional dish of duck stewed in manioc leaves. Curious of Brazil’s national alchoholic drink, Caipirinha (Cap-ee-RIN-ya), I make the mistake of ordering one. Due to esophaugus problems, I have spent the better part of the year abstaining from alchohol. I think one drink really can’t do too much damage. The Caipirinha is delicious; refreshing and sweet. It is made out of caxaica, an alchohol derived from sugarcane itself, limes, and sugar. I quickly reel from its effects, and worry that I will make a fool of myself in front of the children at the table next to us. Upstairs to our room James leads me, where I am free to be the fool I am. “One caipirnha”, I think, “just one!”

All in all, it’s been a great day.

Travel Highlights 2: Belem, Day 1

September 14th, 2007

Pronounced, “BAY-leng”. The Amazon greets us as we embark off our plane with a tornado of sqawking electric blue birds flinging themselves into a nearby tree.

The entrance into the city, however, is grim. The streets are deserted with modern, characterless grungy, buildings. The only person I note is suspect; he sits high upon his flat roof in a lawnchair, stares at the empty streets below him. We pass a prostitute, red lips glaring in the cab’s headlights. Our taxi has no seatbelt, and the roads are in sore disrepair. We jostle around the interior of our speeding cab like a pair of dice. Our driver doesn’t speak english, and I despair as my trials at Portuguese fail to make an impact upon him. After many attempts to pronounce the name and address of our hotel, he quickly drops us, and our backpacks, in front of “Le Massillia”. But the door won’t open, and a group of men leer at us from the bar across the street. There is a moment of panic; we are in a city half way across the world, in a hostile-looking street, a group of stange men ogle us, we speak pathetic Portuguese, and we are certain to die. This just before we see the doorbell.

Gratefully inside, we barely take in our room before we plunge into bed and sleep. We wake, still exhausted from our whirlwind tour of Rio, the flight the night before, and continued jet lag from flying from Canada only two nights before. We force ourselves, with much crankiness, to the dining area for “le petit dejeuner” which ends at 10 am. Outside our room, the damp heat slaps us like some wet towel prank. General impressions of the hotel through sleepy eyes are that it’s beautiful. Everything seems a pleasant blur of wood, slate, palm trees, hammocks and blue sky. But the romance of the hotel and the fresh tropical fruit at breakfast does little to sweeten my foul mood. We stumble upstairs for bed once again.

Once (a little) more awake, we head out to see the city. The air is now blisteringly hot and oppressively humid, but we press on, determined not to let tiredness nor heat wilt us. Past hundreds of vendors who sell their wares on crumbling sidewalks, outside charming decaying colonial buildings, we walk to the docks. Here is the Amazon before us; as wide as a lake and chocolate milk brown. The rainforest across from us is just as I had hoped – thick and canopied.

Beside the docks is a remarkable market. Hundreds of small stalls burst with fruits and vegetables, fresh seafood and spices, aromatic food and merchandise. We wander the market, overwhelmed. Who, of the hundreds of people selling fresh, delicious produce, do we buy from? We settle on a merchant selling clusters of tiny bananas and packages of very local Brazil nuts. The bananas are sweeter and more fuller bodied than the versions we get imported to Canada, and the nuts mildly woody – nothing like the bland, stale ones I’ve tried back home.

Past the market, I begin to feel wretched again. A policeman whistles at us for walking on some grass, and exhaustion from heat, humidity and jet lag builds to a general state of wicked grumpiness. I barely see the charming buildings, the upright monuments and statues, the pleasant parks. I am hungry, and afraid that any more bananas will result in a case of urgently running to the washroom. We roam back and forth through nearby streets in search of something edible, but can find nothing but a small ice cream shop. I buy a pastry filled with I don’t know what, as does James. My pastry turns out to be a blend of savoury seafood. I pray my stomach can handle it.

Once again outside in the heat, my irritability increases. I smell rotting seafood and overripe fruit and watch filthy, matted dogs struggle over a piece of gristle as mean vulture-like birds circle overhead. The heat is a torment, a clamp upon me. “I want to go home! I hate this crumbling city with its millions of dingy busses and rusted cars crashing past me, its disgustingly dirty dogs, its smelly harbours and grizzled river birds. I hate this wretched country!”, I think as I motor, on foot, past people I’m sure only want to rob me of my stupid, undeserved North American wealth.

We enter a large pastel blue building in search of a bathroom. There is no bathroom, but we are drawn upstairs anyway, to its airy openness above the market, its windows open to the river and to the rainforest across. I stagger to a heavy wooden table, plunk into a sturdy chair and lay my head on the table. It was crazy, “louco”, I think, of us to come here to Brazil, where we know hardly speak Portuguese. I feel like a greasy exploitive gringo who only spreads frustration. My need to go to the bathroom has dissipated, but my need to talk is urgent. Verbal diarrhea ensues.

Its hard to be in a place we are so obviously different. Our far-awayness is evident to all by the pale colour of our skin, the practical plainness of our clothes, and the fact that our Portuguese is sub-par. Especially frustrating for me is not being able to converse with anyone. Every interaction is a struggle to communicate. I talk my frustrations away. After a trip to the washroom and a bottle of water, I am renewed. We head for some food.

Pirucu de Casaca is a blend of pirucu fish, manioc flours, coconut milk, palm oil and banana. It has a happy, funky (the good kind of funky) flavour. James has Manicoba, a strong, heavily smoked stew made from manioc leaves, with sausages and other unidentifiable meats. It’s the colour of blackened spinach, and its taste is reminiscent of cigarrettes. I am impressed with how much he eats, considering the dish tastes like vegetables and charcoal. After this, we treat ourselves to passionfruit and acai gelato. The passionfruit is startlingly refreshing, vibrant and yet soothing to the palate. The acai (ah-say-ee), a deep aubergine colour, is creamy, wheaty and full bodied. I like it a lot.

In the evening we go on a sunset cruise down the river. There is a mild breeze as an energetic couple shows us traditional Brazilian dancing and costumes. The two person band plays a samba tune, and James and I get up to dance in a circle with strangers. The sun sets magenta over the Amazon canopy, and I think, “What was all the fuss before about?”

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