Essence* of Brasil – 2002
(The title is inspired by a perfume ad Milton saw in a magazine during our flight back to Rio)
Below is a tale of the escapades and high adventure of four not so hapless travelers known as Milton, Jingli, Cindy and Charles, told through the eyes of Charles.
I don’t have time for this verbosity…take me to the pictures!
It was around 2am the night before our flight. I’d been up packing and talking to my roommate, who somehow convinced me to try pulling an all-nighter so I'd be really tired. His theory was that I’d sleep through most of the plane ride. It seemed reasonable so I gave it a go....after a bit of surfing on the web, I lasted until about 3:45am. The alarm rang at 7 and I found it surprisingly easy to get up. I thought I remembered to pack everything, but in my last minute rush, I somehow forgot to go to the ATM and there was about 11 bucks in my wallet. I figured I’d get cash at the airport.
We arrived at the airport almost 3 hours before our flight, which allowed us to change to the exit row seats. I never knew about this but it actually made a big difference in legroom. A 6 hour flight to Miami and another 8 hours put us in Rio around 9am. For some reason I forgot to get cash at the airport and there was still only 11 bucks in my wallet.
It was a bit intimidating to step off the plane into a foreign country, where we didn't know our way around and we didn't speak a word of Portuguese. After going through customs we went up to the main part of the arrivals terminal, where a man wearing some sort of badge approached us speaking broken English and asking if we needed help. Apparently he was offering to exchange dollars into reais (the currency used in Brazil) and as we looked at him suspiciously he kept pointing to his badge as if it was some sort of official seal. Eventually, Jingli and Cindy both exchanged 40 dollars for 112 reais, which was much less than the R$3.11 to $1 rate we had looked up earlier. The guy kept trying to get us to exchange more, insisting that we'd need it and that the banks were closed on the weekends. Luckily, Milton had informed us earlier not to exchange too much because he already had plenty. With my 11 bucks, I figured it wasn’t worth it. No problem, I’d find an ATM someplace and use my ATM or credit card.
After sorting out the cash, we searched for the way out of the building. We must have looked like aimless tourists, because a shady looking guy approached us and asked if we needed help. He wasn’t wearing an "official badge" so he was already a bit suspect. We finally figured out that he was a taxi driver and was offering a ride to the hotel. We consulted each other a bit and decided to take the cab for R$45, not knowing at the time that you should always use the meter on the taxi. Further, we tipped the guy another R$5, rounding the cost up to R$50. It's not customary to tip the cab drivers; rounding up to the nearest Real is sufficient. The drive through Rio was interesting; Rio is actually a very modern city, but you can tell that there are very poor parts of town. Another interesting sight was the abundance of political posters. By law, all citizens are required to vote so naturally politics are a big deal.
After checking in, we decided to hit the beach, which was 2 blocks down from our hotel. It was very warm and sunny outside and there were masses of people sunbathing and playing football (soccer) on the beach. The sand was very fine and the beaches were pretty clean. It's definitely what you would picture in your head. There were lots of well tanned, very fit people running around and lots of skimpy bikinis (fio dental in Portuguese...literally "dental floss"). We, however, stuck out like sore thumbs since we wore enough clothing to cover 20 Brazilians.
Walking the entire length of the beach, we decided to check out the old fort. There are 4 massive cannons that point out over the ocean ready to sink any enemy ships. After a brief tour, we posed for some pictures in front of the fort. Since it was so hot, I was persuaded to take off my shirt to pose for a picture. Immediately the guard started walking over and motioned me to put my shirt back on...definitely did not make any friends at this place.
It was a long walk back so we stopped for some fresh coconut juice. The guy whacked the coconut three times with a machete, stuck in a straw and handed me the coconut. We realized that it was still really early so we decided to explore the city by metro. The highlight of the city was the Catedral Metroplolitana. The industrial looking exterior hid its inner beauty. It's got 4 enormous stained glass windows that are colorful and radiant, but can only be seen from inside.
Throughout the city, we tired the various ATMs we passed and none of them accepted either card I had, wonderful. The rest of our city tour was pretty uneventful and after walking around the whole day, my heels were raw and bloodied from the new Tevas I have on....a lesson learned the hard way.
We finally got back to the hotel around 6:30, where we met up with Milton. After checking into our rooms, he pulled out a big stack of freshly minted 20 Real bills; he was here giving a talk and the Brazilian government was generous enough to give him some spending cash. The Banco De Milton was now in operation and I stopped worrying about how to find a working ATM.
With his newfound wealth, Milton generously treated us to dinner at The Palace, a churrascaria. I've never had so much meat in any one sitting. The waiters continuously came by slicing off succulent portions of meat. Pretty much all cuts of beef were available as well as chicken and sausages. We even had fresh salmon, maguro and hamachi sashimi.
After dinner we looked up a place for a samba show in a local entertainment guide. We got in a cab, showing the address to the driver, who seemed to understand. The ride itself was an adventure. Stoplights in Rio are only a suggestion and the lane dividers just decorations along the road. Driving through what looked like some pretty bad parts of town we arrived at a boarded up old building. Obviously, there wasn’t going to be samba show there. The back up plan was to go to Scala's, a place the waitress at the restaurant had suggested, but when we arrived, it said "Scala's Bingo" in bright neon lights. It was some sort of slot machine house. So much for the samba show, at least we got a tour of the city at night.
We went for a stroll along the beach after getting back around midnight, where we noticed the street vendors setting up shop. They were selling mostly small trinkets, t-shirts, beach towels and some paintings. We perused the goods, researching the prices so that we could haggle when we came back the following week. We finally got back at 2am and had the alarm set for a 5:30 sunrise wake up. This was just a prelude to the rest of the trip.
To my amazement, we actually managed to get up on time. Our room is right above the street and the din of the incessant traffic didn't make for a restful night.
The plan was to catch the local fishermen return with a day’s catch and watch them haul in the fish. Instead we saw a group of men launch a small boat into the ocean as the sunrise illuminated the horizon with a beautiful pink hue.
A 3 hour nap did us wonders before we set off to see Christo Rendentor on Corcovado. The cab offered to take us up, but the road was closed that day, which we discovered only after driving half way up and wasting an hour. On the tram ride up the steep mountainside, we talked with some French visitors who were in Rio investigating Brazil's social programs. I learned the term favela(slums), which would come in handy later. The favelas in Rio are very poor parts of town, mostly on the hillsides. The drug lords control the favelas and since they do not appreciate having their potential customers accosted, you probably wouldn’t get mugged there. However, if you’re at the wrong place at the wrong time and see something you aren’t supposed to, well they’ll shoot first and ask questions later.
The view atop Corcovado was simple amazing, it was a bit hazy but the panorama of Copacabana and Sugarloaf in the background gives one a better appreciation of the incredible terrain around Rio. Mountains literally rise up thousands of feet from the city and beaches below. The statue itself looms like a vigilant guardian over the city, looking like a ghostly apparition when lighted up at night.
Next, we spent a couple of hours at the Botanical gardens searching in vain for the giant lily pads. The garden was very peaceful, with its serene pools of water and fountains. There was a view of Corcovado in the background that seemed so distant.
A quick bite to eat at local fast food place and we were holding on for dear life in a thrilling taxi ride back to the airport. By taxi meter it was only R$32, a big difference from the R$50 we paid earlier. We made it just in time to check in and board our plane to Foz do Iguacu on the border between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay.
The plane arrived around 11pm, but we didn't see our ride at the terminal. He showed up about 5 minutes later as we were getting maps from the information both. Neri, the driver, was a friendly guy who spoke English fairly well. The drive to the pousada (guesthouse) was along a dark country road. It was a bit scary, as we had no idea if the guy was an axe murderer about to pull us over into the dark woods. Along the drive we asked about visiting the Argentinean side of the falls, and Neri explained that it's quite an ordeal to catch the right buses, but that he was taking a group of people and would take us for R$30 a piece which included the entrance fee. It seemed fair so we agreed.
As we entered town, we made a couple of turns along roads that reminded me of the pavés (cobblestone roads) of Europe. We pulled up to a prison like gate and Neri honked the horn 2 times. Our host, Fabio, came out to greet us, shaking hands with Neri. The inside yard of the pousada was really dark and there was a row of 6 or so doors along a single story building. It's quaint during the day, but a bit intimidating in the dark.
We awoke at 7:45am. The place really does look a lot nicer and more inviting during the day. Fabio and his family were really friendly and we saw pictures of his many travels posted on the walls.
We set out for the Argentinean side of the falls around 8:30am along with 6 other people mostly from Spain. It wasn't a group tour so we were free to go on our own once we reached the park. It took about 40 minutes to get to the park entrance, passing through the border along the way. When we got to the park the guides gave a brief explanation of the activities. There were a variety of options available and we decided to go for the rigid raft option that included a jeep ride through the jungle to the raft launch point. On the jeep ride the guide pointed out various species of trees, including the rosewood tree, which is prized for its extracts. It's used in many perfumes. She also told us about the palmito trees (that produce the heart of palms). They really are the heart, because when they are harvested the rest of the tree dies. There are not enough palmito trees in Brazil so most of the palm hearts are imported from Southeast Asia. At the end of the jeep ride, we saw dozens of colorful butterflies. Many opened up to reveal vibrant shades of red, orange and blue. There were even some semi-translucent butterflies that camouflaged themselves in the foliage.
The raft ride was quite exhilarating...it was motorized and allowed us to head upstream towards the falls at a pretty good clip. Being semi-rigid, it flew over the class 4 like rapids easily. The park actually contains a system of falls, many of them cascading down to the river. They are arguably the most majestic and grand falls in the world. They were more impressive than Niagara, but I’ll weigh in after I see Victoria Falls. After putting all of our belongings in plastic bags the boat driver took us underneath some of the smaller falls, drenching us. We did this a total of 3 times. Underneath the falls, we were completely enveloped by white water and it was impossible to open my eyes as the water rushed everywhere.
The boat dropped us off at the lower circuit, where we explored Isla San Martin, a small isolated piece of land with some hiking trails. The lookout point put us right in front of the falls, where we could clearly see the green tint of the water. In the high water season, it changes to a brown shade as more sediment is carried by the torrents of water. The mists continually water the plants creating a lush tropical backdrop for the falls, complete with rainbows; it was quite a site. Finishing up the lower circuit we saw some playful tapirs on the catwalks, they were like raccoons with big snouts. They waddled right up to us, inquisitively, but we refrained from giving them any food. After a quick lunch, we completed the upper circuit. The views from the top were nice but not quite as spectacular.
Since there’s only one trail that's open to the public, we decided to explore it. Most of the park is for researchers only and special grants are required for access. We had estimated that we had enough time, budgeting 50 min out and 50 min back. But it took us a little longer than expected. We were the last ones out of the park at dusk, much to the dismay of our driver and the rest of our group. He joked that they thought the jaguars had gotten to us. My feet were aching after hiking all day, and I was looking forward to getting food. While getting our passports stamped on the way back, the border patrol approached the van and motioned for us to open the door. With a stern look, he told us that we had to pay a fine for being late to cross the border (it was 7:01, one minute over the deadline). My active imagination had the corrupt local police detaining us in jail and strip-searching us. But before we got too worried, we found out that the fine was R$3, total, which is only a buck.
Dinner at Rafain was churrasco with a show. It's pretty touristy with some local songs and dances including tango, samba and the Brazilian martial art, Capoeira. There was a table of cute and extremely tall girls who seemed to always get picked for audience participation.
We decided to take a bus to the Brazilian side since it was a lot closer. Along the way, there was a traffic jam and we were stopped for about 20 minutes while they cleared an accident up the road. There seems to be a lot of traffic fatalities in Brazil and when the road finally cleared we saw a car on the side of the road that looked like it had been through the crusher at the junkyard. It must have rolled because all sides of it were crumpled up like tin foil. It would be a miracle if the driver survived.
The Brazilian side is very modern but it felt a bit commercialized, much like Disneyland. It's got a modern visitor’s center with videos playing and there is a double-decker bus ride to the trailhead. On the trail itself, we headed directly to the end, bypassing the tour groups and stragglers. This really paid off as we made it to the observation deck before the crowds showed up. The Brazilian side has better views of the falls. It's much easier to appreciate the scope and grandeur of the falls from this side.
At Garaganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), water rushes from everywhere around a horseshoe shaped chasm. The mists generated from the massive volumes of water flowing over the precipice helped to cool us down and while we peered into the depths of the falls, we couldn’t see the bottom as it was enshrouded in a veil of mist. Local legend has it that the falls were created many years ago. Each year the Guarani Indians had to sacrifice the most beautiful girl to the serpent god, Bol. One year a brave tribe leader rescued the girl but while making their escape the serpent became furious and broke the river with his back. The two young Indians were transformed into trees that became the ends of a rainbow you can see at the upper edge of the falls. The snake then sank back into the Devil's throat.
Heading back, I needed to hit the banheiro (bathroom), but the only thing in sight was the Tropical Das Cataratas, an Eco-Resort hotel ($$$). We still had lots of time left, so I suggested we explore a little and we headed off to the gardens. We found ourselves at the pool, which was picture perfect with palm trees and a cabana. We walked out to one of the poolside tables, a little worried that they’d kick us out. After a few minutes of debate, I decided to jump in for swim. What the heck, it's probably not a criminal offense I thought. After a few laps and a dive off the board, I got out feeling rejuvenated. This inspired Cindy to jump in too. Later after drying off and emboldened by the swim, I motioned to the cabana boy and asked if we could order drinks. He proceeded to ask us for a card. Thinking he meant the room card to prove we were guests, in broken Portuguese and English I told him our parents have it. (It seemed like a good story at the time) He asked if we would pay by cash and I said yes. I asked about the "sunrise" which I saw advertised in the lobby as the drink of the month, but he looked at me with confusion. So I ended up ordering a fruity cocktail and Cindy got the same, sem alcool (without alcohol). It was the most relaxing 2 hours of the trip, and we reluctantly forced ourselves to leave as we hadn’t eaten lunch and we still wanted to see the aviary park.
The aviary park was a pleasant surprise. I've never seen so many colorful toucans, macaws, flamingos, peacocks, cranes and even ostriches. We also saw some large iguanas and caiman. In the butterfly and hummingbird enclosure, I kept hearing the beating of the hummingbirds’ wings, feeling them dart by. It was only a fleeting glimpse, as they don't stay in one place for very long. I wonder how they sleep? I carefully set up my camera in action mode and waited patiently at the feeder for them to stop by. After about 20 tries I finally got a couple good shots. On our way out, one of the staff let us hold a blue, yellow and green macaw. The thing was humongous but gentle and playful.
It was already 4pm when we headed back to explore the central part of the city. Our search for the Vero Verde restaurant (recommended by Fabio) was fruitless, as it closes at 3. But fortuitously we had spotted a café earlier and noted it as a back up. The café, Barbarela, is like a Jamba juice with a sandwich shop. We ordered chicken salad sandwiches, and some fruit smoothies. It was one of the best meals we had in Brazil and was only R$5.25, or $1.50 each.
When we stopped by the visitor's center, it was getting close to sunset. There wasn’t much we could do since most places were closed. Cindy suggested we walk down to the riverside to catch the sunset, since it was only 3 blocks away. Along the way we passed by a military fort that was gated off, there were 2 soldiers and they came out to talk to us. I couldn’t understand a word they were saying and after a minute or so we nod and started on our way as they headed back inside the fort. We got about 20 feet down the road, when one of them came out again, this time a little more animated. Of all the Portuguese words that flew by, I picked out "perigroso" and "favela" as he pointed towards the river. Eventually he said "danger" and we got the picture. I decided we should turn around and get the heck out of there. I was probably overreacting but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Furthermore, when a military guard tells you not to go some place, it's probably wise to heed his advice.
It's sundown at this point so we decided to head back. After stopping at the supermarket, it was definitely dark outside. It was less than 2 miles back to the pousada, so it seemed reasonable to hoof it. Walking back, we had a good idea how to get back but the map we had lacked details of our particular street. Already made paranoid from our earlier experience, we spotted a soldier in full camouflage that had been behind us for a while. In an attempt to lose him, we pretended to stop at an ice cream place and he continued on ahead of us. We continued walking through some dimly lit neighborhood streets and finally arrived at the blue gate of the pousada with a sigh of relief.
It was only 7pm or so, and we tried to figure out something to do. They had Internet access so I logged in to check e-mails and to see what was going on in the states. It felt like we were gone for weeks but it had only been 4 days. Meanwhile, Cindy was getting private concert from Sam who's the owner of the pousada. This guy's pretty amazing. He started off working for Warner Brothers in Brazil, and is now retired at around 70 years old. His sons are well educated, one works for Microsoft in São Paulo, one's a doctor and the other, Fabio, works in town at the immigration office and helps to take care of the pousada. About 5 years ago Sam decided to learn the violin. Sometimes taking as long as a year per song, he was able to learn and play by ear to many of his favorite classical piano pieces. It's pretty incredible. He can play hundreds of songs just from memory.
We had to get up at 5am for the ride to the airport. This began 4 consecutive days of getting up at sunrise. We flew into Manaus via São Paulo and before the plane landed, I snapped a few quick aerial shots of the Amazon. Two large rivers, the Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoes, combine to form the Amazon at Manaus, the Rio Negro is much darker than the Solimoes and they mix slowly at the “meeting of the waters.”
The airport terminal is pretty much an indoor shopping mall and after we found our tour operator we got some gelado. Inside the air-conditioned terminal you don't realize you’re just one step away from being smacked in the face with sauna like heat and humidity. It was probably in the mid nineties, not much hotter than it gets in San Jose. But with the humidity, as soon as you do any sort of physical activity, like open your eyelids, you're drenched in sweat.
The day was pretty much spent on the plane ride and the river ferry from Manaus to the Ariau lodge. After a long ferry ride, we arrived at the lodge and checked-in; they asked if we wanted to upgrade to AC, which we declined. The lodge is extremely well equipped and very modern for being in the middle of the jungle, complete with several helipads. It's definitely on the touristy side of the spectrum. The lodge itself comprises a system of circular shaped buildings interlinked by a series of walkways. It's not really "tree top" in the sense of a tree house, although I believe you can upgrade to something like that. Each floor of the 5-floor building is cut up like a pie. The rooms are basically triangular shaped with the door at the narrow part and the bathroom at the back. We checked out our room and noted that it was hotter in the room than it was outside! “How the heck am I gonna get any sleep?” I thought.
The heat and humidity made us feel listless and lethargic so we lackadaisically strolled the catwalks and watched the sunset. The sunset on the Amazon was amazing. It's not really that there aren't beautiful sunsets or sunrises in the bay area, there are plenty. But when was the last time you really stopped to appreciate one? Watching the sun set into the horizon at twilight, the sky glowed an intense orange hue. The colors did seem a lot more vivid, maybe it was due to the unpolluted sky.
After dinner we gave in and asked to upgrade to AC rooms, it costs $25 per night extra but it was well worth it, especially since we would end up retreating to our rooms for power naps during the hottest parts of the day. The new room was much more spacious and ironically it felt very cold.
Our first nights activity was caiman spotting, it doesn't sound very impressive at first but it was pretty exciting. The night was pretty much pitch black and the stars, without the pollution of city lights, sparkled brightly in the sky. The brightest thing in the sky was Venus, but I didn’t recognize much else since we were in the southern hemisphere. The guide and boatman told us to be quiet so as not to frighten away the caiman while they continually scanned the shoreline with a bright spotlight. Things got pretty uneventful but after about 20 minutes, we drifted into the grass-covered shoreline and the boatman leapt off the front of the canoe, emerging with a caiman held tightly by the neck and tail! The guide gave a brief show and tell, explaining various facts about caiman. They have 2 sets of eyelids, one is transparent and allows them to see while swimming underwater. They also have a valve that covers the back of their throats to prevent water from entering. Lastly they can get to be as large as 20 feet! We all got a chance to hold the caiman, since it was only a bit over 3 feet long. The guide explained that if it were any bigger it would be impossible for one man to open its jaws if it clamped down on your arm. When we finally set it free, it took a few seconds for it to adjust to the water and its surroundings and then it darted off in the blink of an eye.
Our guide's name was Moreno. This guy is the epitome of following one's childhood dreams. When he was a 6-year-old boy in Italy, he read about the Amazon and decided that’s where he'd live one day. He came to the Amazon about 4 years ago at the age of 36. Having strong political opinions on the region and its future, his is very passionate about the Amazon, and is actually a lot more knowledgeable than many of the locals. His outspokenness, while entertaining for us, gets him into trouble with the lodge's management. He tells us that they keep him around only because he can speak 5 languages. We were lucky to have him as a guide.
The second day, we went for a jungle trek. Even though we were on a trail, the density of the foliage was incredible. It would be impossible to get anywhere without hacking for hours with a machete if we weren't on trail. Moreno explained to us that if you know what you’re doing, you only need a machete for survival in the jungle. Along the hike, he stopped to explain the various medicinal plants in the Amazon. While a generally accepted theory for their discovery is through serendipitous means or trial and error, Moreno offered another explanation. The natives say they divined the information from the jungle spirits when in a hallucinogenic state. Their belief system is apparently so strong that in their culture, it's the man who experiences the pain during childbirth. The man is bed ridden right before and after a woman gives birth. She has to take care of him and goes back to her daily activities as soon as the child is born, while the man recovers.
He had many stories about the natives. Most were quite interesting. For example, instead of using sutures, the natives allow ants with large pinchers to bite their cuts. They then break off the heads, sealing the wound and lasting until they are healed. Later on we encountered some of the largest ants in the world. They are over an inch long and their bites can cause pain for 24 hours. Moreno explained that there is a local ritual for young boys. They have to stick their hands in a box full of the ants and subject themselves to at least 20 bites before they can become men. Supposedly this also strengthens their immune system. Moreno told us he has purposely allowed himself to be bitten several hundred times. In addition to the giant ants, we encountered a lightening fast snake that slithered across the trail before Moreno could catch it and some colorful longhorn beetles.
The jungle we trekked through is actually the secondary forest, the primordial forest long ago clear cut from this area of the Amazon. It is only 20-30 years old and doesn't quite have the depth of variety as the primary forest. Each time the forest is clear-cut, only certain species of plants survive. Clear cutting transforms the nutrient rich soil into clay that cannot sustain as much plant life. If the clear cutting is not stopped or controlled, the entire region could become a barren desert in 20-30 years. It's really interesting to hear that although the Amazon contains the greatest variety of plant life in the world, you seldom see 2 of the same plants in one area. This is mostly due to parasitic organisms that feed off the plants.
After a nap, the afternoon’s event was a river tour with a stop for swimming in the river. The Rio Negro is intensely dark due to the minerals of the region, if you put your hand in you wouldn't be able to see it a foot below the surface of the water. The mineral content of the water also makes it acidic, with PH of around 4.5. For this reason, animal life is not very abundant, but neither are the mosquitoes. On the canoe ride we asked if the dolphins are really pink and where we can see them. Moreno confirmed that they are indeed pink and explained that there are 2 kinds of dolphins. There are the benevolent gray dolphins that will help you out if your canoe is stranded and then there are the mischievous and sometimes malevolent pink dolphins, which will sink your stranded canoe. In fact, there is a legend of a pink dolphin that can transform himself into a man. He turns into a man wearing an all white suit complete with a hat, to cover up his blowhole. This mysterious man in white seeks out and seduces the prettiest girl in the village and 9 months later, she has a kid. This is the folklore behind the dolphins, but Moreno told us that there are actually birth certificates where the father is named as the dolphin. The other legend is that if a married woman sees a dolphin jump 3 times in secession, she will be windowed within a year. If a single woman sees the same, see will be married within a year.
After dinner was the nighttime tour of the natives' village where we were invited to attended some of their ceremonies. Moreno told us that they are some of the last pureblooded indigenous people, that most everyone else is mixed blood, as their children are and will be. At the end of the ceremony we were invited to sample their day’s catch, which consisted of caiman. It really does taste like chicken, the texture and the flavor are almost indistinguishable. Maybe we are in the Matrix. Next, we all took turns pretending to smoke the pipe and posing with the natives.
Another pre-dawn wake up and we were off to see the sunrise. The water was a lot choppier on the wide part of the river. Before the sun rose the sky was a gradient from dark blue to bright pink. Watching the sunrise from a canoe floating on a river in the middle of the world's largest rain forest was definitely a unique experience.
The day's activity was a visit to an Acajatuba village. The region is named after the cashew nut (caju) but there were lots of Brazil nut trees as well. The Brazil nut tree is actually quite lethal. The nuts are like mini bowling balls, weighing up to 4 pounds and a little larger than a tennis ball. We the wind picks up, they can fall from the tops of the tall trees onto unsuspecting victims below. In the times of the conquistadors, the enemies were blindfolded and made to walk beneath these trees, they would hear the thuds of the nuts dropping to the ground and wonder when their number was up.
There were a few rubber trees near the village as it used to be a plantation and Moreno gave us a brief history lesson on the rubber boom of Brazil. At the time, the main consumer of rubber was Western Europe, especially Britain. The rubber tree was indigenous and exclusive to Brazil. There was a monopoly on latex. It was an entire industry and many robber barons profited from it. Britain did not want to be at the mercy of Brazil for its latex, so one year about 70,000 seeds were taken out of the country. The seeds survived the 2 month voyage by sea, but the parasites did not. The saplings were transported from the botanical gardens in England to its tropical colonies in Southeast Asia, where they thrived and flourished. Thus ended the Brazilian rubber monopoly. Today most rubber products are synthetic, but natural latex is still the best in many applications.
Moreno also told the brutal history of slavery in the area. Slaves were brought from Africa as in the states, but the natives of the region were treated much worse. Many of them were tortured or used as "game" in hunting expeditions put on by the Europeans. This brutality is not a recount of the history of the area, since it occurs even today. Land rights are granted only if an area is uninhabited. While no one will acknowledge this, sometimes the natives are poisoned or mysteriously disappear and in a couple of years when the area is clear, they can purchase the land, “legally.”
The village itself is fairly modern, complete with 3 churches, a small hospital, a bar and gift shop. They are mostly small structures, some made of concrete and brick. There are about 70 people living there and the amenities include T.V. during parts of the day. There is also a school but not many of them will receive more than an elementary education. The families are large, with up to 8 or 9 children. There are no 401K plans here, so the kids have to take care of the elders. Some of the kids will not survive and some will go away to the cities, so it's imperative to have many children.
In the afternoon, we did some Piranha fishing. Using simple fishing poles, we used beef hearts as bait. The line is about 4 feet long and all we had to do was drop the baited hook into the water. They are not quite as voracious as you see in the movies, but they definitely bite at anything with blood. It's was bit frustrating at first; you can feel them nibbling away but when you pull out the hook, the bait's gone. After several pieces of bait I was still coming up empty while 3 or 4 others in the boat were pulling up fish. Finally after we moved to a second spot, I hooked one. They were vibrantly colored with bright reddish and orange bellies. There are 2 kinds, a plain black species and ones with red bellies. The ones we caught were pretty small, only a few inches, but they can get pretty big, up to 12 inches long or so. After taking a picture, the boatman came by to unhook the fish and toss it back. He also demonstrated the razor sharp teeth by having them bite cleanly through a leaf. They are pretty dumb creatures, biting at anything in front of them and I'm pretty sure we were catching the same ones over and over after being tossed back.
The last day is pretty uneventful, a welcomed break. We woke up at sunrise and climbed one of the observation towers. Our rooms were so cold, that the lens on our cameras fogged up and we finally figured out why our other pictures were so blurry. From the tower we spotted several playful dolphins in the water near the lodge. On the way down from the tower, Cindy spotted a tarantula the size of a fist. It didn’t bother us and nonchalantly crawled off after Milton poked it. We were exploring the catwalks a little more when we were attacked by giant neon colored slug like creatures. After a fierce battle, I was the only survivor and I had to make a quick getaway via the jaguar mobile.
We stopped at the Manaus Opera House on the way back to the airport. The architectural elements were borrowed from Western Europe, and the ceiling even depicts the four legs of the Eiffel Tower. Most of the materials were imported, so construction was expensive and took a long time.
We flew into a rain soaked Rio, grateful that we enjoyed good weather most of our trip. Among the amenities of the hotel were several sodas in the fridge, a small bottle of whiskey and a 3 pack of condoms...what kind of seedy place was this? After we took showers and kicked back for a bit, we headed out in search of the discos and Frank's Club for umm..."a show." We ended up at HELP Discotheque in front of Copacabana. This place was pretty seedy, most of the women there were "professionals" and there were many "negotiations" taking place. It seemed like we were the only tourists there just to dance and hang out. We left the place around 2:50am, and to our surprise one of the local juice bars was still open. I was pretty much famished at this point so we ordered some juice and a couple of hamburgers. It was too late to make it to Frank's so we headed back and crashed.
This was our last day in Rio. The plan was to spend most of the day shopping and relaxing. It was still raining and our first stop was the outdoor market. It was pretty much a flea market with people selling various trinkets ranging from paintings and sculptures to leather goods similar what we saw at Copacabana the first night. We also hit the shopping mall in Barra de Tijuca. This place was the most enormous mall I've ever seen. The entire district is pretty much devoted to shopping malls and new construction is still taking place. Food and clothes in Rio are definitely cheap. I had a grilled salmon and seafood pasta lunch for about 3 dollars. We only cover about a third of the mall before we had to leave to see Sugarloaf.
The original plan was to be at the top of Sugarloaf for sunset. With the dreary and overcast sky there wasn’t much of a sunset, but the cityscapes at night were spectacular. Copacabana was brightly lit below and Christo Redentor glowed atop Corcovado in the background.
Then we were off to the airport to begin the flight home. Security seemed a lot more heightened since it was now in September. There was even a foot and mouth check in Miami. I spent 6 of my 11 bucks buying some chocolate at the duty free shops in Rio and then back in San Jose I spent my last 5 bucks at the A and J restaurant. Perfect.