Trip Start Sep 09, 2006
113Trip End Aug 18, 2010
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During the week you'll almost have the place to yourself, unless you're unlucky enough to coincide with one of the periodic invasions by hundreds of elderly tourists from a cruise ship docked in the nearby port city, Santarem. Nonetheless, the mere utterance of the word "beach" consistently seemed to produced a sense of wonderment in us, since we were on a freshwater river bank approximately 800kms from the ocean!
After arriving by plane from Sao Luis to the nearby city of Santarem, we hopped on a local bus and headed 1 hour south to Alter do Chao. Our first order of business was to spend a few days relaxing at the beaches,'cause, well, you just 'gotta relax at beaches wherever you find them. A few days later we set up a small day trip with a local agency to check out an animal conservation project situated on the nearby lagoon. We headed off in the morning with Luis on a motorized canoe. Luis was a local 19 year old who lives in the community and does guiding to practically supplement his Ecology degree program at a University in Santarem. He was happy to practice his English with us and was keen in showing us a good time.
The conservation project that we were being introduced to was for the protection and revitalization of the endangered Peixe Boi (lit. "Fish Cow"), or, in English, Amazonian Manatee. Manatees are gentle, plant-eating mammals with flippers and a rubbery skin, almost like a sea-lion. The Amazonian variety is the only manatee that lives exclusively in freshwater and is one of the largest creatures of the Amazonian watershed. They are vulnerable to extinction, mainly from illegal hunting and loss of habitat.. Termed, Projeto Pexi Boi, the project´s primary goal is to protect orphaned manatees lost in the nearby rivers, educate indigenous communities so as to prevent poaching of the adult species, and repopulate the species back into its natural environment.
Our day was spent observing about 6 orphans that were saved by the foundation and brought to the far end of the lagoon near Alter do Chao where the project´s research station is located. We arrived at the station and got a chance to see the animal close up during feeding time (they eat river plants and drink milk out of a baby bottle!). Afterward, we were fortunate enough to meet the head of the project, Jairu, an eccentric crazy jungle man who is deeply fond of the creature and of nature. Jairu offered to take us around the research station, built on stilts and platforms in the forest, and explain details of the foundation´s efforts including a lesson on Peixe Boi behaviour. He spent the next few hours passionately explaining things in Portuguese, while Reeshma and Luis tried their best to come to an understanding in English. We managed to get the gist of his passion and were happy to have learned quite a few things about one of the many issues facing the animals of the Amazon.
At sunset, we bid farewell to the Fish Cows and to Jairu, thanking him for the educational experience. The 4 of us took a moment to gaze at the magnificent colors that were dancing in the sky during this time, and he looked at us solemnly to mention that he has chosen this place for life and research because it is in complete balance of natural sounds, smells, and setting. We agreed and reassured him that it´s everyone´s responsibility to protect the lungs of the Earth.
A couple of days later we decided to venture off on our first excursion into the Amazon jungle. We set off to trek through a the Tapajos National Forest (a primary protected forest in the Amazon, named FLONA - Brazil's first national forest in which the resident population practice timber management on a grand scale.) situated on the banks of the Rio Tapajos, 30km south of Alter do Chao accessible by boat. Along with a cook, our guide Luis, and the boat captain, the two of us and a Dutch man named Ron boarded a 25 passenger riverboat, equipped with kitchen, bathroom, and hammocks. The journey to the protected area was quite enjoyable as we managed to spot a few dolphins and were able to witness the immense size of an Amazonian tributary. The Tapajos was so wide that at times we could barely spot the horizon on the other side of the bank. To our eyes, it felt as if we were journeying on a massive lake or sea.
Our first stop was the indigenous village of Jamaracua just inside the boundary of the protected area. Here we met Jeneus, a local guide who took us canoeing upstream on a narrow channel through tranquil waters laden with lotus pads and lotus flowers, surrounded by herons, and mossy tree trunks. It was one of the most serene and peaceful moments we´ve ever experienced. Then we jumped into the icy water, and snorkeled all the way downstream, which required minimal effort as we were easily pushed along by the strong current of the river channel. It was an amazing and feeling being transported by the force of a river, and being able to see the plant and animal life beneath the surface. We were astonished by the number of baby fish and the root lengths of lotus plants drifting back and forth in the calm pools that form throughout the course of the river.
We then visited the indigenous village where Jeneus lived, and learned how the villagers extract latex from the rubber trees that abound the land from which they earn a living.
On the agenda for the next day was an 18km round-trip trek to see one of the most massive trees of the jungle, the "Samauma" (yes, its as big as it sounds!). We make our way through diverse flora and fauna, and Jo, our new guide, stops every 10 meters to demonstrate the multitude of medicinal remedies for headaches, stomach pain, inflammation, and sinus congestion. Guess what? We found VICKS on a tree in the rain forest! We put some of the white sticky stuff on our noses...astonishingly, it smells the same, feels the same!
We trodded carefully along the trail among beautiful towering trees whose fruits we snacked upon along the hike...(who needs Trail Mix in the rainforest??) Exotic birds such as toucans, macaws, parrots, and animals such as spider monkeys, jaguars and sloths ruled the land. Although we didn't see them, we heard their distinctive sounds echoing throughout the forest.
And alas, we made it to our final destination, the Samauma, 1200 years wise, a towering 84 meters tall, with a massive root system and a width that required 23 people linking arms to encircle it. We stood in awe of it, and listened as it breathed wisdom and commanded respect for Mother Nature.
Drenched in sweat from the rain forest humidity, we head back at a quick pace. Back at the boat, we spontaneously jump into the river for a much deserved bath in the Tapajos (careful to avoid any stingrays that we were warned exist in these waters). A peaceful, rewarding, and humbling experience.
Side note: Jorge is the owner of Mae Natureza, a tour operator in Alter de Chao which we used for both tours, and found his services to be exceptional and ecologically friendly. Jorge is very active in conservation and education in the Tapajos region of the Amazon, and has formed close ties with the surrounding indigenous communities who trust his cause. During our days in Alter, we spent time with Jorge and found immense inspiration in his words, his work, his humility and his love for Mother Earth. An avid photographer, Jorge had spent a fare amount of time on the Indian Subcontinent and we were kindly invited to view his spectacular personal gallery of Indian photography. Revealed behind his humble demenour, his philosophy (and nature) towards people and the environment stem from Ghandian ideals. His son has even taken the name "Ahimsa" - an eastern religious concept which advocates non-violence and a respect for all life. We had a special connection with the man, and to quote the words of our friend, "may Mother Nature guide and protect you".
Link: The Amazonian Manatee
(View this entry´s Slide Show/Photo Album above)