Where I Have Been Map

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Leaving for home

The alarm went off at precisely 5 am and I rolled over in my hammock and groaned, not only because of my lack of sleep… because that had been a consistent deficiently since the day I left for the Amazon, but also because today was the day I would have to say goodbye to all the friends I had made in the small town of Gurupá. As Cindy and I stumbled around in the dark, trying to roll our hammocks up and get our luggage together, our home stay dad told us everyone was already at the dock waiting for the boat. We set off on the cobble stone road towards the dock with our huge suitcases clogging and rolling behind us. When we finally made it to the dock the sun was just barely rising, and I noticed every other Brazilian carried a suitcase about the size of my backpack with them while our group’s luggage covered a third of the dock alone. Once again, in what seemed a theme of this trip, I felt very out of place.

It is funny, however, that in this small town where I felt so much like an outsider during the duration of my stay; my home stay family and friends still accepted me as one of them. As we said our goodbyes they handed me a DVD of the Indian Dance music videos to practice back in Knoxville… but little did they know that they gave me so much more than any Indian break down session could offer. Not only did they make me feel accepted in the time I desperately needed most, but they allowed me into their lives and let me experience living in a way so extremely different than what I was use to. They allowed me to learn something about each of them, and in turn learn a lot about myself. Now when I go back to Tennessee I not only always have the memories of my time with these people here, but I can also know that on the other side of the equator someone, somewhere remembers me.

Our home stay family in Gurupa

We boarded the boat and began on our journey, this time riding the entire way without a cabin and only our hammocks to comfort us. As much as I dreaded getting back on the boat, the actual experience was nothing compared to what we had arrived here on. I did not know if this was because we were riding a better boat back or simply because I had gotten use to living in a 3rd World setting by learning to look for the good in things that my once one-track mind had only seen the negative in. The bathrooms were still somewhat disgusting, the ants and roaches were still curiously crawling around random cracks in the wall, and the heat of the sun never loosened its intensity. However, as I sat in my hammock for hours upon hours and let the breeze from the river lull me into relaxation, I didn’t let the fact that my peripheral vision was blocked by two large objects, my parent’s rear ends in their hammocks, make me feel crowded or the sounds of babies crying and old ladies chatting loudly make me feel agitated. I realized this was all apart of life, and by letting go of my once somewhat high expectations of comfort… I opened up a whole new world of opportunities of happiness. I was able to smell the refreshing smell of the rainforest, watch the Amazon River fly past us, and take a break from life… deadlines, stresses, busy schedules… and just sway in my hammock and think.

I thought about going back home. I wondered what I would say when people would ask me, “How was your trip?” This simple question seems like it should have a simple answer, yet I cannot think of one word that can describe my 3 months here in Brazil.

“Great, Awesome, Amazing” none of these words even begin to describe my experience, for one reason because my trip was not always “Great” or “Awesome”. I had many moments of distress and frustration. I was constantly mentally stressed from trying to understand another language, I always felt like I was doing things wrong in trying to learn a different culture, and I struggled with living in poverty… something I thought I would never have to experience. But living with people who have less than I do made me not only appreciate what I have at home, but MUCH more than that made me appreciate what I had been missing at home… something I never would have realized if I hadn’t taken this trip. It took leaving my comfort zone to make me more welcoming to people of all different kinds. I got close to people who didn’t even speak the same language as I do, and realized friendship is more defined by actions than words. It took leaving my friends to make me appreciate the seemingly uneventful and stupid moments I have with them. It took having nothing to make me see that the most important things in life come from “nothing”. It took living strangely to make me see that no one is ever strange. They may live differently but their way of living makes sense. It took living with another family to make me see how important family really is. It took becoming my dad’s student to understand the meaning of teaching. He affects his students lives by opening their eyes to the world with every study abroad program he leads, and adding to that he opens the eyes of the people of Gurupá to another culture they would have never gotten the chance to experience. It took living a different life to understand the world. And it took becoming another person to understand myself.

So there is not one word that can describe this experience. Especially when added to that all the amazing sights I have seen and things I have gotten to do. I have checked off so many things on my life’s “To Do” list, and even added a few check marks I would have never even considered in my lifetime… such as riding in a canoe in the rainforest during a tropical storm or mastering surfing down a sand dune on a piece of wood.

“Great, Awesome, Rewarding, Exotic”… Since not one of these words can fully describe these last 3 months, I guess the only correct answer that can sufficiently and wholly describe living a life completely unlike my own and explain the question “How was your trip?’ would be…

It is something you have to experience yourself. And I hope everyone gets the chance to.

Sick Simon

I was in a deep sleep in my hammock when I heard the first echo of a firework about a block away. I didn’t know how long I’d been asleep since I had accidentally drifted off while Cindy was reading late into the night. I heard another explosion and was wide-awake by then, so I opened my eyes and saw only darkness. For a moment I considered that the electricity had gone out in the whole town… again. That had happened just earlier in the day, I was watching an Indian dance video with the little kids of my home stay family, but when they left to go to the store I found myself continuing to watch this video intently, and was upset when the picture suddenly turned black right as I was about to learn a dance move that looked as if the guy was mimicking a chicken with tourettes dancing like MC Hammer.

I stumbled around the dark house until I finally found a candle. Cindy had woken up from a nap by that time and we both looked outside and saw that the electricity had gone out everywhere, and as twilight was ending quickly the whole town was minutes away from being left in the absolute dark. Cindy and I watched our street to see if this would be like at home where the guys in the cherry pickers would come to fix the electric line that had apparently fallen not far from our house. The cherry picker never came, but two guys that lived across the street did come, and they were carrying a ladder. They climbed up onto the roof of a house and fixed the wire with their bare hands and a pair of pliers. When the lights flickered back on our whole street cheered and someone set off fireworks for celebration.

As I heard third firework set off while starring into the dark in my hammock, I considered that the guys had fixed the electricity once again. But as the lights above me never suddenly turned on, I assumed I had just been sleeping for longer than I thought. Sure enough, I looked at the clock and it was 5am… so why in the world were they setting off fireworks? My question was answered almost immediately as I heard excited knocks on our door and was greeted by our home stay dad who told us to come outside. I groggily mumbled “ok”, got dressed, and stumbled outside only to find a band serenading our house. It was then I remembered our family telling us earlier about the St. Ann festival where the local Catholic church picks a few families and parades from house to house early in the morning to sing the St. Ann song and set off fireworks. It was apparently an honor that our family got picked, so Cindy and I continued the parade with them and tried to sing along best we could as the sun was just beginning to rise. We ended our parade at the church, where we sang one final song, then soon after attended mass.

When we finally made it back home it was only 10 am so we ate breakfast, something I will miss very much when I got back home considering I eat fresh bread, fruit picked from the trees right outside, and delicious Brazilian coffee every single morning. The only meal that can top breakfasts are Brazilian chuhascarias, or cook-outs. Instead of hot dogs and hamburgers,, they grill juicy steaks and meat. We recently went to a chuhascaria of my dad’s new friend Jean Marie. He is an anthropologist from France that did research in Gurupa years ago and married a girl from the town. Now, years later, he is retired and lives with his wife and two kids in his privately own area in the jungle. The youngest daughter, Gabrielle, at age 8 gets to have a childhood most kids dream about, waking up every morning and having a jungle as your playground.
As we sat by the Amazon River and enjoyed our meal, I picked out at least 3 wandering ants that had crawled on my plate. Living in the jungle, you have to get use to the fact that you are now living in the wild animal’s home. I don’t know how many ants I have been bitten by and accidentally eaten, but it is something you have to learn to get use to considering they are not going to go away anytime soon. What you have to be careful of is making sure you don’t get sick from eating or drinking something that has been contaminated by a harmful bug or bacteria. This is something one student, Simon, had to learn the hard way.
It was his birthday that day, so my mom, dad, sister and I made our way to his home stay to bring him a present. When we walked through the door we were surprised to not see Simon with a birthday hat on blowing through a party horn, but instead laying in his bed with wet towels over his head looking miserable.
He had started to feel bad around 2 am, after they had gone out for his birthday. By the time he got back home he had a fever of 103 degrees and his home stay mom called a doctor as soon as she could. The doctor came the next morning and said it was something he had consumed, what he guessed came from a dirty glass from the bar that might have been washed with unclean water. In order to keep him hydrated the doctor decided the best move would be to give him a shot of IV liquid. Simon’s home stay mom, also a nurse, got the needle ready and went into his room. Since it is difficult for Gurupa to get the medical supplies they need, they had to use perfume instead of rubbing alcohol to disinfect Simon’s arm and liquor to disinfect the needle. They accidentally missed the vain the first time, but when they finally got the needle into Simon’s arm he started to feel better immediately.
Later that day Cindy, who is studying public health, told me that there are so many ways to get sick like that here if you are not careful. She said so many illnesses come from ticks off of animals on the streets, but as long as you don’t pet them you won’t get sick. I stayed silent after she said that. Cindy looked at me curiously and said “…you didn’t”. But I can’t help it if the wild monkeys here are so adorable. They had one in the back of an ice cream store, so one day when it grabbed my hand and licked the ice cream dripping off my cone, I didn’t think twice to pet its head and play with it. Cindy just rolled her eyes and handed me some hand sanitizer.


You don’t realize how close you get to a family other than your own until you consider that the time you have left with them is coming close to an end. With only 10 days left in Gurupa, I have begun to realize how much I am going to miss my Brazilian home stay family. The parents took my sister and I in and treated us not only as their own children, but as good friends as well. The mom has time and time again gone outside and picked mint leafs and made me homemade tea when my stomach wasn’t feeling right. The dad always greets us in the morning and sits down to talk to us in the afternoon and never gets frustrated with our lack of Portuguese language skills. The two nieces are constantly by our side, eager to learn English, pointing to stuff throughout the day and trying their best to pronounce the words in English. The little boy hides behind the wall while we eat breakfast and randomly pops his head out while making funny faces, trying to make us laugh. But the one person who has made the biggest impact on me is someone who stands just over 3 feet tall.

I never knew so much personality could fit inside a 3 year old, but since day one of dancing around the kitchen eating grapes, little Edwarda has made my days here so much more interesting. In the mornings I am usually awakened not by my sister's alarm clock that she sets for precisely 8 am, but by a high pitch scream growing louder as it comes to my door, then softer as it passes by. This does not happen just once, oh no, but repeatedly in the morning until I finally get up and open my door. This tiny little girl that was just making the treacherous screaming noise and running around like a mad man, suddenly stops running and looks at me with the most angelic and innocent face. She then runs over and hugs my leg saying my name “Ennie Ennie!!!” and then grabs my hand and leads me to the breakfast table.

While Cindy and I eat breakfast usually a show is put on for us. It starts out with Edwarda and her brother playing a game of tag, and Edwarda laughing hysterically every time her brother accidentally trips or hurts himself. She then comes up to the table and tells me a story, which I don’t understand a word of, and then as she is smiling saying, “I love you, sister!” I catch from the corner of my eye her tiny little hand crawling towards my bread. Her mom sees this and yells at her to not eat my food, which she responds by turning to her mom with her hands on her hips, flipping her hair back, and running off screaming after her brother.

Whenever a popular Indian song comes on the TV, Edwarda will stop whatever she is doing and start dancing. She can mimic the Indian music video to a T, even singing along to the Hindu words. When she dances she wants the world to watch. Cindy got up one time and tried to dance with her, but she did the boy’s part instead of the girl’s part. Edwarda laughed at her, rolled her eyes, and then tried to teach her the correct way to dance.

Edwarda loves Cindy, but also likes to slap her on occasions… and Cindy bruises easily. She has tried to do the same with me before, scratching my arm or pinching me then looking up at my reaction… when I ignore her, she shrugs her shoulders and gives me a hug instead.

One time we walked into our room and caught Edwarda on our bed with every thing in Cindy’s purse spilled out. When she saw us she quickly started putting everything back, smiling and saying, “Oh your purse fell, your purse fell.” And Cindy responded with a smile right back saying “I don’t think so!” But Edwarda can never be wrong. Since the first time my mom came over to visit our home stay family, Edwarda thought her name was Senora Peixe (Mrs. Fish). When her dad told her is was Senora PACE and not Peixe she shook her head, ran to the window and screamed out to my mom “Tchau Senora PEIXE!” so the whole street could hear. She then proceeded to run over to the kitchen table, grab her bowl of spaghetti, and sit underneath the table as she ate the noodles with both hands.

Despite the occasional slaps and screams, Edwarda can be very loving. Sometimes as I sit and watch TV she will run over and sit on my lap, hug my neck and say “Minha irma." or my sister. Today she did this as we sat together and watched Harry Potter on TV. This tiny little girl is so full of love that even though she has only known me for weeks, she treats me like her real sister. I hugged her close as she grabbed my arm and kissed it… and then she bit me.

It's not fun unless it's dangerous...

I have come to find that living in the Amazon comes with many physical challenges during the most seemingly normal days. Just in this past week I have fought off dehydration, sun poisoning, and the dangers of drowning. All of these risky events occurred while going out on “recreational” activities. Americans go to the movies when they are bored, Brazilians in the Amazon rainforest stare death in the face.

The first adventure was a trip to Igatape, a part of the river where the water is black, clear, and clean enough to swim in. Black and clear may sound contradictory, but that is what is so beautiful about this little watering hole. It feels almost as if you are swimming in a huge lake of sweet tea, and can see through the cool water all the way down to the tiny pebbles at your feet.

   Edwarda sunbathing in the "Sweet Tea" water

We were going to Igatape with the same family my parents had befriended many years ago. We had gone with them 4 years ago and had such a fun time playing tag and racing games with the little boys in the water that we were ready for a fun break from the unfailing task of doing research on Acai everyday. However, when we got to the families’ house, there were no cars or taxis around to take us to Igatape, which was about 15 miles away. What we saw instead was a single motorcycle waiting patiently for us in the middle of the dirt road.

My mom, terrified of all things small and fast moving, made the decision for us that we would instead walk to Igatape and meet the family there. Two of the boys decided to walk with us, and we set off on our journey. This seemed like a fine idea at the time, we had walked that long of a distance before, however like most things during this trip… we had greatly underestimated the intensity of the Amazon sun.

We started off walked at a quick pace, laughing and joking with every step. However soon the talking started to fade out, and was being replaced by heavy breathing and panting. My mom opened up her “Middle Tennessee State University” umbrella to protect herself from the sun, but it was about as helpful as wearing a poncho during a hazardous flood. The heat was coming from all directions.

As we continued to walk, beads of sweat started to trickle down my face and blur my vision, which was fine with me considering all I would be starring at would be the blinding refection of the sun bouncing off the orange dirt road. My shoulders and back of my neck started to tingle with a deep burning sensation. I glanced to the side and swore I saw smoke coming off of my crisping shoulders. Maybe it was just a mirage. Maybe the sun was already affecting my mind. I started to feel lightheaded and realized the only thing I had to drink that morning was a cup of black coffee. My tongue felt like chalk as the bitter taste of coffee was still very much present. I tried to focus on other things to keep my mind distracted from the discomfort of the heat. I tried to count how many footsteps I could hear in the crunching dirt and gravel road we were stumbling on. But when that started to put me to sleep I focused instead on my dad’s shirt. I tried to find images in his sweat stained back. I found a giraffe.

I looked up at the sky and saw a dozen buzzards circling right above us. They sensed something about to die. Considering we were the only living things for miles, I could easily assume it this group of staggering Americans they were waiting for. My lightheadedness started to increase, and I began to see white dots in my sun-affected eyes from starring at the sky too long. I told myself, “Don’t pass out, Annie, don’t pass out. That’s just what the buzzards are waiting for.” Right as my knees started to lock and vision start to fade to blackness, I saw in the distance a motorcycle coming to our rescue. The dad of the family turned his motorcycle to a stop beside us and kicked up some orange dirt that make the most beautiful dirt cloud I had ever seen, considering it was the reason I was not going to be eaten by buzzards. My sister and I threw our legs over the motorcycle and watched the boys and our parents, happily regaining their strength from a bundle of bananas they had bought. disappear as we sped off on the bumpy journey. I laughed to myself as I saw the boys still had smiles on their faces as they waved goodbye, barely affected by the sun. I didn’t understand how you could ever get use to this heat.

As the wind from the motorcycle started to hit my face I instantly started to feel better. My strength only increased when we finally made it to Igatape and plunged into the cool black, sweet tea water. We played games in the water for about an hour or so, and I realized that even though it had been so long since I last visited, nothing had changed. The little boys may have looked all grown up, but they were just the same as I had remembered… I realized this as a giant float bounced off the side of my head from the youngest boys attempt to slow me down during our race. When we were about to start the journey back home, we didn’t even have to start worrying about dehydration as a friendly man with a pick up truck pulled over and offered us a ride. We hopped in the back and were returned safely home.

During our next adventure, however, we were not as lucky to have a family of Brazilians that would never let anything bad happen to us, or friendly man driving a pick up. We were instead on our own, as the entire field study group decided to take two canoes up the Amazon rainforest with only ourselves paddling and the winding river decided our fate. We set off feeling like Pocahontas herself paddling and looking just around the river bend. The heat of the sun was masked by the hundreds of trees above us, only allowing a cool breeze to pass through their branches and acting as our own personal air conditioner. It didn’t take long for us to realize that paddling was hard work.

I was suddenly taken back to the days when I was a little girl and all I wanted to do was shovel snow off the driveway. One day, I woke up to a white, snow covered drive way and my dad handed me a shovel with a smirk on his face. I ran outside ready to start on this fun task. I dug my shovel into the snow… and found myself stuck bent over with my butt in the air and the snow filled shovel making no movement any direction. I didn’t even complete one full shoveling action until I put the shovel aside and decided snow angels were plenty entertainment for me.

             The view from our canoe

As I dug the paddle into the river and pulled with all my force to move the six-person canoe against the current, I realized this was not as fun as it looked. Pocahontas had deceived me. It seemed we had all made my same mistake, and two hours later our group set the paddles down in the canoe and took deep breathes as we rested our aching arm muscles before we turned around to head back.

About a third of the way (going upstream again since the river was filling back up with water) we were hit full force with another famous characteristic of the rainforest… rain.

My mom pulled out her trusty umbrella, which once again proved to be useless… for this was not any normal rain. The raindrops, although someone slowed by the tress, were about the size of walnuts. It felt as if a vicious indigenous tribe was attacking our canoe from every direction with water balloons.

Before the rain had started, my dad had given away one of our paddles to the other, smaller canoe which had sped off ahead of us. Now, being completely alone in the rain disturbed river and noticing our canoe was beginning to fill with water, we began to paddle faster with only 4 people now having a paddle. No longer huddled up in a ball, I let the ice cold rain sting the back of my neck since I had given up on the idea of keeping at least some part of my body dry. I took the paddle from my tired sister and began trying to help pull us along the quickly flooding river.

I have never experienced Chinese water torture, but I think I felt some degree of what it must feel like then. The rain was falling on my head and streams of water were running down my face and over my eyes. My eyelashes were creating what felt like mini-waterfalls, keeping the water out of my eyes, yet my vision was very much blurred. The water would stream from off my head over my mouth, making deep breathing very difficult. The splashes coming off the river from my frantic paddling were also blurring my vision and continuing the soaking process of my shirt. On top of all that the walnut sized rain drops were hitting the river and splashing back up onto my face, making me feel as if it was raining backwards as well.

All communication in our canoe was lost as the rain pounded deafeningly on the trees and river. We were both blind and deaf, but kept paddling forward hoping to run into the dock soon and not a fallen tree. Finally, after what seemed like years, we saw the outline of the dock through the thick rain and began paddling faster. When we were close enough to hop off the canoe we realized the rain had worn down the once dirt hill and our only way onto land was to climb over the mudslide it had become. My dad made the first attempt, and unsuccessfully slipped in the mud. We all knew we had to make this same attempt, yet it didn’t keep us from laughing. Neil was the next one to make it safely off the boat and grabbed the rest of our hands and pulled us to land one by one.

Right as we all were safely on the land, the rain slowed to a drizzle. As we made the walk back into the town, we all shared a cup of Neil’s hot chocolate we had previously made fun of him for bringing on a trip into the jungle. We walked on as we got curious looks from the townspeople who were confused as to why this group of American students looked exhausted and were drenched from head to toe with muddy water.

As we continued walking, I wondered to myself if an outsider would ask… “Why put yourself through that?” Well, with my shoes squished out river water with ever step and my hair matted to my forehead, I never felt more accomplished. At that moment I felt as if I was walking down the path of victory, with every step being one step farther from your everyday sorority girl and one step closer to your everyday Amazon warrior. Well… a baby step closer at least.

In the Jungle, the mighty Jungle

I reluctantly turned my flashlight off after my dad told me I was keeping him up, and was surrounded by darkness. The jungle came alive at night, and I was stuck right smack in the middle of it. I heard a buzzing near my head. A thin net hanging over my hammock was all that was separating hundreds of mosquitoes, some of which possibly carrying Malaria, and me. These mosquito nets work surprisingly well at night, however it would not protect me again any other… bigger Amazon creatures that might sneak up into our sleeping area at night. After all, we were in THEIR territory now.

I tried to fall asleep, but I kept getting jerked awake by noises. I heard the flapping of wings right above my head. I asked my sister to shine the light over me so I could see what it was, but she was sleeping. Then I heard a smack into the nearby pole and the flapping stopped… I guess that took care of that. I heard trees rustling sporadically. I tried to imagine all the possibilities of why the trees would be moving… the wind, a fruit falling, or a monkey. I wished I could see in the dark just this one night. Then I heard a splash in the Amazon River flowing right beside us. Maybe I didn’t want to see in the dark… I’m not sure I wanted to see what kind of creature could make that loud of a splash. It was too loud to be a fruit, too quiet to be a monkey, and too strange to be a human. My heart started pounding as the splash came again, sounding closer this time.
If only we hadn’t JUST sat around the edge of the dock and exchanged scary stories as we watched the moon come up. All I could think about at that moment, shivering in my hammock… was of one Brazilian folk story about a dolphin that would turn into a man with backwards feet. He would wait until someone who wasn’t familiar with the jungle to come wandering into it’s mysterious depth. Then, when you felt almost comfortable in the jungle, he would call out your name in a familiar voice. You would follow this voice, thinking it was someone you knew, deeper into the forest. This man would trick you with his backwards footprints, and you would end up going to opposite way to safety. Once you were beyond the point of anyone hearing you, he would take you.

As the splashing was coming closer, I could see in my head the backwards feet man crossing the river towards my hammock. Then I heard it. It was quiet at first, and almost sounded like a hiss… “Aaaaannniieee”. But then it started to get louder, and the voice sung my name in what sounded more like a whistle… “Aaaannniiieeee.” I closed my eyes tight and told myself I was NOT going to follow the voice no matter what. But the voice continued to get louder and louder, and now it was starting to resemble a snort. Wait, this wasn’t scary… this was just weird. I stood up in my hammock and then rolled my eyes as I realized the voice was just my dad snoring whimsically.

I finally lulled myself into a dreamless sleep that was constantly disturbed by sounds throughout the night until I was greeted by the dim light coming in through the trees when dawn finally broke. I stretched in my hammock, the mosquito net sticking to my sweaty skin, and took a deep breath as I took in the refreshing coolness of the morning air and the relaxing sounds of the water gurgling beside me. All this relaxation was quickly diminished once the hair curling sounds of the “Amazon Rooster” began. This "Amazon Rooster" wakes up the entirety of the jungle every morning, and is actually the common rainforest parrot. These parrots are so loud and annoying, that if I didn’t think it was so cool to be seeing them in the wild for the first time, I might have thrown my flip-flop at them. Their screech can be heard from miles away and it intensifies when more than one group together and “talk” to one another. The “talking” sounds as if a bunch of gossiping girls or witches laughing. Since there was no way I was going back to sleep after the parrots woke up, I made my way to the bathroom.

The dreaded journey to the bathrooms

In all honesty I had to use the bathroom ever since I first crawled in my hammock the night before. However, considering the intense journey to get to these porter potties, I was not about to search through my backpack, find my flashlight, and balance along the rotting beam to the wooden porter potty that consisted of a wooden seat with a hole in the middle that empties out to the river. The day before I had seen a giant spider crawl into the hole, so the risk of sitting on that monster in the middle of the night when everyone was asleep and too far away to hear my screams was too much for me.

I never thought I'd have to worry about getting splinters from a toilet

However, during the day, although still not very sanitary, I used the bathroom confident that no spiders would bit me since the wooden hole was now lit by the rising run. As the parrots continued to screech other animals were beginning to awaken. I could hear the trees stir as creatures began to travel across the jungle, hiding themselves from our campground. A strange looking bird perched close to the beam. It had a beak of a humming bird but would whistle in a way that sounded as if it was gurgling water. My dad woke up to this sound, and as he stumbled toward me he mumbled something about realizing that the asprin he had taken in the middle of the night turned out to be a Mydol. When the rest of the students started to awaken, we got ready for our first adventure of the day.

We were first taken out in two canoes, steered by two men that lived in wooden huts nearby our campground. Crawling into the canoes was difficult since any small movement would tip the canoe. I was grateful I was not in the same canoe as the two students suffering from arachnophobia in our group, for fear that if a spider were to jump in the canoe they would either jump out or tip the boat. Many spiders entered our canoe during that journey.

We coasted down the Amazon, dodging stray tree branches all the way, until we reached a fallen tree in the middle of the river. The canoes could not float over the logs with all our weight, so we each had to take our turn to stand on the log while the men pulled the canoes over. Lucy accidentally sat down on the log and found out the hard way just how fire ants attack when threatened. The backs of her legs viciously until she got up and brushed them off in one quick and desperate movement.

  Pushing the canoe under the fallen tree

By the time we reached the third fallen tree we decided to turn our boats around and head back to the campground. When our canoes were tied back up on the dock, a little girl greeted us. Her father asked us if we wanted to see the process of making Acai, and before we could even answer he was halfway up a tree. I still have no idea how he got up that tree, considering it was well over 20 feet high. I tried to climb one nearby while he was cutting down the Acai branch. I wrapped my arms around it, swung my legs and hugged the trunk… and slowly slid on my butt and into the mud. I figured you have to have some extreme upper body strength to climb. Yet right as I said this, the little girl (around the age of eight) jump up and climbed to the very top and giggled as she slid all the way down again.

They gathering up the Acai seeds and put it through the processing machine to get the juice out, but while they were doing this something else caught my attention. I saw a huge turtle on its back in the sink. I thought this was really strange, and was wondering if it had died there. As I continued to stare suddenly the women of the house slammed a machetti down onto the turtle’s shell. I sat, horrified, yet unable to divert my eyes away as the women cut up the turtle into small pieces and cooked the meat in its own shell. As crazy as I thought this was, I guess it wasn’t much different from preparing fish or chicken.

Speaking of fish, let me just say right now how proud I am that I caught my first fish ever that same day. A man was holding a string over the edge of his boat, and I curiously walked over to see what he was doing. He handed me the string, which I figured out was a fishing line, and motioned for me to sit on the edge and wait until I feel a nibble. Well as soon as my hand wrapped around the wire I felt a nudge and I yanked on the wire. It wouldn’t move at all, so I figured whatever I had caught must have been huge! But when the guy saw me struggling with the fishing line to the point it started to cut into my hands, he laughed at me, jumped in the water, and pulled the hook out from the log it was stuck under. We stuck another shrimp on the hook and tried it again, only this time when I felt a nudge I wasn’t so quick to jump to conclusions. The guy helped me pull up the fishing wire once again, and this time a little catfish came up with it!

As night started to come the entire family of the little girl came out to hang out with us. They played music on their little TV and the little kids danced until we were all worn out and ready for bed. As our time in the interior was coming to an end, I realized that was one of the coolest experiences I have had in my life. And although I would love to do it again, I don’t think I could stay for longer than we did. When you think of how cool it would be to live in the rainforest, you never consider how constantly hot and sweaty you are during the day and how dirty you get from daily activities in the middle of the jungle. I think my dad would agree, he could live without never again accidentally taking a Mydol. He was very sensitive that night.

Brazilian 4th of July!

I gave up sleeping in my hammock today after 4 days of sleepless nights. Although it pains me to say it, the hammock got the best of me. Last night I was tossing and turning as usual trying to find a comfortable spot where my back wouldn’t kill me the next morning, and my hammock, sick of dealing with me, spat me out the side. Luckily instead of falling on the hard tile floor I landed in the bed. I debated getting up and crawling back into my hammock, but as I laid on a flat surface for the first time since I had arrived, I gave in and slept in the bed.

I woke up this morning without intense muscle cramps, but unfortunately my cold had gotten much worse from the nights of no sleep and days of continuous walking in the intense sun. My throat was on fire and I was still coughing away my life. My host mom made me a Gurupa drink remedy which consisted of limes, honey, and oranges. It was delicious, but considering I have a strange fondness for the taste of Peptolbismol and cough syrup, I guess I’m not the most reliable source.

I spent the day sleeping and trying to get over my cold, instead of our usual daily routines of roaming around the town and visiting people. Gurupa is so tiny, only consisting of 6 streets, yet it can wear you out quickly if you walk from one end of the town to the other in the blazing hot sun. Most people here don’t even go outside during the times of noon and 3pm. All of the restaurants and stores are closed during this time as well to discourage people from leaving their houses and venturing out into the dangerous sun. We learned this the hard way.

However, at night it is a different story. Once the sun goes down the temperature is really cool and refreshing. Last night we spend our majority of the night outside, since it was the 4th of July. Of course, no Brazilian celebrates American Independence day, but we thought it was time to bring some of our culture to the townspeople of Gurupa. I went out and bought a box of fireworks and what I thought were roman candles. I tried to read the direction of how to light the fireworks in Portuguese, however considering how prone I am to natural disasters, we decided to go to our friend Perdro’s house so his son, Benedito, could help us light them. The rest of the students met up with us there, and as Pedro and Benedito put together the big fireworks, we sat around trying to figure out how to work the roman candles. After about 10 minutes of sitting in a circle looking like confused chimpanzees, Benedito picked up one of the roman candles, opened the top, and threw it up in the air. An array of Confetti slowly floated down and covered us… they were not roman candles at all.

Lucy picks up the stray pieces of confetti after we finally figured out how to use it

Pedro lit the first firework, held it in his hand, and squinted his eyes. The flare shot up and the sparks jumped all over the cobble street, but when we looked up at the sky all we saw was one tiny explosion. About 2 seconds later we heard a deafening “POP” that shook the ground and echoed throughout the whole town. That is when we discovered what a Brazilian firework actually is, no display but lots of noise. I guess I should have figured this, considering we live right down the street from the town’s bars and clubs who play techno Brazilian music at all hours of the day on full blast. My dad said that loud music is not an annoyance to any Brazilian, but seen as just the cool way to listen to music.

After the firework show, Benedito started up his motorcycle and asked me if I wanted a ride around the town. Now, I remembered Benedito from the last time I had visited Gurupa 4 years ago. He was 10 years old at that time, and he rode in the back of our boat when we were heading to the interior of the rainforest. Even though the waters of the Amazon contained dangerous creatures, Benedito was standing up and playing around with his friends trying to grab fruits from the trees we sped by. Was this little kid the person I would want to be strapped too while riding 60 miles per hour on uneven dirt and stone roads on the back of a motorcycle???? …..YES!

I hopped on the back of the bike without a helmit, since they were not required in this country, and Benedito took off at full blast. We were going extremely fast, but after awhile I gained confidence that Benedito knew what he was doing. Bad idea. At one point we were flying though this abandoned dirt road with the only light coming from the little huts sparatically spaced out along the road, and Benedito turned his head to say to me “This town is even smaller on a motorcyle isn’t it?”

Now I don’t know if I have a curse with black cats, but they seem to find me everywhere I go. Well, right when Benedito turned to me and took his eyes off the road a black cat came running right out in front of our path. Benedito saw my eyes widen and turned around just in time to slam on the breaks and whip our motorcyle off balance. We were being swung to the right, to the left, back to the right just barely staying above ground at every twist of the handles. Just before I could discover how pavement and lose rocks felt on my bare legs while traveling 60 mph, Benedito regained control and got us upright once again. We arrived back at our house without a scratch. Although we faced a situation that could have been much worse than it was, I surprisingly cannot wait to try it again. However before I do, I should probably invest in a helmet…. And a cat shock collar.

Welcome to Gurupa!

We were woken up at 3 am by the boats horn, which told us to start getting ready to un-board. As the boat finally floated to a stop the crowds of people swarmed out onto the town of Gurupa. I had vague memories of what it looked like, none of which could be confirmed because it was dark and I was disoriented and exhausted. We stumbled our way to our home stay being followed closely behind by a man carrying an oversized wagon filled with our luggage.

When we got to our house we went straight to bed… or Cindy did anyway. I spent the night trying to remember how to sleep in a hammock. I would lay one way and my head was too high, so I shifted around and my feet were dangling from the side. The middle of the hammock was raised higher than the sides, so every time I would shift my hammock would swing and smack into Cindy – who was unconscious and didn’t even notice. I looked over at my sleeping sister and tried to mimic her form; sleeping on her back with her body at an angle to widen the hammock. This worked for about 2 seconds until I remembered that I never sleep on my back.

When I woke up in the morning I found myself in the strangest position. I was lying on my stomach with my arms dangling off either side and my chin tilted upward parallel with the hammocks slant. My legs were high above the level of my head and I had lost the feeling in both of my feet. This was going to take some practice. As I untangled myself out of the hammock I looked over at Cindy, trying to decide my next move. I was scared to go outside my room. I didn’t know what to expect on the other side, and I REALLY didn’t know how to relate to our Portuguese-only speaking Amazon town family. Cindy said if I wanted a shower I would have to go out there eventually. That convinced me.

As I opened my door and headed for the shower, I was greeted with many wide eyes. I said good morning, they replied, but continued to stare. They were not quite sure how to act around me and I was not sure how to act around them.

I hopped in the shower and woke up VERY suddenly to ice cold streams of water stinging my back. When I had spent just enough time in the freezing water to wash off the soap and shampoo, I got dressed and wandered around the house. The house was very simple with tile floors and a wooden ceiling. It was barely big enough to fit the family of 6… and now they had 2 more additions to their family with Cindy and me.

When I walked back to my room, I realized I had greatly underestimated the Amazon ants, who had somehow crawled into my closed back pack at night and found my bottle of cough syrup which they swarmed. I freaked out when I picked up the bottle and ants started to crawl up my hand. I shouted at my sister, “TAKE IT AWAY, TAKE IT AWAAAAAY!” and we tossed the bottle into a plastic bag. Evidently after the ants where finished with my cough syrup they found a new hang out in my laptop… but I would not be as surprised when I found them there the next day.

Cindy and I sat down for breakfast and were presented with tons of food and exotic fruits. While we ate, curious eyes watched on. It was starting to get strange, but before the awkwardness could be too much to handle a 3 year old little girl came waddling up to the table, grabbed a grape, and jumped up and down as she ate it – throwing the seeds all over the floor. I love the fact that in any culture anywhere around the world, children are all the same. It doesn’t matter if you are different, they will treat you like anybody else if you just pay attention to them.

So after our home stay mom picked up the seeds and told her daughter not to eat anymore cause she was making a mess, she waddled right up to me and held out her tiny hand towards the bowl of bananas. I knew her mom didn’t want her to have it, but one look at those pleading dark chocolate eyes and chubby little pout and I gave in. After I gave her the banana she unpeeled it slowly and shoved the whole thing into her tiny mouth. She waddled around the kitchen with the entire banana form still evident and intact in her cheeks and the while family started laughing. This finally broke the ice and let us begin to connect with our new family.

                              Edwarda eating Acai... some of it actually went IN her mouth

Later that evening we went to visit a family we are good friends with. My parents have known this family for over 20 years, and 4 years ago I had met them and made friends with the youngest three boys who were toddlers and pre-teens at the time. When I saw the boys again, my mind completely warped. They had grown so much in the past four years that when they came up to greet me, my heart broke as I saw a sense unfamiliarity shown in their faces. They had heard stories of us from their mom and seen pictures that we had left years before, but they treated me like a stranger.

It was crazy for me to have kept this little town exactly as I had left it in my head. Even the dirt roads were now paved and every once and awhile a car would drive through the once bike-and-foot town. As I continued my life after my last visit I realized I had slowly forgotten about my little family in Gurupa because I became wrapped up in school and other things. It made me sad to see I had missed so much of my old friend’s lives, to the point where I became a distant memory in their minds.

After that visit I decided what I would focus most on during my stay in this town would be the relationships with the people here. They taught me so much four years ago, and it’s about time I am reminded of how some of the most pure-hearted people in this tiny town live their lives and view the world around them.

                                             A street in the "6 street town" of Gurupa!

T-Pain would not want to ride THIS boat.

I pulled out my laptop to start writing about every new, foreign thing I had seen in the past few days, but as I opened my Mac and sat it on my lap, my legs began to itch. At first I ignored the sensation, but the itching began to grow worse and worse until it was too much to handle. I looked down and saw that my laptop was covered from screen to keyboard with hundreds of ants. I calmly sat it down on the desk next to me and brushed off all the ants that had crawled on my legs, for this wasn’t the first encounter with these silent swarms.

I grabbed a notebook and began to write this the old fashion way as the ants curiously explored the spaces between my keyboard. I guess I will have to transfer this to a computer eventually, but the simplicity of this small town of Gurupa had inspired me to write this way anyway. I had forgotten how much I loved this town. It had been 4 years since I last visited, and even then I only stayed a week. But after only one day here, the intense 36 hour boat ride from Belem seemed worth it. Oh but what a boat ride that was. After I write about it, I fully intend to start the repression process.

The moment we stepped foot on the rickety dock, I knew it was going to be no Disney Cruiseline. The unsteadiness of the board I stepped on caught me off guard and almost left me face first on the dock with a mouthful of splinters. But after I luckily regained my balance I centered my brain (despite the ADD) on every step I as taking toward the boat. This turned out to be a very good thing, because I began to notice wide gaps in the rotting wood that one wrong step could have left me dangling just over the smelly river water. Most of my fears of falling came from dragging my massive suitcase behind me. Having packed for 3 months of traveling, that thing weighed well over the size of a small baby elephant. Well, ok, maybe not that heavy- but a sickly baby elephant… definitely. So as I crossed the uneven boards saftely I prayed that my baby elephant suitcase would not start a domino effect of boards collapsing into the yellow water. Lunily it made it safely across, but each boat it rolled over maoned and creeked from the intense weight.

I finally made it to the edge of the dock and the only thing separating me and the boat was a tiny piece of abandoned wood, which was being used as a ramp. I almost wanted to laugh at loud at the thought of crossing this foot wide piece of wood, but realizing I was holding up a line, I picked up my suitcase and stepped on the beam, which began to bend immediately to support my weight. I suddenly wished my bag was a baby elephant so it could walk on it’s own, because carrying it proved to be hazardess. I had made it ¾ the way up when I took a wrong step and completely lost my grip on my suitcase, and along with that lost my balance. Right before I could test out first hand how long it took piranhas to sniff out fresh human meat in the water, a Brazilian older man grabbed my suitcase and my arm and in one quick motion swung me onto the boat. I wanted to thank him for pretty much saving my life, but he didn’t even gave me a second glance as if he does that sort of thing all the time.

Now that I was actually on the boat, I had to maneuver around crowds of Brazilians in the 2 foot wide spaces between the cabins and the railing. At this point I was really starting to loath my suitcase, which kept getting stuck on people’s hammocks or rolling over unsuspecting feet. When I finally found my cabin, I opened the door and chucked my suitcase on the floor. I was about to shut the door behind me when I took a second glance and realized my suitcase took up half the floor space of the 4-person cabin. No, this was not because my suitcase was THAT enormous, it was because this cabin, consisting of two rows of bunckbeds was about the size of my parents closet back home.

As tiny as his space was, I was still very thankful for my cabin when I ventured to the bottom floor of the boat to see how the more adventurous few students (who didn’t want to spend so much money on a cabin) were settling in. I jumped down the last step and found myself starring at a maze of hammocks. I searched through the few openings of the giant hammock web until I finally saw Lucy’s head pop up out of the maze… on the exact opposite side where I was standing. I took a deep breath and entered the jungle gym, hoping over, crawling under, and swing hammocks aside and then quickly apologizing in Portuguese after realizing sometimes there were sleeping Brazilians laying in these hammocks, until I finally reached the other students. They were hanging up their hammocks at the only free spot, right next to the motor that would heat up the already humid Amazon air and smell of diesel for the next two days.

The boat took over six hours to start. And even after the motor was running, it took another hour to get it out of the docks and turned around to face the right direction of the river. Since we were traveling up stream, I prepared myself for a long journey.

There wasn’t much to do that night besides go to sleep and hope we woke up late in the afternoon so we wouldn’t have to be awake for as many boring hours. Right before I crawled into my sleeping space in the cabin, I looked our at the river with my dad. As we watched the city lights of Belem disappear into the horizon, my dad said, “In a month, you are never going to be happier to see those lights again.” It was hard to imagine what it was going to be like to be going back home.

I walked to the front of the boat and looked out to the dark waters and shadowy trees bordering each side of the river. It was pitch dark, yet the moon seemed to give everything just enough light to make objects glow in the night. As I starred out into the exotic trees and waters I began to imagine all the creatures that lay hidden behind the peaceful scene. I started to realize how mysterious the rainforest was… and was excited to also realize I was only a boat ride away from discovering these mysteries.

I was confused and disoriented when I awakeded from sleep by a thine line of sunlight coming in from the cracks of the cabin door. I sat up quickly and smacked my head on the aluminum roof that made a hallow “boooong” sound as it vibrated from the impact. I remembered where I was fairly quickly, on a boat heading to Gurupa. My sister and roommates, Noah and Brian, were not in the room so I knew I had slept late into the day. This was a good thing since I hadn’t slept at all the night before.

I had underestimated how cold the boat gets at night. Even while being in the Amazon, the wind from the river cools everything down. And the air conditioner set to cool off its passengers in the hottest times of the day does not slow as the night comes. So as I shivered in my Nike shorts and sorority t-shrit, I listened to the sounds of the night. There was a constant rumbling form the motor, the splashing of the river water against the boat, and the consistent techno beat of Brazilian party music coming from the top deck.

I listened to the people upstairs who were watching a soccer game. I laughed as I realized I could keep up with the score by just listening to the Brazilians.When the other team would score I would hear angry yells at the TV, loud stomps on my celing, and occationally muffled Poruguese cuss words. But when Brazil would score, the cheers would echo so loud that it would startle me everytime and almost cause me to fall of my bunck bed. I could tell Brazil won when I heard the clinging of beer cands and dancing and laughing until late hours of the night.

After a long sleep into the day I opened my cabin door and almost suffocated from the intense heat that surrounded me. I went up to the deck to eat lunch, a sandwich called a misto quinte, or grilled ham and cheese. This sandwich put my grilled cheese I make back at school to shame. But considering how many times I had set off the fire alarm in my building while making these grilled cheeses… I guess where wasn’t much competition.

The longer that day dragged out, the more boring our card games got, the hotter and sticker we all got, and the smellier the boat as a whole got. I can handle the small spaces, crowded areas, and not well kept feel of the paint-chipped boat… but one thing that was hard to handle were the boat bathrooms. I tried to avoid them as much as possible, but up until the point my blatter was about to burst there was no way around it. I’d have to run to my mom and steal some toilet paper (which she brought after 20 years experience riding this non-toliet paper stocked boat) and slowly open the tin doors to something much worse than the nastiest porter potty you can imagine. The smell is what hits you first as it stings your nose, then you step inside only to find you are wading in 3 inches of overflowing tolit/river water. Lucky for me I had thought to wear extremely thick sandals so only my shoes had to drown in this brown water. But then came the part where I had to close the door, and it took a lot of will power for me to do this. Once closed my nose was inches from touching the door and the heat and smell mix into one deadly poison with no place to escape except inside my lungs, almost suffocating me. I got out of that devil sauna of a bathroom as quickly as possible and, with my eyes still watering, douced myself in the purecell hand sanitizer my mom had brought with her.

After a long day of doing nothing but sweating we all went to sleep. With the only showers on the boat being in just as bad condition as the bathrooms, I no longer wondered what the week long experience of “Bonaroo” would feel like. I had my fresh taste of it right here.

The Pace Family on the boat!