Where I Have Been Map

Friday, April 20, 2012

Camping in the Rainforest - Day 4 & 5

The town of Carrezero is unique. As our boat was approaching the riverside community, I realized I had never seen anything quite like this place. The houses were lined up side by side, safely situated above the water by four wooden poles being used as stilts for each house.  As our boat floated by, house after house after house came into view, a half-a-mile stretch of wooden houses. But as we got closer I realized not all were houses – some   were stores, others churches, still others bars, and at the end of the stretch was a large school. What we were approaching was a community created right on the border line between the Amazon River and the rainforest, and it was all connected by one long bridge.  And as for transportation, besides the bridge, everyone traveled by boat or canoe.
The riverside town of Carrezero
I had a feeling a town as unique as this would provide a unique experience for us. What I didn’t realize at the time was that each curious resident of Carrezero was thinking the same thing as our boat full of foreigners approached. As for their unique experience, I did not let them down. Only two hours later I found myself trapped on the dock with my camera in the middle of a timelapse, and a downpour quickly approaching.  I only had a couple more minutes left until my timelapse finished, as I held a little umbrella over my camera and unsuccessfully tried to cover my back with a blanket that was only getting more soaked by the minute. The people of Carrezero found the sight humorous. 

Later that night we interviewed a man in the town church. The sun had gone down quickly, and we found ourselves in the old building with very little light. The scene was almost eerie, and it didn’t help when the man we were interviewing began telling us stories about the legend of the Curupira.
The Curupira is a creature that is said to live in the rainforest.  Its purpose is to protect nature and the animals of the forest. It is a placid creature – until people come into the forest with intent to harm nature or engage in the overkill of animals, to which it responds with trickery or aggressive behavior.  The Curupira is about the size of a child, and covered with black hair. Its feet are turned backwards, and it uses its backwards footprints to confuse people into getting lost in the forest. You know it is nearby when you hear its shrill whistle. 

Just as the man began telling of his personal encounter with the Curupira in the forest, the door of the church began to creak and slowly opened. A shadow the size of a child materialized. We all froze and looked on as the shadow came closer to the dim light, walking slowly. When the shadow finally came into the light, we realized it was my mother, tip toeing to the first church pew so as not to disturb the interview.  After we were done, we all walked back to our boat just as all the electricity went off. The generator that provides power for the town shut off precisely at 10 p.m.
After a night of hearing ghost stories and legends of Amazon creatures, the events that occurred the next day could be classified as nothing less than ironic. The archeologists had finally found success discovering archeological sites in the rainforest, they had stumbled upon three thus far, and the last discovery would have been the perfect setting for a horror story: In the middle of the town’s main dirt road leading into the forest, they found the remains of a person, a human skull thousands of years. And not only that, the archeologist discovered five more buried vases containing human remains. They had stumbled upon an ancient burial ground. 
The ancient skull buried underneath the dirt road

Unfortunately, I could not stand up long enough to share in the excitement of this discovery. For some reason, that morning I woke up feeling like something wasn’t right. That odd feeling gradually grew into a horrible headache and uncomfortable stomachache. This feeling grew worse by the hour, and by the time the archeologists had made this discovery, my legs felt like they were about to give out. Every inch of my body was in pain. I felt as if my entire body had gone numb, and become stuck in that “pins and needles” phase, where every little movement hurts. Even the gums of my teeth were tingling in pain. I stumbled back to the boat and fell into my hammock, not moving until our boat docked back in Gurupa, ending our five-day “camping” trip. By that time I had a high fever yet was shivering from a cold sweat in the middle of the Amazon heat.
I stumbled back to our hotel room, hit the bed, and was out in a deep sleep. The last thing I remember was my mom talking to my sister on the phone, and my sister saying I had signs of Danghai fever.
When I woke up, it was dark. I asked my dad what time it was. “It is 6 o’clock” … “In the morning?” … “No in the evening”. I had slept for 24 hours.  My fever had broken. This ruled out Danghai fever, which usually lasts for weeks. I must have caught a less severe tropical fever from one of the children in the interior. Nevertheless, I felt weak and sore. I used the little strength I had left to pull myself to a sitting position. I looked at the bruises on my legs, the bug bites all over my arms and legs, and the seemingly incurable dryness in my throat from dehydration. I was absolutely spent, driven to the final ends of my strength by this journey. Yet I was happy to have experienced it – fever, bites and all. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Camping in the Rainforest - Day 3

When we woke up in the boat after the storm, everything was soaked. My mom said that there had been a leak in the roof above her the whole night, and she lifted up her hammock with a huge wet stain on it. I jokingly asked her if it truly was a leak, or she got scared during the night and had an accident.
While everything was laid over the edge of the boat to dry in the sun, I decided to go for a swim in the river. A small boy saw me swimming and ran to jump off the wooden dock, splashing into the water next to me, excited to have someone to play with. I was weary where I put my feet as we waded deeper into the water. The mushy Amazon mud was foreign to me, and I didn’t want to step on anything else foreign that might bite back.  My playmate didn’t seem to share this worry; he was splashing and playing and trying to taunt me into racing him.
I swam with him to a giant floating log, happy to grasp onto it and get a short break from swimming.  But he had other ideas; he hopped onto the floating log and started walking in place. The log began to spin in the water – the. Soon he began running on the log. As soon as he felt a little off balance, he jumped into the river and resurfaced laughing at the game he created. 

He began to climb up the log again, and looked back at me wondering why I wasn’t joining him. He had made it look easy, so I figured I would give it a try. I pulled myself up on the log. Lying on my stomach, it wasn’t hard at all to balance. So now to the next step: I pulled my legs underneath me, and began to slowly stand up. To my surprise, I was balancing.  My playmate looked very proud of me, so I decided to test my skills and begin walking in place as he had. 

I fell hard, and I fell fast. The only thing that slowed my fall was the impact of my shins smacking against the log before I splashed head first into the river. As I sank down into the mucky water, my legs were throbbing in such pain that I didn’t know if it would be possible to start kicking to get me back to the surface. But at that moment I felt the scales of a huge fish rub against my thigh, and that was plenty of motivation to start kicking. I broke the surface of the water with a gasp and swam slowly back to the dock. As I climbed up I saw bruises already forming. This was a lesson learned the hard way:  I can’t do all the things children of the Amazon seem to be able to do. This was disheartening, because I had become inspired by the children’s daily routines and how they play in the forest.
The children of the Amazon truly amaze me. At times I feel as if they have no fear. They wake up every morning and have the entire Amazon rainforest as their playground. I have seen children as young as 5 climbing trees 30 feet in the air, walking around with machetes half their size, wading in river waters known to have piranhas and snakes lurking just below the muddy water.

I believe their lack of fear comes from generations of wisdom passed to them by their parents and grandparents about the dangers of the jungle. And their wisdom to stay away from certain areas of the water, from certain plants, allows them to grow up in one of the most free childhood cultures. Imagine as a child being able to wake up, hop into your own canoe and race your brothers or sisters, or explore various creeks off of the Amazon River. Instead of grabbing a pack of sugar loaded Gushers you just climb the nearest tree and snack on a fresh mango. There is no need for video games to entertain yourself; you can create your own obstacle course over fallen trees and broken branches, all the while chopping a path through the forest with your own machete. Later you could grab some fishing line and a hook and sit with your siblings at the edge of your wooden dock to see who can catch the biggest fish.  And as for bathing, your mother only has to tell you once, because you look forward to running off the dock and jumping head first into the river. 

Later that day I was again astonished by the children. We were hiking through the jungle on a search for a site the archeologists had found. Three young boys had seen us disappear into the forest, and were curious as to what we were up to. They had begun following us and made a game out of running ahead of us, climbing trees, and running back to show us different tropical fruits. During this hike while I was getting various cuts and scrapes, they were running through the forest without shirts and barefoot. When they would walk in front of me, they’d make sure to turn around and point to different plants to warn me if they were poisonous or caused rashes. I couldn’t believe how much they knew about the forest. 

After just 20 minutes of hiking, we were all feeling the wrath of the Amazon sun and the swarms of mosquitos that made it hard to even breathe. Our legs were sore from climbing over overgrown plants. I was looking at my feet wondering how they were continuing to move forward, when a glance up caused me to stop in my tracks. Ahead of me, there was a fallen tree. Under the tree, about eight feet down, was a swamp of dark water, the surface chaotically covered with plants and sharp branches.  The only way to get across was to balance on the log and walk over the swamp. 

The three boys scampered over the log with ease, laughing all the way. I took a deep breath, very aware of the bruises still on my leg from the last time I tried this, and stepped up onto the uneven log. This time, with an eight-pound camera strapped to my neck, I didn’t test my skills. By some miracle I made it across.
In so many ways I am no match for these amazing children.  But I had an incredible time playing with them, and most of all, learning from them. 


Through My Lens from Annie Pace on Vimeo.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Camping in the Rainforest - Day 2

I woke up in my hammock with a jolt. My eyes tried to adjust to the pitch black but I could see nothing. My ears, on the other hand, were overwhelmed with the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof of our boat, and the sound of a howling wind. The boat was rocking side to side. There was a loud crash as the  boat slammed into the wooden dock.  The thick rope attaching our boat to the large wooden post was doing its job despite the tugs of the angry river trying to pull us downstream with the storm. 
Suddenly, lightning flashed and I could see all around me as the entire Amazon night was electrified. It only lasted for a split second, but it was enough to see our luggage on the floor getting soaked as the rain began pouring in through the holes in the tarp covering the sides of the boat. I looked toward  my parents’ hammocks, and heard a peaceful snore coming from my dad, undisturbed by the storm. This calmed me down a little. I sank down in my hammock, my mind racing, and tried to find the sleep that wasn’t going to come for many hours.
This was the first tropical rainforest storm I had experienced. All I could think about was when we would eat at the Rainforest CafĂ© back home and they would have “storm simulations” every 15 minutes or so, when the lights would dim and fake lightning and rain would begin to lightly shower amused customers.  Now, my hammock swung back and forth with the waves caused by the storm in the real rainforest, with real lightning. I wished I could say “Check, please.” But since neither the check, nor sleep was coming, I began thinking about my day to keep my mind off the storm. I had met some incredible people, and got a glimpse into a way of life incredibly different than my own.
The day had begun that morning as I watched the sunrise over the Amazon River from the roof of our boat. When I climbed down from, I saw the archaeologists suiting up to explore for sites. They were covered from head to toe. They strapped on big black boots to walk through the flooded forest, long pants and long sleeved shirts to avoid getting scraped by the plants, hats to shade them from the sun, and t-shirts over their heads to cover the remaining exposed areas of their faces and necks. Everything but their eyes were covered, to protect them from the horrendous swarms of mosquitoes they were sure to encounter. They hopped off the boat and headed into the forest with machetes in hand, following their guide, a woman from the area whose house we were docked at. 
The Archeologists suited up for the hike through the rainforest

Covered as the archaeologists were, their guide was wearing a dress.  On top of that, she was a grandmother at least 60 years old. Her hair was greying, she had wrinkles under her eyes showing a lifetime of laughter, and a machete in her hand to chop away at the forest.  The crew nicknamed her, “Indiana Grandma.” She was living proof that age shouldn’t slow a person down, as she walked over broken tree branches in her plastic flip flops. 
"Indiana Grandma" leading the hike
When they returned from their search, we interviewed “Indiana Grandma,” or Artulina. She sat with us in her living room for hours, telling us stories of what life in the interior was like in the old days, noting the many struggles people in that area have had to overcome through the years, and humoring us with stories of legends and folktales of creatures that live in the forest.
 As we were filming, we discovered another obstacle to overcome with these types of interviews in the interior. Artulina’s six grandchildren had never seen cameras like we had before, and they were very curious. Aged 5 to 10, they couldn’t comprehend the “etiquette” of an interview in which other people are supposed to be quiet and still while the camera is rolling. How could they understand this? They had never been in this situation before.
So they decided to make a game of it. They began to pop their heads in front of the camera every couple minutes.  They climbed onto the couch with their grandmother, calling her name to see if she would stop talking to the camera people and notice them. They chattered loudly in Portuguese next to the camera, and were entertained when Glenn would put his finger to his mouth motioning them to quiet down.  In an attempt to distract them, my mom brought them candy. This worked,  but only for a short while. They ran off and enjoyed their candy by the river. But 20 minutes later, they were back with a full surge of sugar energy. 
Giving the kids candy = bad idea
The kids pointing at the camera and planning their mischievous acts

But not every child in the interior was this mischievously curious. Later that day we cruised down the river to another wooden house on stilts to interview a man there. The man also had grandchildren, and  as his 8-year-old granddaughter came outside to see what we were doing, I wondered if she was going to be as curious as the other children. She was, but in a very shy way. She peered at me through the open door and sat there, quietly.  She watched as I changed the battery and turned my camera on. I saw her from the corner of my eye, and motioned for her to come and sit next to me.  She came and sat down, and was soon intrigued to see a moving picture of her grandpa on the screen of my camera. She began handing me batteries and memory cards from my bag, and was excited at the thought of being a little helper. I handed her my mom’s handheld video camera and asked her to return it to my mother. After the interview was over, I found my mother teaching her how to film with the handheld camera. Her eyes lit up as she walked around with the camera and filmed trees and people. When we left her house that day as the sun was setting, she told us that she wanted to grow up and film movies.
Discussing future film careers
Another lightning bolt struck and lit up the entire inside of the boat, snapping me back to the reality of the storm. I started feeling motion sick as my hammock kept swinging back and forth with the angry waves.  One side of the tarp flung open, and rain began showering the inside of the boat. Then suddenly the weather calmed. The rain slowed to a drizzle, the thunder rumbled with softer force as the storm moved away. The frogs even began to come out from hiding, and croak their usual nightly croak. The storm had passed as quickly as it had come, and I finally fell into a restful sleep.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Camping in the Rainforest - Day 1

Camping. After this past week, the meaning of the word has lost its vigor to me.  The action of camping outdoors, sleeping in a tent, roughing it – just the mention of the word was at one time so  adventuresome to me.  I thought it would be like camping, our venture into the interior.  Only instead of a tent, I’d be sleeping in a hammock on a wooden boat. Instead of woods, I’d be in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Instead of roasting marshmellows, I’d be eating rice and beans, rice and beans, rice and beans… and the occasional tropical fruit picked from the tree.

            Our “camping” adventure of living on a boat for as days as we worked our way down the Amazon River turned out to be one of the most intense “roughing it” experiences I have had yet. And after the five days were over, as I dragged myself down the dock of Gurupa towards home, with mud-stained clothes, bruised legs, and a high fever, I couldn’t help but think how wrong I was comparing this trip to camping. I’ve never come back from camping with every inch of my body aching, from my toes to the gums of my teeth. But what it was… it was truly the most beautiful, refreshing, and indescribable five days. I had seen nature at its purest. And I was forever changed by it. This was the last thought I had before falling into a deep sleep that lasted for the next 26 hours. 

How did it all begin? I knew we would be staying in Gurupa for three weeks, allowing my dad to do his anthropology research while I filmed interviews for the documentary we’ve been working on since last summer. Along with us for the trip was my mother, anthropologist Glenn Shephard, two Brazilian archaeologists, Joao and Carlos, and my dad’s student Kevin McDaniel. The town of Gurupa is remote, and at times has its comfort limits.  The internet, on the rare days it is functioning in the town, is painfully slow at best.  There are one or two home-run restaurants in the town and a couple of supermarkets – all of which are on their own schedule for opening and closing. The town is essentially smack in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, which comes with intense heat, swarms of mosquitoes, and a 3-hour boat ride upstream if you want to catch the newest flick at the movies.  But even this tiny town that many people in the city of closest city of Belem have never heard of, is looked at as the “big city” to the people who live in the interior of the rainforest. By interior, I mean families that live in small wooden houses on stilts along the Amazon River. They have no need for motorcycles or cars – their only form of travel being wooden canoes or other small boats. Their closest neighbors are the tropical parrots, botos (fresh water dolphins), and coba grandes (giant snakes). Needless to say, they don’t go trick-or-treating for Halloween. 
Little girl outside her house in the interior
The interior rainforest, and these miniscule interior towns, was where we were headed with the crew. My dad had funded an archaeological expedition to search for sites within the interior. The archaeologists were going to be hiking through knee-high waters, cutting trees and brush with a machete, to search for signs of areas that might have ancient to prehistoric artifacts, dirt untouched by the hands of any archeologist thus far in history.  The job of Glenn and I was to film it all, to interview the people who lived there – in short, to capture life in the interior on film. Sounds easy enough right? Flash forward to balancing on a fallen tree over a swamp covered with prickly plants, filled with who knows what creatures, a 10-pound camera strapped around my neck threatening to drag me down closer and closer to a scene from the movie “Anaconda.” But let’s start at the beginning… 

Our boat/home for the 5 days that followed


As I walked on the dock toward the bobbing boat with the words FASE painted on the side, I wondered what this adventure would bring. I jumped into the side of the boat below, where I saw my dad already in his hammock – dead to the world. He had eaten some bad meat the night before, and was paying dearly with horrible stomach pains. The journey wasn’t off to a great start, we were already two hours behind schedule and the motor had decided to let us know it was tired of waiting by filling the boat with thick black smoke and a disheartening sputtering noise. Just as the smoke began acting as an unbearably hot blanket in the already stifling heat, the motor came to life and before we knew it we were puttering along the river, the cool wind blowing away the smoke and the unsteady bumping in the water swaying our hammocks gently. 
Our  hammocks hung in the boat

After a few hours, the motor was cut off and we began floating slowly towards the dock of our first stop, a small wooden house seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The archaeologists had already jumped off the boat once we docked to ask the family inside if they knew of any sites nearby. I was getting my camera ready, and a thought ran across my mind. What if the families in the interior don’t want to be filmed? They surely don’t get too many foreigners in their house wanting to put a camera in their face. And my Portuguese-language skills were not anywhere near the level of accurately explaining the documentary we were making about the history and culture of the area. What if this all was for nothing? 

I walked along the small dock and entered the house, and saw everyone sitting on the floor, with bits of what looked like straw or palm thatch scattered everywhere. There was an older woman sitting closest to the door, with a huge pile of plant stems surrounding her. She would take a knife, and cut and “X” onto the top of the thick stems.  Then she would take two sticks, making another “X”, and slide them all the way down, cutting the stem into 4 thin strips. With these strips, she was weaving baskets. The way she weaved was so intricate and beautiful that I was itching to grab my camera, but I knew we had to ask permission first before filming. So my mother asked her if I could film, she looked at me, looked back at my mother, and said no. 

Well there goes that, I thought. But since our documentary was apparently doomed anyway, I decided to at least enjoy the moment – so I grabbed an unfinished basket and began attempting to help the woman weave. This was much more difficult than I realized, as the strips began cracking and breaking in my clumsy fingers. The woman caught sight of what I was doing, and started laughing. My struggles with weaving amused her, so she decided to sit and teach me the proper way to do it. After a while I had finished almost half of a basket to her two, and she had allowed Glenn to film the process. When we left she jokingly offered me a job with her – little does she know that I’m adding “basket weaving” to my resume. 
Learning from the best

Later that night, I could not get to sleep. I was lying in my hammock, eyes wide open, staring into pitch darkness. It might have been that I was not used to sleeping in a hammock, and could not find a comfortable position. Or maybe the fact that I kept getting myself tangled in the mosquito net that hung above me.  There were also the hundreds of animal noises coming from the darkness,  none of which I could recognize apart for the exceptionally loud croaking frog that sounded as if it had hopped onboard. But most likely, what was keeping me up was the symphony of snores coming from all five anthropologists/archaeologists onboard. Either way, the hours went by and before I knew it, it was 5 AM and I was still wide awake.  So since sleep wasn’t coming anytime soon, I decided to climb on top of our boat and watch the sun rise over the rainforest horizon. 

I crept out to the front of the boat, trying to be quiet but every step made the old wooden boat creak and moan. It was enough noise to wake up my mother, who climbed out of her hammock too join me on the front of the boat. I began climbing the ladder to the top of the tin roof, my mother staying below due to a fear of heights, especially heights in pitch darkness. In mid-climb I looked up, and what I saw made me freeze, grasping onto the final step of the ladder.

 Above, in the pitch-black sky, were thousands of brilliant stars stretching farther than my eyes could follow. And in the dark river below was a crystal-clear reflection of the starry night. I could pick out every constellation in the rippling water, like a mirror set purposely on the ground to double the intensity and the magnificence of the brilliant sight twinkling above. I sat there on top of the boat, legs swinging off the side of the cool tin roof, and tried to memorize every detail. The sun began to rise and the black sky turned dark blue, and the twinkling stars began to disappear one by one. The noises of the animals in the forest began to change from croaking frogs and buzzing mosquitos to early-morning parrots and woodpeckers. The comforting aroma of fresh Brazilian coffee brewing let me know the crew was awake, and it was time to begin another day in this beautiful place. 

Watching the sun rise over the Amazon River from the roof of our boat