November 17 - 23, 2018
On board the Tucano
River cruise on the Rio Negro & Amazon River
Lois writing (this is pretty long, but we have been gone for almost a week):
On Saturday morning we were picked up at our hotel and transported to another one on the shore of the Rio Negro. We met our group in the lobby, and then walked a short distance across the sand to our home for the next 6 nights: the Motor Yacht Tucano. The boat has nine cabins, with a crew of 8 (including two guides Alex and Ed), and we have only ten guests. Our companions for the week are two other married couples: Susan and Alan from CA, Karin and Dan from Sweden, plus Lee from FL, Renate from Germany, John from England, and Anna from Iguazu and Germany. The latter three are all friends, and work at a bird park in Iguazu; Renate and Anna went to veterinary school together. To keep the two Johns straight, we refer to them as Mr. John and Sir John. Guess which is which? It's an interesting mix of people; we are all in the same age bracket.
Our cabin is fine, with lots of interesting pictures on the wall, which helps to keep the place bright, since the walls are dark wood. There are four windows so during the daytime there is enough light, and good overhead lights plus excellent ones above our pillows. The bathroom is okay; you just have to be sure to close the toilet lid before you turn on the shower. The ship has solar heated water from the river for the toilet, sink, and shower, and it is more than adequate for bathing. When you board the ship, each passenger gets one plastic bottle of drinking water, and there are convenient water coolers all over to refill our bottles. I'm glad I brought a couple of plastic bottles from home; I really like taking the flat ones since they pack in no space at all. The crew makes hot water at midday, but John & I have never used it. I will mention now that it is REALLY HOT here, and super humid. That will come up again, I am sure. We typically shower 2 or 3 times a day, and rinse out our clothes while doing so. There's a clothesline on the upper deck (under a cover), but nothing ever gets really clean. I have a long sleeved shirt that is white and beige; now it has a brown tinge, which I hope will disappear when I wash it at home. As long as stuff dries, which it usually does in a few hours, I see no point in putting on my truly clean clothes until we are close to the end of the journey.
I stayed on the ship today (I am writing this on Wednesday morning) since I decided to remain behind while the group is doing another jungle walk. There is no internet but we do have 110 volt electricity, so I can use my computer. (But sometimes they turn off the power for hours on end – like now when I am editing and it's Thursday morning. I'm working on battery power, and will recharge later.) I am sitting in the dining room with the windows open, but there is no breeze, so I’m sweating as I type. We hope to post this on Friday, when we have one day in Manaus before flying home.
There is air conditioning in our cabin and the dining room, but it's turned off when the group is away from the ship, and also when the crew is making hot water. I'm not sure why they need that much hot water, except perhaps for doing dishes. We have learned to avoid showering when the A/C is off, since afterwards we can't get dry enough to put our clothes back on because we are still sweating in the hot room. We usually set the thermostat between 13 and 15C to be comfortable. I don't think it's accurate, since at home and in hotels, we usually set our A/C at about 22C. At least we sleep comfortably at night, though we often get up a few times to use the toilet.
The guides are very concerned that we drink a lot of water, since we are only at 2 or 3 degrees latitude south of the Equator. In the daytime, we often lose much of our hydration via perspiration. My most valuable article of "clothing" is the bandanna I use to wipe my face, especially when there's sweat about to drip into my eyes or down my chest from my neck. On our first jungle walk, I declared that this was the hottest I have ever been, including the bottom of the Grand Canyon in July or touring temples in Bangkok. I am impressed that the locals just go on with their daily business without seemingly breaking a sweat. I’m sure they would be very uncomfortable during the winter in northern Michigan!
The food is decent, with lots of homemade dishes, and plenty of veggies and fruit. The beef is a bit tough since it's all organic, but there is also chicken and fish at both lunch and dinner. We have more than enough to eat, and meals are nutritious. I really like the scrambled eggs; they are sort of sweet. My guess is that the eggs they use are really fresh and perhaps organic as well. Several cookie jars are available all the time.
Each day we get up at 5:30, and the first activity begins at 6. That seems awfully early, but it is not a problem, since we usually go to bed by 9:30. Each activity takes about two hours. After the one at dawn (when temps are a bit cooler), breakfast follows, and then at 10, there's some sort of walk, either in the jungle or at a settlement. After lunch, we have time to relax, and then there's something at 4 PM, with dinner afterwards and often a nighttime tour too. While the temps and humidity are oppressive, at least there are no bugs! We have seen some nifty insects, but luckily nothing that bites us, as long as we don't bother them.
Many of the outings are "canoe excursions", but the smaller boats are not what Americans would call canoes. We would refer to them as launches; wooden boats maybe 30 feet long with a big outboard motor as well as a silent electric trolling motor. One guide will be in the front (at night he has a big floodlight), then 4 or 5 guests sit on several benches, and boatman in the stern operates the motors. We go out and spot birds, and other interesting aspects of the area. Most of the time we are traveling on the Rio Negro, a major tributary of the Amazon River. The Rio Negro is often about 4 KM wide and there are lots of islands and sandbars. If it was listed by itself, it would be the fourth largest river in the world. I will check it when I can get online, but my guess would be that the 3 that are larger are the Amazon, Nile and Mississippi. But how do they measure the size of a river? Volume? Length? Area of its watershed? Note: I am now back in the land of the Internet, and apparently there are all these ways to measure the size of a river. The Amazon is in the top two for all categories, and the Congo ranks up high too.
Many of the islands totally disappear when the rainy season comes (it's about to begin), so that apparently the entire landscape changes. The river rises 15 or 20 meters each year, with the maximum height in June. That's over 60 FEET – the height of a six-story building! So many of the places they have taken us will be completely under water six months from now.
There is a white board in the hallway just outside the dining room, where they have been keeping track of all our finds. Right now there are over 50 different birds, and quite a few mammals, fish, plants and trees, insects, reptiles and amphibians. For an avid birdwatcher, this place is heaven! I am not that good with binoculars, so I feel that I miss a bit, but that's okay.
There were three opportunities to use the kayaks that are stored in one of the launches, and I've been able to go each time. John went once. Several of the guests are not interested, and that's good for me, since there are only 5 boats for the guests. We head out at 6 AM, and it's relatively cool. Daytime temps are usually in the mid to high 90s, with enough humidity that your glasses and camera lenses fog up when you leave your cabin. I like the kayaking because I get some outdoor activity when it's not so hot – and I am literally sitting in the water! The kayaks are wide sit-on-tops that are super-stable and turn on a dime (Ocean Kayak Frenzy), the paddles are fairly heavy Carlisle Daytrippers. If you try to go fast, you just make noise. The seats are not great, but we are out for less than two hours, and I can cope. We don't go too far, so it's no big deal to be using equipment that John & I would never purchase at home. But the stuff is durable, and there's no trouble keeping up – I'm usually the only experienced kayaker. They do have decent life jackets made by Extrasport, for which I am thankful, since they require us to wear them.
So far we have visited two settlements. The first one was a subsistence village where the people survive on fishing and growing a few crops (manioc is very big here in Brazil). The couple of houses that were closest to the water were built on stilts. The woman who showed us around is illiterate; she isn't sure how old she is, but she knows that she has 5 children and a lot of grandchildren. They have a small school in the village, but things looked very primitive. Before we left our ship, we were informed that they would have handicrafts for sale, so we felt obligated to buy something. The second settlement used to be a town established by a rubber baron, but it is now abandoned and slowly being taken over by the jungle. There is one family squatting there. By the way, experts on Brazil suspect that there are native settlements in the Amazon area that have not yet been discovered by the outside world.
Speaking of the jungle, I am surprised that it is not as dense as I had expected. The guides can usually find a way for us to walk through, with a bit of help from their machetes. We only walked 1 or 2 km, but it's not easy. Much of the territory we cover is in a natural preserve, so there is almost no development whatsoever. What makes the jungle walks so uncomfortable is that we wear long pants, long sleeved shirts, and leather gaiters that the ship provides. It's a hot outfit! At the end of each walk, we are given frozen washcloths, which help for a while. Back at the ship, the crew washes off our boots and walking shoes to keep the ship clean.
Occasionally neat things happen, like we just spotted some river dolphins romping in the water about 30 meters from the ship! We also had dolphins frolicking near us when we had a swimming activity Tuesday afternoon. We have learned quite a lot; one evening before dinner there was a talk and demonstration about native fruits and vegetables. One of our guides, Alex, is a native Indian from this area, and so he has many skills that people who grew up in towns do not possess. One afternoon he made a fish trap while we watched, from a few strips from palm tree bark, and vines to tie it together. On our first jungle walk, he explained how to make a blow gun, showed us how to get fresh water from a particular large vine, and also constructed a bow and arrow (and shot it), and then found some resin from a tree to make a torch. He also picks up trash whenever we go out on kayak outings, or while we were on the beach for our swimming activity (when he and the other guys were not playing soccer with tall sticks for goals). On the first night excursion, he picked up a caiman (like a small alligator) and caught a snake slithering up a tree. Thursday morning he grabbed another caiman from the water while standing on the bow of the boat!
While I was out swimming, I saw a beer can floating by. I recognized that sort of thing, picked it up and put it into my pocket. It was a full one, not yet past the expiration date. I gave it to the winning soccer team.
We traveled upstream for 3 days, with many stops for seeing the sights, and then downstream for 3 days. On Thursday afternoon we will encounter the "meeting of the waters", when the Amazon and the Rio Negro join. One is warmer than the other, and the Amazon has more silt, so they are two different colors. Apparently it takes 18 to 24 km for the two to finally merge and mix together. Before that, they simply flow side by side!
We have had some rain, but it hasn't lasted long. It happened twice while I was kayaking, so we just got totally wet. It also rained a bit while we were out fishing for piranhas from one of the launches. When it's this warm, it's not a big deal, except that you want to change to dry clothes when you return to the mother ship. Then there tends to be a bit of a tight squeeze at the clothesline. The moon has been bright most nights, with sun or clouds during the daytime. We rarely have wind, unless the boat is moving.
John & I feel like we brought the right stuff on this trip. I'm glad I have the hiking boots and trekking poles, but there is no way I ever would have put on my rain pants. Perhaps the most valuable thing are our bandannas. Zip-off pants are handy too. And the rainhat is about all the raingear I need most of the time. I've put on my rain jacket twice. We had packed our own gaiters, since we didn't realize that the ship would have some for us to use. Having two daypacks has been handy: one fanny pack and one small foldable daypack (besides my carry-on day pack), since our bags have gotten soaked on excursions more than once. One guy skipped some excursions because all his clothes were in the drying process. We have opted out some of the night excursions and jungle walks just for the sake of comfort. Those of you who know me well are aware that I can be a bit cranky when I am hot!
It's now Thursday morning….
On Wednesday afternoon, we visited another family that has made a home on government land. It seems odd to me, but Ed said they are allowed to stay since they have been there for many years. They chopped down an acre or so of trees, burned them to clear a field to grow manioc, and also have planted a wide variety of fruit trees. They are in the process of building a chicken house. There is no clean water or sanitation, and surprisingly, trash is just tossed about, even though it is their home. I never really knew what subsistence living was before this trip. The people reproduce early and often, so it would be tough to escape their abject poverty. They see television, so they must know that not everyone lives this way. They are all of exceptionally small stature. We met twin girls in the family, and I guessed that they were 10 or 11 years old; they are 14. What's scary is that apparently the typical age for first childbirth is 15 or 16. These kids looked like little girls.
John is now adding a bit to this saga...
On our last day on the Rio Negro, we went out at 6 AM as usual, but we cruised along a channel between the Solimoes River and the Rio Negro. The density of bird life was amazing. At one point I tried counting the number of great egrets I could see, and I lost count at 20! Later that day we made bracelets instead of venturing out in the rain. The guides had the twine and a basket full of seeds that we could use. They showed us several patterns of knotting the twine, and then provided one-on-one guidance as we made the bracelets or necklaces. After I watched Lois make her bracelet, I took some photos and then went up on the top deck to watch our progress as we passed Manaus.
The highlight of the afternoon was seeing the “meeting of the waters”. If you look at the map of Brazil on our home page, you can see Manaus is at the confluence of two rivers; the Rio Negro is the one that flows from the northwest, and the Solimoes comes from the west; they meet just downstream from the city. On many maps the latter is known as the Amazon itself. Here is an explanation about the phenomenon: https://www.sciencealert.com/what-causes-brazils-meeting-of-the-waters
The Rio Negro is 33C (over 90F!) and the Solimoes is 23C, plus the latter is denser and filled with silt, plus it is moving a lot faster.
Just before sunset we got in the motor launches and toured the floating village. We have seen these villages all over Southeast Asia, but there the "foundation" of the huts were steel barrels filled with air. Here the huts are using logs for floatation. It seems like an awful place to live, but I guess free "land" has an appeal for the poor.
We are glad that we came on this cruise and to Brazil in general. It is a huge country and we have learned a lot. Today is Thanksgiving at home; we are thankful that we have the life we do in the USA.