South America : Cruising the East Coast, Trinidad to Argentina

October 6, 2013

Oi! Tu do bem? (Hi! Howz it goin'?)

We are aboard the National Geographic Explorer on a Lindblad organized trip called "Epic South America." It is Nat Geo's 125th anniversary so they are thinking big. We have 107 passengers and about 20 Naturalist-Lecturers with us for the 35 day trip from Trinidad to Buenos Aires. 


We saw a fair amount of Trinidad before we boarded the ship on September 20, particularly on the drive to, and at, the Asa Wright Nature Reserve, where they have a lot of bird feeders and some nice jungle. We finished that day with a cruise through the mangroves to watch hundreds of scarlet ibis return to their roosts in the Caroni Swamp. There was a wonderful Trinidadian musician, Drew Gonsalves, of the band Kobo Town on board the ship with us for a few days He played and lectured several times. Really good guy with a great depth of knowledge, who is writing some remarkable songs in the Calypso-Rap style. In contrast, we also heard some terribly sappy steel drum music, which our fabulous on-board ethnomusicologist Jacob Edgar excoriated on his blog, only to be swamped with angry responses from Trinidadians on social media. 


The trip got off to a somewhat slow start due to immigration clearances, etc. Venezuelan officials made it particularly difficult, so we ended up doing only a couple of zodiac cruises on the Orinoco. Didn't even touch land there, though we spent several hours at a dock while they had divers inspect our hull for drug caches. That took about two minutes. The rest of the time they seemed to be looking for an envelope stuffed with cash, which did not appear. This was particularly ironic, as the infamous plane loaded with a couple of tons of Venezuelan cocaine had landed in Paris just a day or two before. They were, of course, obviously concerned that WE might be smuggling drugs into their country.


The early part of the trip could be called "Jungle Rivers." We first went up the Orinoco River in Venezuela. Then on to the Essequibo River in Guyana, where we flew inland for an hour over pristine jungles, theoretically protected, but dotted with illegal gold mines draining toxic runoff into the rivers. We hiked in to see the 700' high Kaieteur Falls. The Tourism Minister of Guyana came on board to welcome us, and extolled the environmental awareness of their government, and their focus on protecting their extensive virgin forest. He also treated us to an array of local foods and generous amounts of their excellent prize-winning El Dorado Rum and beer. Quite a good party!


After a day at sea, we anchored in the Berbice River to visit Paramaribo, Suriname (the dilapidated capital of former Dutch New Guiana). In spite of heavy auto traffic, Paramaribo is quite charming with a wonderful mix of ethnicities including Indians (Hindu and Moslem), Javanese, African, Amerindian and European. There is a 19th century synagogue adjacent to a mosque, and a wide variety of Hindu temples and shrines. They also have an excellent ethnographical museum on the grounds of the Dutch Zeelander fort.

To prepare for our next stop, the Devil's Island group (there are 3 of them), we watched the 1970's movie with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Parts of it were embarrassingly bad, but it did prepare us for the prison ruins we were to see. The actual Devil's Island can't be visited but Royale and St. Joseph islands have lots of prison buildings and graveyards that are plenty spooky and give a good idea of what it was like there. Very atmospheric and very hot. We all sweated so much that one woman wondered aloud why we didn't just dry up like potato chips!


Just after entering Brazilian waters the Explorer had to reverse course to re-enter French Guiana so that an elderly Swiss man, who had a stroke, could be medevac-ed off the ship by a French Air Force helicopter (very exciting to watch) to the closest hospital, in Cayenne. He was flown back to Switzerland after he stabilized, but died there. He and his wife had spent 11 weeks on the ship, having come on board when they were in Iceland. 


We lost about 14 hours on our schedule, so we had to readjust our Amazon plan, but we then visited another river, if you are counting. After a full morning of immigration formalities, we cruised a web of narrow tributaries of the Amazon on our way to Belem. The river banks are muddy and the surrounding area is flat and the jungle comes up to the water. We saw lots of simple houses without glass windows but with docks and canoes and boats with motors. Satellite Dishes are not uncommon. Many people live along the waterways. Our ship is making quite a stir. Kids wave and paddle out to greet us. Other young boys buzzed around the ship in their motorized dinghies, following us for miles. We saw churches, stores, boat yards, and lumber mills. Travel in this area is only by some form of boat. The bigger boats are made of steel and can carry cars, trucks and freight as well as people. There are no cabins for sleeping but there are lots of hammocks.

Harvesting Acai

Harvesting Acai

In Belem, a city of two million people, we all visited the great Ver-o-Peso market first thing in the morning, and saw two lovely and lively cathedrals, and a grand Opera House, catching a few minutes of a live rehearsal of Il Trovatore while we were there. We split up in the afternoon, and Alida went out to a suburb to see a neighborhood of pottery-makers. Disappointing work, unfortunately, with paint and wax rather than glazes on most pieces. Our day in Belem was capped with a concert by Dona Onete, a gem of a woman, who started singing as a little girl to the dolphins that came by her river-front home on the Amazon. She has been a singer and songwriter her entire life, but is only now, at the age of 73 releasing her first album. So far it may only be available in Brazil, but I suspect it will go further.


We are also traveling with Wade Davis, for the second time. He is a Nat Geo "Fellow" and Harvard trained Ethno-Botanist, perhaps most famous for his investigation of the Zombies in Haiti. He is a prolific writer and thoroughly impressive guy. He just gave a very moving lecture this morning on his 2011 award-winning book called "Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest". Certainly worth reading if you are interested in the effects of WW1 on the psyches of the British peoples. He has been joined for a few days by a friend, Thomas Lovejoy, who was involved with WWF for 14 critical years in the '70's and 80's, then to the Smithsonian. He is now a Botany professor at George Mason University, but is most important as a shaper of environmental policy in Brazil and the US. Look him up. With those two, plus music man Jacob Edgar and his musician guests, including Drew Gonsalves (from Trinidad, living in Toronto, very knowledgeable and charming) and Chris Combette (very cool guy, enormously popular in France), we have had lots of great people to learn from. Look them all up! 

October 22, 2013


We've been having some great times in Brazil though today is a quiet one. We are in Rio Grande do Sul, our last stop before Uruguay, and it is overcast and raining. Two thirds of our companions have taken a 1-1/2 hr bus ride to walk in a nature preserve in a swamp. We decided to forgo the excitement of bird watching (and perhaps capybara and caiman sightings) in these conditions to stay aboard and catch up on this and that.

Some highlights since we wrote last:

We made a noteworthy visit to Fernando de Noronha. It is a beautiful rocky island in the Atlantic 3 days by ship southeast of Belem (big city on the Amazon), and northeast of Salvador. It was first occupied by the Portuguese in the 17th century and is a World Heritage site with a thriving, though mostly low-key, tourist presence to keep the island's 3000 inhabitants occupied. The attractions include a handsome fort that was built by the Dutch when they took over the island for a few decades starting in the 1640s and later expanded by the Portuguese. The town dates to the same period and the steep cobbled streets, original church, and houses can still be seen. To add to the festive feel of the island we arrived on the same day as 50 sailboats on a 2-day race from Recife. Beyond the historic site, our visit included snorkeling with turtles and rays, a hike to view a beautiful, untouched white sand beach with dramatic tall rocks, and an attempt by a local boat to find Spinner Dolphins who, unfortunately, were not home that day, which was a disappointment. But later...

20131008_fernando_de_noronha_18233.jpg sea near the protected Abrolhos Archipelago National Park, on the way to Rio, we had very good sightings of humpback whales. There were two sets of 3 whales traveling together, each consisting of a mother, her child, and a companion female. The dads don't get involved in the two-year child-rearing process. Mating is done in the Antarctic and child-raising is done up near the Equator. Both groups came close to the ship and traveled along with us, showing us flukes and a mysterious behavior called "sailing" where they float head-down with their tails sticking out of the water. No one knows why they do this, and it has not been observed anywhere else.


We had a good visit to Rio, seeing the famous sights, and visiting the new Museum of Art of Rio, which is conveniently located across the street from the port where the ship was tied up. We managed to traverse most of the city in spite of truly terrible traffic. They are very busy getting ready for both the World Cup next year and the Olympics in '16. It wasn't quite clear to us how they will be ready, but the World Cup elimination games will be held in other parts of Brazil as well. We did attend a very elegantly-presented 125th Birthday party for NatGeo, which was held at the former home of architect Oscar Niemeyer in Rio. The modern house and gardens were gorgeous with night lighting, and it was fun to imagine living there. The entertainment included a band and elaborately-dressed samba dancers. Later we were told that these exceedingly voluptuous dancers were actually transvestites!?! A highlight of the evening for us was a reunion with Suzana Machado d'Olivera, who lived with us for three months in Seattle in 1991. She has been working for Lindblad all these years, and did much of the planning for our voyage. Unfortunately, business prevented her from joining us on the trip.


For our second night in Rio, a great concert by a very popular (and, as we found, very charming) singer, Teresa Cristina, had been arranged at a legendary night club called the Scenarium. This was our second night of all-you-can-drink Caipirinhas (limes, sugar, and cachaca cane spirits). The club seemed to be determined to provide as many of these drinks as possible, so there was an endless parade of waiters replacing our glasses as soon as they were empty. Christopher seemed to consider it a challenge to never turn one away, but he held up pretty well. We did end up carrying another of the passengers to bed that night!

After leaving Rio, a soulful young singer named Luisa Maita, and her band, boarded the ship with us for a few days to perform. They were all great musicians, and are signed on Jacob's label, Cumbancha. We are looking forward to seeing them in New York next March at Jazz at Lincoln Center. They will be performing in several US cities, including San Francisco, at Yoshi's.


We stopped for a few hours the next morning at Ilha Anchieta, a lovely island with beautiful beaches and forest, that belied its darker past as a prison island. Everyone seemed to really enjoy a few hours of wandering and swimming on their own.



The next day we stopped at the bustling port of Paranagua. The roads were lined with semi trucks, as it is the shipping hub for the region around Sao Paolo, the biggest city in the country, and one of the biggest in the world. We traveled inland to the Parana State capital of Curitiba (a city of 2 million) to ride the 19th-century Serra Verde Express train. On the scenic route from Curitiba to Morretes, another cute colonial-style tourist town, the track passes through 14 tunnels and over 30 trestle bridges.

We were joined on the train by Cesar Gaviria, former President of Colombia (the country not the university) and also former Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, who has joined us on the ship for the rest of our voyage to Buenos Aires. Back on board the next day he gave an excellent talk on modern Latin American economics and politics. Brazil has recently become the 5th-largest economy in the world, and it is poised to become an energy and industrial leader of the future. Infrastructure and extreme poverty remain problematic. Later, he joined us for lunch with three of the other Seattle people on board to answer some questions and give us his views. He was quite personable and again displayed an impressive understanding of the challenges the world faces. The next day he spoke about the two issues he is currently involved with: the Global Commission on Drugs, and Oceana. He is on the Board of Directors of Oceana, an NGO working on international fishing policies to try to preserve the marine environment and the supply of fish for the future. They have concentrated on instituting sustainable quotas, reducing and accounting for by-catch, stopping shark-finning, and eliminating bottom-trawling. He spoke of the need to change consumer demand so that we eat more of the sustainable smaller fish, like sardines, jack-mackerel, boquerones that are now mostly used as feed for larger animals and aquaculture. That would be a much more efficient use, and could feed many more people with the same amount of resources.

The Global Commission on Drugs has been studying the failure of the "War On Drugs", on which he is quite an expert, as a former president of Colombia. He spoke passionately about the need to "have a conversation" in the US about changing our policies so that we treat drug addiction as a health problem rather than a crime. He pointed out that it is not a political issue, as everyone agrees that the war on drugs is not working; however, currently everyone is just ignoring the problem rather than dealing with it. He feels it is impossible to eradicate drug production and use, but if we remove the financial incentive, the drug lords and distribution channels will no longer operate. If drugs and help are made available to addicts through legal and controlled channels, as it is in most of Europe, the violence and crime associated with drug use is dramatically reduced. We have declared loyalty to Presidente Gaviria, and told him we would support anything he suggests. It was inspiring to hear him speak about difficult issues and to then present solutions for these problems. As he said, he tries to remain positive.  

We have just a couple more days left on the trip, to Montevideo, Uruguay, with a gaucho dinner at an estancia, and then a day of touring around Buenos Aires before our overnight flights back to the USA. We will be on land less than a week before heading out on another trip, so you probably won't hear much more from us for a while!

Love to All!