Santarem, Brazil

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 SANTAREM, BRAZIL

Santarem seems to be the first place actually located on the Amazon River where you get a sense of the Amazon as the great River Highway of South America.  Belem isn’t actually on the Amazon River but rather on a tributary, and it’s also on the Atlantic Ocean, so it has overland connections to other parts of Brazil.  There are a few smaller communities on the Amazon between Belem and Santarem (Macapa, which we visited last year, comes to mind), but these are relatively small places, and in their river ports you don’t see as much hustle and bustle as you sense when you arrive at the river docks in Santarem, a city of over 300,000 people.

It is here,too, in Santarem, that we saw for the first time the large numbers of Amazon River ferry boats that are the aquatic equivalents of Amtrak and Greyhound in this part of the world. These ferries ply the Amazon, carrying passengers hundreds if not thousands of miles up and down river, at a speed of about 10 knots an hour.  A ferry boat ride from Belem to Manaus, a distance of about 1,000 miles, that stops only to pick up and discharge passengers, takes about 4 days.  By plane it’s about a 2-hour flight.

Last year we docked in Santarem several miles outside of town, near a factory owned by Cargill, the international food giant. Cargill’s plant in Santarem processes and exports soy beans from the Amazon jungle. 

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Apparently the company purchased large tracts of Amazon land, slashed and burned it, and now uses it to grow soy beans for export. When the people in Santarem found out what Cargill was doing in connection with their plant, they were so upset and mad that the company, whose name is painted on the factory roof, had to remove its name from the other side of the roof (the side facing the city of Santarem) so the people in the city would not be reminded of Cargill’s activities. In the photo below you can see the conveyor belt leading from the Cargill factory to their loading docks where the soy beans are “bulk loaded” onto freighters.

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There are millions of Brazilians who are what we might call “rain forest activists” who fight to preserve the Amazon jungles from deforestation (which has slowed down considerably over the last decade). The Amazon jungles are “the lungs of the world” as this area converts more carbon dioxide to oxygen via photosynthesis than any other land mass on earth, accounting for some 20%. To the extent that the jungle is deforested, the less photosynthesis can occur.

Below are a few close-ups of the Amazon River ferries.  If you look closely you can see hammocks that have been hung up and even occupied already by passengers.  This is your bed for the duration of the trip if you decide to go on this boat ride….

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The color of the Amazon River is like coffee with cream in it – muddy brown, with lots of debris being washed downstream.  Santarem is the first place on the river where it was possible for us to see a large tributary flow into the Amazon and to be able to recognize the difference between the two rivers.  The Rio Negro (Black River), which has very dark water, as its name implies, flows into the Amazon near Santarem at a place called “The Meeting of the Waters”, a “must see” by boat on any visit to Santarem.  Last year we didn’t get a chance to see it from the river itself but only to view it from afar from a large observation tower about 40 feet in the air that is built on the highest point in Santarem.  This is what it looks like from the observation tower:

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The Rio Negro is the dark water, while the thin strip of muddy water is the Amazon River.  The two rivers flow next to one another, their waters unmixed, for several miles, until finally the dark Rio Negro waters are absorbed into the Amazon.  Because of the photo’s perspective, it looks like the Amazon is the smaller of the two rivers here; however, that’s not the case and only an optical illusion of the photo.  If you follow the Amazon back in the upper left of the photo, you will be able to see the what look like the two banks of the Amazon at this point in Santarem; the Rio Negro is actually going to conjoin with the Amazon several miles down river.  What looks like the green right bank of the Amazon is actually an island in the middle of the Amazon, while the true right bank of the Amazon is the thin, dark line on the horizon in the right of the photos (with more muddy water separating between the island and the right bank….).  There are literally thousands of these islands throughout the Amazon River, and the largest of them is bigger than all of Switzerland.  It’s as if the Amazon has its own archipelago inside it…

This year, the  two of us went our separate ways in Santarem.  While Kal was escorting a tour down one of the Amazon tributaries to a lake called Maica Lake, where he went piranha fishing, Nina had booked a private excursion with a few friends with a local guide to take them exploring in the Amazon jungle.  Unfortunately in another one of the schedule screw-ups that happened on this voyage, instead of arriving in Santarem at our scheduled time of 10 AM, it was nearly 1:30 PM before the ship docked in Santarem, which then required a subsequent tender to shore and a bus ride into town for most passengers  

Kal’s tour boat picked up passengers right from the ship after it docked, and soon we were off to our first stop, to see “The Meeting of the Waters” from water level.  We all thought the boat would stop right where the waters met, so we could get good photos, but instead the boat just plowed through the point where the two waters touched one another.  Nina may have a better photo than this one, and if so, perhaps she will post it here on the blog page.

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One of Nina’s pix of the Rio Negro mixing with the Amazon.

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Here is a photo from the river with Santarem in the background

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And here is another photo, a close-up, with the colors saturated bring out the different colors of the river water.  The light blue-green  building at the right is the Santarem Cathedral, which we will talk about shortly.

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No color saturation needed for this pix…

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Although you can’t tell it from these photos, at Santarem the black and the muddy waters flow together, unmingled, for several miles, until they finally join together and all the water is muddy.

The Meeting of the Waters is interesting for another reason.  It is one of the places where the fresh-water dolphins of the Amazon hang out and play. There are two kinds of Amazon fresh-water dolphins, the grey dolphin and the pink dolphin. We saw them both, but they are very hard to photograph because they just barely break water when they play. Nina was the lucky one this time, as the guide kept teasing the dolphins to the surface by attaching whole fish to fishing lines and trolling the lines in the water….

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Moving up some of the Amazon tributaries we found a number of very small river communities and even single houses, all erected on the river and all on stilts because of the fluctuations in the Amazon’s water level during the year.  Some of these houses are used only when the river is low; when the river rises the occupants evacuate to someplace else during the high water season.  I could not learn where they move to, and this seemed rather strange since it is an annual phenomenon, but it is what it is…..

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There is real life going on on the River:

a kid walking on water with the help of a board….

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Some others not doing much in particular, although the canoe is attached and at the ready….

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laundry day on the River….

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Here was a real Amazon surprise:  a small herd of water buffalo – not more than 10 or 15 total –  being “cowboyed” by a guy in a canoe !

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Many dwellings along the Amazon have thatched roofs.

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The thatching is made, not from palm fronds, but from the leaves of a related tree that is all curled up when it is cut.  The leaves are then opened and allowed to dry flat for a week or so, then attached to the roofs of the dwellings.  These thatched roofs must be replaced every 3 to 5 years in order to keep out the rains effectively.

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Livestock is kept by the river dwellers for their own consumption, as well as horses to help round up some of the livestock, particularly sheep. Pigs, goats, sheep and cattle, in addition to water buffalo, are to be found.

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To prevent loss of animals during rising waters, the river dwellers built elevated platforms with ramps for the animals to “escape to” if the water level should suddenly rise and cover the grassy land.The rise to the platform is on the right side of the photo

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Cruising through the jungle we saw a lot of wildlife in their natural habitats (isn’t that the whole point of venturing out into the jungle to view wildlife?).  Noteworthy of mention were many birds, which this egret is but one example

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Some exotic birds

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an Amazon lizard (iguana)

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and a sloth, which Nina successfully photographed. Do you see the claws on this baby??

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Nina had a canoe ride into the deepest parts of the jungle..

Our canoe driver leaving home to join our boat.

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But of course a big part of this adventure was supposed to be piranha fishing. So the captain gave everyone throw lines with hooks and pieces of either cut fish or pork to use as bait, and into the waters flew the lines.

Piranhas, as you know are considered to be man-eaters.  They have small but razor-sharp teeth and are attracted to blood.  We are told that people can swim in the rivers with piranha in them but only if there are no wounds or sores on the body that could bleed and attract the fish (although the AAA doesn’t recommending swimming with them as a :Get to Know Brazil” activity).  There are several species of piranha in the Amazon, and their sizes range from the size of a small flounder, at the largest, to the size of a small perch, on the other side of the scale. 

Piranha are readily available in Brazil as living room mantle decorations and as you can see from the photos below, its just gotta hurt like hell if one of these little buggers took a bite outa you.

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Perhaps we had arrived at Maica Lake after piranha feeding time, because of the 35 or so people on board the boat who went piranha fishing, only two fish were caught, and one of these was by the boat captain and the other by his assistant.  So by the end of the fishing expedition the score was was crew 2, passengers 0.

This is what one of the little buggers looked like:

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And is so often the case in life, things often turn out better if you just keep your mouth shut. But this fish was lucky because we had a “catch and release” piranha program that day, so the captain just unhooked him and after everyone took photos, tossed the little guy back into the river.  If I ever meet any of his relatives in water, do ya think it’ll do any good to remind them of the kindness we extended to that little guy on that day?  Didn’t think so…….

After the piranha fishing it was time to head back, so we essentially retraced our steps and headed back to Santarem.

The sail back to Santarem was a good lesson in how everything – EVERYTHING – in the Amazon is dependent upon the River.  Here’s a Texaco gasoline station right in the middle of the river.  Need gas?  Pull your boat along side and fill ‘er up!

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Need to build houses, dig holes, clear land?  It all starts with getting the heavy equipment to a location close to where it’s needed – by river barge.

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Need to kick back for an ice cold one, but you’re in the jungle in the middle of nowhere?  Would a beer barge help?

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Entering Santarem from upriver on our way back to the docks, we sail by The Boardwalk and pass the Santarem Cathedral,

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to which we plan to return after the escorted tour is over.

We pass a now-famous landmark in Santarem, a store whose name was originally something else but whose owners changed it several years ago to Fim do Mundo, meaning The End of the World.

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When the banks of the Amazon overflowed into Santarem several years ago, the waters reached the height of the bottom of the sign…..

We again passed the commercial ferry docks, a very small section of which can be seen here,

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and made our way back to our tendering docks, where the tour ended.  The ms Aida Vita, a German ship, had arrived before us and taken what had been our berth in port last year.  This ship has been traveling almost in parallel with us since at least Buzios.  Being a German ship, all the beer on it is free.  And don’t you just love her exterior décor? If you were to look at her head-on, she would be kissing you……

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So now that the tour is over, I want to high-tail it back to town for a quick visit to the Santarem Cathedral to see something unique inside.  On the way I am reminded  that Santarem is a jumping off point for Amazon River travel, and hammocks are an indispensible item for ferry boaters.  There were many, many stalls along the Boardwalk selling nothing but hammocks in an almost endless variety of colors, patterns and weaves – from the most utilitarian to the fancy. I thought about buying a couple to bring home, then decided NAH – what are we going to do?  Rock outside in our hammocks in 115 degree Arizona summer heat?  Or slowly sweat to death in So. Florida humidity as we swing in the wind between two palm trees?  I don’t think so….

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As I understand it, the story of the Santarem Cathedral is as follows:  The Cathedral was built in the latter half of the 18th century and was therefore functioning for many, many years when, some time toward the end of the 19th century, a German businessman came to Santarem and was faced with some serious misfortune or illness.  He is said to have prayed to God and said that if God would help him, he would make a worthy donation to the Cathedral in Santarem.  The guy is helped or saved or whatever, and to fulfill his promise he has a great crucifix made, which he gives to the Cathedral and which becomes the Cathedral’s centerpiece. 

We were told that this is the only altar crucifix in the world in which Christ, instead of looking down, is looking over his left shoulder with his eyes directed toward heaven.

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Except for the altar crucifix, I don’t think the Cathedral is otherwise remarkable as it is otherwise pretty plain and unadorned.

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For anyone interested in the background of this Cathedral, known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Conceicao (and I have no idea who that is), AND who can understand Portuguese, the following is available:

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After visiting the Cathedral it was time to catch the shuttle bus from the square in Santarem back to the ship.  As I made my way back to the bus I passed a shop that gave me pause to stop and ask, “Don’t people think about the names they give things that are important to them?”

The word “Modas means “fashions.  The rest speaks for itself…..

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Back on the square where the shuttle bus was, were two phone booths.  The first was this one:

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In Brazil when someone answers the phone the first thing he says is “Oi” – I guess it’s kind of like “Hi” or “Hey”.  But the first few times we heard this, before we figured it out, I’m thinking to myself, “Are these people like New  York Jews – the first word out of their mouth is OY – a complaint ?”  Then I saw the spelling on the phone booth somewhere and asked what it meant…..

The second phone booth is one that seems to fit in so well with the milieu.  It needs no help or explanation (although a fresh coat of paint couldn’t hurt…..)

 

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So taking leave of our favorite Santarem parrot, we hopped onto the shuttle bus and made our way back to the ship.

Tomorrow we are sailing to Boca………………..that is, to the Amazon Indian river village of Boca de Valeria, Brazil.

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