Category Archives: South American Grand Voyage 2012

Devil’s Island, French Guiana




It turns out that the famous and infamous Devil’s Island, located just off the coast of French Guiana, is one of those places really worth visiting – ONCE.

Since we were here last year, and since last year was a beautiful if humid day while today was overcast and rainy, with ship’s tender landings intermittently suspended because of strong squalls (a squall is rain accompanied by high winds and rough water), we decided to forego a second visit but share some information about the place and use last year’s photos as illustrations.

What is commonly known as Devil’s Island is actually only one of a cluster of three islands off the coast of French Guiana cynically named the Salvation Islands.  The three islands in this cluster are Royal Island, Devil’s Island and St. Joseph’s Island.  The actual penal colony made famous first by the Dreyfus trial at the end of the 19th century and more recently by the novel and film Papillion is located on Royal Island; there is nothing on Devil’s Island. However, in this blog when I refer to Devil’s Island, I will primarily be referring to Royal Island, where the penal colony was located. Royal Island is about 70 acres large, and the three islands are separated from one another by a narrow strip of sea only about 650 yards wide, but the treacherous currents in the passage and the ever-present sharks in the waters insured that the islands were “escape-proof”.  Prison wardens and their wives who died while in service were buried in a small cemetery on St. Joseph’s Island; there is a small children’s cemetery on Royal Island, and inmates who died were turned unceremoniously into shark food, their bodies being thrown into the sea. “Devil’s Island” stopped receiving prisoners in 1936, and its phase-out as a prison began in 1948.  The place was closed down as a penal colony in 1953.

Today many of the buildings have been restored to some degree and repurposed to tell the story of this infamous French penal colony. One of the buildings has been converted into a small hotel (it’s hard to imagine who would want to come here for a vacation, but we’re told that people from Cayenne, the capital of French Guiana, come here because the rates are low although neither the accommodations nor the service are exactly sumptuous). There is an exhibit hall that recounts the story of the infamous trial of French Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who in the early 1890’s was falsely accused by France of passing military secrets to Germany and subsequently tried and found guilty of treason, stripped of his rank and sentenced to prison on Devil’s Island. Eventually new evidence came to light proving Dreyfus’ innocence, he received highest honors from the French Government and was restored to the military as a General, and served France in World War I.  The handling of his case and sentence were so unpopular in France that the famed French writer Emile Zola wrote an excoriating diatribe against the French government (titled “I ACCUSE!”) accusing it of outright, blatant anti-Semitism.  It has been said that the only thing Alfred Dreyfus was really guilty of, was that he was born a Jew.

Many people who come to Devil’s Island are surprised to find that it’s a tropical paradise – one, however, that requires a yellow fever shot in order to travel there. Your first real view of what the island holds is from the tender dock

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from which you can also see the actual Devil’s Island several hundred yards away.

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As you disembark a footpath leads to the left, and walking along it gives ample evidence of the tropical nature of this place, being only 8 degrees north of the equator.

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Walking around the island you run into several different kinds of wildlife, some of it indigenous to the island, such as this capybara (the world’s largest rodent – think guinea pig on steroids) – it weighs about 40 pounds…

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or these howler monkeys….

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and some of the wildlife introduced species, such as these colored macaws

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or this particular breed of chicken (chickenus empiricus?), which camouflages almost perfectly with the ground

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A walk around Devil’s Island will bring you to the walls surrounding the prisoner’s barracks

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here in close-up – the stone being a type of lava rock indigenous to the island

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The buildings to the right of the wall were the prison guards living quarters and today are used by the French soldiers who look after the islands

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here one of the soldiers has brought a couple of coconuts back to the barracks……

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Clearly there was some attention paid to aesthetics on the island despite its sinister purpose, as this wall design will attest:

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The old military hospital, no longer in use, has has its exterior partially restored and the surrounding grounds cleaned up

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although as of last year there was still a lot of work to do:

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A fresh rainwater reservoir, now covered with algae, was the primary source of drinking water for the inhabitants of Devil’s Island. 

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Surprisingly, there is also the remnants of a salt-water swimming pool on the far side of the island that was used by the prison guards and their families.  Visitors to the island today can actually swim in that pool today; which is on the edge of the island.  At the same time they are warned against actually swimming in the adjacent ocean waters because of strong currents and sharks……

From an overlook at the hotel restaurant on the far side of the island (Royal Island) you can actually see all of Devil’s Island itself, although there is nothing there except a couple of footpaths.

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The penal colony is actually located on the upper part of Royal Island, and the winding path around the island slope up gradually but takes a long time to get to the top level where the penal colony facilities were located, including the Warden’s Residence., which is located on the top level of the island but closer to the dock. To enable the Warden and visitors to the island to get to the Warden’s Residence and offices more quickly, the prisoners built a very steep stone staircase, consisting of 97 steps, some of them fairly wide and some very narrow, but all steep,  as a shortcut from the bottom to the top and back again. 

Here are photos of Nina descending the last 4 or 5 steps, plus a view of the staircase at one of its wider points. Believe me, the descent is much steeper  than it looks….

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For us the most interesting part of the island is the permanent exhibit, now located in the former Warden’s Residence, of what came to be known throughout Europe and the United States at the end of the 19th century as “The Dreyfus Affair” – the accusation, trial, conviction, imprisonment, retrial, reconviction – and finally, complete exoneration of French Jewish military officer Captain Alfred Dreyfus.  Unfortunately, this being a French colony, all the texts in the exhibit were in French, but there were also many photographs that would be familiar to someone (like Kal) who was familiar wit the Dreyfus case.

This is a photo from the exhibit of  the far side of  Royal Island just prior to Dreyfus’ arrival:

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Dreyfus, as a high-profile prisoner, received “special” treatment.  A stone cell, measuring four square yards, was built for him.  It had a barred window and door and was guarded day and night, and a light was always on in the cell.  A fence was built surrounding the cell to prevent him from seeing the sea. 

Each night from September 6 to October 8, 1896, Dreyfus was put in iron chains.  This was the result of a fictitious account, printed in an English paper, of his escape from Devil’s Island.  Dreyfus was never told why he was put in chains. Dreyfus’ guards, ever fearful of an international plot surrounding him, were continually on the alert.  Wherever one of the guards saw a boat on the horizon, a loaded pistol would be pointed at prisoner Dreyfus’ head until the boat disappeared. 

The Warden of Devil’s Island even received instructions in 1896 to embalm Dreyfus’ body before shipping it back to France if Dreyfus had died.  This would preserve  evidence whether Dreyfus had committed suicide or was the victim of foul play.

This is a photo of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in his military uniform:

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and a contemporary French political illustration showing a convicted Dreyfus being demoted and disgraced (his military sword is being broken over the officer’s knee)::

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Here is a photo of French writer Emil Zola’s open letter to the President of the French Republic, a public indictment of the French judicial system as a result of the outcome of the Dreyfus trial (“I ACCUSE!”):

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And finally, a picture of Dreyfus being released from Devils Island after his exoneration.  Apparently ladies accompanied his departure from the island as there appear to be ladies’ hats at the bottom of this photo:

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Having covered all that we wanted to see on Royal Island last year, namely, the penal colony commonly known as Devil’s Island and the exhibit on the case and trial of Alfred Dreyfus, we hopped back on the tender and returned to ship.

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I doubt if anything different would have taken place this year, except that instead of last year’s humidity it would have been rainy and windy this year.  In any event, one visit to Isle de Diablo is enough for us…..

Sunday, March 12, 2012

The last two stops on our  trip before we returned to Ft. Lauderdale were Castries, St. Lucia and Phillipsburg, St. Maarten.  Both are Caribbean islands that most likely will be familiar to people who have visited the Caribbean.  Because, strictly speaking, these are only “convenience ports” and not really a part of our South American experience, we’re not sure that we will be blogging about them, and if we do, it will only be after we return to the USA

(From Kal:  I didn’t even bother getting off the ship in either of these ports, so I have nothing to contribute.)  

We may blog about our return trip to Arizona from Florida, but this will depend on whether we have any particularly noteworthy adventures that we think others would be interested in reading about.

If you are following this blog, you should receive an email next time we post.  So stay tuned!  There may be more!


Manaus, Brazil – Day 2



Last night when Nina and I went out to the Rabbi’s home the taxi driver began hacking and coughing as soon as we were in the taxi and on the way.  I think I must have caught something from him, as today when I woke up I was not feeling well, so I spent the entire day in bed, resting and recuperating, and got up just in time to prepare for evening Kabbalat Shabbat (Welcoming the Sabbath) prayer services.

That was our 2nd day in Manaus, but it wasn’t really so bad, as both of us had been here before, and between our prior visit and the amount of walking and sight-seeing we did yesterday, I think we have pretty much covered what interested us here in Manaus. 

I am still in a bit of wonderment that this bustling city of over 2 million people has no roads that lead to it, but that the Amazon River is its highway, its freeway, its arterial traffic way, and that EVERYTHING – every car, every bus, every truck, every piece of food, clothing machinery – EVERYTHING – is brought into the city via this great river, to a large city located a thousand miles from nowhere and surrounded by the Amazon jungle……

Well, I (Nina) went out with Ellen to shop for what I was hoping would be the same Keratin treatment I use at home to straighten my hair. (The original treatment is called the Brazilian Blowout, so you assume it comes from Brazil, right??)  Well, Ellen and I decided not to take the cameras since we were going to be alone and brave the humid, hot climate.  We walked through the open air market until we found a store that specializes in hair products. The only clerk who spoke English, took us directly to the most expensive products that come from USA… So we said thanks but no thanks, and on the way out… I found exactly what I wanted, made in Brazil, and costing at least a 1/3rd less than the others.

We kept walking. The day before we passed, what looked like this great store with what seemed like authentic Amazon things, jewelry, baskets etc. but yesterday when we passed the store was closed, today is was sealed shut with shutters, so no luck there. We stopped for some seriously good Brazilian espresso.



Manaus, Brazil – Day 1



Imagine getting into a boat where, for the next 4 to 5 days, you’re going to be sleeping outside in a hammock, no showers, barely a place to wash your face and handle personal hygiene; and in this boat you’re going to be going a big river where in deep into jungles where, with just a couple of exceptions, you will barely see anyone along the way, and there are no roads that lead to where you’re going: and when you finally get there, all you will find in the middle of a jungle in the middle of nowhere is……

…………… a bustling port city with nearly 2-1/2 million people.

Congratulations and Welcome.  You are now in Manaus, the capital city of the Amazon.

The story of Manaus can be summed up in one word:  R – U – B – B – E – R.   For most of the 19th century Brazil held a virtual monopoly on the world’s rubber supply, and most of that rubber came from the area of Manaus, which is why you find such a large city in the middle of a jungle, hundreds of miles from anywhere. Great wealth from rubber brought an era of rubber barons and enormous public building in Manaus, all of it funded from profits from the rubber trade.

Brazil managed to keep a virtual monopoly on the rubber trade until the end of the 19th century when a British gentleman gathered 70,000 rubber tree seeds in Manaus, sent them to Belem and, telling the local authorities they were a gift for Queen Victoria’s birthday, had them shipped to England.  When the seeds arrived they were planted in the Royal Botanical Gardens, and when seedlings sprouted they were sent off to British-controlled Malaysia where they were planted and eventually broke Brazil’s rubber production monopoly, thus ending the “good times” that the rubber barons and Manaus had enjoyed for so long.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of the enormous wealth that rubber brought to the Amazon region is the Manaus Opera House, built in 1896 and modeled after the famous Italian opera house La Scala. As you look at these photos, keep reminding yourselves that it’s the latter part of the 19th century and you’re in the middle of a jungle, a thousand miles from anywhere……

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So much money flowed into Manaus during this period that, despite the fact that Brazil has lots of easily accessible and high-quality building materials, the vast majority of the building materials used to construct the opera house, including marble, wood flooring, iron work, and all the interior décor, and including the master craftsmen necessary to build the opera house and do the interior installations, were all imported from Europe. So advanced and state-of-the-art modern was the opera house in its day, that in the middle of a rain forest jungle, sitting near a river and almost on the equator, in a place where rain, heat and humidity are just part and parcel of every day life, the opera house had central air conditioning throughout the theatre over one hundred years ago.   The air was pumped into the theatre through vents that were placed, every few rows, under the opera house seats .

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We happened to be visiting the opera house during a rehearsal for the opening of the season in April and sat in the seats. The A/C worked so well that there were actually places inside the opera house where it was cold.   Unbelieveable…..

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The ceiling of the opera house, as well as the rest of the wall and ceiling decorations throughout,

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were painted by a French painter brought in to do the work.  The four legs on the ceiling of the opera house are actually the legs of the Eiffel Tower, and the same company that did the Eiffel Tower ironwork did all the ironwork for the Manaus Opera House.

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The luxury extends beyond the theatre area itself and extends to all areas of the opera house.  Note the crystal chandeliers, wall paintings and inlaid wood floors in the ballroom on the 2nd floor of the opera house, adjacent to the 2nd-floor box seat area of the theatre.

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The 2nd floor box seats are located on the other side of the door that can be seen through the portico on the right side of the photo below.

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Because the opera house is open to public tours, the authorities are anxious to preserve the flooring, so everyone going off the carpet and onto the wood floors is required to wear slippers.


Here I am in mine…..

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From the 2nd floor box seats, the opera house stage looks like this,

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and the box seat area on one side of the theatre looks like this:

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Tops of the first level pillars inside the opera house are a veritable homage to the arts.  The pillars wrap around the entire seating area of the theatre, and each pillar bears the name of an internationally known contributor to the arts.

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The dome of the Manaus Opera house consists of colored and gold leafed ceramic tiles. The colors of the dome, perhaps by design, seem to be the national colors of Brazil.

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The grounds of the Manaus Opera House are no less beautiful than the interior. This is a view of a part of the front grounds of the opera house, taken from the 2nd floor.  Behind the trees sits a large square with a fascinating statue,

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while on the lawn are several statues that serve as homages to the arts.  This is a statue of Euterpe, the Muse of Music:

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and a statue of Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry:

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The large square in front of the Manaus Opera House is paved in a way  that creates an optical illusion when you stare at if for a few moments

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The statue in the square was erected to commemorate 400 years of discovery in Brazil and remembers the continents from which explorers departed to come to explore Brazil.

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The snake on America’s ship is an Anaconda, found only in South America

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After visiting the Manaus Opera House, we continued on foot to see other notable sites in Manaus. As we were walking along we came across an eco-gift store with some of the most interesting arts, but unfortunately, it was closed.  We could only get a few photos of the goodies inside.

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As we continued walking we passed this building bearing a painted jungle bas relief on its exterior:

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A little further on we found a brazil nut vendor.  He was shelling brazil nuts with the equivalent of a “brazil nut guillotine” that removed those really hard brazil nut shells. We had never seen this kind of device before.

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One of the interesting things we look at when we visit different countries is the graffiti.  We’re not looking for “messages” but for what is genuinely folk art.  While we saw a lot of graffiti during this trip, unlike with other trips this time we didn’t pause to photograph most of it.  However, we found a clown in Manaus that seemed to follow us as we walked by him.  Hello Bozo !

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What is it ?????

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Something else we look for are interesting business signs.  This sign was on the corner of a cake bakery located in a corner building.  One half of the cake was on one street, while the second half was on the other street. Nice wrap-around…..

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We next headed to the area of the Rio Negro National Palace Museums.  Remember that Manaus is located on the Rio Negro, and near Manaus it joins the Rio Solameus to become the Rio Amazonas or Amazon River.  The word “palace” throughout Brazil in the sense of “a residence”, not simply “a hotel”. The National Palace Museums are housed in a Baroque style building from the 19th century that served as the former residence of the Governor of Manaus.


Public buildings like these in Manaus offer a taste of the elegance of the Old World European buildings they imitated.  The main staircase in the building looked like this (the building’s first floor is on the floor below the grandfather clock in the center):


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and at the top of these stairs the following:

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Furniture?  Art?

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Note the flooring, which alternates a lighter wood with Brazilian jacaranda hardwood, and which is present throughout the entire building.

This round Chippendale table, with its legs coming off one large center block of wood, reminded Kal of a table he used to have when he lived in Israel. (Even though the top of the table is leather). NOTE: The women of Manus during this time would routinely send their clothing back to Europe to clean and then send back. Imagine how many dresses they would have needed at the time, till their clothes came back from the dry cleaners???)

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The furniture was clearly all imported from Europe

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with beautiful hand carved woods and hand tooled leather in abundance.

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An interesting painting from the start of the age of aviation graced one wall of the main reception room

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while more contemporary Amazonia art covered the opposite wall:

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A view outside from the 2nd floor to the side of the building showed a lovely garden with beautiful ironwork on the balcony:

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Next to the Rio Negro National Palace Museums was a lovely park through which ran what looked like a sewage channel that the city of Manaus has turned into a sprawling green area in the middle of the city.  P1140182 (1024x765)

There were charming cut-out metal sculptures placed throughout the park that hearkened back to an earlier period:

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From here we walked to the Provincial Palace, which also houses a series of very small museums in arts, ancient sculpture, coins, Chinese numismatics and archeology.  Unfortunately no photos of the interiors were allowed, so we could take pictures only of the exterior.

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Statues of Brazilian soldiers from another era “stand guard” at the entrance.

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Right next to the Regional Palace Museums we walked through a beautiful park

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with a gazebo……

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What a gazebo !

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As we were heading back to the ship, expecting to call it a day (between our trip to Manaus last year and this year’s trip, we had seen everything in Manaus that was of interest), we both noticed someone about 30 yards away and walking toward us who seemed completely out of place. It was a man  with a beard (Brazilians do not have facial hair) dressed in a suit and a fedora hat with little white threads peeking out from the sides of his pants and disappearing into his pockets.  So I shouted out to him, “Reb Yid!”, for he was clearly Jewish, a Chasid of the Chabad Lubavitch variety, just sauntering along the street, a thousand miles from anywhere there were more than a handful of Jews.  We talked briefly, and as  it turned out, by another act of pure serendipity, we had bumped into the emissary of the Chabad movement in Manaus, the Rabbi of the Jews from the Amazon Rain Forest !

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In an act of true Jewish hospitality, fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (lit.,“taking in guests”)  Rabbi Raichman graciously invited us to his home that night for dinner, an invitation we delightfully accepted.  As the afternoon was getting on, and as the dinner invitation was for 6:30 PM, we decided to head back to the ship to clean up and change clothes, and as dusk fell we grabbed a cab outside the port area and headed to the Rabbi’s house.

What a delightful evening.  We were greeted by Rabbi Raichman and his lovely wife, a native of Belem,

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and their 3 young children. 

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The oldest, a boy named Mendy, was nearly 3 years old and due for his upsheren (first haircut) in less than a month, according to their custom.

While we enjoyed a wonderful chicken dinner (our first taste of meat of any kind in two months and therefore a double delight), Rabbi Raichman and his wife told us about themselves and how they got to Manaus, about the Jewish community in Manaus and about the Jews in the Amazon Rain Forest in general.  Rabbi Raichman is from Houston, Texas, the son of an Argentinian father and a Brazilian mother who moved to the USA many years ago. His wife is a Brazilian native of Belem.  They have been in Manaus about two-and-a-half years.

According to Rabbi Raichman there are a total of about 850 people in Manaus who call themselves Jewish, although by his reckoning there are only about 250 people who would be considered Jewish according to Jewish law, meaning that their mothers were Jewish.  However, of these 250, about 30 worship in churches, another 30 or 40 have no interest in identifying with the Jewish community, and there are only a handful of young people – Rabbi Raichman says they number about 30 – who can be the future of the Jewish community here.  And it is primarily to work with these 30 people that Rabbi Raichman and his family are here for the long haul…..

The rabbi says there is another synagogue in Manaus, consisting of about 400-500 people, but according to Rabbi Raichman its members consist of many people who are not considered Jewish under Jewish religious law.  Apparently this was the synagogue we tried to visit last year in Manaus and got caught in a torrential downpour just as the taxi pulled up to the building.

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According to the rabbi, who seems to have done his homework, there is one Jew, an Israeli who likes living in the rain forest, who lives in Parintins and runs a youth hostel for Israeli youth traveling around South America after their compulsory military service in the Israel Defense Forces.  There are also a handful of Jews in Santarem, mainly the descendants of Moroccans who came to the rain forest as businessmen at the end of the 19th century.  Their community is predominantly Sefardic (Jews whose origins are in the Iberian peninsula). Nina believes that her Amazon jungle guide in Santarem is from that segment of the Santarem Jewish community.

Belem, which actually sits on a tributary of the Amazon near the Atlantic Ocean, is considered a part of the rain forest  community because Para, the province in which Belem is located, is there the eastern edge of the rain forest begins. As Rabbi Raichman’s wife is a native of Belem, the information she provided was especially informative.  According to her, there are about 1,000 Jews who live in Belem, which has the largest Jewish population of any of the Amazon Rain Forest communities.  Her father is a trained shochet (ritual slaughterer of kosher meat and poultry), and it is from him that the Raichmans obtain kosher meat and poultry.  They tell that her father the shochet used to fly to Manaus every couple of months to slaughter animals that the Rabbi obtained from local suppliers, but over time they found it was less expensive to have the meat slaughtered in Belem and sent by air (a two hour flight) to Manaus.  There are very few Jews who keep kosher in Manaus; Rabbi Raichman mentioned that his need for kosher chickens for the Manaus kosher community was 120 birds every 2 months. All other kosher foods are brought in by air as well, despite the fact that it is very expensive.  A liter of kosher milk costs 3 reals in Belem, but the cost for brining it to Manaus adds an additional 2-2.5 reals to the price, and similarly for all other Kosher products. For reasons having to do with Kosher observance, they do not buy any prepared breads, cakes, etc. but bake everything they eat from scratch.

After a most informative and pleasant evening with the Raichmans it was time to take out leave and return to the ship.

And now a plug:  anyone interested in supporting Rabbi Raichman’s selfless activities is invited to contact him directly via the information shown on his card (above).  We also want it known that Rabbi Raichman has not asked us to do this, nor does he even know we are doing it (unless he has decided to follow this blog, too). Rather, we have seen first-hand someone devote himself, his family and his life to selflessly to a cause in which he believes deeply, and we believe that such dedication is worthy of support.

It was well pas 11 PM when we returned to the port area.  Earlier that day we had tried to find wi-fi services in the port area, unsuccessfully.  But when we returned from the Raichmans we found perhaps 50 crew members from our ship spread all over the terminal area, sitting on the floor, all apparently logged on to the same wi-fi bandwidth on their iphones or laptops.  As we have learned on our cruise travels, when crew members get some time off, they are less interested in sight-seeing than in finding a supermarket where they can buy junk-food snacks for themselves (potato ships and the like) and staying in touch with their families and loved ones.

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And so ended our day in Manaus.  We were schedule to spend two days here, but having seen everything of interest to us already, we spent most of Day 2 just relaxing on board ship (Kal was recuperating from something he caught earlier this evening) , waiting for our adventures to continue.

One final thing to share from Manaus:  Brazil is a land of amazing natural precious and semi-precious stones, and of course, a land of only-God-knows-how-many different bird species. Two of the largest jewelers based in Brazil, H. Stern and Amsterdam-Sauer, have beautiful bird pieces made of these semi-precious stones, and believe us when we say that these photos don’t do them justice.  However, simply because they are so beautiful we want to share some examples with you.  Hope you enjoy them So here we go…….

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Boca De Valeria, Brazil



When we were in South America last year we visited Boca de Valeria, a small Indian village upriver from Santarem that’s so small we never managed to find it in any guide books on Brazil.  Nina didn’t like the place last year (she calls it “Boca de Chaleria”, so this year only I got off the ship for a return visit to Boca (not THAT Boca, THIS Boca….). And since nothing much has changed in Boca de Valeria in the past year, I’m going to use some photos from last year on this blog page.

Although a certain amount of modernity has come to Boca de Valeria, this Amazon River community of perhaps 75 houses attempts to preserve its ancient traditions in spite of the onslaughts of modernity.  Rumor has it that once a Costa Cruises captain had some extra time on the cruise itinerary between Santarem and Manaus and found this name on a map but no additional information.  So he sent an “expedition” from his ship to find out what was there and if there was anything worth seeing.  And, as they say, the rest is history…… Today numerous ships drop anchor offshore from the village and, depending on whether the tide is high or low, tender the passengers to either a primitive port in the middle of the village (as we did this year – Amazon River is very high right now) or to an even MORE primitive port if the tide is low (namely, step out of the tender and onto some plank boards planted in red clay mud, and walk about 25 steps to a less muddy dirt path that leads into the village.  

When ships drop anchor here the kids are let out of school and dress in what are supposed to be traditional Amazonian Indian costumes in order to show themselves off to fawning tourists in the hope of being beneficiaries of some tourist largesse. The kids “greet” the guests where they disembark, and whether you meet the kids on the mud path or on the dock, in both cases it feels something like running the gauntlet as the kids grab your hand, supposedly to show you around in a language you can’t understand, and at the end of the tour the “protocol” is to give each kid a dollar.  Other “dollar moments” are the opportunities to photograph the kids with their pets, some of which are quite exotic to the rest of us. There are also handicrafts for sale, some of which were undoubtedly made by the residents themselves, and many of which are simply brought in from larger cities and offered to tourists for sale.  And finally, one additional opportunity is to take a ride along several of the canals and tributaries of the Amazon in a river canoe, piloted by some of the young men of the Boca de Valeria village and others nearby as well (“one friend brings another” seems to be the operative business model here), and on this river ride one can get close up to the river and some of its wonders.  It was specifically for the opportunity to take a canoe river ride that I returned to Boca de Valeria this year.

One of the things most people don’t realize is that there aren’t any beaches along the Amazon. That’s because the river rises and falls several times each year.  Plant life grows right up to the banks of the river, and the river flow does not allow any sand to accumulate, so the shore is always either dirt or rock. Here are some examples from today.  The photos were taken from the tender as we were approaching the dock.

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This year as we docked we were met by the kids and “walked the gauntlet”:

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Last year the kids just ran up to the visitors,grabbed their hands and led them around the “village”. 

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Some of the older women found themselves with as many as 6-8 “instant grandchildren”, and they ate it up…..

Because this is a river community, meaning that the entire village is located on or close to the banks of the Amazon, all the houses are built on stilts to protect them from the rising river.  Here the family canoe is “parked” in the “garage” under the house……

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Some of the houses are painted and actually have a primitive kind of “pretty” to them.

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Below was the most highly decorated house we saw in Boca de Valeria.

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But painted or not, why give up the creature comforts? Anyone for CNN en Espanol?

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Meet some of the kids’ exotic pets.

The sloth:

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The capybara, the world’s largest rodent (looks like a giant guinea pig):  P1000561 (768x1024)

The lizard:

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The Amazon catfish (a daddy is showing it off)::

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The parrot:

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The kids (and even some adults) in their “typical” Amazon River Indian dress:

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 The natives sell some of their hand-made wares as a means of supporting themselves.

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One of the sellers offering “original works of art” for sale (and T-shirts):

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Now look carefully at the picture for sale at the far left:

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A painting (highly desired, I’m sure) of our own cruise ship, the Prinsendam, on the same day that very ship happened to drop anchor and bring tourists. What a coinkydink! Ya think?  The funniest thing I saw today was one of the ship’s passengers, a typical “old lady” who had “acquired about 6 “dollar grandchildren” at the dock, showing her “grandkids” which cabin on the ship was hers……as if they understood or even cared…..pathetic……

But I was there for the canoe trip, so……

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Less than a minute after leaving the dock area we came to a field of lilies….lily pads, that is, some with blooming flowers, and many of these pads were over 4 feet in diameter.

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These bad boys had some really intimidating protective spikes on their backsides.

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We passed a lizard hanging on to a log

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Birds of all kinds, including this yellow-billed egret, commonly found in the Amazon.

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While the Amazon River itself can rage, the canals off the River are very tranquil, as you can see from the reflections:


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There were wooded sections of the rain forest that where the ground was flooded

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but the growth was so thick that it was actually dark inside the growth:

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We had an extra “traveler” in our canoe, the younger sister of the young man piloting the canoe. She had just received a gift of a pencil holder and some note pads from some of the visitors and was using her “ride time” to open and inspect it.  Here she is with one of the note pads shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart:

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Here she is riding the canoe’s bow

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And, at the bottom of the canoe, her footwear – typical of so many Amazonia dwellers:

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On the way back we passed a number of houses on stilts (to keep the ground floor always above the river water line) of members of the Boca de Valeria river community.  Isolated …. isolated….but see the satellite  dish?  

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If they have satellite, it’s obvious they have electricity:

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We passed some other canoe trippers on the way,

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and then back to the  dock to go back to the Prinsendam

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and LUNCH !

Tomorrow we’re going to be in Manaus, a city of 2 million-plus people located about a thousand miles up the Amazon.  This will be the farthest we will travel up the Amazon, and we will be here for two days.  We’re hoping to be able to post all our accumulated–but-not-yet-posted blogs from Manaus ! !

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.


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…


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….




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….



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




an Amazon lizard (iguana)


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


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

Our canoe driver leaving home to join our boat.





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.


Where We’ve Been…Where We’re Going….From Belem to a Thousand Miles Up the Amazon and Back……






We leave the Amazon and Brazil and head for France’s last outpost in South America, French Guiana and it’s most famous off-shore attraction, Devil’s Island.


From Devil’s Island we’ll be heading into the Caribbean and to Castries, the capital of the island of St. Lucia.


From St. Lucia the plan is to sail to Phillipsburg on the island of St. Martin.  St. Martin is actually a divided island, part of which belongs to the Dutch (with Phillipsburg as its capital) and part belonging to the French, with Marigot as its capital. There is no border crossing on the island in order to go back and forth – you just go.  The border appears to be more a line on a map than anything else.  If you didn’t know the island was divided, the only way you might know is that French is spoken on one side, Dutch on another, English on both.


And following St. Martin, we plan to dock in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, USA on March 12th, God willing ! We’ll probably be in Flada for a week or so before heading back out West.


It’ll be great to be back in the US of A and plan the trip home back to Arizona !

Belem, Brazil



“Belem” means “Bethlehem” in Portuguese (in Spanish I think it’s “Belen”). Having been to both the biblical Bethlehem and its Brazilian namesake, believe me that about all they share is a name.

Belem is located just below the mouth of the Amazon where the Amazon runs into the Atlantic Ocean.  We had visited last year on a weekday, when the rain was pouring, streets were flooded (we actually saw some people using canoes to navigate around) and where our shuttle bus dropped us off last year, we felt that every native was looking at us, trying to figure out how to mug us and get away with it. In fact, the totality of the situation was so uncomfortable last year that we got off the shuttle, walked around in the general area for about 15 minutes, and got right back on the shuttle and back to the ship.

So we had a little trepidation this time going back to Belem. 

But this time we visited on a Sunday, when many fewer people were out and about in the downtown area, and our shuttle bus dropped us off at a much more convenient – and I believe, safe –spot.  So this visit began – and remained – with a much different and far more positive vibe.

Here’s the drill when you visit Belem:  ships must anchor outside the small harbor about 20 miles from the center of the city, because the waters around the dock, being close to the mouth of the Amazon and  therefore subject to the rising and falling river tides, are too shallow for all but small vessels of the kind that ply the River.  So the ship hired two 200-passenger ferries to serve as our tender vessels into the port area.  These are the same kinds of ferries that are the mainstay of Amazon River transportation – going up and down the river, stopping at cities, villages and small river communities; where passengers may be on a vessel for one day or as many as 5 days; where you bring your own sleeping accommodations on board and hang it up yourself – your hammock; where if you travel alone overnight on these ferries you have a good chance of getting robbed; where you bring your own food in a cooler or buy chicken, rice and beans + beer or a soft drink – morning noon and night; where there is nothing to do all day but lie in your hammock and watch the river go by; where there are no showers; where…….and so on……

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Once we get to the tender port, we are in the small town of Iquarace, which has a main street inhabited mainly by fish, food and fruit vendors, a public library and not too much else.

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The area around the small fishing vessels was brimming with vultures looking for a free meal

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From here we board a shuttle bus that takes us about 20 miles into the center of the city of Belem.  Last year there was weekday traffic and rain, so the trip seemed to go on for ever; this year, it being a Sunday, it seemed like the bus driver was flying low…..Here’s Nina trying to “khop a dremel” (literally, “grab a dream” i.e., take a quick nap) on the ride into town:

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We passed many of the places this year that I had remembered from last year, particularly some places that had been flooded or at least really water-soaked.  This year they looked a lot better.

Last year the water at this place was overflowing this canal and running into the streets

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Last year people were canoeing down these streets.

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When we finally arrived in the city center we were dropped off at a development that I think had just opened in the intervening year since our last visit – a kind of shopping area built along the old docks of Belem’s old port, now cleaned up, modernized and repurposed for an area of shops and restaurants that run along one of the Amazon tributaries that goes through Belem and empties into the Atlantic.

This dock area was filled with numerous fabulous Brazilian sit-down buffets for families enjoying Sunday lunch together

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and even an Amazon microbrewery, Amazon Beer of Belem:

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We picked up a couple of beer mugs here and continued through the docks and out into the open air market, known as Vero Peso, which was clearly not operating to capacity on this Sunday. The name Vero  Peso comes from an earlier period in the city’s history when everything was weighed and verified before payment was tendered, because nobody trusted anybody……it doesn’t seem that much has changed…..

Under huge rain-protective tents

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we found a nearly endless number of more popular Brazilian buffets, most of which were closed on Sunday but where many were still operating.

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Fried fish is a big item at these simple “people’s market buffets”

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and everything is fresh fresh fresh….

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From the restaurant area of the open-air market we went into the market itself.  There we saw some items we had never seen elsewhere or, if we had seen similar things elsewhere, these were significantly and sufficiently different so as to warrant our attention.

For example, does this look like a pea pod  or a bean pod to you?

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How about THIS ?

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At first we thought that maybe these fruit clusters might be a variety of date,

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but a closer examination proved this to be incorrect.  The orange ones looked for a distance like loquats, but up close they were the wrong shape……We think they are called Pupunha, but we were never able to identify what they really were….

The packaged red fruit in this photo looked from a distance like cherry tomatoes, but up close they turned out to be berries – berries of the type that are very bitter uncooked.  Apparently these need to be cooked before they are eaten. They are called Acerola in Portuguese – but what are they ????

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These mangoes are ugly as sin, but mmmmm….are they sweet………..

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These hairy, spikey fruits, labeled as Ranbutan, are actually fresh leechee nuts – just peel and eat.

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See these round, brown “things”?  They are Brazil nuts.  Actually, they are Brazil nut pods which you open and then remove from inside the pods, the individual nuts in their shells (see bottom of photo).  Of course then the edible nut seed needs to be removed from the shell, which with Brazil nuts can be a project……

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And bless their little yellow skins – aren’t these “finger bananas” just the cutest stubby li’l critters you’ve ever seen? And  are they ever sweet…..

Finger Bananas (2) (800x600)

There are all kinds of ways of selling dried meats, including sausages and pig’s feet (UGH!)

Meat in the Market (800x600)

or, if you’d prefer vegetable soup, how about all the fresh makings in a bag?

Soup ready to go (800x600)

Or if you want to turn it into chicken soup…

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Still, a lot of the stalls were closed today, it being Sunday

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Did I mention that this open-air market is on the river?  Here are the tents to protect against the rains, which come every day (this is the start of the Amazon Rain Forest, folks)

The Outdoor Market (800x600)

In a small part of the market there are tourist tschochkes for sale

Handicrafts (600x800)P1130368 (600x800)

Pottery (800x600)

By late afternoon things in the Vero Peso market started to slow down

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and a number of the vendors who were open earlier in the day have locked shop and take a snooze on the spot.

Sleeping on the job 2 (800x600).

Sleeping on the Job (800x600)

With things winding down in the Vero Peso Market, and a light drizzle, it was time for us to take our leave, walk past the plastic flamingo decorations dressing up the parking lot,

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go back to the shuttle bus and head back to the ship.