Friday, January 8, 2010

Day Two: Friday, January 8 -- Into Santarem

Today is Ciara’s birthday! Happy day to a beloved teammate!

Our sleep patterns are in such a state of disarray that it is ridiculous to have used the word “patterns” in this sentence. Most of us went to sleep and woke up as many as five times in the last 24 hours, but almost no one actually got anywhere near five hours of sleep. For most of us, Monday night was the last time we slept in any normal way. We are definitely sleep-deprived, but we are also so fascinated and full of awe that we aren’t really suffering.

We landed in our new Amazon home before sunrise and we already could tell that we were surrounded by a wondrous context even if we couldn’t see all of the details. By the time we got to our camp at the Federal University of Western Pará (UFOPA), the sun had risen and we stood and drank in all of the sights and sounds. Birds and insects chirped and squawked all around us and plants that we had seen in small pots in our own homes and others’ stood six feet tall right in our courtyard. Eventually, a four-foot long iguana ambled along and munched on some discarded pineapple peels with us watching from about three feet away. (For veterans of last year’s trip, it is important to note right away that we have seen no sign of our pet jungle cat, Zilly.)

We emptied the bus in no time by using a tried-and-true bucket brigade method, where we spaced ourselves out and just passed the bags down the line until they got where they belonged. Our huge volume of baggage literally weighed more than a ton, as each of our 20 travelers checked almost exactly 100 pounds of luggage and carried some smaller bags onto the plane as well. Half of the bags were “school bags” full of tools, teaching supplies, percussion instruments (we’ll get to those later), and comfort foods like peanut butter, Ritz crackers, Clif bars and M&Ms.

We spent all morning organizing our Santarém lives. Some of us actually took apart furniture to rearrange things so that our party would fit into the cabin-like alojamento more comfortably. When we realized that one bunkbed had a janky joint that might make it unstable, we pulled out our powersaw and rebuilt it.

We also had to deal with some luggage explosions, including the inexplicable explosion of some spray-on sunscreen and the highly unfortunate (and pungent) destruction of a large bottle of Tapatio hot sauce in an army bag full of Clif bars. We didn’t want to lose the Clif bars because of the hot sauce on their wrappers, so we took the unusual step of handwashing (and drying!) individual Clif bars by the hundreds. The absurdity of the task made it ten times more fun to perform.

We were really dragging by about 10:00 a.m. (which felt like 9:00 p.m. or so to us), so we took a walk in the neighborhood to meet some of our hosts and work partners. Jaime and Georgete’s house was our first stop and we got a feel for two important things: 1) their commitment to the environmental education agency they founded (Águas) and the children who participate and 2) the scope of the construction project that we think will be one of our main undertakings.
As for the Águas program, we will have more to say about that after spending Saturday with Georgete, Jaime and the kids. The construction task is hard to explain, but involves the conversion of a garage/storage area at their house into a possible storefront for local artisans to exhibit (and sell) their wares. As we learn more about the plan, we will provide more details.

We then visited the beach that was the site of much of the work of last year’s crew. The veteran members of our group (Ana, Marcia, Jesse and Shawny) were shocked to see how different the beach looked. The waterline is in a completely different place than it was a year ago and the paint job on the boathouse underwent severe damage in a flood last spring (though the structural work is still intact and strong).

We saw our friend and co-worker Seu João, his daughter Josialda and the rest of their family. Josy cried when she saw us and those of us who had not yet met her felt like we were reconnecting with an old friend because she is so familiar to us from last year’s blogs and multimedia projects. Connecting with our community partners helped us to feel connected to the work we are about to do, even if it hasn’t yet begun.

We returned to our camp for lunch and were completely blown away by how delicious the food was. Our cook for today, Louro (last year’s trip’s full-time cook; this year’s part-time one) created fried chicken that cannot be explained using normal adjectives. We probably looked like we were having an eating contest as we went back for seconds, thirds, fourths, and more. He also made a flan with chocolate syrup that might be one of the best desserts we will ever eat in our whole lives.

From there, we got to have just ninety minutes of glorious sleep. Shawny was convinced that we needed to get up and stay up until dark to help us make the full transition into our new time zone (five hours different from our California home). It took us awhile to muster up our energy, but we walked the two or so miles into the city center and took care of some important tasks like exchanging currency, buying hammocks for our porch, and getting a feel for the place we will call home for the rest of the month.

We sampled Brazilian ice cream in two forms: sorvete (scoops in cones or dishes) and popsicles (we tried açai and avocado! Both were great!). The texture and flavors of ice cream in Brazil are different (and better?) than what we are used to eating in the U.S. We then jumped in cabs (some of us took moto-taxis) to hurry back home in time for dinner.

Louro had cooked another feast and we added an extra special flair: two birthday cakes for Ciara, complete with trick candles. We celebrated the greatness of our day and the greatness of Ciara as one of our teammates. She is always two steps ahead on what needs to happen around here and has been (by far) the most reliable manager of our various resources (food, first aid, tools and other supplies. We are very fortunate that she is here with us and that we have the privilege of spending this important birthday (she’s not a teenager anymore!) with her.

In our meeting tonight, we talked about our day and about the way we feel about our undertaking and each other. We realized that we have taken some pretty big travel challenges in stride over the last two days or so and that we have all adapted rather graciously to our circumstances. As we flew from Manaus to Santarém, we were scattered throughout the crowded plane in pairs. Shawny pointed out that it was quite unusual for us to be in a group so large and still be able to be perfectly comfortable about landing next to absolutely anyone else in the group. We are really happy that we’ve achieved this state of unity so quickly and smoothly.

We already feel so settled here that it seems like we have been here for weeks already, even though we haven’t yet been here for 24 hours. We’re all really proud of ourselves and each other and we really appreciate how important each one of us is to the experience that we are all having. Stay with us; we hope you enjoy the journey as much as we are . . .

Reconnecting with old friends from last year after being welcomed into their home.
Our home for the next 3 weeks in Santarem.

Our local neighborhood a few steps outside of camp.

Getting familiar with our new working environment.

Exhausted and swollen after being awake since 1 AM.

Sweet embraces exchanged between old friends near the Tapajos River.

Shawny hates bartering, but it was necessary. We got a good deal on two hammocks for our patio.

Ana spotted this iguana in a tree. One of four some we spotted at our home.


View of the lake from the bank of the Tapajos river in Santarem. 

Von Housen capturing the video footage of the beach trek on the Tapajos river. 


Adventurers cruising the neighborhood around Santarem.


Jared exploring an abandoned building overlooking the beach.


Sunset from the pier in Santarem.  


  1. Wow- the beach looks so different yet still beautiful! Guys enjoy Louro's fried chicken! There's nothing like it in America- I PROMISE! And whatever you do,If Zilly does come around- don't feed her Red Vines! You don't want to see the aftermath!

  2. Spectacular posts! Looks like adaptation is complete. We're following all you do! Hugs!

  3. The boathouse still looks just as amazing as when we left it!! :) It makes me so nostalgic to see all of this one year later, but I hope you all are having a blast! You are so lucky to be there. (Jealous) Happy Birthday Ciara!