Sunday, July 24, 2011

Lençóis: Day 3

Let me preface my epic Day 3 recap by saying that this: Saturday the 16th would begin tranqüilo, but move on to irritating, then to dubious, then to distressing--but end up being, arguably, the best single day I have ever had traveling. Certainly it is the most thought-provoking.

I checked out of my room and put my bags in storage at 7am as I was heading to breakfast. I was expecting a jeep to pick me up at 8 or 8:15 for my inner tube tour of Rio Formiga (Ant River), which would be a 4-hour land-water-land escapade, before catching a bus back to São Luís in the afternoon. Tudo bem, tudo ótimo.
The jeep was late. After breakfast I killed some time pondering the different palm trees, armed with my new knowledge, and admiring the tropical plants.
A few at a time, all of the other pousada guests were collected for their various day trips as I sat in the garden. By nine-ish, I'm feeling mildly inconvenienced that I had rushed to check out, but no problem. Like the sign says "não estresse" (no stress)--they'll be here.

Shortly thereafter, the staff started making inquiring phone calls to the aforementioned and unrecommended tour company, who assured--every 20 minutes or so--"ele tá chegando!" This woefully overused expression means that "(he/she is, they are, I am) just arriving now," though I know better than to believe it. In reality, it almost always translates to "Have a seat. It's going to be a while."
Or in this case, never. The jeep never showed.

At 11am a man arrives in a white pickup truck. His name is Eduardo (Edu), he's probably about 25 years old and I get the immediate impression that he is not normally a driver or a guide.
Where's my jeep? Where are all the people that would become my new friends?
Our first stop is the local cooperative through which, I gather, all the various agencies network with each other to organize the details of which tourists will go with which drivers and guides. I am neither amused nor assured by the fact that the older woman, addressing Edu in a tone that was not nearly humorous enough for comfort, says something to the effect of: "This is your chance to prove yourself. Please be careful. Drive safely. Don't let anything happen to her."
This day is quickly getting worse. Should I bail out now?
Because I protested meekly to Edu and the woman about this not being the tour I had arranged and paid for, Edu drove me to my agency to discuss the matter with them. Well, he intended to, but we went to the wrong agency.
This is not reassuring.
I repeat the name of my agency, Maranhão Turismo. He shrugs. His lack of recognition is also not a good sign. I show him the itinerary that has the company's logo--a muddy bootprint--because I know I passed their office on the way into Barreirinhas the other day. A ficha caiu. The light goes on and we drive to the correct agency, coming very close to hitting a jeep en route.
This is also not reassuring.
I enter the agency and I'm starting to feel stressed and panicky. I'm over three hours behind schedule with an afternoon bus to catch, embarking on something completely different than the tour I paid for, with a driver who clearly has no experience as a guide and doesn't even know my agency (which is reciprocated in that the agent didn't know Edu either), and in the first 20 minutes we've already had a near-collision.
This really doesn't feel right. I need to be reassured.
The guy working at Maranhão Turismo, I didn't get his name, had no idea who I was or the situation that had unfolded that morning--which, given that there was obviously a flurry of phone calls about the matter, is completely ridiculous. Worse yet, after being brought up to speed on events, he denied that the company had forgotten to arrange my tour, absurdly claiming that there were no other tourists scheduled for Rio Formiga that day. "Therefore," he continued to BS, "uh, it must have taken some extra time, but hey, isn't it great that someone arranged a private tour for you?!" The guy did nothing to calm me or to fix the situation. Rather he approached Edu, introduced himself, and carried on a brief exchange that went more-or-less like this:
Hi! Who are you?
I'm Edu.
Where are you taking her?
Rio Formiga.
Ok, sounds good.
(to me) Don't worry! Have a good time!
I'm fuming and nervous, but I don't know what to do. So I get in the pickup.
We stop at someone's very modest home and Edu picks up a tractor tire inner tube. I ask him about the mask and snorkel.
What mask and snorkel?
The one that it says here will be provided to me for the river tour.
I don't have a mask and snorkel. Maybe you can rent one there.
I stay quiet in my burgeoning irritation coupled with fear.
(Let me jump ahead to note that, as Edu should have known, there was nothing where we were headed. Nothing. Least of all a place to rent masks and snorkels.)
We stop at a gas station to fill up Edu's truck and put air in the tube.
Is this for real?
The next hour is a bumpy ride along sand roads through nowhereland. Not in the funny, jeep-jostling, amusement park ride sorta way, but in the "D'oh! I'm trashing my vehicle on this road" sorta way. Edu doesn't offer any information on the area or where we are headed. The ride is silent except for the weird mix of forró and Lady Gaga. The internal monologue went something like this:
This is totally awkward.
Where are we headed?
This is exactly the type of situation a solo woman traveler always tries to avoid.
This is how women get kidnapped and held for ransom.
Or mutilated.
No one has any clue where I am.
Christ, I might be sold to human traffickers.
Nearing our destination, we pass three jeeps of rowdy, happy tourists on their way back to Barreirinhas.
I knew it!
Edu is lost. He asks a kid walking on the roadside for directions. We proceed. We make a wrong turn. We go back. We make another wrong turn. We go back and take the right road (after all, there were only three options). We come across the same kid and Edu asks him to help us find the river. We drive to the kid's house to ask his father's permission that he guide us. Tudo certo. Raimundo, a 16-year-old from Povoado de Cardosa, jumps in the back seat.
Ok, the kid looks harmless enough, but now we're picking up strangers?
A "povoado" is a very small, rural community. Not even a village. This one has, perhaps, 40 families, though most are spread out over a wide swath of forest. There is a school with 4 rooms. Classes are about 6 students each. The younger kids attend for four hours in the morning, older kids in the afternoon, and teens, like Raimundo, from 6-10pm. It was a lengthy drive between his home and the school, so I asked Raimundo how he gets there. He walks. How long does it take? An hour and forty minutes each way. I pause to consider what that must be like, especially during the "wet season" (six months of regular torrential rain).
Sometime after noon, Edu, Raimundo and I arrive at the departure point at the river and are soon joined by a inconvenienced-looking 14-year-old boy named Gilson, who will be my personal guide as I float downriver.
Poor kid probably didn't get lunch on account of the high-maintenance US tourist who is on her own schedule. Way to contribute to the stereotype, Jen. Great.
It would have been helpful if my tour company had warned me to leave everything at home as there is no infrastructure for tourists to store things or whatever. I strip down to my swimsuit, reluctantly leaving my Havaianas, clothes, purse, cell phone, camera, ID and money in Edu's truck. He's supposed to pick me up in an hour downriver.
Really, what could go wrong? Ok, well, fingers crossed.
This also explains why--much to my dismay--I have no pictures of the adventure. Damn it. This was one to remember too.
For the next hour, I floated and bobbed down the river with Gilson swimming along side. The first few minutes were quiet, though I tried to crack some jokes to let him know I wasn't some princess that expects people to say "How high?" as I command them to jump. He smiled subtly a couple times and I realized that his expressions had been more motivated by the awkwardness of adolescence than by contempt. I began asking questions about the trees, snakes, anything I could think of. With each answer he softened a little more, sometimes chuckling gently at my ignorance. Eventually he took the lead as teacher: he would climb up the river bank here and there to highlight the spot where the water runs clearest; to point out that one type of grassy plant had leaves as sharp as knives; that the lily flower only opens at night but he knew a trick to show me what they look like; and, by contrast, the Victoria Regia in the Pantanal, have large thorns on the bottom of them--making them stable enough to walk on. Gilson explained that one particular tree was called "paciência" (patience) because it takes so long to grow, and that the woodpecker-like parrot atop the dead Buruti trees were called Jandaya.
As we rounded a bend near the exit point, I saw some little girls splashing in the water. When they saw me they squealed "a turista! a turista!" (the girl tourist!) alerting everyone down river to our arrival. I shot a grin toward Gilson, which he returned with a half-smile that revealed his minor embarrassment over the girls' frank fascination with my foreign-ness. Catching up to them, I told them to jump on the tube and splashed about with them for a few minutes before climbing out of the river, with seven of them practically attached to my limbs.
Waiting for me at the riverside was Dona Rainha (Madam Queen), pregnant, tooth-deficient, in her mid-20s, and a shrewd businesswoman. She was immediately all up in my grill with a coconut full of homemade hooch. I shot a glance at Edu (who, thankfully, had appeared) and Gilson, both of whom responded with a look that communicated one-half pity and one-half curiosity over my next move. I thanked Dona Rainha and took a swig with such dramatics that my tiny sip appeared larger. Then came the sales pitch. Would I like to buy some placemats woven from palm?
"Lady, I don't even know where I'll be living in a month--I certainly don't have a table and dinnerware," I thought to myself.
Ok then, how about some doce de bacurí?
I bought one for me and one for Edu, in the spirit of generosity, and left her the change for the R$10 (US$6), knowing that a non-gringa would have walked away with half a dozen little cups of jam. For what it's worth, I know that R$10 is what Gilson's dad earned for instructing him to accompany me in my off-hour tour. I know that R$10, in these parts, is a lot.
I only got two pictures before Edu hustled me, Raimundo, and Gilson into the pickup--he was more concerned than I was about catching the afternoon bus.
Dona Rainha on my right (marketing her wares), Raimundo on my left, and Gilson in the green shirt.

After dropping Gilson at his family's home in the center of the povoado (about eight homes clustered together), we set off toward the more remote location of Raimundo's place. I continued to ask Raimundo questions about his family, his life, his futebol team (Flamengo) and he happily indulged my curiosity. We came to a fork in the road where we needed to turn left for Barreirinhas, but Raimundo's place was a few minutes off to the right. Edu stopped and basically (rather dismissively, I felt) told Raimundo to get out. Raimundo looked shocked and quietly protested for a second, because apparently that wasn't the deal. Edu shoved a couple reais at him and said we were in a hurry because I had a plane to catch.
Wow, that was a really jerky thing to do, even I'm insulted.

Speechless, I swiveled to face Raimundo as he opened the door, giving him a look that was as much stunned as apologetic. He closed the door hard and Edu sped off as the heat rose into my cheeks. There was barely a word on the long drive back.

The lack of conversation didn't bother me since I had a lot to think about. In addition to the education I got from what Gilson and Raimundo had told me, what was unspoken was just as enlightening. Marcante is the word in Portuguese that most aptly describes the effect the day had; something along the lines of striking, influential, extraordinary, compelling.

By no means do I want to make them sound like simpletons, but their knowledge, like their reality, was (and will probably always be) so different than mine. Neither had ever heard of Chicago: it's quite inconsequential to them. And while I believe TV has made inroads to the most rural of regions, there is still no internet. Barreirinhas, with roughly 48,000 inhabitants, is likely as big a town as they will ever see (if they ever go there), and by comparison to Povoado de Cardosa, no doubt, would feel like a city to them.

I continued listing all the differences later, on the 4-hour bus ride back to São Luís.
I had spotted a condom wrapper in shallow water of the otherwise pristine river. Lest I get lost in the innocent appearance of these "povoados" and project upon them an image of a sheltered, paradisical existence, I started to contemplate the juxtaposition of their unhurried lives and lush landscapes with some of the darker issues that, I know, plague many rural areas in Brazil, particularly in the north. There are huge problems with trafficking (both drugs and people), intimidation, domestic violence, child prostitution, and poverty, among others.

Then, as if to underscore the overwhelming psychological impact of the day, I checked into my room at the Rio Poty Hotel and discovered my balcony and pool/ocean view.

It was beautiful. But what about six hours ago? It seemed so decadent and unnecessary.
Serendipitously, while zapeando (channel-flipping) later that evening, I stumbled upon Anthony Bourdain in Namibia. In his final comment (at 12 min 55 sec), made in a taxi in New York City after he spent several days living among an indian tribe in the desert, he perfectly summarized the thing kicking around in my head. "Are we better off?....I don't know. I really don't."

In the end, what started out as a day spiraling downward became the most enlightening travel experience I've ever had. Were it not for my tour company's negligence, I would never have had such an insightful encounter. Surely I would have bonded with other like-minded travelers and bobbed down the river accompanied by their banter. Instead, I was educated by two teenage boys, Raimundo and Gilson, and the unlikely event of our briefly intersecting paths.