Boat­ing through the Ama­zon

The Myanmar Times - - The Pulse -

TUM­BLING waves rocked our small wooden boat. I clung on, struck by surf spray and fear, while Jose, our skip­per, just smiled at me, know­ingly. I was cours­ing across the Ta­pa­jós River, as wild and as wide as the sea, a trib­u­tary of the clay-brown Ama­zon where I’d been en­tranced by slink­ing pink dol­phins.

I’d be­gun my jour­ney in Al­ter do Chão, a busy, bo­hemian town on the banks of the Ta­pa­jós. At night, I danced like an up­tight novice to Carimbó, Ama­zo­nian folk mu­sic, pul­sat­ing from bars and car stereos. By day, I lolled on milk-white beaches. Teardrop-clear, the Ta­pa­jós is so rich in quartz that daz­zling beaches have formed along its bank like a string of pearls. In 2009, The Guardian’s Brazil cor­re­spon­dent named this his favourite beach.

A hand­ful of South Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans ar­rived in Al­ter and never left, open­ing cafes and restau­rants in the square (try Mae Na­tureza for po­tent cock­tails and live mu­sic at the week­ends).

But I wanted an ad­ven­ture be­yond the town and so signed up for a trip with AMZ Projects, an or­gan­i­sa­tion run by Ad­hara Luz, which spe­cialises in sus­tain­able tourism, of­fer­ing tai­lor-made tours to re­mote spots us­ing boats and hos­tels run by river­side com­mu­ni­ties.

Like many ar­eas of the Ama­zon, it is be­set with en­vi­ron­men­tal con­cerns and con­tro­ver­sies. A re­cent Green­peace re­port warned that a se­ries of hy­dro­elec­tric dams are planned along the Ta­pa­jós and its tribu­taries, which will re­sult in mass de­for­esta­tion, flood­ing and wa­ter con­tam­i­na­tion, de­stroy­ing fish, flora and fauna habi­tats. Protests from lo­cals and indige­nous groups re­sulted in a vic­tory this month: The li­cense for the São Luiz do Ta­pa­jós mega-dam, the largest planned in the Ama­zon, was can­celled. But the bat­tle to save the rivers con­tin­ues.

I left Al­ter with two other guests, a Brazil-based cou­ple from the US, armed with a three-day AMZ itin­er­ary. There was no guide to ac­com­pany us, but ev­ery el­e­ment of our trans­port and ac­com­mo­da­tion was pre-ar­ranged. We crossed the Ta­pa­jós by boat to the smaller Arapi­uns chan­nel.

At dusk, we ar­rived in the Atodi com­mu­nity and hung our ham­mocks in the hos­tel – re­ally just an en­closed sleep­ing area. It’s de­signed to keep mos­qui­toes out but didn’t pre­vent a taran­tula com­ing in. In the ad­join­ing restau­rant, we ate huge por­tions of rice, beans and fish.

Tourists first ar­rived at Atodi in 2008, through Pro­jeto Saúde e Ale­gria (Project Health and Hap­pi­ness). This NGO was formed 30 years ago by Ad­hara Luz’s par­ents. By boat, the or­gan­i­sa­tion brought med­i­cal as­sis­tance and health ed­u­ca­tion to river­side vil­lages and pro­vided vi­tal clean wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion sys­tems. De­vel­op­ment projects, from ar­ti­sanal crafts pro­mo­tion to smallscale tourism, came later, help­ing to boost ru­ral economies.

Just over 200 peo­ple live in the vil­lage of rattan-roof houses and run small­hold­ings pre­dom­i­nantly grow­ing man­dioca (man­ioc). The root veg­etable is dried and ground into far­inha (flour), a sta­ple of the Ama­zo­nian diet.

In the morn­ing, we hiked along a rain­for­est trail, guided by Atodi mem­ber, Nil­son Martins. We stopped along­side tow­er­ing Brazil nut trees and tasted sap from the amapá tree. “Sec­ondary for­est like this was once farm­land,” Nil­son ex­plained. “It takes 20 years to grow back again.” Ar­riv­ing at a nat­u­ral pool by a stream, we jumped in. Nil­son grabbed hand­fuls of clay from the banks and we smoth­ered our bod­ies in, hop­ing its re­puted heal­ing prop­er­ties would work on us.

Nil­son be­lieves that the ben­e­fits of host­ing tourists go be­yond the fi­nan­cial. It has helped the com­mu­nity be­gin an im­por­tant ex­change with out­siders. “Young peo­ple have gained con­fi­dence in in­ter­act­ing with strangers,” he said. “They’re more aware of the wider world now.”

We spent the rest of our time on the beach be­neath the hos­tel, be­fore tak­ing a boat back across river, stop­ping on route at Praia Ponta Grande. I walked the length of this empty and truly oth­er­worldly sand­bar beach, track­ing the lone foot­prints of cranes.

Anã com­mu­nity stands in Ta­pa­jós-Arapi­uns Ex­trac­tive Re­serve, an area of pro­tected land be­tween the two rivers. We were met by the buzz of 21 stu­dents from Saint Mary’s Col­lege, Cal­i­for­nia, who had ar­rived via a Saúde e Ale­gria ex­change pro­gram, help­ing to im­prove the hos­tel fa­cil­i­ties.

We took row­ing boats across the lake to see the tu­cu­naré river fish farm, which has in­creased the food sup­ply and helped re­duce mal­nu­tri­tion. Regi­nalva Alves God­inho is one of 15 women from Anã who is cen­tral to run­ning NGO sup­ported projects to aid self-suf­fi­ciency. “The men joined in once they saw the projects take off,” she said.

Un­der the shade of a mango tree, I tasted cit­ric-sweet honey from Ivai’s God­inho’s stin­g­less­bee farm. He care­fully showed us how to ex­tract the liq­uid from the del­i­cate hon­ey­combs. When we left Anã there were hugs all round. “Now you know the way!” Regi­nalva called af­ter us in Por­tuguese – she was ask­ing us to re­turn one day.

Re­turn­ing to Al­ter do Chão, we trav­elled south, two-and-ahalf hours by car to the Floresta Na­cional do Ta­pa­jós (en­try is free to the for­est with a guide). We trekked to find the 1000-year-old samaúma. One of the re­gion’s largest en­demic trees, this ven­er­a­ble spec­i­men was a tow­er­ing, awe-in­spir­ing vi­sion of life force and power. That evening, we ate din­ner at a small restau­rant on the beach, run by the Ja­ma­raquá vil­lagers. My fi­nal Ama­zo­nian sun­set is for­ever etched on my mem­ory. It burnt am­ber, set­ting the sky and wa­ter ablaze.

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