Monthly Archives: June 2006

Chess, Anyone?

June 4, 2006
Day 249
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 16

Picture of chess board.

Our makeshift chess board.

The religious proceedings went on all last night again. It's tough to sleep with so much singing and fireworks, but the nights are long here, so I usually get enough sleep, even though I get woken up a lot. I'm not sure when the people participating in the singing rituals sleep, though.

After breakfast, Craig and I walked to the lake. Not surprisingly, we got some extremely conflicting information on the lake's distance from town. Yesterday, it was twenty minutes away, then thirty minutes, then an hour. Today, someone who had just been there yesterday told us that it would take two hours. It didn't really matter, though, because we had all day. We ended up getting there after one hour, but there wasn't much to look at. The lake was flooded into the surrounding jungle, so it wasn't possible to walk all the way to it. We returned glad to get a little walking done under the cool cover of the jungle canopy.

We decided to leave our canoe with the village instead of trying to take it any further. It only ended up costing us $33 each, and we all felt pretty generous after not having spent any money for the last two weeks. Hopefully the villagers will make good use of it.

With the boat to Guayara leaving tomorrow morning, we packed up camp and climbed aboard. We found a chess board in the bridge that should be fit for some entertainment during our three-day journey that lies ahead. The board only came with about half the pawns, so Craig and Gabriel constructed some new pieces out of wires and paper.

Five days was a very long time to stay in Versalles, but it allowed me to get a good feel for the small town Amazon life. The river creates an interesting mix of cultures and languages, but everyone still appears to get along quite well. Going to the party has been an all-around amazing adventure.

Life In Versalles

June 3, 2006
Day 248
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 15

Today was ridiculously hot again, so not much was happening around town. Boredom officially set in around midday. Craig and I talked about going to a lake nearby, but we decided to wait until tomorrow because we didn't want to miss out on any free meals. I'm ready to get out of here now, but sometimes when you're traveling a little boredom is good after going full-steam for weeks on end. It shows you that life isn't all skittles and beer.

Watching the usual soccer game just before sunset, I realized how nice this place is. Only 100 or so people live in Versalles, and it has a long airstrip in the center of town, part of which also serves as the soccer field. The river is at one edge of town, and the Amazon jungle is at the other one, so the place is very isolated. No road access means no cars or the pollution they bring. Living here would be a simple life, but not a bad one. There's plenty of hunting, fishing, farming, swimming, and soccer to keep the people busy, and the town is located in a beautiful, clean place.

Whenever we eat a meal, or do anything for that matter, everyone stares at us. They ask where we're from, how we got here, how long we're staying, and other simple questions. Tonight, however, we met a guy who claimed to be international because he spoke two languages: Spanish and Portuguese. I thought that was amusing because all it meant was that he could talk to people on both sides of the river. It's a nice skill to have, though, and one not many people here possess.

Annoying observation of the day: The volume on Bolivian radios and TVs is binary.

Too Much Cumbia

June 2, 2006
Day 247
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 14

Picture of a boat in Versalles.

One of the many house boats that showed up in Versalles.

The religious chanting went on all night, with people singing songs that sounded more like an ancient animalistic religion than Catholicism. Just in case anyone was sleeping, they shot off more loud fireworks every half hour or so. The madness didn't stop till dawn.

When we ran into the French trio, they gave us the good news. Not only were we on the ship, but we got our own room with two beds, enough space for a hammock, and a private bathroom and shower, all for the low price of nothing! I can't believe the generosity of the local people lately. We had great places to camp for free all along the river, now we are at a free party, and later, we will leave town for free, too. We weren't sure what to expect going into this adventure, but it has worked out in fairy tail fashion so far.

Besides the generosity towards us, this party is a great thing for the area. People from all the little communities near Versalles get to take the free boat away and back, and get to enjoy four days of fun without spending any money. It's really a great way for people in the area to get to know each other.

It was another repressively hot afternoon. There isn't much one can do in this kind of heat other than sit around and pant to try to keep cool. Once the sting went out of the sun a bit, a soccer game started. Play was competitive, and I'm not sure how the locals can run around when I'm sweating just looking at them. A funny moment happened when they were in the middle of a serious game and had to stop play so the cows could cross the field.

There were more religious processions all day again, but dancing was on tonight. The problem was that cumbia was the only music available. Cumbia is probably the most popular music in Bolivia, but it is horrible on the ears. It sounds like one of those guys in big cities who cranks a music box and has a monkey who dances to it for money. The same song lasts for hours and never changes chords. The sad thing is that Brazilian music is really good, and even though most of the people at the party were Brazilian, their music never got played. I just couldn't take it anymore after the first ten minutes, so I went to bed early.

The Party Begins

June 1, 2006
Day 246
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 13

Picture of festival boat.

The festival's ceremonial boat moves up and down the river.

Last night most of the town got sloppy drunk. People walked around the tent and shook the floorboards all night. On top of that, a very loud generator kicked in right next to Ricardo's house, making sleep impossible. The music stopped when the sun came up, and Ricardo, the mayor, and some of their friends were drunkily chatting away on the patio. It was time to find a new place to camp.

We moved to the other side of town, about 100 meters away, to a guy's backyard. We set the tent up under a shady tree, put up a hammock for relaxation, and used the planks from the canoe as benches. Our neighbors are a family of friendly Brazilians who will probably keep an eye on our stuff when we are out and about. It should be a nice place to camp.

At lunch we met three French people. Seeing other gringos kind of took away from the experience of being so far in the middle of nowhere, but we decided to talk to them anyway. They were a couple volunteering in the area and their friend who was visiting for a few months. They told us that the big boat to Guayara might be full, but they knew the captain, so maybe they could hook us up.

The festivities officially started this afternoon. A boat paddled by twelve people went up and down the river past the town three times. A band sang a song to the patron saint of Versalles, which was represented as a pigeon. When the boat stopped, the participants got off and people could bow to the saint to be healed. The entire time, loud fireworks were launched all around us.

Church continued all night long. The people involved in the procession constantly walked around town singing the same song. There was no fun or dancing, but apparently there will be more tomorrow. Nobody told us that this would be a religious festival, but I guess we should have expected that.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Versalles, Here We Come!

May 31, 2006
Day 245
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 12

Picture of Versalles.

We finally made it to Versalles.

We got up a little later than normal today because we believed that we were rather close to Versalles. We had breakfast with the fishermen and met an American named Jim who was with them. He wasn't around last night because he was in a tree stand hunting Southeast Asian water buffalo with a bow and arrow. The area around the camp is a Brazilian biological reserve, which is home to thousands of water buffalo, a non-native species. The government isn't quite sure what to do with them, so for now it just occasionally allows people to hunt them. Five of them are supposedly being hunted for the party, and Jim wanted in on the action. He told us he was a missionary. What a strange combo.

Our paddle today was rather insignificant. The river was almost completely straight with almost no islands to throw us off course. It would have been nearly impossible to get lost.

After about four hours of paddling, we spotted Versalles in the distance. Soon, we were pulling in next to several large houseboats. The party wasn't set to start until tomorrow, but a lot of people showed up early.

Soon after we set foot on shore, we were greeted by several people, including the mayor himself. They all had gotten word that we were coming from the various people we had met along the way. We were given space to camp in an open area of a man named Ricardo's house, free of charge.

Versalles is yet another small, charming river community. The economy is almost entirely based on agriculture, although a few small shops mainly selling alcohol had been set up just for the party by the Brazilians. This led to some trouble early on because I didn't have any reais, the currency of Brazil, and none of the vendors would take my bolivianos. Finally, I somehow convinced someone to exchange bolivianos for reais, so now I can buy beer for the party. It was my first experience in another country where I couldn't even pay for things with that country's currency.

Early this afternoon, a few men who appeared to be with the military took off in a motor boat. Tonight, they returned with a great prize: a gigantic water buffalo. The task of removing it from the boat was very difficult because the beast was so massive. It took several men to drag the body up the hill to a house, where the butchering will begin. We also learned that the rumors were true: free food for everyone. With today's catch and the food contributed by the neighboring communities, there should be plenty for all to enjoy for the next four days.

The photo album for this entry is here.


May 30, 2006
Day 244
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 11

Picture of Craig with piranhas.

Craig shows off the piranhas we scored in Puerto Federico.

We got another early start today, unsure how far we'd have to go. We stopped briefly at a single house on the Bolivian side and ate lemons with the girl who was there. She told us that Puerto Federico was coming up in Bolivia in a few hours, but was unsure of what lie beyond. The morning was characterized by a thick fog which kept us cool, even though it greatly decreased visibility. Still, the river was straight enough that navigation wasn't an issue.

When we arrived in Puerto Federico, we were greeted by Federico himself. He founded the town ten years ago and humbly named it after himself. We collected oranges from one of his numerous trees and brought them back to his home to eat. Craig, Gabriel, and I all wanted to try cayman meat, so when Federico's son arrived, we decided to offer to exchange a kilo of sugar for the croc. There seemed to be some miscommunication, though, because he ran to the back of the hut and returned with a plate of three large piranhas. They weren't willing to trade the cayman for the sugar, but they would trade for the piranhas and give us the cayman for free. That worked for us.

We ironically left Puerto Federico with two of the most dangerous animals in the world, ready to be put into our gullets. While in the canoe, Craig chopped up and cooked the cayman with curried rice. Surprisingly, it tasted like chicken.

We continued paddling the rest of the day, eleven hours in all. We knew there was some kind of estancia on the Brazilian side before Versalles, but we had no idea how much further it was until we finally saw it. When we pulled into the estancia, really just a small shack in a swampy area, the first thing we noticed was the mosquitoes. They were the worst we had seen on the trip so far. I only spent about five minutes outside the shack and the tent, but the mosquitoes acted quickly and accurately. Every inch of exposed or semi-exposed skin soon had bites on top of bites, and I haven't been able to stop scratching ever since.

I fried up the piranhas along with some rice on the wood stove in the shack. The fish were so delicious, not many extra spices were needed. Everyone else seemed impressed by the meal, but then again, I never told any of them that we didn't actually catch the fish.

After we finished eating, another group of campers started. One of them invited me to join in, so I had a second meal. The group was a bunch of pro fishermen, led by Jander Moro, who had his own fishing television program in Brazil. I couldn't believe the size of some of the fish he had caught in the river that day. The entire group was very generous, and we had a great time trading travel and fishing stories despite the mosquitoes.

Once again, we were told that we'd get to Versalles tomorrow, but this time we actually believed the people telling us. It's been eight days since we left Remanso in our canoe, and we have been in very high spirits lately. We can't wait to get to the party, and it's finally going to happen tomorrow.

More Photos

A Near Disaster

May 29, 2006
Day 243
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 10

Picture of Piedras Negras.

Piedras Negras, Brazil, where the church takes up half the town.

Starting before sunrise meant paddling in the cool night air, but it also spelled trouble almost right away today. We were navigating through the dark waters with no moonlight when suddenly a small island appeared in front of us. We tried to steer away, but nobody saw it until it was too late. We ended up crashing sideways into some trees that were partially submerged in the high river. I'm glad we got the heavy-duty canoe, because it held up well, whereas a smaller canoe probably would have sunk.

The rest of the day on the water was pretty uneventful. We didn't see any animals other than the occasional macaws making their usual flights over the river. There were only a few islands to navigate around and we didn't see any other boats. Weather-wise, it was very clear and hot.

We got to Piedras Negras after only 4.5 hours of paddling. It supposedly had a population of only ten families, but it still had a small store with cold beer, a large church, and diesel-generated electricity for the whole place all day. It's strange how much more affluent the communities are in Brazil than Bolivia, and that the people speak different languages, even though they live on opposite sides of the river.

We figured we could make it to the next town, which wasn't even marked on our map, with about an hour of daylight left, but didn't want to bother. We've learned never to trust the advice of the locals because they always estimate too low. I doubt that any of them have actually paddled a canoe as far as we have.

We got camp set up inside a thatched-roof cabana with a smooth concrete floor above the river. The owners graciously let us stay there for the night and played some great Brazilian party music from their loudly painted abode all day. The Frenchman was particularly enthralled by the music as he has had to deal with Bolivia's gut-wrenching cumbia for the last four months.

We tried to relax a bit in the afternoon, but that proved to be very difficult because of the bugs. All day long, sand flies invade and leave their wicked acid stings. Their only saving grace is that they don't bite through clothing. As soon as dusk hits, the sand flies leave and it's the mosquitoes' turn. They're aggressive and bite right through clothes. I don't know how the locals can stand them. They are already driving me insane. The church was the only bug-free sanctuary I could find, and I wrote in my journal and slept in it most of the afternoon.

Once again, we were told that we'd get to Versalles tomorrow, but we know better than that now. We figure we'll be there in two days, but we're not sure where we'll stay tomorrow night. There are no more towns listed on the map between here and Versalles, but apparently there are some more estancias along the way.

The photo album for this entry is here.

The Bolivian Side

May 28, 2006
Day 242
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 9

Picture of sunrise.

Sunrise on the Itenez.

We got up really early today and were on the water an hour before sunrise. The river was much straighter with almost no islands or oxbows today. Besides the usual macaw migrations this morning, we were joined by a school of white dolphins. They didn't jump out of the water like their saltwater counterparts, but they were still fun to watch as they breached near us in large numbers. They seemed to be curious as they swam all around, and occasionally even underneath the canoe for several hours.

We had coconuts for breakfast on the river just as the sun started to beat down hard. Once again, the locals' estimation that it would take four hours to get to the next town of Mategua in Bolivia were way off. Four hours turned into five, then six, then seven before we finally got sight of the little village.

The locals gave us delicious bread to go with our butter and marmalade for lunch, and we gave them coconuts in return. Once again, we got a nice place to camp that should be relatively free of mosquitoes and sand flies, which is good because my arms and feet have really taken a beating lately. I think even if I donned an army helmet and chain mail, they would still find a way to maul me.

We asked the locals about the upcoming river conditions and once again got conflicting responses. One guy said that Mategua was the halfway point between the estancia and Piedras Negras, which means another eight hours or so. Another guy said that Piedras Negras was only three hours away, and in fact, there were two more places we could stop at further down the river. And for the third time, someone told us that we could go all the way to Versalles tomorrow. As far as navigation was concerned, one guy said that there weren't many islands and that we should always stick to the right, and another guy said that there were lots of places we could make wrong turns and that we should always stick to the left. Given this information, we plan to do the same thing we've always done and make our decisions based on complete guesses.

It was another early dinner and bedtime for us. We figure we might be able to make it to Versalles in two days, but we still have three days until the party begins, so we could always relax one more day if needed.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Relaxing At The Estancia

May 27, 2006
Day 241
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 8

It was another relaxing day in paradise. We had coconuts for breakfast, cleaned up our room a bit, and did some morning fishing. I caught two nice keepers and felt like I earned my keep by contributing.

Lunch once again consisted of beans, rice, and meat. None of us cared that we kept getting the same food because it was free and we got plenty of it.

It was hot and the mosquitoes were out in full force this afternoon, so we had a coconut cocktail and a siesta.

As another day came to and end with a beautiful sunset, we did some more fishing. My comrades grew quite jealous when I reeled in several big ones and they got nothing. The gauchos came down to watch us. They had gotten into a bottle of booze and began cheering us on like we were fishing celebrities.

For dinner, besides the usual beans and rice, we had lots of delicious fried fish. The conversation turned to soccer and the drunken gauchos wanted to have a game against us tomorrow. Too bad we have to leave. I don't think anyone would care even if we stayed there for a month. I never even got the name of the estancia, but I think it's better that way. It may be the best-kept secret of the Amazon.

The photo album for this entry is here.

Sending Off The Cows

May 26, 2006
Day 240
Remanso to Versalles Canoe Trip Day 7

Picture of gaucho.

A gaucho rounding up the cattle.

I had a fantastic sleep last night in a nice, comfortable bed. Craig, Gabriel, and I got invited to the kitchen for breakfast. It occurred to us that all of our meals would be free here. We ate our fried bread and had a long cup of coffee, ready to see what the gauchos were up to.

Soon after, we heard some activity on the ranch. Ambrosia pulled his houseboat up to the cattle yard and attached it to a barge for transporting cows. Then Marcus and the rest of the cowboys started splitting the male cows from their mothers. About sixty head of cattle were slated to be transported up the river where they would be sold and slaughtered.

Once the cows were properly separated, the process of driving them onto the barge began. Slowly but surely, the cowboys poked and prodded until barge was filled with the young males. Then Ambrosia pulled up with another barge and the same process was performed for the females. Once both barges were ready, we said goodbye to Ambrosia, Marcus, and most of the rest of the crew as they took off up the river on the ship.

We got really lucky to arrive when we did. It was probably the most exciting day on the estancia in a long time. Seeing the cowboys in action is normally a big show for the tourists who are paying $100 per day to see it, but we got the real deal for free.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, eating coconuts, and fishing. The estancia is an absolute paradise with one exception: The mosquitoes and sand flies continue to be horrendous. Even though I wore socks and repellent all day, my feet got covered with bites and were swollen and red. The itchiness never seems to go away with sand flies, either. It's just something I'm going to have to live with as long as I'm in the Amazon, I guess.

The photo entry for this album is here.