Friday, February 03, 2006

It's a Swamp Thing

The Pantanal, Brazil

Beloved Karen,

The OC arrived in Campo Grande via overnight bus. As is usual, we were tired, sore, stinky, and a bit grumpy to boot. We had taken not 3 steps into the muggy Brazilian morning before becoming the object of much attention. Campo Grande is one of three jumping-off points for tours in The Pantanal - an area half the size of France that is the world's largest swamp, an area of particularly high and accessible biodiversity, and therefore a major attraction for foreign tourists. Numerous suitors at the bus station were all trying to woo us in the direction of their particular tour company.

One gentleman stood out in the crowd. On first sight, I was convinced that we was going to give me a big hug, but I had to settle for a firm handshake, a warm smile, and greetings in pleasantly accented English. He helped us sort out some irregularities with our bags, provided a free breakfast, and led us to warm showers. Other operators that could get a word in edgewise advised that we "shop around", but I saw little reason to be disloyal to the new friend who had so quickly converted us from starving, bus-stinking, refugees back into the well fed and groomed gentlemen that we are. After a brief sales pitch, money hit the barrelhead and we were committed to three nights in the wilderness.

It was a long bus ride out to the camp. The first half was on paved roads in a comfortable bus. The only hitch was the regular bouts of puking by the somewhat motion sick and very unhappy little girl sitting next to me. Maybe three hours in, we switched from paved to dirt and from bus to 4x4 truck. The latter half of the drive was bumpy and dusty but very scenic. We passed some houses here and there, but the landscape was mostly wild. Only 20 minutes from the paved road we were already seeing capybaras (rodents of unusual size), alligators, and all manner of birds.

We arrived in the camp about 7 o'clock. Accommodations were basic. Roofs were just enough to keep out water and walls just enough to keep out bugs. We slept in hammocks in a bunk house with maybe 25 other folks. There were showers and flush toilets. Nobody missed hot water. It is permanently steamy in The Pantanal - not that you would expect any different from the world's largest swamp. We took our meals in a little cafeteria or outside at a long table. The food was tasty and abundant if a bit repetitive. Beans, rice, pasta, and crunchy salads kept hunger well at bay.

Days started early to take advantage of the relative cool. We were out of bed by 6, having coffee and bread by 6:30 and out in the bush by 7. We returned for an early lunch and spent the hot middle of the day taking a siesta or otherwise minimizing activity. We would head out again around half three and be back in time for a shower and a beer or two before dinner at 9. It was an active but pleasing rhythm of life.

Most people came to the camp for 3 nights and could be broken into classes much like an American high school. New freshman arrived each night. People in their first full day were sophomores, those in their second juniors, and those preparing to leave after lunch on their last day were seniors. Each class had a guide that saw them through the curriculum and onward to graduation. Our guide was an English-speaking Indian who went by the name of Joni. In our class was a young woman from Iceland (quickly nicknamed "Ice"), an Italian gentleman of about OC age called Michaele (sp?), and a family of four Swedes who seemed willing enough to adopt us for a short while. We were later joined by an Italian couple after our Nordic friends got caught smoking pot behind the gym and were tossed out of school.

The first day was taken up by two long walks and some swampy swims. We spotted all manner of wildlife including monkeys, an armadillo, toucans, and blue macaws. The hottest hours were spent making bone jewelry. I am now sporting a very Crocodile Dundee necklace. Day two was more adventurous. In the morning, we fished (successfully) for pirana. At first it feels a bit strange standing waist-deep in pirana and crocodile infested waters with a fishing rod, but you soon get used to it. The guide repeatedly assured us of the rarity of attacks on humans. The afternoon was taking up by an exhausting trek on horseback. I more than quadrupled my lifetime horse experience in one thigh-blistering, back-aggravating outing.

A makeshift bar was the focal point of the pre and post dinner hours. It was fully stocked with cold beer, soda, water, and the makings of deadly strong caiparinhas. Our junior year was an especially busy night due to the arrival of an unusually large freshman class. We spent the evening chatting with a mixed group of mostly Europeans near a campfire built more for light than heat with a background of distant lightening. Once the generator and the fire had died, a full boat of stars were to be enjoyed in the moonless sky. It was a memorable scene.

Graduation came as expected and we were back on the truck having our horse-sore asses further ravaged by the rustic road. We got stuck in deep mud along the way and had to lever the truck up with fence posts in order to dislodge it. The rest of the journey was enjoyable by uneventful and we arrived back in Campo Grande just before sunset - leaving enough time to shower and eat before boarding another bus for the 36 hour journey to Campo Velho. Brazil is a big country. There ain't no time for sitting around if we intend to see a lot of it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meh. My charm would've melted Ice easy.

2/10/2006 5:08 PM gmt

Blogger Mik3 said...


2/20/2006 6:00 PM gmt


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