Day One: We Board the Boat
Douglas had arranged for someone to pick us up at our hotel at 9 AM to take us to the boat where he would be waiting. At about 8:45 a nice looking man and his son arrived in a car decorated on the outside with lots of animals and the research projects logo, Bichos do Pantanal, emblazoned on the sides. The man turned out to be the boat´s captain, Vagno, which we didn´t figure out right away because there was a problem with our language communication. Since Vagno was a bit early, we hadn´t eaten breakfast yet, so we grabbed some dry rolls and cheese to go and headed to the car. I was a bit grumpy at this point because I am really not a morning person and I definitely don´t like to be rushed. I sat in the back of the car with the young boy and we kind of just stared at each other and smiled once or twice since I didn´t speak any Portuguese and he didn´t speak any English. I had no idea how far away the boat was and neither did Jon, but I don´t think either of us were that surprised when the car ride took close to three hours. Cuiaba reminded us both a lot of China. The streets were dusty and nothing was modern or clean. The sights and sounds of the city, especially the large amount of busy storefronts, all screamed developing world. Upon leaving the city of about one million people, the scenery changed into an arid grass-land, similar to what I would assume the savannahs of Africa would look like. Since my friend Randi is currently in Tanzania on her safari honeymoon, I made a lot of mental comparisons between the wildlife we were going to see and the wildlife she was probably photographing at that very moment.
Considering we were in the Amazon basin, and not central Africa, amid the grass there were lots of tropical plants and small palm trees, which made the car ride interesting. We didn´t see any animals from the road, however, and hardly saw any signs of civilization either. Gradually the scenery changed to reflect a more wet and tropical climate and a few hills began to appear. When we crossed through the hills we discovered we had arrived in the city of Caceres, where we would embark on our river journey. Our driver dropped off his son at their home, a tiny square house on a dusty, dirt street with many other tiny homes, and I began to realize again that I should never complain about my life and all that I have. My standard of living is so superior to most people´s around the globe that sometimes I get pangs of guilt for all the complaining I do about this or that. Compared to most people in South America or China, Jon and I are extremely wealthy and get to experience things that hardly anyone else in those countries do. Of course, there are also extremely wealthy Brazilians, but I would hazard a guess that not many of them reside in the Pantanal or Caceres.
When we pulled up to a group of boats moored along the Paraguay River in Caceres we realized we were, indeed, at our destination. Our bags were taken to the cabins below deck and we climbed aboard. The boat we were staying on was certainly not a new boat and the facilities were nothing to write home about. But I haven´t spent a lot of time on boats, so maybe this is what most are like. The room smelled pretty damp and musty and Jon and I realized we would be spending our vacation on bunk beds. The bathroom situation was rudimentary, but we could shower and at least we had our own bathroom. I realized then that our week on the boat was going to be more like camping and less like a stay in a boutique lodge. I quickly got used to the idea and changed into my Havaianas, since it did not seem like we would be needing boots and hiking gear aboard the boat. Little did I know we would be spending pretty much all of our time on the river, and therefore I would not need half the items I had brought in my duffle. Like a dutiful wife I smiled and tried to make myself comfortable. Luckily Douglas was really nice and we both took an instant liking to him as he showed us around. I am not super open with strangers so it took me a few minutes to warm up, but Jon seemed to be in his element. I realized I would need to stop my urge to complain and simply enjoy our trip since it was something he seemed pretty excited about. Douglas´s energy and enthusiasm for wildlife soon made me feel excited as well.
We spent the rest of the day on the boat sailing down the river to find the spot where Douglas would begin his census research. The river was really wide and we passed many local fishermen on our way. Our boat had a covered deck, so even though it was hot and sticky outside we were able to keep out most of the heat. And the breeze felt glorious. As we sailed along Douglas pointed out all the various species of birds, and it was then that I realized how much unique and amazing wildlife we were going to see on this trip! I don´t actually know that much about birds or animals in general so I also realized I was going to learn a lot in the next week. Douglas was a veritable bird encyclopedia so soon we were spotting cocoi herons, giant black vultures, jabirus, southern screamers, yellow-billed terns, and other such birds of flight. The first two birds were our favorite because they were absolutely enormous. A jabiru is a giant stork with a black face and neck and a pink collar around its neck. It is much larger than a pelican and is about 3-4 feet high. To watch one eating a fish or flying past us like a mini-jumbo jet was simply amazing. Watching the colors change along the river´s edge as the sun set was also quite magical. It took pretty much the entire afternoon for us to reach our destination on the edge of the first and second research areas, but we didn´t mind the journey.
Once we parked the boat along the side of the river, the three of us hung out on the top deck, ate some yummy food cooked for us by the cook Douglas had hired for the week, and swatted away the mosquitos. I am pretty picky about the quality of the food that I eat, which I blame on my mother´s fabulous cooking, but, much to my surprise, the cook did a really nice job. Some of the combinations of flavors were a bit interesting, such as beef filled crepes, topped with parmesan and a tomato barbeque sauce, but it was definitely edible and I decided I wasn´t going to have to starve myself on the trip. The sun sets pretty early in the Pantanal, around 5:40 PM, so we were soon enveloped in darkness and mosquitos. I quickly made use of the DEET we had brought and stopped the mosquitos in their attempts to eat me alive. Much like on a camping trip, there is not a whole lot to do after dark on a boat so Jon and I crawled down into our room for the night almost immediately after dinner. We tried to work the air-conditioning and apparently must have failed because we spent the whole night drenched in sweat. Jon also moved his mattress to the floor because he was too big for the bunk and the other sleeping space was covered in tiny bugs that had fallen from the light that we had inadvertently left on during supper. Mistakes not to be repeated the next day, I assure you. And we fell into a half sleep to the sound of the boat´s generator humming loudly below us. All in all, it was a pretty great first day in the Pantanal.
Day Two- Our Research Begins in Earnest
I hadn´t quite realized how early we would have to get up in order to view wildlife in the Pantanal, but 5:30 was the time we were supposed to rise and eat breakfast. Normally I would completely balk at the idea of waking up so early during my vacation, but I also realized it´s probably necessary to view wildlife in the best light of the day, in the early morning and evening. Also, the sun seems to rise pretty early here (before six) so it wasn´t such a hardship to get out of my steaming hot bunk and take a cold shower when there was light outside. In Santiago the sun often doesn´t peak over the Andes until around 7:45 or 8, long after the first bell for class has rung and we are teaching inside our darkened rooms. However, even though I could force myself out of bed without too much trouble, let me repeat, I am still not a morning person. I don´t like to talk to people in the morning, especially if they enjoy mornings. I don´t like to look at my lion´s mane (unruly post-chemo hair) in the morning when I wake up, and I don´t like for people to wait for me to get ready. I left all my makeup by accident in my school bag back in Santiago, so there was significantly less for me to do to get ready, but it definitely made looking in the mirror less rewarding. Ever since chemo I have very few eyelashes and my eyebrows need to be penciled in so they look more full. Barefaced, I tend to feel old and weathered, which is exactly how I felt when I woke up this morning. Anyway, enough about how my face looks- this trip is about viewing wildlife, not me looking pretty while viewing wildlife. But suffice it to say, there are not going to be many people pictures on this trip… YIKES!
After breakfast I joined Jon, Douglas, and the captain, Vagno, by climbing aboard one of two smaller motorboats that our bigger boat has been towing along with us. The boat had comfortable seats and seemed really sturdy so I was really excited about the day ahead of us. Zooming along the river with the sun on our face and the boat cutting through the glass-like water I felt alive again. It was such a beautiful morning and I was reminded that TRAVEL is the point of life, for me at least. I had spent a few dark weeks before the trip trying to figure out the meaning of life and pull myself out of a mild depression. And that boat ride did the trick: as long as I can travel and see new places and experience new things, then that is enough to make me want to keep on going. I absolutely loved it! There was hardly any wind, so the river was very smooth and reflected all of the greenery, the sun, and the shadows of the birds in flight above. As soon as we turned off the main river, onto some of the smaller waterways, we started to see some spectacular wildlife. I´m pretty sure Jon´s camera rarely left his eye.
Our first stop of the day was to a small hotel along the riverbank. It was called Recanto do Dourado, and once we climbed up the pathway and viewed the spectacular pool with the bar next to it and the hammocks all around I felt a pang of jealousy. “Now that´s what I´m talking about”, I thought. Seeing wildlife during the day, relaxing in the pool with a tropical drink, and sleeping in a comfy air-conditioned hotel room at night was more of the trip I had originally envisioned. But I had to sweep all those thoughts out of my head and focus on the fact that I had already learned so much about the Pantanal that I´m sure most of those tourists will never pick up while sipping caiparinhas in their hammocks. At least that´s what I told myself as we tried to avoid staring at the sparkling, inviting waters of the pool, and instead followed Douglas to check out the bare faced curassows on the hotel´s property. Curassows are an endangered species and look a bit like large pheasants. They pecked around the corn in the clearing in the forest and were quite neat to watch. Usually there are also wild boar and capuchin monkeys who come to the hotel to eat the corn, but they weren´t there that day, which was a bit of a disappointment. But Jon was too busy photographing the black collared hawk hanging out by the dock to be upset for long. When we begrudgingly left the hotel Jon knowingly winked at me and told me that he was proud of me for doing this kind of a trip and also promised that I could pick the next trip. Although the hotel would have been great, Jon was really digging our current situation so who was I to complain? Tropical beaches, pools, and romantic hotels in Colombia this January, I quickly decided, though.
As we pulled out on the motorboat for our afternoon jaunt, I focused on enjoying the trip and was astounded by the amount of wildlife we saw in just a few hours. We glimpsed some capybara on the banks of the river and Vagno pulled up closer so we could photograph them. While there we discovered there were two caiman (the name for the alligators in the Pantanal) just hanging out in the water hyacinth right next to our boat. Vagno pulled even closer to the caiman so Jon could stick the camera basically right into his eyeball. This I didn´t enjoy so much, but I figured if the captain thought it was safe, it must be, right?! Anyhoo, we continued on down the river and made our way into some of the beautiful back rivers like the Jauru river. There were more capybara and they stayed pretty still so we could watch them for awhile. I really like this animal: It´s sort of a cross between a large rodent, a hippo, a brown bear, and a seal, and when they are with their babies just lounging on the beach in the sunshine, they seem really cuddly and cute. The capybara are almost always surrounded by smaller birds that stand on their heads, flit around, and eat all of the bugs off of them. They are quite adorable.
According to Douglas, the best place to see most of the animals of the Pantanal is along the riverbank. The birds and mammals come there to eat and swim in the water to cool down. Often, the jaguars also come to the riverbank to eat the capybaras that are hanging out there. I know Jon was hoping a jaguar would pop out and eat the cute capybara family we were intimately photographing, but I was secretly hoping that it would not, considering our boat was very close to the shore on both sides. Sometimes we almost got stuck in the waterways because they were filled with floating grass, but somehow Vagno was able to make his way through. Those giant bursts of speed before the boat cut through the water hyacinth was both thrilling and terrifying. I held on to the boat for dear life, as I certainly did not want to be thrown into the water and become breakfast for one of the caiman. Luckily, this did not happen, and we made it safely out of the passageways. After viewing several different kinds of species of hawks, herons, kingfishers, and falcons, we headed back to the big boat for lunch.
By this time it was quite hot outside and we were all tired and ready for a siesta. But it was only about 11:30. We ate a delicious lunch of rice, beans, steak and grilled onions, and then I decided I was really tired so I retired to our air-conditioned bunk where I lay still and read and typed. I guess the typical routine on the trip is wake up early, go out in the smaller boat for a few hours, return for lunch, take a nap till about 3:00 and then head back out in the smaller boat until the sun sets. This seemed like a pretty good deal to me and I decided that the life of a researcher is really not so bad. Although Douglas has to take lots of pictures of birds and then count them all, which can be a bit tedious, life on the boat is definitely relaxing. Plus, if you have a cook to make all your meals for you, it doesn´t require a lot of extra effort on your part. You can simply enjoy the boat rides, memorize hundreds of species of birds, count numbers of capybara and caiman, and that is basically your day. Not bad!
Our second trip out in the boat that day yielded even greater wildlife viewing. There were a few birds that Jon had not captured yet, such as my new favorite, the Roseatte spoonbill, a bright pink, flamingo-colored bird that seemed to worm its way into the other white and black birds nesting in the trees or on the banks of the sand islands that we often came across in the middle of the river. We also saw many families of capybara, including a mother and father swimming across the river with their two babies. Super cute! And luckily, or unluckily for Jon I guess, there was no jaguar waiting to eat them on the other side. Although I definitely got the sense that there could have been. Most of the riverbanks we saw that afternoon were either flanked by flat, open, fields, or dense brush. It seemed quite plausible that a jungle cat could pounce from the greenery at any minute and devour those cute little babies. Or maybe my image of a jaguar is too vicious. Maybe they are just sweet creatures that would be simply lounging about on a fallen tree above the sand, just waiting to be photographed. Who knows?
Our last mission of the day was to install a night camera under a rookery of wood storks located on the banks of the larger Paraguay river. We pulled over to the side and Douglas and Vagno disembarked in order to the camera under one of the trees laden with birds up above. Apparently predators often camp out by these rookeries in case one of the birds falls down and they can eat it. The camera was supposed to capture the predators in action. Luckily the two men successfully placed the cameras and were not attacked by predators while we waited for them in the boat. In fact, Douglas and Vagno emerged from the bushes just in time for Jon to snap some gorgeous pictures of the rookery´s silhouette against the bright orange sky. It was truly spectacular. Upon arrival at the big boat, Douglas decided he wanted us to eat our dinner on the nearby sand island and enjoy an evening on dry land. The Brazilian crew thought this quite odd but loaded our motorboat up with a table, chairs, and the food, and off we headed to the island. It was very picturesque and I was enjoying myself quite a lot, considering the food had been very edible up to this point. Unfortunately, though- somehow a large amount of sand found it´s way into the chicken and creamed corn dish and I could not stomach gritting my way through the dinner. I switched to beer instead and attempted to lather up with DEET to prepare for the nightly mosquito feeding at dusk. I must not have done such a good job though, because the mosquitos felt like they were everywhere! Again, Jon and I were exhausted by our day when we got back to the boat and so we pretty much retired to the room, uploaded more wildlife pictures, and called it a night. We figured out how to work the air-conditioning so we were a lot cooler, but unfortunately about an hour into our sleep an odd odor permeated the room. It smelled like burning plastic or like when a car engine gets overheated. I, of course, started to freak out and made Jon get out of bed to find out if the boat was going to explode. He was not too happy with me, and the smell continued, but he went back to bed. I attempted to read my book because I could not sleep and simply hoped that the boat would be okay and that I would awake the following morning.