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Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, the Azores: and then (finally) home!

It was a relatively short ‘hop’ from Faial to Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands in the Azores Archipelago, which was accomplished overnight, so we arrived early in the morning of Saturday 9th February. This is prime dolphin and whale-watching territory, but unfortunately we didn’t see any. A few people who happened to be stood on the fore deck as we approached the island did manage to sight a school of dolphins as they passed in front of the bow – but I wasn’t one of them. Drat!

Sao Miguel is the largest and most populated of the nine islands that make up the Azores. Also known as the “Green Island”, Sao Miguel is home to the Presidency of the Autonomous Region of the Azores. We docked at the cosmopolitan town of Ponta Delgada, a delightful town with grand monuments, ancient architecture, cobble-stone streets, mingled with a modern marina, lively bars and ocean-front cafe’s that together create a wonderful atmosphere.

We were booked on an organised tour to see the Sete Cidades Crater Lake, with some cheese and wine tasting thrown in (not literally!). The Crater Lake was magnificent to behold, and in terms of visual impact, possibly the highlight of the holiday. We passed meadows bordered by hydrangeas (though not yet in bloom) before ascending the main crater, some 1,900 ft above sea level. The crater has a circumference of 8 miles, and holds two lakes, one blue and one green, connected by a narrow road bridge. On the shores of the Blue Lake is the village of Sete Cidades (Seven Cities), and the village and lakes are surrounded by the dark forest-covered walls of the Caldeira.

Words cannot convey the beauty of this whole region, which has many walking trails for the determined rambler. I was quite reminded of our own Lake District, where we make an annual pilgrimage every June, but in some respects the scenery here was even more stunning. Add to this the fact that the annual temperature range is a very temperate 15C to 28C, i.e. no ice snow or frost, and you have an almost perfect environment for wildlife to flourish.

We also visited the Santiago Lake, inaccessibly situated at the bottom of an extinct crater before heading back to Ponta Delgarda to sample some of the local cheeses and wines.

The afternoon was taken up with exploring the ancient city of Ponta Delgarda, but unfortunately – and despite it being a Saturday – most of the shops and churches were closed. However, we made the most of wandering the cobbled streets and sampling the beer and custard creams on offer at the sidewalk cafes, and did the archetypical tourist thing and had a tour of the town in a horse-drawn carriage. We did manage to get to see the inside of one of the churches – St Peter’s, (Sao Pedro) which features many statues from 16th through 18th centuries and is home to the famous Carvalho painting of the Pentecost.

A truly wonderful day was rounded off by a sea-food dinner at one of the Marina restaurants ( O Marineiro, www.omarineiro.com) with some fellow passengers (and now friends) who we’ve spent the past six weeks with sharing bread and gossip on table 26 in the Marco Polo’s Waldorf Restaurant. The dinner party consisted of Brian, Bridgit, Dermot, Margaret, Dale and Jo (and wife – Lynda), and if any of you ever get around to reading this blog post – thanks to all of you for your company these past few weeks. And don’t worry – whatever happened on the Marco Polo stays on the Marco Polo!

So, this is our last port of call on this epic journey to the Amazon, the West Indies and the Azores. We now have another four days at sea before getting back to our starting point in Tilbury. By that time we will have spent 42 days having the holiday of a lifetime, and with many very happy memories and some truly incredible sights to reflect on. A final word of thanks to all of the staff and crew of the Marco Polo, who made this journey possible, and looked after us every step of the way. And now – to good ol’ Blighty!

The Blue and Green Lakes

The Blue and Green Lakes

 

Caldeira (crater) with the Blue and Green Lakes
Caldeira (crater) with the Blue and Green Lakes

 

City Gates in Ponta Delgarda
City Gates in Ponta Delgarda

 

The horses that pulled the carriage that took us on a tour of Ponta Delgarda
The horses that pulled the carriage that took us on a tour of Ponta Delgarda

 

Last supper ashore with friends
Last supper ashore with friends

Horta, Faial Island, the Azores

We arrived at Horta, capital of Faial Island in the Azores on the afternoon of Friday, 8th February, after five days at sea, crossing a fairly benign Atlantic from Barbados. Faial is one of the nine islands that make up the Archipelago of the Azores. The marina is a primary stop for yachts crossing the Atlantic, and its walls, and walkways are covered in paintings created by visitors who noted the names of their vessels, crews, and the years they visited. Peter Cafe Sport across from the marina houses the island’s scrimshaw museum; a collection of hundreds of pieces of Scrimshaw work carved on whale tooth and jawbone.

Mark Twain visited Horta in June 1867, near the beginning of a long excursion to Jerusalem. He described his visit, with acerbic commentary on the people and culture of Horta, in “The Innocents Abroad”. Similarly, Joshua Slocum, sailing the Spray, stopped in Horta on the first leg of his solo circumnavigation, which he chronicled in his 1899 book “Sailing Alone Around the World.”

We only had half a day at Faial, so were a bit limited on the extent to which we could explore the island and the city of Horta. We had arranged to go on the “Capelinhos Volcano” guided tour, which took us to the vast volcanic crater known as ‘Caldeira’, over a mile in diameter and 1,200ft deep. Unfortunately there was a mist swirling around the high ground which prevented a clear view inside the crater, but spectacular nevertheless.

We passed the villages of Ribeira Funda, Praia do Norte and Norte Peqeno on the way to getting a view of Capelinhos, about 1km from the coast, an extinct volcano which rose from the sea in 1957. During the eruption the volcano added a whole new part to the island, burying fields and houses with ash and lava. The remains of the half-buried lighthouse can still be seen.

The whole island is filled with hydrangeas, which border both sides of many of the roads. We had to imagine the blaze of colour this would produce because, unfortunately they were not in flower during this part of the season. The island has been called the “Blue Island” due to the burst of colour from the hydrangeas.

A very beautiful island, which we’d like to visit again one day as part of a more extended holiday.

Our next – and final – port of call is Ponta Delgarda on the island of Sao Miguel, where we arrive tomorrow, Saturday 9th February.

Caldeira Volcano Crater
Caldeira Volcano Crater

 

Horta Harbour
Horta Harbour

 

Marco Polo and sea wall in foreground with pictures and messages from previous sea-farers
Marco Polo and sea wall in foreground with pictures and messages from previous sea-farers

 

The old lighthouse, half-buried in lava.
The old lighthouse, half-buried in lava.

Bridgetown, Barbados – and farewell to the West Indies!

We arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados on Saturday 2nd February. This is our last port of call in the West Indies before starting our homeward leg across the vast Atlantic. After Barbados we can look forward to (!) five days at sea before arriving at Horta in the Azores.

Known for its beaches and cricket, Barbados is one of the mots popular islands in the West Indies. British influence is everywhere, from place names to Anglican Parish Churches. The legal and political system is very much based on that of Britain; judges wear robes and wigs, cricket is a national passion, they drive on the correct (left) side of the road, and the epithet “Little England” is often used.

The Portuguese came to Barbados en route to Brazil and named it “Los Barbados” (bearded-ones) after the island’s fig trees, which have a beard-like appearance. The first English settlers arrived in 1627 and within a few years much of the land had been deforested to make way for tobacco and cotton pltantations. Sugar cane was introduced and a market for slaves who came from Afica.

After slavery was abolished in 1834, many of the new citizens of Barbados took advantage of the excellent education system. Barbados remained a British colony until 1961, gaining full independence in 1966.

Bridgetown is the capital, and home of the Kensington Oval, which was the venue for the 2007 Cricket World Cup final. South of the city is the historic Garrison area, where the British once maintained the Caribbean military headquarters. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Outside the main entrance to the cruise terminal is a village made up of historic chattel houses (colourful movable houses which were standard housing for plantation workers after emancipation). These small, brightly painted houses are now filled with art, handicrafts and souvenirs.

We decided to go on the “Discover Barbados” tour, which took in the Highland Adventure Centre, at an elevation of over 1000ft, overlooking the Atlantic. We then descended to the East Coast with its rugged landscape and pounding Atlantic surf to reach Bathsheba – a popular beach resort. We then headed to St John’s Church, situated on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The original church was built in 1660, but mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 1831. The present church was rebuilt in 1836. A feature of the church was the pulpit, which was made of six different types of wood: Ebony, Locust, Mahogany, Manchineel, Oak and Pine. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

And so we finally departed the West Indies on the evening of Saturday 2nd February. Strangely enough, our cruise director thought a themed evening of County & Western music was most apt for our last evening in the Caribbean. Surreal or what?!

We now have five days at sea to look forward to before reaching Horta in the Azores. Homeward bound!

East Coast of Barbados showing the Atlantic Ocean
East Coast of Barbados showing the Atlantic Ocean

 

 Bathsheba, Barbados

 Bathsheba, Barbados

 

Chattel House
Chattel House

Castries, St Lucia, West Indies.

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We arrived at St Lucia in the morning of Friday 1st February after an overnight cruise from St Vincent.

 

One of the Windward Islands, it was named after Saint Lucy of Syracuse by the French, the first European colonisers. They signed a treaty with the native Carib people in 1660. England took control of the island from 1663 to 1667; in ensuing years, it was at war with France 14 times and rule of the island changed frequently (it was seven times each ruled by the French and British). In 1814, the British took definitive control of the island. Because it switched so often between British and French control, Saint Lucia was also known as the “Helen of the West Indies”.

 

St Lucia is probably best know for it’s dramatic twin peaks – the Pitons – which rise to 2000ft, sheltering magnificent rain forests and orchards of banana, coconut, mango and papaya trees. With an area of 240 sq miles, St Lucia is the second largest of the Winward Islands.

 

St Lucians drive on the left and have a passion for cricket. Although English is the official language, French Creole patois is widely spoken by the locals.

 

We visited St Lucia last year on the Royal Clipper, that time visiting Soufrière, the islands oldest town and backdrop to the volcanic cone-shaped Pitons. This time we docked at Castries, the islands capital. We were somewhat disappointed to learn that our planned snorkelling trip on a catamaran had been cancelled, supposedly due to a mechanical failure on the catamaran, but suspicions arose that the tour had been hijacked by one of the three large cruise ships that were also docked at Castries. We therefore had to make hasty arrangements for an alternative, and opted for the 4×4 Jeep & Waterfall Safari.

 

Our morning was taken up with shopping at the Castries Art & Craft Market for spices, hot pepper sauce and the compulsory fridge magnets for everyone at home.

 

The jeep safari in the afternoon took us to Morne Fortune for a panoramic view of Castries before descending to Cul de Sac Valley and the community of Belair for a brief stop to sample some locally grown fruits. We continued to Sarrot Hill, passing through quaint villages and communities, and arriving at Dennery for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, we went to Micloud and the Latille Waterfall, which was situated in a tranquil organic fruit, herbal and flower garden, run by a local Rastafarian who had made the garden’s his life’s work. An interesting character.

 

We sailed from St Lucia the same evening on our way to our final stop in the West Indies – Barbados. A slight touch of nostalgia as we left the harbour, seeing the 4-masted Royal Clipper all lit up. This time last year we were recently embarked on this for a 7-day cruise around the islands – that was most definitely a 5-star experience!

 

Castries Harbour
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Our 4×4 Jeep Safari
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Latille Waterfall
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Local Rastafarian – the man developed the organic gardens,
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Kingstown, St Vincent, the Grenadines

We arrived at Kingstown, St Vincent early in the morning of Thursday, 31st January after an overnight cruise from St George’s, Granada. The island is the largest of the Grenadines, technically part of the Winward Islands, which are themselves part of the Lesser Antilles. 

The island was originally named Hairouna (“The Land of the Blessed”) by the native Caribs. The Caribs aggressively prevented European settlement on St Vincent until 1719. Prior to this, formerly enslaved Africans, who had either been shipwrecked or who had escaped from Barbados, Saint Lucia and Grenada and sought refuge in mainland Saint Vincent, intermarried with the Caribs and became known as Garifuna or Black Caribs. Following the Seven Years War, marked in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, Britain was granted control of St Vincent. St Vincent gained independence in 1979. 

The northern third of the island consists of an enormous and active volcano, La Soufrière, which erupted in 1902 killing 2,000 people. Much farmland was damaged, and the economy deteriorated. In April 1979, La Soufrière erupted again. Although no one was killed, thousands were evacuated, and again there was extensive agricultural damage. The main export is bananas and the main industry is tourism.

 

Kingstown is the capital and is a bustling hub of activity, with many craft shops, and vibrant fruit & veg and fish markets. Located on the northern outskirts are the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1763 and the oldest of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. We walked the one mile or so to the gardens, but there are plenty of taxis around all offering lifts to the gardens. Apart from the many varieties of trees, flowers and shrubs, the gardens have a sanctuary for the rare St Vincent Parrot (Amazona Guildingi), which is the island’s national bird. We had some fun answering the parrots’ calls of “hello” and “good morning”. I couldn’t coax any other words from them, but I’m sure they knew more. We also spotted – albeit very briefly – a mongoose as it scurried across our path. These were introduced to the island to control the snakes, but are now considered pests because of the damage they do to the agriculture.

 

From the gardens we took a taxi ride to Fort Charlotte, six hundred feet up on the hill outside Kingstown. This was a 19th century British battlement that once housed 600 troops and a battery of 30 cannons, mostly pointed inland for defence against the Caribs. The Fort is named after King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. A section of the Fort is off-limits as it is still used today as a women’s prison, housing between 6 and 12 residents at any one time. The death penalty is still retained on St Vincent and the gallows are located close to the Fort.

 

The other noteworthy site for tourists is the St George’s Anglcan Cathedral on Grenville Street, with its exquisite stained glass. The Cathedral is famous for its Red Angel window, commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her first grandson, the Duke of Clarence. However, she rejected the window because the angel was dressed in red, not white as she had requested, and so years later the window was brought to St Vincent and displayed in this Cathedral.

 

Once again, we only had the one day to do our exploring of St Vincent. Our ship sailed the same evening for our next destination, St Lucia.

 

View of Kingstown, St Vincent from Fort Charlotte.
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Me at the Botanical Gardens
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Lynda at the Botanical Gardens
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Lynda on the Hibiscus walk, Botanical Gardens

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Granada, “Spice of the Caribbean”, and spicy gossip!

Continuing my travelogue of our epic cruise from Tilbury, to the Amazon, the West Indies and the Azores (and ultimately back to Tilbury).

I should be writing about our experience in Granada, where we arrived on the morning of Wednesday 30th January after two days at sea from our previous stop, Ile du Salut. But before I describe our visit to Granada, I thought I should say something about the growing number of incidents that have spiced up our days (excuse pun) on board our cruise ship, the Marco Polo. I guess one should expect a few issues and problems when over 700 passengers are confined together in a fairly limited space for a period of 6 weeks, but even I’ve been surprised by some of the things that I’ve seen or heard. I should perhaps note there is a degree of hearsay and anecdotal “evidence” in what follows, with occasional circumstantial evidence that might give credence to some of the gossip.

The first incident relates to the ship’s doctor. People on cruises fall ill, as a result of either a pre-existing condition or as a reaction to the food, or sea-sickness or whatever. We also have a fairly ‘aged’ demographic on board, so the doctor has been kept fairly busy. It takes a while before you see a trend, but I noticed after a couple of weeks into the cruise that there were a growing number of passengers walking around with bandages on their arms. This was followed by stories of medical bills running into several thousand pounds. A visit to the doctor (it is alleged) would result in a charge of £400 before any treatment. The standard treatment seems to be anti-biotics, invariably delivered intravenously (hence the bandages on the arms), which would then rack-up costs of over £1000 per day. One passenger (it is alleged) had a medical bill of over £7000. There was speculation that a letter had been written to the Daily Telegraph by a passenger describing one such case – though I have not so far been able to locate this letter. A number of passengers have corroborated the high medical bills, which has caused some consternation about the perils of falling ill, and what precisely is covered by travel insurance. Suffice to say, I move around the ship very carefully – can’t afford to have an accident!

We’ve seen one passenger leave the ship semi-concious on a stretcher – without returning. Goodness knows what their medical bill looks like – or maybe they saw it and hence the stretcher!

Then there was the arrest and detention of a passenger during our stay in the Amazon, specifically our stop at Manaus. For anyone familiar with cruising, you will know that all passports are given up to the ship’s administration, who liaise with the appropriate immigration authorities for each of the countries visited. We had Brazilian immigration staff permanently on board throughout our stay in the Amazon, and they found “a person of interest” to them during their audit of the passports. The said person (a lady) was detained as soon as she set foot ashore – allegedly on a fraud charge – and she hasn’t been seen since. 

There was some speculation about the removal of a passenger following our visit to Boca da Valeria on the grounds of suspected pedophilia. However, there’s no real evidence to support this.

There has been more than one fracas in the dining areas, one of which I personally witnessed where two men squared up to each other about who had the rights of ownership of a particular table. It was just handbags at 10 paces, but possibly indicative of the increasingly fractious nature of some people now that we’re 4 weeks into the cruise. Will there be an actual physical assault before the cruise is over? Watch this space!

And then there are the seemingly growing number of passengers who will complain about everything and anything – the music is too loud/not loud enough/don’t want a radio/want a radio, it’s too hot/too cold/too wet etc. One lady complained of poor service in the restaurant because the waiter hadn’t cut her food up for her. It takes all sorts.

Anyway, about Granada. Granada the largest island in the Grenadines; smaller islands are Carriacou, Petit Martinique, Ronde Island, Caille Island, Diamond Island, Large Island, Saline Island, and Frigate Island. Sighted by Columbus in 1498 (though he didn’t actually make land) and named by Spanish sailors after the city of Granada in Andalucia, the island remained uncolonised for over 150 years. The island changed hands between the British and the French until 1783, after which it remained British. 

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The islands are of volcanic origin with extremely rich soil. Grenada’s interior is very mountainous with Mount St. Catherine being the highest at 840 m. It is a leading producer of several different spices. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice, orange/citrus peels and especially nutmeg, providing 20% of the world supply, are all major exports. The nutmeg on the nation’s flag represents the economic crop of Grenada; the nation is the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg (after Indonesia).

The culture is a fusion of Africa, East Indian, French and British practices. They drive on the left (as all ‘proper’ countries do) and their national sport is cricket.

The capital is St George’s, which has a very picturesque harbour and lots of colonial architecture, such as the Georgian York House (the Houses of Parliament). Only two miles to the south of St George’s is the beautiful Grand Anse Beach, a stunning stretch of immaculate white sand. 

We took advantage of the “Rhum Runner”, a sort of motorised platform complete with steel band and bar serving bottomless rum punch. This did a cruise around St George’s harbour before heading out past Grand Anse Beach on the way to Mourne Rouge beach. We had about 1.5 hours to swim and snorkel at the beach, with the staff of Rhum Runner continuing to serve us with lashings of rum punch. On the return journey the party continued with a limbo dance challenge and dancing to the steel band. Yes, we had a good time, and it’s a pity we couldn’t have stayed longer in Granada, but our ship has a schedule and we sailed at 10pm to our next destination – Kingstown, St Vincent.

St George’s Harbour, Granada
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St George’s Harbour, Granada
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Limbo dancing on the Rhum Runner
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Lynda joins the steel band!
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Iles du Salut, French Guiana (Devil’s Island..and Papillon has gone!)

We made a brief (half-day) stop at the Iles du Salut on Monday 28th January.The Îles du Salut (in English: Islands of Health, so called because the missionaries went there to escape plague on the mainland) are a group of small islands of volcanic origin about 11 km off the coast of French Guiana in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Île du Diable, the most famous due to the political imprisonment there of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, is better known to many people as Devil’s Island. The islands were part of a penal colony from 1852 onwards for only the worst criminals of France. The main part of the penal colony was a labour camp stretched along the border with Dutch Guiana, which today is Surinam. 

Île Royale was for the general population of the worst criminals of the penal colony to roam about in moderate freedom due to the difficulty of escape from the island. 

Île Saint-Joseph was for the worst of those criminals to be punished in solitary confinement in silence and for extra punishment in darkness of the worst of the worst criminals of the penal colony. 

Île du Diable was for political prisoners including the aforementioned Captain Alfred Dreyfus.This penal colony for the very worst criminals of France was controversial for it had a reputation for harshness and brutality. Prisoner upon prisoner violence was common, tropical diseases would kill many others, and a small core of broken survivors would return to France to tell how horrible it was and scare other potential criminals straight. This system was gradually phased out and has been completely shut down since 1953. Nowadays the islands are a popular tourist destination. The islands were featured in the novel by Henri Charrière, Papillon, which was also made into a film, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. 

While the prison system was in use (1852–1953) inmates included political prisoners (such as 239 republicans who opposed Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851) and the most hardened of thieves and murderers. The vast majority of the more than 80,000 prisoners sent to the Devil’s Island Prison System never made it back to France. Many died due to disease and harsh conditions. Sanitary systems were limited, and the region was mosquito-infested, with endemic tropical diseases. The only exit from the island prisons was by water, and few convicts escaped.

Near the cells was a place for the guillotine for particularly recalcitrant prisoners; when it was used, all prisoners were forced to watch. Head of the executed prisoners were kept on display until the 1960’s.

On 30 May 1854, France passed a new law of forced residency; it required convicts to stay in French Guiana after completion of sentence for a time equal to their forced labour time. If the original sentence exceeded eight years they were forced to stay as residents for the remainder of their lives and were provided land to settle on. 

In 1938 the penal system was strongly criticised in Rene Belbenoit’s book Dry Guillotine. Shortly after the release of Belbenoit’s book, which aroused public outrage about the conditions, the French government announced plans to close the prisons. The outbreak of World War II delayed this operation but, from 1946 until 1953, one by one the prisons were closed. 

In 1965 the French government transferred the responsibility for most of the islands to its newly founded Guiana Space Centre. The islands are under the trajectory of the space rockets launched from the Centre eastward, toward the sea (to geostationary orbit). They must be evacuated during each launch. The islands host a variety of measurement apparatus for space launches.

Next stop on our epic journey – Grenada in the Southern Grenadines, West Indies.

(Some material sourced from Wikipedia)

Devil’s Island viewed from Iles Royale 

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Solitary Confinement Cell Block
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Lynda in Solitary Confinement Cell (peace at last!)
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An Agouti
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Letter From The Amazon: Parintins and the Boi-Bumba Festival

Letter From The Amazon: Parintins and the Boi-Bumba Festival

We arrived at Parintins on Wednesday 23rd January. Parintins is situated on the southern bank of the Amazon River in the largest river archipelago of the mid-Amazon, on the boundary of the states of Amazona and Para. It is a small town dating back almost 200 years, with a rich Indian heritage.

Between November to January the town becomes an island (Tupinambarana) due to the low water level. There are no roads to Parintins – you either need to sail there or fly! In fact the principle types of transportation are donkeys, carts and motor-cyles.

There are few notable sights, but there are several local markets including a floating market along the waterfront. The town’s main income is derived from cattle farming and the export of wood and minerals, but it’s main claim to fame is the tourism pilgrimage each June to the Boi-Bumba festival. We were privileged to have had a special performance to coincide with the visit of our ship. Arguably the highlight of our tour so far!

The Boi-Bumba Festival

Parintins is not a common tourist destination, except at the end of June for the famous annual folklore festival. The town divides into two competing teams: Caprichoso – blue, and Garantido – red, and wearing spectacular costumes the populace re-enacys the story of Bumbodromo – of Pai Francisco and his wife who steal the prize bull from the landowner they work for, and kill it.

When the landowner realises this he threatens to kill them unless they manage to resurrect his bull by midnight. The couple employ the talents of a shaman, a priest and an African pai santo who manage to resuscitate the animal, thus saving Pai Francisco.

This is the setting in fact for an official competition between the bois-bumbas. The performance usually lasts around six hours (we were limited to a one hour segment), and each team is judged by a panel of judges for the elaborateness and expressiveness of its dance, its costumes and body painting, and its music and supporters. The Bumbodromo Stadium is the location for the main festival in June, which lasts for three days. The stadium has a capacity for 35,000 spectators. Around the town, shop and house facades are painted red or blue, according to the owner’s preference for each of the bulls/taems. Even Coca-Cola signs can be seen painted in blue!

We enjoyed a liberal and free supply of the local rum and sugar-caine drink (I think I may have had a few too many) during the performance, but I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves!

Our next stop is Alto do Chao, a rustic beach community, on Thursday 24th January.

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Boca da Valeria

From Evernote:

Boca da Valeria

The tiny village of Boca da Valeria sits at the confluence of the Rio da Valeria and the Amazon. This remote and primitive Indian village of 75 inhabitants is surrounded by the great rain forest of the Amazon, and is typical of the thousands of isolated communities within the Amazon basin. It is a startling contrast to life in Brazil’s modern Amazon cities of Santarem, Belem and Manaus. The primitive Caboclo (descendents of Portuguese settlers who intermarried with the local Indians) village, which consists of just a few wooden houses has no tourist infrastructure, and the inhabitants of the small settlement live by hunting and fishing 

Boca means “mouth of” and is the entrance of the Valeria River into the mighty Amazon, located on the south bank of a 400ft-high hill overlooking the Amazon river. A distinct line in the waters is visible as the two rivers run alongside each other for several miles before they finally blend together. The settlement itself is located midway between the towns of Parintins and Santarem.

 

There are no roads, nor motor vehicles; a simple dirt footpath leads through the village, crossed by other paths which lead into the rain forest. The villagers’ homes are made of wood, with openings for windows and a door, and have no panes of glass. The houses are supported on long stilts, which protect them from the varying levels of the river (the flooded area can spread out to up to 200km from the riverbanks). When the river is high during the rainy season of December to May, the trees are covered to waste-height by the water. In the dry season they plant manioc and vegetables on small pieces of land where their livestock roam. The rest of the year their livestock are kept on their balconies. The focal point of the community is the simple school, the single church, and the village ‘bar’.

 

So that’s some background to the place we visited on Monday January 21st. The real experience was somewhat controversial. Yes, it was a poor and simple community, and for the first time we could get a better understanding of how these communities live, cut off as they are from what we westerners might call “civilisation”. But, it was clear to see that tourism has affected the community. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I can see that tourist dollars will help in some ways, and no doubt this is how they came to have their own electricity generator, providing power to all of the homes in this small community, and some modern facilities such as TV’s and fridges, the latter being particularly useful in temperatures that rarely fall below 30C at any time of the year. But commercialism was apparent everywhere. Every photo had a cost, and though we had given pencils, notepads and other goods to the school, it was raw cash that most of the people wanted. Maybe this isn’t so bad where they have taken the trouble to put on their native dress for the benefit of us tourists, or where they were selling locally made handicrafts, but it was clear that many of the “pets” – sloths, lizards, Toucans, parrots etc, that the children had were there because they generated business, and not because they had real affection for them. The ‘pets’ were in fact commodities to be exploited. This, more than anything else, was a stark example of how tourism can take away the innocence of remote communities.

 

As you will see from my photos, I am guilty in propagating this problem, having given a small cash token for the pictures of the animals. I did wonder afterwards whether I had contributed to the problem of children capturing what could be rare species of wildlife for the benefit of the next group of tourists, and if so, I’m not feeling too good about it. I can only hope that by writing about it here, other travellers may at least be made aware of this issue. I’m left pondering whether, taking all things into account, tourism provides a net benefit for these remote communities, or whether it inevitably leads to some form of exploitation. I’d be interested in any views from fellow travellers.

 

Traditionally dressed girl holding Sloth
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Me with traditionally dressed local girl.
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A local pin-up?
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Lynda with local girl and Sloth. Lynda is on the left 🙂
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Lynda with local warier in full tribal dress.
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Sloth
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Santarem – a real taste of the Amazon

From Evernote:

Santarem – a real taste of the Amazon

We arrived at Santarém at 7.30am on Saturday 19th January. Even at this early hour the temperature was edging 30C, and projected to rise to 36C later in the day. It was also very humid.

 

Santarém lies midway between Belem and Manaus in the state of Pará in Brazil. It was founded as a Jesuit mission in 1661. The blue-green water of the Rio Tapajós joins the muddy brown Amazon River here and the two waters flow side by side without merging due to the rivers’ different speeds, temperatures and densities.  The meeting of the rivers is a popular location for tourism.

 

In the 1920’s, during the rubber boom, Henry Ford spent $80million to establish an enormous rubber plantation foe the production of tyres to supply the American automobile industry.  The first men and equipment arrived in 1928, marking the beginning of a large project called “Ford Industrial Company of Brazil”. Two cities, Fordlandia and Belterra were created in the middle of the jungle and more than 3 million rubber trees were planted. The project ended in disaster when many of the workers died from malaria and yellow fever. Insects destroyed the plantations and the project was ultimately abandoned when Ford realised that there were too many obstacles to overcome. The rusted remains of trucks and electricity generators and abandoned American-style bungalows are still visible 40 miles outside the city.

 

Santarém is now an important trading centre for the region and is the third largest city on the Amazon after Manaus and Belem. It exports wood, minerals and is the world’s largest soya export port.

 

We were supposed to be alongside the quay when we first arrived, but found that another ship – the Qust for Adventure  – had “queue jumped” our birth, which meant we had to disembark by tenders – a process that took the best part of 2 hours. We didn’t go on any of the official tours here, but spent our time walking the 1.5 miles along the busy waterfront to the city centre. This provided lots of photo opportunities to photo the wide variety of exotic birds we saw along the way, and presented an interesting diversion to the floating market, where we found the fish landed that morning, including the Pirannah, pictured below. I thought I’d also include a few photos of the insects that have taken up residence on the ship, including one moth that was the size of a human hand, drawn by the lights on our superstructure.

 

Next stop, the remote village of Boca da Valeria, a small Indian community where we should have a chance to meet the locals, visit their homes and see the wide variety of pets they keep, including sloths, monkeys, lizards etc.

 

Moth – around 5 inches wingspan.
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Moth – around 7 inches wingspan
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Santarem waterfront – note the exotic bird in the foreground.
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Pirannah
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Another exotic bird (variety to be determined).
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