Saturday, May 31, 2008

Fruit and street food

Back from my wanderings downtown. We started out by sampling a bunch of fruit stands. The first photo, with fruit that look like red bell peppers with little brown hats, are actually cashew fruits. The brown hat on top is the cashew nut; the nut we're familiar with in the States is inside that. The rest of the fruit is also edible, though; I've been having cashew juice at breakfast every morning since we got here. It's a little bit bitter; some people stir sugar into it, but I've been mixing it with guava juice to good effect. The next fruit, the spiky yellow one, is, Dr. Myatt tells me, a relative of the banana; it has a pulpy white interior with a mild taste, around cherry pit sized black seeds. The last one we tried, which look a bit like lemons with a complexion problem, were very strange. You peel off the skin, which is brittle and comes off very easily in pieces. Inside that is a white, fibrous-looking layer which you might try to peel off and discard if you're ignorant like me; it looks a lot like the bitter white layer of an orange. That layer, however, is the fruit; it turns out that from one to three very large seeds occupy the bulk of the interior, and that white fibrous stuff is all there is besides those seeds. So you pop it all in your mouth, and the white stuff turns out to be much more flavorful and juicy than it looked; very tart and tangy, like a citrus fruit (although I have no idea whether it is, in fact, a citrus).
Then we tried some street food. For just one real (about 60 cents) I got a large sort of pocket bread filled with diced potato, carrot, and (I'm told) minced shrimp. It was a fair amount of food, and quite tasty; washed down with a Fanta grape soda, it staved off starvation for another day. Dr. Ouverney got a plate of food including rice, a sort of shrimp curry thing, mixed vegetables with dried fish and manioc (we think) with a strip of bacon on top, and a little mayonnaised vegetable side. The veggies with dried fish was pretty good, if somewhat salty. I don't mind the salt, though, since we're sweating just about constantly here.
We then spent a couple of hours shopping; we wandered up and down crowded market-filled streets buying various knickknacks and oddments, jewelry and dresses. I shan't bore you with any details of that! Tonight we will be going to a big Brazilian festival in Manaus, but the description of that will have to wait for another post!


OK, so speaking of being behind on my blogging, this entry is about what we did yesterday, Friday the 30th. At about 7:30 in the morning we all piled onto a tour bus that Dr. Ouverney had arranged, and drove north out of the city. There's a road that runs from Manaus all the way up to Venezuela, and we took that road for a couple of hours, well out of Manaus. It's hard to see primary rainforest anywhere near a road in the area of Manaus, and even on this drive all of the areas we saw were logged; the biggest trees were absent.
We stopped at a roadside restaurant that had some yummy banana bread made with yuca flour (it's surprising to me how universal yuca is in the food in Manaus, since I don't expect it grows anywhere near there; perhaps it's an imported taste from the more southern parts of Brazil). They also had various other curiosities, like candied cupuaçu; we had a good time sampling their various offerings.
Then we moved on to a spot where we could hike in to a waterfall a short way into the jungle. It was a lovely hike. We saw bees busily pollinating, tiny frogs, what seemed to be ant-lion colonies with hundreds of pits in fairly close proximity (the ants must regard that area quite warily!), lots of spiders, caves that hosted bats, a charming little yellow wasp, lots of fungi of all sorts, and a moth as big as my hand. When we reached the waterfall, it was a surging, torrential flow; we were a bit surprised by its vigor, since it is no longer the wet season, and since we had seen so little rain during our visit. The water were deeply colored by tannins, which in some spots made it look creamy (when it was foamy), in other spots like wine, and in the deepest waters, simply black. We hiked out along a different trail that went right alongside the waterfall, providing some dramatic views of the torrent from just feet away. There were lots of bromeliads on the way out. Bromeliads are a type of plant that often lives on other plants, although not parasitically; they just perch on top of other plants and grow there. Pineapples are the best-known example, and other bromeliads often look similar, with the spiky leaves arranged in a spiral.
One waterfall is good, but two waterfalls are better, so we piled back on the bus and went to another spot for a little more hiking. This area was more developed, with bigger trails, some benches, and even a (closed) restaurant part of the way along. The waterfall itself was quite spectacular; with several cascades side by side merging into a single roaring deluge. In the middle of all this was a little shrine to the Virgin Mary; it is difficult to imagine how somebody got that shrine there, unless they used a crane. This hike wasn't quite as rich in wildlife, or perhaps we were just getting tired; but there were some very pleasing orange fungi, and we saw what seemed to perhaps be a lone soldier army ant with an absolutely enormous head and set of mandibles, and a molted skin from a cicada that was quite perfectly preserved intact, and of course lots of exciting plants that I'm unable to describe since I know so little botany.
After this hike we went on to dinner, which was outdoors in a little tourist area next to a river (everything is more or less next to a river in Amazonia, it seems). Before we sat down we discovered a huge scarab beetle, about as long as my index finger, slowly making its way across the grass; we all agreed that it was the biggest beetle we had ever seen in the wild! The food was good; barbecued chicken, a churrasco platter (not sure if I'm remembering the word quite right) with grilled sausage, beef, and more chicken, a dish of fish cooked in coconut milk and palm oil that was very yummy (and probably about a million calories per bite), and the usual tasty rice with beans. It tasted very good after all that hiking.
At the end of the meal Dr. Vida Kenk gave a presentation about bromeliads and the fauna that live inside them; I'll post that as a separate entry as usual. We had planned to go to a local festival after dinner, dedicated to the cupuaçu fruit, but after dinner it started to rain very hard, and we found out the festival wouldn't really get underway for several hours (Brazilians seem to begin their festivals around 10 PM), and so the decision was made to drive back to home base. This decision was influenced by the fact that the road to Manaus had nearly washed out in one spot due to the rains in that region the previous night, and the bus driver was worried that if we waited too long, the road might prove impassable given the strength of the ongoing storm. In any case, we got back home safe but soaked!
Today is a bit of a rest day, since it's Saturday; on the weekends we can all do as we please. Mike and Danielle decided to be hard-core; they have headed off on a four-hour boat trip down the Amazon, where they will then camp deep in primary rainforest and explore the flora with a guide. I'm taking it easier; I washed some of my clothes in the sink this morning and hung them up to dry, then went to a supermarket to buy essentials like beer, as well as miscellaneous Brazilian curiosities (palm hearts, local hot sauce) for presents for folks back home. The local brand of toilet paper is called "Snob", which is rather amusing. I think I'll go back to the supermarket again before I leave, now that I know where it is, and get some Brazilian candy and fruit juice and such, and see what I can bring back into the U.S. There are many kinds of fruit juice available here that one could, of course, never find in the U.S.
In a little while, I'll be heading downtown with Dr. Ouverney and Dr. Myatt and perhaps others, to change money (which is surprisingly hard to do here!) and to perhaps do some shopping and have lunch. Right now Dr. Ouverney is arranging a side trip to an expensive eco-lodge for some of the other group members (Bob and Victoria), so I'm using the time to catch up on my blogging, which I've fallen behind on. I realized I hadn't taken a photo of the hotel yet, so here one is. It's not at all a bad place, especially considering how cheap it is; Dr. Ouverney did some good bargain-hunting when he planned this trip!

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hotels and beaches

Today has been an adventure-filled day! Last night after I posted the last blog entries, several of us were walking back from the Internet cafe and spotted both an enormous cockroach (the biggest we've yet seen here) and, in a different place, an enormous assassin bug. I'll spare you the picture of the cockroach; available upon request. The assassin bug didn't seem very well; when we walked by the next morning, he had only moved a few leaves over, so we photographed him some more.
We hopped onto a local bus and went over to a fancy five-star hotel to see how the other half lives. On our way there we got caught in a tropical shower; we were all overjoyed, and many of us stripped down to bathing suits or shorts and wandered around blissfully in the rain. It was the first rain we had seen thus far in the trip, oddly enough (this being, after all, tropical rainforest!) so we were all very happy. It was only a shower, intense but brief, and ofter it ended we went on to the hotel.
It was tall and palatial, with a glass elevator and some balconies from which we could see the Rio Negro stretching away into the distance; at the spot we were at, it seemed to be several miles across. The clouds over the water were beautiful, but of course virtually impossible to photograph. The hotel also had a zoo onsite with a big sign that claimed that the zoo housed only rescued and injured animals, but I don't believe a word of it; the cages were tiny, the animals looked maltreated, and I think the zoo just put up the sign to make the wealthy tourists feel better. A jaguar paced endlessly in a cage only a few times longer than the length of its body, and the little monkeys they had reached for Mike's hand with sad grimaces of despair. The only exhibit that I enjoyed was a large cage with a nesting pair of birds (herons?) that had an interesting behavior: they would stretch their necks out as far as they could, and moo like cows! At first I thought this might be a mating behavior (and the female of the pair even seemed to present for mating at one point), but later the very same behavior seemed to be used in a threatening manner when I got too close to the cage, so I don't know now. After having a snake draped around my neck for a photo op, it was time to move on.
We took a boat to a beach a little ways down the river. The beach was set up for partying Brazilian style: loud music, salty food, lots of beer, and swimming on the beach. Since I didn't inherit the party animal gene, I headed off into the pseudo-jungle (nowhere near primary forest) with a few others. It soon became clear that, with no outhouses on the island, the trail was used by the locals primarily as a latrine, and we eventually turned back out of revulsion, but Mike and Danielle did spot lots of interesting plants, and I got photos of some neat insects, including lovely red and black dragonflies that drew their wings upwards at rest in an unusual manner.
When we got back from our hike, the professors were partying in the water with a bevy of cute girls; that's Dr. Myatt, a botanist at SJSU, enjoying a taste of semi-retirement in the photo at right. Then we had lunch (delicious grilled fish, french fries, and the usual rice and bean mixture), washed down with plenty of Skol, and we headed back to home base. I'll leave you with a photo of me as I would look if I had dreadlocks, courtesy of a tree near the hotel!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Talk: Bob Johnson

Bob Johnson: An overview of the geological history of the Amazon Basin

The Amazon basin is slightly larger than the continental U.S.; a rather large piece of land. Charles Darwin wrote three books on the geology of the Amazon, long before the theory of continental drift revolutionized geology in the 1960s. According to continental drift theory, about 500 million years ago (mya) the four southern continents were a single chunk of land, Gondwanaland. The land we know now as Manaus has always been near the equator, even as other continental plate action occurred. About 135 mya, the other continents collided with Gondwanaland to form a single supercontinent, Pangaea. After that the mid-Atlantic rift opened up and spread North and South America apart from Eurasia and Africa; this spread started in the north first, splitting North America off from South America and isolating South America from the other continents for most of the last 135 million years. When the South American plate hit the Pacific plate, the Andes formed due to subduction. Before this point, the water in the Amazon region flowed very slowly westward and drained into the Pacific, so the area was essentially a big brackish marsh; but as the Andes uplift progressed, the westward flow stopped and then reversed towards the Atlantic. For a long time a great deal of water was trapped by shields (the Guayana and Brazilian shields) to the east, creating a huge freshwater lake; this state of affairs lasted until about 23 mya. Even now, however, the Amazon basin is in a sense the largest inland body of water in the world; ships can sail all the way to Peru, and the difference in elevation of the water across the Amazon basin from the Atlantic to the border with Peru is only about 600 feet, so it can be viewed as a very large, marshy lake with an outflow to the Atlantic ocean. Today, sediment-rich waters from the Andes provide the "white water" of the Solimoes; nutrient-poor waters from the Guayana shield area color the waters of the Rio Negro.
During ice ages, water levels have fallen and the Amazon has turned into savannah; species survived in refugia at higher elevation, particularly in the western Amazon. At the end of each ice age, the water levels rise, the savannah floods, and species recolonized the area. The connection between North and South America through Panama formed some time between 3.1 (traditional estimate) and 1.8 (most recent estimate) mya; apart from migration via vegetation rafts and such, communication of species between the continents was limited before this occurred, although an island archipelago must have formed between the continents somewhat earlier, and some birds and insects could migrate between continents all along.
In summary, the Amazon basin has always been near the equator, has always been essentially flat, and has had a great deal of unique flora (no flowering plants) and fauna (marsupials) due to its isolation.

Talk: Rod Myatt

(These talk posts will always just be my notes on the presentations; the original talks were of course much better, and all errors are my responsibility...)

Rod Myatt: An Introduction to Tropical Habitats

There are a great many habitats in the tropics, despite the appearance of uniformity from the air or the river. There are several types of climate in the tropics. Due to the tilt of the earth, the amount of incident sunlight varies by latitude and by season. The tropics receive the most heating, producing rising warm currents of air that cool as they rise, producing storms. The wet season of the tropics follows the sun, since the rain is driven by the incident sunlight, so now the southern Amazon is entering the dry season as the sun is moving northward for winter. Temperatures between the wet and the dry seasons don't actually differ much; this is one thing that is characteristic of a tropical climate. Rainfall can be very high, typically giving more water than plants are capable of using, so there is a great deal of excess precipitation (unlike many other climates).
So that's the basic picture of tropical climate. But there are many microclimates. The trade winds blow along the equator from east to west; this is the source of all incoming moisture entering the tropics. So in the Amazon region, the winds are coming from the Atlantic across the Amazon basin, slowly depositing their rainfall from the east coast all the way to the Andes. At about 5000-6000 feet elevation, the air masses cool to their point where clouds form and precipitation is highest; this is the cloud forest on the slopes of the Andes. Lowland rainforest, such as surrounds Manaus, is lower than montane rainforest (cooler and wetter), which is lower than cloud forest (coolest and wettest). So there are gradients of temperature and humidity based upon elevation. Above the cloud forest it is very dry and cold, and typically vegetation goes from shrubs up to alpine species. Similarly, the far side of the Andes lies in the rain shadow of the mountains, are are drier and colder. The more seasonality there is in the climate, the more deciduous the vegetation will be, so in the lowland rainforest vegetation is not generally deciduous, while in Peru, for example, you see tropical deciduous forest.
There is also microclimate variation due to local terrains; the land has some texture and slope, so some areas are north-facing or south facing slopes, some areas get water runoff and others don't, soils can vary quite a lot based upon such factors, some areas have volcanic influences, and so forth. The geology of the tropics is quite variable; there are many kinds of soil, and the statement that "tropical soils are poor" is an overgeneralization. But because of the long history of weathering of rock in the tropics, and the excess rainfall, many minerals have been leached out of the soils and have been lost; this is the source of the overgeneralization. Other less soluble minerals remain behind. Clay soil is composed of particles that are typically negatively charged, so minerals with positive charge are retained, while negative ions (often oxidized ions such as nitrates, sulfates, phosphates, and carbonates) are lost. The rapid buildup of organic debris in lowland rainforest also leads to faster loss of nutrients, because they are taken up by plants before they can become incorporated into the soil. This process is accelerated by the fungi that are often symbiotic with tropical plants that allow for extremely rapid and efficient absorption of minerals; in effect, plants are competing for insufficient minerals in the top layer of organic material, rather than getting minerals from the actual soil. Most of the nutrients in the tropics are in the plants, not in the soil.
This is what drives the slash-and-burn agriculture of the native peoples of the Amazon. It is not a matter of ignorance, it is actually the logical way to farm given low nutrient content in the soil and a lack of fertilizer. After a patch of forest is cleared, crops will grow well for only a few years before the soil is exhausted. The native peoples then move on to a new patch, clear it, and farm it for another few years, and so forth. Given a small population, this is actually perfectly fine; the forest recovers from clearance of small areas, and the native people have been practicing this sort of agriculture for quite a long time. The problem arises when population rises, agricultural demands rise, and the forest begins to be cleared faster than it is able to recover: deforestation. When small gaps are created, as happens naturally due to tree falls even without agriculture, it also creates microhabitats (open area, edge area, and so forth) and succession from one type of vegetation to the next. Another source of diversity in habitats involves difference in humidity, temperature, and light depending upon the height you are at, from the soil up to the canopy. Mike will be talking about this more later in detail.
So the big message is that there is a great deal more heterogeneity in tropical habitats than one might expect. The species in each habitat will differ; this is part (but not the whole) explanation for the high biodiversity of the tropics.

The confluence of rivers

The boat trip today was really good. Before we got on the boat, we spent a little time in a fish market next to the dock; all sorts of exotic fish were on display. One species of fish looked very primordial, like a coelacanth; they also had big catfish, almost three feet long, and various more conventional-looking fish. One booth had piranhas; a boy at the market held open the jaw of one for me to photograph the teeth. Some of the fish were being breaded and grilled next to the market; they looked very tasty, but we had to move on.
The confluence of the Rio Negro and the Solimoes (the local name for the Amazon upstream from the confluence) was beautiful. The waters stay quite separated for quite a distance due to different levels of salinity, temperatures, and so forth, so there is a large area in which the black waters of the Rio Negro sit side by side with the cafe-au-lait waters of the Solimoes. Floating mats of vegetation were everywhere, with many different species of plants and several species of birds. Mike, one of our resident botanists, was fishing all sorts of exotic plants right out of the wake of the boat as we motored around.
Then we went for a brief stop at a local spot where a very large fish called piraracu was being farmed. They had sections of the river cordoned off with fencing that went down to the floor of the river, far below, and had dozens of the fish trapped in their corrals. The piraracu are black with large red-edged scales, and they grow perhaps as much as four and a half feet long. We scoped out the corrals for a little while, and then the men who worked there started trying to drag the fish a little out of the water, using baited lines, for us to see. The fish were so large, and fought so hard, that we only got occasional glimpses of them before they escaped back into the water, but they were quite remarkable! On the trip back we saw the houses of lots of Brazilians who live on the river (presumably fisherpeople); their houses were often painted brilliant colors, and were quite scenic.
Then we came back into Manaus and had a delicious lunch of grilled fish, fish stew, and lots of beer. The local beer is called Skol; it's very light and fairly bitter. The fish stew was absolutely fantastic; perhaps from the influence of Portuguese culture, it came with a boiled egg in it, but it also came with grated dried yucca (common in Brazil). The grilled fish was also delicious; salty and perfectly cooked. The food came with a rice and bean side that was also very tasty.

We ended the day with a pair of lectures by two members of our group; I´ll post them as separate entries for easy reading.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

INPA and downtown

It has been quite a day. Things started off slowly, since so many people were so short on sleep; we finally rolled out of the hotel around noon, I think, after a nice long breakfast, running some errands, and various cat-herding activities. We took a bus up to a place called INPA that is the center for scientific research in the Amazon. We will be back there again later in the trip to meet with some of the scientists who work there, but we spent today exploring their grounds.
And their grounds are amazing. INPA is within Manauas, so the rain forest there is long gone; but they have done their best to reconstruct a facsimile of rain forest within their grounds, and it seemed pretty good to me. (We´ll see the real thing soon enough.) We saw all sorts of critters, from leaf-cutter ants to some very friendly turtles to crocodiles, all in captivity (well, maybe not the ants), as well as many very exotic plants (I don´t know much about botany, but the two botanists in our group were practically foaming with excitement). There was also an incredible sort of gift shop at INPA consisting entirely of goods made and sold by native people of the Amazon. A different tribe gets showcased each week, on a rotating basis; I don´t know about the work of other tribes, but this week´s products were amazingly beautiful, and staggeringly cheap. I spent a lot of money; much more of it goes directly to the native people through INPA than it would in any other sort of store in Brazil, so it was a wonderful win-win situation, as far as I can see.
Then we took a bus to downtown and walked around there a bit. I got to see the waters of the Rio Negro for the first time, and we had drinks and dinner in a huge plaza that was very European. Manaus´s downtown is really quite nice. There was a huge covered market; Manaus has historically always been a center of trade in Brazil, and it shows. We took a group photo in front of the old opera house in Manaus; on Thursday we will actually see an opera there (not inside the opera house, but in the plaza in front of it). That should be great fun!
I don´t know what the plan is for tomorrow; one day at a time. For now, it´s time to get some sleep.

Impressions of Manaus

Hello from Brazil! I've been here since yesterday afternoon. Dr. Ouverney met me at the airport, which I initially thought was an unnecessary but nice gesture, but when I am now very glad of. It turns out that my Spanish, as humble as it is, was extraordinarily useful; you don't really realize what you have until you have lost it. I can't understand more than maybe one word in a hundred in Portuguese, and can't speak at all, apart from a few key phrases I've had Dr. Ouverney teach me. I feel quite adrift. If I got lost, all I could really do would be to show strangers the card for my hotel and look inquisitive, and perhaps say "taxi" and "por favor". It's a bit scary. We will all be so dependent upon Dr. Ouverney; he will be on full-time translation duty for twenty people. I don't envy him.
Then, too, he is being run a bit ragged. He had a fever of 104 last night, but he had to get up in the middle of the night to meet an incoming airplane with the remaining twelve students, so he got very little sleep. This morning he was already up when I came down for breakfast; he said he couldn't sleep because he was too congested to breathe. He says he feels fine right now, but expects to run out of steam later today.
After I got in yesterday we took a bus from the airport that cornered unbelievably hard; I was practically thrown across the bus, and held on very tightly after that. It was hard to believe the bus didn't tip over, the way it was being driven. Then from the bus terminal in town we caught a taxi, which drove very slowly and cautiously to the hotel. After a brief regrouping, we went out with the intention of running lots of errands, but we got stuck on our first one (after having a quick lunch of beans, noodles, and a very crunchy fried fish). That was a trip to a bank, where Dr. Ouverney was trying to arrange a transfer of funds. In typical third world fashion, it took several hours, with endless consultations and phone calls. He was required to sign his name the way he had signed it when he was fourteen, so that it matched the signature on his Brazilian identification card, which he had received as a teenager; since his signature has evolved a great deal since then, he had to look at his ID card and do his best to forge the signature. This was done under the gaze of the bank employee who had objected to his first signature; having done a sufficiently good job of forgery, Dr. Ouverney finally received his money.
By then it was so late that we needed to leave for the airport again to pick up two more incoming students, girls named Amy and Hannah. That went smoothly enough, although their flight was delayed by an hour. After a bit of regrouping at the hotel, we went for dinner to a nearby restaurant that Dr. Ouverney had discovered, and ordered beers, little fried appetizers with fish in them, and a very tasty fish cooked in coconut milk (all of which I forgot to photograph, sorry Keewi!). Then Dr. Ouverney limped off to try to get a bit of sleep (this is the point at which he had a 104 fever); he didn't eat with us.
After dinner we walked south towards the downtown area. The sun rises at six and sets at six here; we are only three degrees south of the equator. So it was already quite dark, but early enough that things were quite busy. My chief impression so far is that Manaus is poorer and dirtier than Caracas, but less threatening. I think perhaps the key difference is in the gulf between rich and poor. In Caracas, the rich people are so rich, and the live right alongside the poorest people. In Manaus, it doesn't seem to be that way; I haven't seen any obviously, ostentatiously wealthy people here, as I saw everywhere I went in Caracas. I've seen scientific studies that indicate that what makes people unhappy is not so much being poor, in some absolute sense, but only being poor relative to other people that they see around them. It's the gap, not the level of wealth itself. So I think the conditions in Manauas may not breed to discontent and hostility that Caracas seemed to have.
Anyhow, speculation aside, we saw lots of little bars, lots of street vendors serving grilled meats of various sorts, lots of hotels that seemed to be doing business by the hour, lots of stray cats and dogs, lots of people milling around. We walked past a university, with floods of students entering its large walled compound using a key-card system. We walked past a hospital situated in a huge, grand old colonial building; at first I thought it must be the city hall or some such. Finally we decided to turn around; theoretically we ought to have been quite close to the river at that point, but we never saw it, and we decided we were too tired and sweaty to keep going right then. The river in question is not actually the Amazon; Manaus is built at the confluence of the Amazon (which the locals don't call the Amazon above the point of confluence) and the Rio Negro, which comes in from the north, and Manaus is built on the banks of the Rio Negro. This is because the Rio Negro is full of acidic, toxic tannins (making its waters dark, thus its name), and those tannins cut down on the breeding of mosquitoes.
I'm typing this at my breakfast table at our hotel. It's a reasonably nice place; budget third world accommodations, but quite good by those standards. The room has air conditioning, which is key, and the bathroom is very clean and modern. Breakfast this morning was pretty good actually; they cooked eggs to order, and had cheese and meat and bread and a grill press sort of thing to make grilled sandwiches, and two kinds of juice, and hot dogs with a tomato, onion and celery mixture (I think), and cake. We'll be having breakfast here every morning, so I expect I'll get quite used to this routine. I've learned how to order a scrambled egg in Portuguese. In a little while we'll have the first meeting of our class, and then I expect things will start to get busy!

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Buena vista

Well, I'm set up at my transition hotel, the Buena Vista Inn near the airport. The view out my window is only marginally buena; I can see the ocean, but most of the view is of some big ugly concrete apartment buildings whose view is more buena than mine is. It's out in the middle of nowhere, but the guy at the desk says I can order a pizza to be delivered, so that's fine. In another hour or so, when the sun is a bit lower, I'll walk over to the beach and see whatever can be seen. They are doing a load of laundry for me, apparently gratis, which is very nice; I don't really need it yet, but it will be one less thing to have to do in Manaus right away. Best of all, though, they have Wi-Fi! So if there's anybody who is itching to chat with me, or maybe even have a voice conversation, send me a message through Skype (user: cloudkom) and if I'm not out beach-combing or something, I'll answer. Offer valid for the next five hours or so only, though, and then I'm going to bed. The taxi picks me up at 4:30 AM. Will the fun never end?

Viva Caracas!

The man at the hotel desk steered me towards a little place about five blocks away that was serving empanadas, and had bottled water and yogurt, so I've staved off death for another day. Church seems to have let out next door, and now very loud music is playing in the Plaza Bolivar; for about half an hour now it has been the same song, a sort of triumphant, bouncy rock song of some sort, apparently with a great many verses and a very catchy chorus. I'll be hearing it in my dreams tonight. At the climactic point of the song, the church started tolling its bell, which actually went quite well with the mood of the music, like the victorious ringing of freedom across the jubilant lands. Now a street vendor has starting ringing his bicycle bell, and the rock ballad has ended, and, bizarrely, the church seems to be playing Gregorian chant through a loudspeaker system. This is the most diversely noisy hotel room I have ever stayed in, and I've given you just a random sampling from one morning; I've also heard crazy people screaming in the plaza in the middle of the night, political rabble-rousers using megaphones, and once, what sounded like an explosion. Viva Caracas!


Well, Carmelo and I did go out last night as planned. Caraquenos take their partying seriously! I was out until 4 AM; since I had gotten up at about 6 AM, that means I was up for 22 hours, including a ten-mile hike. I didn't sleep well, either, for some reason, so I'm in a bit of a fog this morning.
Contributing to this surreal sensation is the fact that it's Sunday. Apparently, that means that virtually everything is closed; no restaurants, no stores, no internet cafe, no nothing. Except shoe stores. I just took a little walk around the neighborhood, and every single storefront for blocks around was closed, with the exception of every shoe store; those were all open for business, at least a half dozen of them that I walked past. Perhaps every shoe store in the area is owned by the same person, and that person has decreed that they will be open Sunday? Anyhow, it's clearly a bad business decision; there's absolutely nobody out on the streets, it's deserted. Not a lot of shoes getting sold, despite massive effort.
Also making the mood a bit surreal is the fact that it's raining. It started to rain soon after I got back to the hotel last night, and has been drizzling continuously ever since. I didn't think the tropics did this; I thought it was always short, intense showers. But here we are; it's overcast, and shows every indication that it will rain for quite a while longer. Much of the trail I took in Avila yesterday must be "un rio" today; I feel very lucky to have timed my hike as I did.
Well, I have a bit of a problem now: I am completely out of bottled water, and have nothing to eat but granola bars, and there seems to be nothing at all open for miles. I'm not sure what to do, except slowly perish from thirst and hunger. And I am getting quite thirsty and hungry, the aftermath of a vast overconsumption of scotch last night with Carmelo. Even the hotel's own restaurant seems to be closed today, which I had assumed would not be the case. What to do?
Carmelo has made arrangements for me to be picked up from the hotel today at 1:00 and driven out to a hotel next to the airport. I'll stay there tonight, where there will presumably be absolutely nothing open as well, and then I'll fly out to Manaus early tomorrow morning. So it looks like today will be a day both lost in transit and sacrificed at the altar of religion. Well, I guess I needed time to finish preparing my presentation for class anyhow, and I still have a couple of New York Reviews in my suitcase to read. (Plowing through those has been occupying all my down time on planes and in my hotel room; I got behind by almost a full semester's worth, since this past semester was too busy for me to keep up on my reading!)
Hmm, well. A few musings, and then I'll sign off and see if the hotel staff knows of an open restaurant anywhere in a ten-mile radius.
Noises of Caracas: constant talking out in the hallways of my hotel, all day and most of the night, I'm not sure why (why don't they talk in a room?). The chimes of the cathedral across the street, every fifteen minutes, oddly variable in their tunelessness, as if they had been programmed to chime a different random sequence every time; they repeatedly startled me out of sleep the first night I was here, but I don't even notice them now most of the time. Lots of beeping from the traffic; Venezuelans are not as horn-happy as some, but neither are they a silent people. Then there is the ringing, outside in the Plaza Bolivar, of bells that sound like bicycle bells, due to the vendors at various carts hawking their wares. There is a wide variety of music here, too. Right now a man is singing outside in the Plaza in a way that sounds sort of traditionally Caribbean to me. I can also hear the congregation singing hymns in the cathedral. Earlier this morning a woman was singing what sounded like opera, in a beautiful high voice; perhaps she was a soloist in the church service, but it didn't sound like religious music to me. The fancy restaurant I went to the other day, on the other hand, had very cheesy music; I remember them playing a song from the Fantastiks ("Try to remember the kind of September..." -- I've always liked that song, actually, ever since I saw the Fantastiks as a kid), as well as "Fernando" ("There was something in the air that night, the stars so bright, Fernando..." -- can't remember who sings that, Linda Ronstadt maybe?). Last night in the clubs it was pretty much all reggaeton, which got a bit repetitive, but apparently it's the fad here.
Smells of Caracas: I'm sorry to say the principal smell that springs to mind is exhaust fumes. In that way Caracas is a lot like Rome, minus the scooters; lots of very loud smelly traffic that can seem inescapable in some parts of town. But there are also the smells of the food the street vendors sell: empanadas and arepas, and a wide variety of other things I don't know the names of (and didn't sample, for fear of gastrointestinal consequences). And the smells of the people: lots of perfume and cologne, although perhaps no more than would be encountered in, say, New York City. Notable for its absence: the smell of cigarette smoke. I expected Venezuelans to smoke like chimneys, but I have only seen a handful of smokers in my entire visit, and smoking inside places like restaurants seems uncommon.
OK, that's enough babbling for now. Off to try to find nourishment before I collapse.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hiking in La Avila

Carmelo couldn't make it out last night, so I got to bed early. That turned out to be a good thing, since I decided to get up before dawn to go hiking. By 6:30 I was out of my hotel; I walked to the metro and took it to Altamira, the rich neighborhood at the foot of the big mountain to the north of Caracas, La Avila. The metro was uneventful, as was the walk up to the park; people I met along the way were very friendly, and pointed me down the right path to get to the park entrance.
At the entrance, I had another curious encounter like that at the museum of art yesterday. There were two guards stationed at the entrance, and my guidebook says they would collect some sort of nominal fee, but no mention was ever made of it. And although my guidebook makes a big deal about how getting a map of the park is necessary, I didn't bother, and when I asked the guards what route I ought to take for a good hike, they told me that there was really only one route through the park anyway, so I shouldn't worry about it. Which turned out to be essentially true; there were occasional paths off to the side, but I never saw anyone at all take them, and when I asked someone what the difference was between the main path and one of those side paths, he just pointed at the side path and said "no". Ours not to reason why.
There was a poster of endemic birds of Avila at the entrance, which I photographed, but the very first bird I saw, while I was still at the entrance station, was not on the poster. The guards told me it was named something like "Querraquerra," presumably for the sound it makes. Very colorful, with a yellow front, green wings, a complex head with patches of blue, black, white, and yellow. That kind of bird was the only one I got a boog look at; there were some extremely noisy birds that I heard for the whole first half of the hike, but that I only got (galliform?) glimpses of, and I think I saw a bird called a "cattle tyrant" flying a ways off (perhaps identifiable because it's bright orange).
Anyhow, enough on birds. It was a lovely hike. For the first stretch I was on open ground hiking on reddish earth with eucalyptus and such around me; it quite reminded me of Australia. The trail was quite busy for that part. After a pretty strenuous uphill climb, I came to a sort of rest area, where lots of people were doing exercises -- chin-ups, sit-ups, all manner of things. It was very strange. None of them seemed inclined to hike any further; the exercise area must have been their goal. They were all terribly trim and fit-looking in lycra; the wealthy Caraquenos, such as would hike up from Altamira, seem a bit on the vain side. Most of them were listening to portable music players, which seemed like a shame since they couldn't hear the birds, which were truly riotous.
At this point I asked various people where the trail continued (there seemed to be many possibilities), but everybody told me it didn't continue at all; they said it was washed out (to be precise, they said it was "un rio", a river). Feeling skeptical, I just pressed on up the most clearly uphill path I could locate, and soon got to a junction. One branch was indeed closed by yellow tape, and I later confirmed that that was the "rio" due to spring flooding; but another branch headed down the opposite side of the ridge I'd just climbed. After some hemming and hawing about safety and not having a map and so forth, I decided to press on. Things got much greener and shadier now. After about 30 minutes I got to a nice little waterfall crossing the trail. I stopped to drink water and eat some granola bars, and was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I ought to head back, when a fellow came bounding along the trail the same way I'd come. After some halting exchanges in Spanish, he realized that I spoke and English and switch to that, which was his preference as well, and after that we got along swimmingly. He was Iranian, but had left Iran after the revolution (which he said was "very tough at first") and moved to Panama, where he had lived ever since. He visited Caracas often, because its climate was much cooler than Panama's, and he hiked through Avila every week or so. He assured me that the trail would continue past the waterfall and exit the park after a few hours of hiking, and it turned out he was going that way too, so we hiked together for quite a while. Eventually he took a turnoff, but told me how to keep going, and after another hour's hike or so I reached the end of the line, at the Hotel Avila northeast of my own hotel. The cicadas were almost deafening for the last part of the hike, which got back into dry, open terrain.
I popped in at the Hotel Avila, one of the fancier hotels in Caracas, and drank a liter of water by their pool, and then headed own downhill towards the downtown area. On the way, I chanced upon a neighborhood barbecue restaurant, and had one of the better barbecue chickens (well, half-chickens) I've had in my life, accompanied by cooked yucca (which was quite nice, very starchy and fibrous but an excellent vehicle for tasty hot sauce) and washed down with Solera beer. A fantastic meal; my food experiences have definitely taken a turn for the better since the rather poor arepas (pita sandwiches, sort of) I had my first day here!
Then I walked the rest of the way back to my hotel, getting back about 1:00. Since I left at 6:30, that's 5.5 hours in transit; an hour for eating, so I hiked for 4.5 hours, so probably about ten miles, or a little less. This whole day I never felt endangered at all, even walking to the metro just after dawn. I think I'm getting the hang of Caracas; today has been just lovely, and I think I'm developing a sense for which blocks to walk down and which blocks to avoid. My Spanish is definitely getting better too; I'm starting to recall some old vocabulary from grade school, and I'm managing to communicate productively with everybody I talk to. Everyone has been stunningly friendly to me, and it's an easy city to be a tourist in: small enough to walk everywhere, but with an excellent metro system, restaurants and stores with bottled water in vast profusion, Movistars everyone to make phone calls from, and so on. I'm very pleased with my decision to stop off here; I was apprehensive beforehand, but it has turned out really well. I may come back the next time I'm planning a South American trip (which I hope isn't too far from now)!
Well, I am now going to make a real effort to find a place where I can post all this verbiage, as well as change some money and generally get organized. Carmelo assured me last night that he would be able to go out tonight, so I'll call him in a couple of hours and see how plans are firming up. There's a bar at the top of a tall hotel in Altamira that he wants to take me to, with a 360-degree view of the city and good people-watching. He has been such a help, and he no longer seems to view things as a guide-tourist relationship; he just wants to hang out and have fun. I've promised him that I'll show him around the U.S. if he makes it up there (which he never has, despite being quite widely traveled in Europe and even Australia).

OK, now I´m online

Hi everybody. Sorry for the dead air followed by today´s deluge of posts. I haven´t attempted to attach photos to my posts yet, I may try that shortly (so photos may appear in posts you have already read). [Just added photos, not so hard really...]

Friday, May 23, 2008

Museums and Miche

So I headed off to the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, which I found after spending a considerable time lost in an underground pedestrian mall. The museum was somewhat mystifying; nobody took an admission fee from me, or gave me a brochure, or anything. They just sort of shooed me through a doorway and told me to go down five flights of stairs. But as soon as I was through the doorway I was in the museum, so I decided perhaps I'd pay my admission at the end, rather than going on a quest through the museum just to do so. In the end, no admissions desk materialized at the bottom of the museum either; rather, they informed me that I had reached the end of the museum, and now had to go back the same way to get out. So I did. Ours not to reason why.
It's a really wonderful museum, though, confusion aside. It's not tiny, but not huge either; looking at least cursorily at everything they had on display took me only a couple of hours. They have some very famous works on display -- some Chagalls, some Mondrians, one Miro -- but most famously, they have a big room full of Picassos. All of the above were nice enough, but I liked best a few pieces by artists I've never heard of before. One, by Miguel von Dangel titled "El monumento," is a rather disturbing sculpture of a horse that is somewhere between decaying and mummified, with a bloody spike protruding from its chest and barbed wire hooked through its mouth and around its forelegs. It was quite powerful, although I have no idea what it was intended to be a monument to. The other piece I particularly liked was a sculpture of a reclining figure by one Henry Moore; I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he's terribly famous, but I've never heard of him. It was made of bronze, and had a Cubist feeling to it somehow, despite being a sculpture; but a rounded, sort sort of Cubism. Anyhow, with any luck I'll manage to attach photos to this blog once I figure out how to post it. At present I'm too busy enjoying Caracas to bother finding a Wi-Fi spot and spending hours posting all this. You ravening hordes, keening for the next installment of my blog, will simply have to be patient.
After the museum I had a bit of time to kill; I had expected to be there until it closed, but I ran out of things to look at. So I decided to go on a bit of a gastronomic adventure to a restaurant my guidebook recommends, but that is in a somewhat sketchy part of town. After getting some walking route advice from a woman at the museum (who implored me to be careful -- warning six!), I set off. I quickly got off route, and missed a pedestrian bridge I was supposed to have taken, and on one or two blocks I did feel that I was being eyed evaluatively by a few tough-looking young guys; but I got through without mishap to the Plaza la Candelaria, near my intended destination. It's a funny thing in Caracas how quickly the mood of the streets changes; I went from feeling in significant danger, on a side street near the plaza, to feeling completely safe at the Plaza itself, over a distance of just a few dozen paces.
At the Plaza was a fine equestrian statue (the second so far; one is in the Plaza Bolivar right next to my hotel), which I photographed. Nearby were several tables of chess players. Yesterday, in my travels with Carmelo, we walked by an area with several dozen chess tables going at once, but this was smaller. I watched a five-minute blitz game, which was quite enjoyable; an interesting mate threat forced a queen trade which appeared to give black the advantage, but white very skillfully constructed a winning endgame with a passed pawn, and black resigned. Nobody invited me to play, though, so I wandered onwards to the restaurant: La Cocina de Francy. As soon as I left the plaza I was back in dangerous-feeling streets, but after a couple of blocks, there was the restaurant, perched among closed shopfronts, car repair shops, electronics stores, and various unidentifiable buildings.
Coming through the door was, again like being enveloped in peace and safety. Venezuela is certainly a country of contrasts, as Carmelo emphasized. I had a wonderful meal there. My first course was a sort of stew of chicken and rice called "Pelao Guayanes," which reminded me of gumbo but without the dark roux; it was based on a thinner, more buttery broth, and had what seemed to be pesto on top, as well as an unidentifiable red sauce. Extremely tasty. Next I had "Lomito en Salsa de Tamarindo," a steak in a peppery tamarind sauce with fried fritters of plaintains on the side. It was delicious; I expected the sauce to be sweet (tamarind, after all), but it was mostly creamy and peppery, with only a note of tamarind in it, and it went very well with the steak and plantains. I had a Solera, the beer Carmelo had turned me on to yesterday, and decided not to get dessert, so I expected to get the check, but then things took an unexpected turn.
A waiter -- not my waiter -- had been sitting at the bar the whole time, staring balefully at me with what I thought was hostility. But I guess it was just curiosity, for when I had finished my food, he got up and disappeared, and a few minutes later reappeared with a little shot glass of something that he made clear was on the house (perhaps he was pleased that I had ordered and finished two entire entrees). I expected it to be Scotch (did you know that Venezuela drinks more Scotch per capita than any other country besides Scotland? So Carmelo claims!), but instead it was a spicy, sweet liqueur with a licorice taste. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and got my own waiter (a very friendly and patient man who had tackled the menu with me in a spirit of great cooperation) to tell me about it. He said the name of it, but I didn't understand, so I opened my guidebook to have him write, on its page, what it was called, and I showed him the review of his restaurant in the guidebook. At that point, things really got exciting. He rushed off with my guidebook to the back of the restaurant, where a bunch of the staff were gathered, and started waving the guidebook around, and there was much laughter, and then my waiter re-emerged with the owner of the restaurant and his wife in tow. I don't think they thought I was a reviewer for the restaurant -- I'm pretty sure of that, form things said later -- but they were enormously friendly and enthusiastic nevertheless. They wrote down the name of the drink, and told me how to make it:


Start with a bottle of Anis. To the bottle, add several whole sticks of cinnamon; some chunks of lemongrass (the Thai stuff; they showed me a piece); some mint (this is the ingredient I'm least sure of; they called it "Ment" and said it was a tree, but when I said "una planta, verde, una herba" (in my abysmal Spanish that consists of adding "a" to the ends of English words) they agreed with that; and some cloves. Combine all this in your bottle of Anis and set it aside for perhaps 15 days. I asked how much of each ingredient to use, and they waved the question aside as more or less self-evident; just use "a good amount, not too much, not too little".

This surreal episode ended with them bringing me a little plastic water bottle filled almost full (maybe 0.6 liters) with Miche. I will try to make it last until I get back to the States, so some of you will have a chance to taste it, but I can make no promises. :-> So I left them a honking big tip, and staggered back out into the beating sun and wilting humidity and choking traffic fumes.
A brief hike back to my hotel, all this typing, and now supposedly I'm going out for the evening with Carmelo, although it sounds like his girlfriend may be placing unreasonable demands upon his time that may constrain our activities somewhat. We shall see. More later! I really do need to post this stuff soon, this is getting ridiculous. Tomorrow.