Date: 16th November
Transport: Riverboat Apurissaua
Location: Novo Airao travelling upstream to Santa Helena to overnight Visit Santa Helena
A quiet day motoring up the Negro. Time to look at the expanse of the Amazon and to think: both personally and as a group. It is important that we have purpose in our travels, well this is the whole point of going on an expedition of course. But such a journey is one of personal growth and already I can see signs of awareness in the group that have begum to be realised as a result of travelling into this region.
I have instigated an M-Group (or Morning Group where we talk about the tasks and travels for the day), and an E-Group (Evening) where we share the images that have been important for us during the day’s past. for the evening one. There always many and exciting things to talk about for we are in new territory far from the travel brochures that most may have experienced from time to time. Travel agents just do not come here.
The sun is starting to get to be the heat that I remember from a decade ago. Up until this time, the skies have been rather overcast and the excessive humidity has caused many a moist brow.
Along the river, brown water from the recent stormy floods from the Rio Branco are swinging to right side of the Negro. Way to the left of our position, there are many islands and the typical black waters that give the Rio Negro its name.
The Amazon, in this region, presents us with a couple of forms of Dolphin – locally called the Boto – one grey and the other pink. The former is rather cheeky and playful and the later is quite ugly and shy. Well, so Cara tells me and she is our Marine Scientist, having studying dolphins at Kelly Tarlton’s in Auckland. I shall get her to comment further, later, about this – for her project will look at the marine life of the Amazonas.
Images along this Rio remain from many picture books and many a generation of traveller to this region. The classic Amazonian river-boats, whether they be 1,2,or 3 levels tall. Huge barges, sometimes three and four platforms long, pushing piles and piles of ‘whatever’ up or downstream. Small boats conveying families point-to-point. Ferries up and down the river – 35 Reals to Barcelos from here, but take your own food and be prepared for 18-25 hours of travel and sleeping in a hammock.
I take this time to explain to Miguel about the intended medical project that Denise and I and Mark wish to do. Talk to one family per village per stop and ask a series of interview questions that remain the same per village – about the riverine way of live and the living of those who depend on this river for their lives, their education, their work and their health. Miguel initially thinks that we are going to examine and assess all the families in each of the villages that we are going to treat through. I gently tell him that we only have a month here. He smiles. We understand each -other.
E-Group now really underway and we discuss our reflections of the day, and what it means to be in the Amazon.
Santa Helena. Miguel has planned for us to go to our first village of Santa Helena. I remember it from last time that I was here. 10 years ago. It was quite an established and productive village. The houses were well constructed and people looked after them. Now there is a feeling of despair as we walk into it. 6 families remain. This region of the Negro is just one of THE most beautiful places in all of Brazil. Rocks, red-brown, rise above the riverline in this archipelago of islands. Trees throw skywards above a riverbank that has obvious marks of nature – waterlines from previous floods, and variously shaped trees that are a reflection of the tempests of time. More rocks, some with graffiti – the universal plague – some that seem to have a spirit, some without and some with petroglyphs from another age.
We drift onto the shoreline near where the ‘table of the washing machine’ is. The weather is delightful today. It is hot , very, as I remember it.
Reis, our guide shows us through the village, past the shells of houses of families since departed, past plant boxes (to grow seedlings and herbs) that are elevated to prevent unwanted animal annoyance. Fewer families. Just those that eally want to stay or those who cannot afford to go. The rest have gone to the city (Manaus) or to Barcelos. Survival. REie adds ‘ I can also go to the city too and it will be free to get there BUT it will cost to come back to St Helena where I get free power when it is available, free fish, free accommodation… but no income’. What a choice for a man with two young children: 4 and 6 years.
We walk through the entire village. Miguel is the master here and he knows everyone. We gather formally to meet the oldest lady in the village: 85 years. The oldest man, age unknown but probably 65-70 years, is much younger. The various members of the team eagerly go to do their projects – Clare to Photograph, David to get childrens’ drawings and to give some from the children at Hamilton West in return.
Liz, one of our on-board teachers and educationalists makes comment about the schooling: ‘I entered the village – our first – unsure of what to expect and I was struck by the welcoming and gracious manner of the people whose homes and environment we were curiously staring at. At our question “Is there a school here? Miguel led us to a building with open sides sited on the banks overlooking the river. Attached to the large room was an alcove measuring about 4 metres by 4 metres containing a blackboard covered with what appeared to be the date and a list of spelling words and other words of the day. There was a small teacher’s desk and about 8 seats with a single wide arm where the children did their bookwork. Text books and possibly exercise books were stacked up beside the teacher’s desk, and strung across the ceiling above all was a row of children’s paintings. Universal classroom display. The teacher directed a young boy to move the chairs out into the communal space for us all to sit down – the teaching of good manners – a universal value.
Miguel introduced me to the teacher, the’ professore’, a young woman in her 20s from the village who had left at 12,years of age and presumably gone to secondary school and done her teacher’s training in the city. I showed her pictures on my phone of my own classroom and 15 year old students with their ergonometrically designed seats and desks and I felt the contrast deeply. There is an ongoing lack of resources and the frame of the promised, but unfinished classroom next door did not bode well.
Children from 4 to 12 attend school here, in separate sessions. Some leave before 12 and I can only assume that the need to help parents to survive or the lack of a reason to continue to study is behind this. I am going to add to my list of questions to parents, “What aspirations do you have for your children?” Could this be a contributing factor for the loss of families from this village to the city?’
Mark, Denise and I go to do our interview of the family of Reis, 35 years. A wife and two children, a dog with a couple of yelping newborn pups, chickens, ducks and pigeons. That is the family. They sleep in single room. A double bed and two hammocks. A small kitchen, a storage room at the front, an open communal space and a toilet area 100 metres out into the forest. We communicate with them via Miguel for an hour. It is an excellent discourse and Denise’s superb abilities as a public health physician come into play significantly with her excellent skills in appropriate processing of questions to the family.
I take the photos and Mark logs the answers to Denise’s questions. This is excellent work. I thank them and reassure that this information will be provided to higher health authorities in Manaus. We are ethically unable to treat the population in this village that needs it. Gracious but there is such need here on this, the greatest river in the world in a country that is about to host two significant symbols of materialistic growth: the Olympics and the next Football World Cup.
We gather, present our gift to the village and then gather to sing the waiata ‘Te Aroha’ before we depart. We are giving a little something of New Zealand back to these folk. I am pleased that we are saying ‘thank you’ for their hospitality!