A Short Trip

I spent three days back in Santarém, practicing my Portuguese, getting ready for my work, and taking the time go to a Forró concert -  popular Brazilian music and type of dance.  To get into the field as quickly as possible, I decided to accompany someone, Fabio, who was taking a two-day trip to speak with several communities about arapaima management and population surveys.  This time we traveled in style on a larger boat with a bathroom, shower, kitchen, and space for our hammocks.  Unfortunately, the breeze that felt so nice before we set off picked up across the width of the Amazon and filled the river with swells that made the trip rocky and me sick.  I set up my hammock and rocked to sleep, waking now and then when we hit a large wave and I swung into a post.
Our boat (home) for this trip

Long shaft motor boat (the type of transport we used during my first outing)

Fabio went from one community to another to discuss arapaima ecology and promote arapaima management efforts. It was great to see his outreach presentations and the communities taking a serious interest in what he had to say.   Arapaima support the livelihood of many people and are an important resource to harvest sustainability.  However, the future of arapaima is threatened by not only overfishing, but also changing land use practices.  The habitat that arapaima need is increasingly degraded by cattle, forest clearance, river bank erosion, and more.  These interrelated problems affect the lives of the people, the arapaima, and all life in the várzea.
Cows climbing a bank (or trying to)

Erosion along river banks of the Amazon

During his presentation, Fabio also talked about a survey later in the year to determine the status of arapaima across a large area.   Arapaima breathe air and can be counted when they surface.  In fact, arapaima can drown if they can’t surface (yes, this fish can “drown”).  The dry season is the best time to do this since the fish are all in lakes and channels.  In January, the rains begin to flood this entire region and join all the water bodies with the mighty Amazon.  I went to two lakes and, although I didn't see any arapaima nests, I did see arapaima coming up to breath.  The fisherman said that the first, with a small pop and splash, was a small fish probably less than 1 m.  A few minutes later, with an incredible pop and splash, a fish at least a meter and a half.  The arapaima can grow to 3 m in length and 200 kg in weight… a massive size… but it usually harvested before it gets that big.  I will try to record a clip of arapaima breath and post it .
Two very different lakes with arapaima

The várzea is home to many animals

In the evening, we played dominos at one of the communities.  Four people sat at the table, slamming down the dominos as if they were trying to catch a fly.  They asked if I wanted to play and I hesitantly agreed since I hadn’t played dominos in a long time and I didn’t have enough time to make sure that that’s what they were playing.  I played their game and slapped the dominos down but my last piece I laid down softly- I won the first three games (to the surprise of all).  An older lady was especially surprised (and slightly upset) that this “gringo” was winning.  After my first three wins, I won a few more times but didn’t have another streak of luck.
The sunset is always stunning

Before I knew it, I was back in Santarém and had to plan to go back into the field soon.  If only it was more like playing dominoes…

The Field Work Begins!

For two days we hiked, paddled a small (unsteady) boat across lakes, and dragged it from one lake to another.  We walked in forests, across fields, around lakes, and waded through wet areas (every time my waist went under I thought of the candiru).  During the annual flood, all these areas are under a few meters of water- a regular part of life on the floodplain.  The most surreal was our walk into a “floating forest” – basically a forest growing on a water-bed of vegetation that actually floats with changing water levels.  We saw a hole in the “ground” and pushed a stick 12 ft long into it, still not hitting the bottom.  One wrong step and we could have plunged through the forest “floor” and into the lake for an unpleasant swim.
-Getting around the floodplain is not easy-

We found eight arapaima nests thanks to a local expert.  I’m measuring each nest and noting information about the habitat.  As I did this, Rafael looked for nests of caiman, a species of freshwater crocodilian.  This is the season they reproduce and when he finds one, he pulls the angry parent off the nest, fits it with an ID tag, counts the number of eggs, and returns the parent.  Unfortunately, we didn't find any on this trip.  
-Taking measurement's of an arapaima nest-

Our first day’s lunch was dubbed “dog food” - canned fish, beans, and flour all mixed into a single bowl and only three spoons to go around for the six of us.  The next day we had some fresh fish cooked over the fire.  We washed everything in the river/ lakes and ate from the same bowl we used to bail the water from the boat.  Our drinking water came from the river (which I secretly zapped with a UV sterilizer).  Having traveling a lot, I’m aware of the precautions that I need to take to not get sick (such as water and types of foods to avoid).  But in some situation those precautions are hard or, in my case, impossible to follow (especially after all the batteries of my sterilizer died!).  At every bite or sip I thought this might be it.  Thankfully, I didn’t get sick... yet. We’ll see if and how long, that lasts.
-YUM- "dog food"-

-Fresh fish the next day!-

In the evening we played soccer with the locals and bathed in the river.  The mosquitoes were relentless and especially fond of my feet (which were tenderized from being in a wet boot all day).  We slept in hammocks draped in mosquito nets that were easily outsmarted by the mosquitoes that kept finding their way in.  
-At the community-

-The sun sets over the Amazon-

After two days of fieldwork, we went back to the city of Santarém, where I needed to figure out when to go back into the field… maybe on my own or maybe with Rafael or someone else- many things still unknown.
On the beach back in Santarém with all our gear

Getting lost and getting found…

On my second day in Brazil, I walked off the boardwalk and onto the beach to find the boat that would take me to where I was meeting Rafael, another researcher who was already out in the field.  With my new hammock, mosquito net, and cell phone I asked around for which boat was going there. With my still improving Portuguese, I was pointed to a ferry station where I bought a ticket.  This seemed too easy and, using my lonely planet guide to Brazilian Portuguese, I asked the man at the counter again. He told the boat did go there.  Once boarded, I was still unsure, so I asked again- and my fear was confirmed.  This was a ferry to a city on the other side of the Amazon River and not to the community where I was supposed to go.  I found my cell phone and called Rafael.  His service was hit and miss, but he asked to speak to the ferry captain.  They arranged that I’d get dropped off along a bank and Rafael would backtrack in a small boat to pick me up.  The ferry pulled close to the shore and I jumped six feet to the ground.  I walked up the bank as onlookers on the ferry wondered where I was going.  There was a single house on stilts on the bank and a woman doing laundry invited me closer.  After I coarsely explained what happened, she invited me to sit in the shade under the house.  I noticed the radio was on in the house (running on batteries since there wasn't a line going to the house and the generator wasn't running) and I heard a song that was overplayed back home, “Written in the stars, a million miles away…”. 

A few songs later, Rafael arrived in a small long shaft motorboat - slow moving but fuel efficient and cheap.  After briefly greeting him (this was the first time I met him in person) and his team, we were off to spend a few hours baking in the sun.  When we got to our destination community (by community I mean a house every few hundred km along river stretch), we sat at the edge of the river to relax and cool off.  Despite the creatures big and small the Amazon is renown for, a few children were playing in the water. We asked them if there were any piranhas or candiru in the water (the latter being a small fish that is notorious for its ability to swim up a person’s urethra).  They smiled and told us no.  There are also the caiman, or freshwater crocodilians, to be mindful of….

I stripped to my boxers and cannon balled in- my first bath in the Amazon.