Category: Brazil, 2014

Jaguars in strange places and reflections on Brazil

May 7-8

Breakfast and last chance to photograph the toucans and macaws at the lodge.

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We set out for the long drive to the Cuiaba airport at 7:30. Eduardo treats the drive as just another birding outing, so we stop frequently to view and photograph birds, and even some small marmoset monkeys that Eduardo has heard, then spotted as he drives down the muddy and slippery “highway.”

The heavy rains have done no favors to the condition of the road, and Eduardo sometimes makes some bridge repairs before crossing, but the scenery remains pleasing.

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Eduardo’s facility in spotting and identifying birds and other animals brings to mind the skills that our guides in Africa impressed us with many years ago. In both cases, it’s a familiarity borne of growing up and living with the animals, not from book learning. Eduardo says that the human population of the Pantanal (the jungle, he calls it, is 200 males). No crops are grown because the soil is too sandy, and work consists of raising cattle, being a cowboy –raising horses for tending the cows–fishing or ecotourism.

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Down the road a piece, Carol and I are traded for a young British woman. Eduardo had told us that he was going to have a new guest arriving, so he was going to switch us over to another guide, who would drive us the rest of the way to the airport. Junior is younger than Eduardo, speaks English fine, knows about birds and drives a far more comfortable and air conditioned car. So, though we’d have preferred Eduardo for the full trip, overall it’s not a bad trade. Junior tells us that people are mixed as to their views of the World Cup. Poor people would have liked the money spent on schools, roads and health. The rich, who are the only ones who will be able to afford tickets to go to the World Cup, will just get richer. Junior makes a few bird sighting stops and we arrive at the airport a bit more than an hour before flight time. We breeze through check-in and security, and board our 2 1/4 hour flight to San Paolo.

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Now for some random thoughts on the trip, on Brazil and, probably inevitably, on life, too. For starters, as always, I’m grateful for the incredible privilege of being able to travel like this. It’s the biggest luxury that Carol and I indulge in, and I can’t think of one I’d enjoy more. Once again, it’s terrific to be able to do it, just the two of us, not subject to anybody else’s whims or schedule. Traveling in a group can have some advantages, but, for us, traveling alone or with only a few friends wins, hands down.

A corollary of the amazing trips we’ve taken over the years is that it’s extremely difficult for any new venture to join the upper echelons of our experiences. And Brazil does not make it to that level. If friends asked, we’d certainly put other destinations higher on the list. Knowing what I now know, I might well have opted for another destination, or, at least, changed the make-up of the trip. But, all of that said, I’m not sorry we went.

The trip had its moments, actually quite a few of them. In fact, it got progressively better as we moved along.

Salvador was not the cultural experience we had expected, and that was disappointing. But the old city certainly had its charm, and spending time with Rodrigo and Fernanda was good fun. The social project relating to treatment of women in the favela was worthwhile and interesting. We had one quite outstanding dinner, our guide was engaging and the hotel quite fine. We enjoyed the performance of the Ballet Folklorico and visiting churches celebrating St. Benedict was an interesting experience, too. Our time there was definitely colored by Carol’s chain having been ripped off of her.

Rio is an absolutely stunning city. Full stop. The views of the city from various vantage points were spectacular. The tour of the favela with Rodrigo was excellent and gave us some appreciation for life in the favela. Luiz did a nice job of showing us around, including two out-of-the-ordinary things, visits to the museum of na├»ve art and to the synagogue. The modern dance performance at the opera house by the Israeli dance company, Batsheva, was truly outstanding. Of course, that just happened to be in Rio; it could as well have been anyplace in the world. Visiting two samba clubs with Rodrigo was fun, but, sadly, I’m feeling that my samba heyday may well have passed me by. Our dinners with Mike Freed’s friends, Rosa and Paul, and with our friend, Andrew, were both terrific, and definitely highlights of Rio. We loved the Maria Ruisa Hotel/ guest house we stayed at in Maria Teresa and the funky, Bohemian atmosphere of the area. Again, our discomfort with safety, stemming from somebody trying to rob our guide in daylight in downtown Rio, did not enhance our stay in Rio. (But, as I said earlier in the blog, even those unpleasant and negative experiences educate us as to the way many less fortunate than us live their lives.)

The highlight of our trip was clearly the time we spent in the Pantanal, especially the last three days with Eduardo. The birding was both fabulous and exciting. Makes me think that if I were doing the trip over, I would substitute a few days on the Amazon for Salvador. I might also consider Iguazu Falls, if I had time, but I think the Amazon would take precedence.

Here’s something curious. I talked about the discomfort/lack of safety we felt in Salvador and Rio. And yet, we thought nothing of going off into the Pantanal alone with a complete stranger, a 44-year old guy we don’t know from Adam, and trusting him to drive us around on muddy roads over wooden bridges, run the motorboat and guide us through areas that contain dangerous animals. Go figure.

So, what made the Pantanal so great? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, nature is the nuts, Man. And I think it may especially be the nuts for city dwellers like us who seem (and are) so far removed from nature most of the time. Sorry if this sounds corny, but there’s something, well, primal about returning to nature. And if a great travel experience gets you away from what you do on a daily basis, for us, nature qualifies. (Makes ya’ think that maybe introducing a more regular dose of nature into our lives might not be such a bad idea.)

The three animal/birding experiences we’ve had have been markedly different. (I’m going to spare you including our search for tigers in India or any of my many scuba diving experiences.). The Galapagos, our first, was unique in that what we saw there is unspoiled and cannot be seen anyplace else on earth. Visiting everyplace by boat was also unique. Africa was, well, Africa. Perhaps there’s a mystique that enhances the experience, but the mystique is powerful enough that it seems real (if that’s not a complete contradiction in terms). Seeing the range of animals that we saw on our three trips there and roaming across the land with them is experiencing the wild in a way unlike anything else we’ve done. The Pantanal is certainly the best birding we’ve done, by far. Carol identified 81 species in our five days there. Unlike in Africa, though, you don’t roam the land in a jeep, but travel down the Transpantaneira “highway,” or walk through woods in search of birds. We saw very little animal life in the Pantanal, and certainly nothing that compared remotely to Africa.

Another major difference between Africa and the Pantanal was the accommodations, which were often spectacular in Africa and very basic in the Pantanal. I’ll admit to liking the luxury of Africa, the creature comforts. And I’m guessing that I’m not going to value creature comforts less as I age. To me, amazing accommodations enhance, add an element to, the travel experience. Given the option, I’ll take luxury. At the same time, the basic accommodations in the Pantanal did not ruin the trip, or come close to doing so, though nobody would mistake them for a Four Seasons.

Here are a fifteen differences between a Four Seasons/our Pantanal accommodations:

24 hours of electricity a day/12 hours of electricity a day
2. Used toilet paper flushed down the toilet/used toilet paper placed in a little plastic waste can
3. Brush your teeth with tap water/brush your teeth with a bottle of water
4. Running hot water in the sink/no running hot water in the sink
5. Choice of food/no choice of food
6. Perpetual hot water in shower/periodic hot water in shower
7. Shower curtain/no shower curtain
8. No bats in the room/average of one bat in the room per day
9. Amenities kit/teeny bar of soap
10. Shuttle bus from the airport to hotel/truck from airport to hotel
11. Choice of wake-up time/told truck leaves with you in it at 4:30 AM
12. Closet with hangers/no closet, no hangers
13. Laundry sent out, done magically/laundry sent out, done by woman with pail outside
14. Phone in room/no phone in hotel
15. Doorman/no doorman

I’ve thought some about the experience of going bird or animal watching, and why that seems so special. First, there’s the excitement of the unexpected. When you go out looking for birds or animals, you don’t know what, if anything, you’re going to find. And it’s even okay if you don’t find what your looking for. Finding jaguar tracks last night and the anticipation that that created, was almost as good as finding a jaguar would have been. Okay, so that’s a direct lie. But there’s an element of truth to it.

In fact, the opposite is also true, predictability makes the experience less compelling. For example, while seeing the river otters and kingfishers on the river the other day was great, the fact that Eduardo knew where he would find them made it less special. When we went on elephants to see tigers in India, the tigers had been located beforehand. That made seeing the tigers less exciting than spotting tigers unexpectedly from a jeep. No, please, tell me that I’m not really saying that seeing tigers on elephant back is not all that exciting.

Getting back to what makes birding so exciting, another part of it is the complexity. You can identify birds by their size, shape, color, sound (Eduardo was constantly doing calls, sounds to imitate and attract them), flight pattern and habitat, and undoubtedly in other ways I’m leaving out. And, the ability to identify and name them is, well, Biblical. Didn’t God give Adam dominion over birds and animals by giving him the power to name them?

I struggle a bit with the trade offs between just seeing birds and photographing them. Certainly, you see them far better by just looking through glasses (at least with the photographic equipment that I have). But photographing them allows you to see them later, and share them with others. Of course, you could do that using a bird book, which would have far better photos. But, c’mon, that’s cheating, and, besides, it deprives you of the enjoyment of taking and working on the photos. Thinking about this now, I think I may strike the balance a bit differently next time, spending a bit of time looking at each bird through the glasses, before shifting to the camera.”if I miss a few shots in the process, no big deal.

And, since you raised the question, photographically, this will not be one of my more satisfying trips. That’s because my primary interest in photography is people, and I took very few photos of people on this trip. That doesn’t mean that I won’t spend weeks working on these photos and enjoying that. I will, but it won’t be as interesting to me as it would if I were working on photos of people.

Okay, time to end this rambling. Reading back over this summary of the trip makes me realize that it was a pretty damn good trip, after all. It’s been fun having you along, and I’ve appreciated the many comments I’ve gotten from you, both on the blog and in emails that you’ve sent. If you’re game for returning to Ghana and Nigeria (or, for new followers, want to try it for the first time), Carol and I will be returning with our good friends the Kipharts and the Olopades in late August. We’d love to have you join us.

One last photo to demonstrate how sometimes you hunt the world over for something that is sitting in your own back yard, or, in this case, your garage.

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Jaguars in strange places and reflections on Brazil

  • Rick

    Arnie you are a great source for info in deciding
    a destination for a trip.
    Maggie has been to Iguazu Falls coming from
    Argentina.
    Thanks for the travelogue.

  • Eve

    Loved the trip! Am sharing the bird photos with a delightful 88 year old bird watcher who is no longer able to practice photography.
    Thanks!
    Hugs,
    Eve

  • Loved the comparative analysis! K

  • Zoe-Bug

    Ha ha! Finally found a jaguar! It’s been fun to read your blog!

    Zoe-Bug

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