September 27, 2006

My Summer (Winter) Vacation

This is Zico.

And this is Zico and a jackass.

Actually we are now calling this our Steve Irwin tribute photo. Luckily my so very clever husband managed to escape a tragic fate, but only after some hysterical screaming on my part wherein I pointed out that he would likely loose a hand and never play the piano again.

Zico is actually a “pet” in as much as any 300-pound razor-toothed reptile can be considered one. He lives at the pousada (inn) where we stayed on our visit to the Pantanal in July. And I should say, in full disclosure, that one of the tour guides employed by the pousada picked up his tail first and handed it to C, but I still didn’t consider it a very bright idea to say the least.

The Pantanal is the dead center of South America. Most of it is found in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, with parts of it extending into Bolivia and Paraguay, and at over 42 million acres it is the world’s largest floodplain, and the 5th largest biological reserve. Basically it’s a swamp bigger than the state of New York with a diversity of flora and fauna (especially birds!) that rivals the Amazon. Pantanal actually means “wetland” and for half of the year it is covered in several meters of water. It is so flat the sky becomes enormous. It reminded me of my friend Mika’s description of standing in a field in South Dakota with nothing between her and the horizon, and feeling that she was being swallowed upwards into a big bowl of blue.

We were there during the dry season and only penetrated a few miles in where the waters had mostly receded from the surrounding fields. But there was still plenty of wetland and adventure to be found. We spent an amazing morning fishing piranhas out of a flat-bottomed skiff in a big beautiful bay. (I use the term “fishing” lightly because they were basically jumping into our boat. My brother-in-law managed to catch 7 piranhas in a row with the same piece of bait.) We also went out at night in the back of a pick-up truck and shinned for alligators (their eyes glow like phosphorous!) and other nocturnal creatures.

One afternoon we took some horses out and road over the seemingly endless flat fields. There were still some watery swampy areas, and if you look close at the picture all those white dots are a enormous flock of white herons and a few red spoonbills. We tried to get close to them but they flew away. At one point we had the horses wading knee deep through some water when I noticed that along the banks in the shallows were dozens of alligators. I nervously pointed this out to our guide who brushed it off saying, “Don’t worry, they're not hungry. With all the birds they’re well fed.” I didn’t feel much better.

(remember you can always click on any of the photos to see them bigger.)

The only unfortunate thing about our visit is the camera charger was left in my mother-in-law’s apartment (of course it was my fault!) and after the first day we were on severely limited battery and I wanted to save enough to take pictures of my nieces 3rd birthday party, which was also celebrated there at the posada. But we managed a few pictures – they are all of birds because the birds are everywhere. I was told we were seeing only about 10% and that if we returned in the wet season we wouldn’t believe the number of species.

A colony of blue macaw parrots making a serious racket because we were close to a nest. There's at least 12 of them - can you find them all?

Woody Woodpecker

This is a terrible picture. He was too shy to turn around. It’s a Tuiuiu (as in “happy birthday to you you”) which is a giant stork. He stands at about my height and looks like a small Cessna when flying. I think the wingspan is easily 6 feet. They are the mascot of the Pantanal.

I should probably point out that the reason for our trip was to visit C’s sister, husband, their daughter and his mom. They all live in the city of Cuiaba, the capital of the state of Mato Grosso. It’s a huge very modern city with lots of American like shopping malls where people go to walk around in the air conditioning during the day because the average temperatures top 100º. 112 is not at all uncommon. July however is winter time and I think it managed to cool off into the 90’s.

The Pantanal begins about two hours south of Cuiaba, and if you drive two hours north you come to what is called a Chapada. I think the best translation is a plateau. If the area of the Pantanal looks like it was pressed down by some enormous invisible hand into a big flat pancake, then the Chapada is the displaced dough that slid out on the side of the that hand. You're driving along through this flat expanse and then suddenly, the sheer cliffs of the Chapada rise straight up, and the earth flattens out again.

A windy road leads up to the topside of the plateau and from there you can drive all along the edge which extends as far as the eye can see in both directions.

Apparently this is the continental divide of South America, and all the rivers below the Chapada flow south while those to the north flow towards the Amazon.
A few rivers however missed their calling and plunge southwards down the face of the bluffs.

Again, my hubby being a wise-guy and getting a little too close for comfort to the edge.

We only spent an afternoon on top of the Chapada, but it was enough time for C and his niece to have one more exhilarating encounter with a wild beast (masquerading as a phone booth.)

All in all we had a really wonderful time and can’t wait to go back.

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