As the good book promised, the first wildlife we saw was cattle. But it looked like nothing ordinary to us. Well, they did look like cows, only very old, hunchbacked, albino, starved cows. We saw them on the way to our lodge and they literally flooded the road around the bus making it an island in a white sea of humps which strangely looked like waves.
Because of our last jungle expedition, I was ready to go and ask for my money back as soon as we got there. At first look, the "riverfront lodge" turned out to be nothing like in the pictures and had raggedy looking huts behind it. I hate to disappoint though, but at second look it turned out to be not even half as bad. Quite the opposite, actually. The little shacks of the fishermen and the people running the lodge were connected by a little maze of boardwalks and, as everything here, were on stilts so it all was very cute.
On our first day here we fished for piranha, which never gets old, and this time, I actually caught one. I was sitting on the riverbed waiting for the piranha to bite and thinking to myself. "We fish for piranha with dead cow, the piranha eats the meat, we eat the piranha, and the mosquitoes are eating us." Nothing really deep here, just maybe time to reapply the bug repellent and eat lunch. The mosquitoes here, though, they are really no joke. One the plus side they are not malarial, so we don't need to take our meds to be here. On the other hand, you know how the nurse tells you "This will not hurt at all, just like a mosquito bite"? Well, these mosquito bites hurt like needle pricks! Not to mention that these buggers have managed to bite me in the only place I didn't have repellent on – my fingers and palms, so in the first two days of our stay I could barely close my hand.
As we fished, behind us strolled, keeping his distance, a Jabiru – a magnificent 1.5 meter stork and the official symbol of the Pantanal, whose enormous strangely shaped beak is exactly the same charcoal black color as its head which makes it look rather odd and unusual. When we caught a piranha that is too small to eat, we threw it to the Jabiru, trying to get it closer to us for a better picture. I bet it's as exciting as fishing can get, but unfortunately, we had to do it all in the company of three very British Brits with whom it was impossible to hold a conversation even though you don't have to stay quiet when fishing for piranha. Fortunately though, in the midday they left for Campo Grande and we were left to enjoy the guiding of Johnny (tribal name Piraputanga, which means red-tailed fish) all by ourselves.
Johnny has a wonderful eye. I don’t mean to sound giddy, but I think I am. I know it's his job, but the man was spotting green iguanas in the trees for us and even caught a small caiman for us to hold. We lured it in with a stick on a fishing line, and Johnny caught it with a lasso.
In the morning we still had Johnny to ourselves to lead us see the sunrise and the toucans having breakfast in the mango trees. And as we walked, the locals kept coming out to say "hi!" holding their toothbrushes. Later, I drove us in a boat several miles away from the lodge and we all walked back seeing birds and monkeys. On the road I found a nice looking rock. It looked like maybe quartz or some marble. I asked Johnny what it was, and he replied "A rock. Nice rock. Take with us, I make present for each of you." I wonder, does he really know English on this level, or does he think it makes him sound more authentic if he sounds less educated. Yesterday he asked us for our emails, but when we wanted his, he said he'll give us a card later, because he never learned how to read and write, yet he does speak about five languages that he learned only through interaction with tourists.
Johnny kept his word. In the afternoon, before a few more people arrived, he made me and Shurik a couple of very simple, yet very nice necklaces. He also made me a teriri – a sort of a braid of strings and beads that is weaved right into my hair and stays there until I decide to cut it off. I usually don't like things on my body that I can't easily put on and take off, but this time I made and exception. I was a bit concerned how will it hold on in water, but I got to test it that very afternoon when we all went tubing down the river. We floated by very calmly until Johnny, who was watching us from the boat, said "Look, small crocodile!" We all turned in the direction he was pointing and saw a three meter long caiman staring at us only a few meters away.
We got along much better with the new people with whom we were going to spend the rest of our time in the Pantanal with. There was Caroline - a Swiss girl who learned Portuguese while volunteering in a kindergarten in Curitiba; Eli – a film student from the States traveling the world and doing his studies by correspondence; and, finally, Jonathan and Helen, a Welsh couple on their year long honeymoon, who proved to me people from UK can be fun too. With this excellent bunch we went on a car safari, but this time, unfortunately, Johnny didn't join us. I think he had a bit of a feud with the other guide – Marcelo, over Marcelo's sister. "I don't like Indians," I heard Marcelo say. "They think they can have three wives." A terrible thing to say, but I see what he is talking about. Just the other day, Johnny had a visit from his wife and daughter, and after, also told me he has another daughter inside his tribe, but he does not visit there very often. In any case, Marcelo was the one to take us on a car safari. Even though I think he is not as skilled of a guide as Johnny, we saw many interesting things like a poisonous snake, many caimans, for whom we fished once again like with Johnny before, but this time using my green flip-flop as a lure which resulted in a few teeth marks that I now proudly wear. We even saw an ocelot (kind of like a small jaguar). It ran across the road and only those of us who were looking in the right direction got a glimpse. On that road, further up, we also saw one of those big white hunchbacked cows. It was lying on the side of the road, and I thought it strayed from the herd and now enjoying some alone time, but Marcelo said it has actually broke its leg and the gauchos (cowboys) that we saw earlier, down the road, are coming to kill her and take the meat before the jaguars and vulchers will.
A small detail about today – it's my birthday. I am 24, and I don't like to brag, but if I had a candle to blow out, I'd wish for keeping things just the way they are. I did throw Shurik a tiny little tantrum in the morning for not getting me as much as a flower, but we are in the middle of a swamp the size of France, so I decided to let this one go. All day my mind kept going from "My life is unbelievable, I should be thankful for every second of it and for the one who completes me" to" Great excuse, you jerk! If we are in the middle of nowhere, that means you couldn't have thought about my birthday BEFORE we came here?!" It's a good thing I had the Pantanal to distract me all day, because I couldn't have gone a long time keeping such thoughts only to myself. Fortunately, though, as usual, I did underestimate my beloved. After dinner, when everybody huddled up in front of our laptop looking at that day's pictures, the lights suddenly went out, and the flicker of a single candle began nearing me with a "Happy Birthday" song in Portuguese booming in the background. When the light went back on again, there stood Shurik with a huge bouquet of pink and yellow flowers and the biggest birthday cake I had in my life.
Last day. Our stay in the Pantanal is coming to an end, but not before we do the boat safari and horse riding we were promised. This time Jonathan was driving and the rest of us piled up on the roof of and caught some sun. It was a very long ride - four hours, but we had plenty to see and do. I and Marcelo were busy cutting tiny coconuts for jewelry most of the time, but often enough we were interrupted by Johnny spotting all sorts of animals: jabirus, parakeets, toucans, caimans, capybaras, and monkeys. As we were looking for monkeys in the trees, my mind went into a daydream of how might the monkeys see us. "Look! Down there, in the river! Humans. Sh-Shhh, don't scare them away. They are more afraid of you than you are of them. But don't get too close either. See these black and silver things in their paws? It's their defense mechanism. They will point it at you and blind you with it. Wait, wait, check it out: uh-uhhh-uuhhh! Look how they started running around all excited when I made these sounds. Amusing creatures."
Snap out of it. We're here, Marcelo's brother's farm. The horses are saddled, and hammocks are hung. "Three people ride, three people rest. Move your body," said Johnny. I, Shurik, and Eli were the first ones to ride. I always dread the experience, but the last time we did, it was fun, so I just tried not to think of the inevitable muscle pain the day after. Johnny went with us. Crazy Indian, he rode around us in circles and kept galloping away or showing up behind us. "Go-Go," he shouted passing us by, and our horses would start running to his horse's example. To me he kept saying: "Control your horse! If you don't, he run into a tree and zehu ("that's it" in Hebrew) kaput." And he was right. If I didn't stir it away, my horse would keep running right into trees. Noble and smart animal my sore sore ass.
I watched Johnny gallop and could not but feel bad that I don't have the courage to do that myself. Every time Johnny would sprint by and my horse would take after, I'd stop it before it had the chance to gather any speed. In the middle of the ride, Johnny rode up to me and asked for the whip that I was so obviously under using. I gave it to him only to realize a fraction of a second later what his plan was. "No, Johnny, no! *insert girly scream here*." But it was too late. One firm smack on my horse's ass and we both went flying straight ahead. Man, was I glad there were no trees around this time. The horse kept running, I kept screaming, and eventually, when I ran out of breath, a thought went through my mind: "What if I just relax." A stupid thought, really, to try and relax when every muscle in your body is tensed up, trying not to fall of a galloping horse, but nevertheless, I somehow thought it wouldn't hurt (although it could have, real badly), and, what do you know, it didn't. I didn't of course let go of the animal altogether, but all of a sudden everything went like in slow motion, and as I began moving with the horse, the whole thing felt extremely natural, and I, myself, felt, dare I say, sort of graceful.
June 9 (leaving Pantanal)
Alright, time to go. Our ride is not until later in the afternoon, so we have sometime to hang around the lodge. And what do you do when you have some time to kill? Fish for piranha, of course. A nice calm pastime after which we get to enjoy fried piranha and piranha sashimi for lunch. One regret we have though. In all our time here, we didn't see one anaconda. Well, no worries mate, the local fishermen caught one this morning in their net and came to us with a business deal. If we were willing to grease their hand a bit, they would bring us this two meter, three kilo marvel, and we could even hold it. Carefully.