Friday 24 March 2017

From aboard Ponant le Soleal: Belem, Arrival Amazonia


If it weren't for the brown turbid waters and the little powered canoes, you'd think the city of Belem was a mini Miami or Surfers Paradise with all the slender high-rises piercing the low clouds.

This busy port was the site of the first European settlement in the Amazon dating way back to 1616 and is actually situated on the Guama River, one of the many arteries that comprise the massive Amazon Delta. Some 300 kilometres wide, this network dumps water into the Atlantic at the astonishing rate of one litre for every person on Earth every second – or so my guide Cicero tells me.

Cicero (fabulous name, I say) at 64, is a true man of the jungle and makes our visit to Belem a truly enriching experience. He spent 10 years living on a patch of primary forest way downstream and only came back to civilisation to put his kids through school.

"The government gave many people land when the highway was built about 40 years ago," he tells us, "but that's all you got. 'Here's your land' they said, pointing to the forest. 'bye bye'. So for many years, it was very hard work."

Our day starts with Cicero walking us through the local market on the riverside, a stone's throw from where Le Soleal is moored at the old rubber industry wharf, now long disused and slowly being converted to restaurants and shops.

All manner of peculiar fruit and vegetables unfamiliar to Western eyes are arrayed for our inspection. Names like cupuacu, bacuri, tapereba and acerola are piled in vivid stacks on the wobbly trestles. Like dense little apples, the acai fruit is the only one I recognise.

"This fruit has made the fortune of the river people," Cicero says, "and we export this all over the world for its miraculous medicinal properties. Once we had rubber, now it's acai!"

Cicero's eyes light up when I ask to try some of these colourful elixirs and I hand him a few rials (about $5) and ask him to buy some of the juices for us. The plastic cups are handed around and produce an amusing range of expressions as the unfamiliar liquids assails our taste buds. Our regenerating livers, revitalised synapses and vanishing kidney stones rejoice in unison.

Deeper inside the historic shed we meet Batu, a feisty woman of 70-something who presents us with a baffling range of jungle remedies and potions. A small photo gallery shows her many celebrity clientele.

"She's a shaman, you know," Cicero whispers with a glint in his eye.

I notice many intriguing little vials dangling in clusters from her stall when one catches my eye.

"What does this do?" I ask innocently.

"It makes you irresistible!" Cicero confirms, "and this, well you put it on your ..." His forefinger dabbing vigorously on his upturned thumb. Batu reinforces its unique property with a most unambiguous gesture. Okay.

The fish market reveals an even more astonishing variety of produce with several species looking like prototypes for the next Ridley Scott movie.

After lunch, we motor upriver a short distance with Cicero and visit a plot of secondary forest where we meet big furry spiders, industrious ants and a few remaining kapok trees, once the lords of this jungle. Our local hosts offer us a powerful spirit made from sugar cane and some mysterious leaves. I try a thimbleful and my tongue immediately electrifies. Imagine a sherbet bomb that transforms into a kaleidoscope of flavours, each detonating at predetermined intervals and lasting several minutes. I turn to ask Cicero what the heck I'd just sipped and he's laughing uproariously. My reaction is a pleasure he clearly enjoys.

On the return journey, past the many little stilt houses and moored ferries, we discuss the radical changes in the jungle he has witnessed over a lifetime and not all tell a cheery tale.

"Our president (Lula) introduced palm oil a few years ago," he says through a furrowed brow, "and now we have these [expletive] green deserts that have each destroyed hundreds of jobs for the people."

Today is one occasion that proves expedition cruising is much more than just sightseeing in exotic locations. It's a chance to meet and interact with local communities and their people and hear their stories. Listen and you soon start to understand their triumphs and challenges and how the ripples of change spread all around the world, affecting others at the farthest reaches of the planet. Something to ponder as you push your trolley down the supermarket aisle.

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