Working for my supper Part 2

For whatever reason, my previous post got cut in half. So here is the rest of it. But before I jump in I must put out an advisory here…people who are terrified of creepy crawly things…don’t read this post, and definitely do not look at the pictures. For those of you who are braver, or just like being rebels, read on and enjoy!

So to bring you back to where we were…we were in a 15-year-old abandoned church which we had just torched to get rid of the mutant fire ants, discovering a family of rats in the process. I had been hoeing and tamping down the floor for a while when I leaned against the wall to take a quick break. I turned my head to the side and immediately bolted from the church, throwing my hoe to the wind and screaming like a mad-woman. Convinced that I must be dying, the whole team came running. I’m sure they all thought I was being a pansy, because for all my wisdom in running away, my greatest fear only made them run TOWARDS the church. SPIDER.

Remember how I said everything in the Amazon is on steroids? The biggest spider in northern Canada where I’m from is the Daddy Long Legs. This was not a little spider. This was huge, hairy and had definitely been seriously contemplating eating me. Did I mention it was poisonous? Oh yes…I’m talking about the infamous Tarantula.

Now, almost as quickly as I had run from the church, the team ran into the church with their cameras; crowding around the beast snapping pictures. Reluctantly, I snuck back into the church staying as far away as I could. I was the only medically trained person on my team and if one of these insane people got bit by the monster, I would have to deal with it. It was at about this time that my team leader Joaquim decided to give me heart palpitations. Leaning forward, he reached out and plucked the spider from the wall, holding it up so we could all see the underbelly and the fangs. I don’t know if it’s just me or if its the same for all arachniphobes, but the underside of a spider is ten times scarier than the top side of them. But all of this I could have handled. Anything is doable with safe distance. Joaquim isn’t known for his observation of safety though. I don’t know if it was the mixed look of disgust and sheer terror on my face, or if he just thought it was funny, (I’m almost fully convinced it was the latter), but he decided to “help” me get over my fear of spiders.

By shoving the huge thing in my face.

There is a time and a place for dignity, just as there is for bravery. This was not one of those times. I quickly reverted back to my first reaction and ran screaming from the church. To my absolute horror, Joaquim followed me, cackling maniacally as he chased me around the entire building threatening to throw the traumatized spider at me. The whole team was rolling on the ground laughing at this point, but I was definitely less than amused.

Thankfully I’m a fast runner and Joaquim finally took pity on me and flung the spider out into the jungle. I would have preferred he kill the beast, but I guess you can’t have everything in life. We all returned back to work, me with a much more cautious eye at the walls.

By the end of the week, two things happened. First, I found 5 more Tarantulas living in the walls of the church. Secondly, I overcame my extreme terror of spiders. By the end of the week I entered into a truce with the Tarantulas; I mostly ignored them other than keeping a watchful eye on them to make sure they stayed on their side of the church and far away from me.

Its amazing the things you learn from travel. Who knew travel could cure arachnophobia? Now whenever I’m at home and I see one of our tiny spiders, I just laugh. “You think you are scary… you should see your cousin in Brazil!

(And for all of you who I know are dying to ask… no I did not see an anaconda. I only saw 1 snake my whole trip and he was itty bitty.)

moving dirt

moving dirt

practicing my throwing form while flinging sticks out of the church

practicing my throwing form while flinging sticks out of the church

taking a break from tamping, dig a hole instead...

taking a break from tamping, dig a hole instead…

the lair of the beast...They lived in the hollow bricks that made up the wall.

the lair of the beast…They lived in the hollow bricks that made up the wall.

the beast itself

the beast itself

tell me that's not creepy

tell me that’s not creepy

ya.... stuff of nightmares

ya…. stuff of nightmares

just an example of the mega bugs I would find in the dirt...and just for the record, I am only creeped out by spiders and cockroaches, all other bugs like worms and this huge millipede I am totally ok with handling up close and personal.

just an example of the mega bugs I would find in the dirt…and just for the record, I am only creeped out by spiders and cockroaches, all other bugs like worms and this huge millipede I am totally ok with handling up close and personal.

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Little grannies and children…my favourite things!

So after getting scorched by the sun and traumatized by tarantulas my first day in Tucamatuba, my second day there definitely took a turn for the much better. Me and some of the team went to the local school school where we did skits and sang songs with the kids. I taught myself how to make balloon animals and the kids had a blast quickly dismantling them so they could bring them to me to redo…over and over again. Their giggles were so cute that I really didn’t mind. The team did a really funny, if very unrehearsed skit about Noah’s Ark. Our team’s translator Claire then led us in some fun children’s songs which were all in Portuguese. The team did their best to mumble along since none of us knew the words. The kids didn’t care, they were just excited we were there. The parents of the village had even come out to see us, and were very warm and friendly.

couple of village kids eating out of a coconut bowl

couple of village kids making sand pies in a coconut bowl

getting ourselves organized...and by organized I mean coming up with ideas on the spot as we were not at all organized

getting ourselves organized…and by organized I mean coming up with ideas on the spot as we were not at all organized

yup...I am definitely the same height as a 9 year old girl.

yup…I am definitely the same height as a 9 year old girl.

Afterwards, me and the two other interns (us three were there for a 2 month internship with PAZ, where as the team was only there for a week), went to the local leader’s home. For being in the middle of nowhere, and I mean nowhere (this village is inaccessible 6 months out of the year) the house was huge and very nice. It was nicer than my house back in Santarem. The leader had been slowly building this house over the past 20 years bringing in one small boat load of supplies at a time. It was incredible to hear her story of how she had lost so much, but through a lot of prayer and a lot of hard work she pushed on, and now her house was the meeting place of the whole village, everyone was welcome there. Including the birds.

While everybody back home has a dog or a cat for a pet, down here, everybody has a bird or a turtle. She had a really well behaved pet parakeet which stood on my finger and held a pretty lengthy conversation with me before flying off. I’m sure the leader thought I was crazy talking to her bird, but other than spiders, I am a huge animal lover and have been known to greet pets before owners.

making friends with the local wildlife

making friends with the local wildlife

After visiting with her, the leader took us to a small wood hut nearby where she introduced us to the first of my two favorite people I met while in Brazil (desculpe Santarem). Out of the hut came a little hunched over, blind granny with the sweetest disposition. She kept apologizing, begging us not to look at her house and judge her because of her poverty. I had the opposite reaction. I was blown away with respect for this wise old lady who still lived at home by herself and took care of herself in those harsh conditions. I had to fight the urge to give her a huge bear hug and never let go. Instead I behaved myself by compromising. I sat really close to her throughout the afternoon as we visited with her and she told us the histories of the village and the people. It was such a blissful experience for me, and I could have sat there for days listening to her. When we finally left, I gave in to my urge and gave her a big hug. And wouldn’t you know it, she teared up in gratitude for our kindness in sitting and listening to her. Trust me, the privilege was all mine.

I miss this little sweetheart

I miss this little sweetheart

Working for my supper

After my amazing trip upriver to Tucamatuba, we stayed there a week building up the walls, putting down a floor and putting a roof on the church. I’m a farm kid, so hard physical labor is not new to me. I’ve been on more construction sites than I can count and I’m pretty handy with a hammer, not to mention pretty strong and tough for my small self. All that being said, I’ve never been on a construction site in 30-50*C weather with a million percent humidity. I’m pretty competitive in nature, and the last thing I was going to let happen was to be labelled a weakling or lazy by either the Brazilians or the team from Louisiana. So I worked my can off, managed to impress them, and then curled into a ball and died of extreme heat stroke.

I’m a redhead, and therefore I’ve been blessed with delicate skin that burns in the shade. You can imagine how much I looked like a tomato for pretty much my whole two month trip to Brazil. The only consolation to me was that one of the team members from Louisiana came down with a terrible flu and heat stroke and so I spent my time in my own sick bed nurturing her back to health.

The first day of our construction we had to clean out the church. The project had been started 15 years previously before multiple circumstances popped up bringing the whole thing to a grinding halt with the walls built up only half way. 15 years is a long time in the jungle and long grasses and roots had grown their way up into the church. All of us immediately started yanking out the mile high weeds when suddenly, our feet caught on fire.Image

Let me tell you something about the Amazon. Everything is on steroids. A goldfish back home is a whale here. The ants were no different. Their heads alone are the size of my finger nails and when they bite, they do NOT let go. The entire dirt floor of the church was covered in fire ant nests. Running out of the church smacking our burning flesh, we regrouped under a tree and came up with a contingency plan. The boys got very excited when the best idea involved fire. One brave soul ran into the church soaking all the weeds with gasoline. And then they let it rip.

All of us girls squealed when a family of massive rats came scurrying out from a nest in the corner, but otherwise we watched the bonfire with, I admit, sadistic pleasure knowing all the ants were being burned out. After the blaze died down, we went to work. All the weeds were ripped out and then the real work began. The floor for the church was a thin layer of cement poured over very flat ground. The dirt floor of our church was very uneven, therefore we had to both dig down in places and build up in others. A dirt pit was started near the bank of the river where the dirt was then hauled into the church, flattened out and then tamped down. My job was to hoe it smooth and then tamp it down using a crude but clever device; A huge heavy flat block of wood with a stick handle that I would lift and then slam back down, over and over again. Easy, but heavy work.

Welcome to the real Amazon

The Portador de Luz

The Portador de Luz

This morning we were up at the crack of dawn (it was actually still dark out), and loading up the Combis. The Combis are these white vans that I accurately named the “Tin Can Tanks”. They rattled horrendously, felt like the lightest touch would bend them in half and yet they were tanks that go anywhere and through anything, and I mean anything (more on that later). We loaded up the tanks with our gear, and building supplies; Big heavy boxes full of drills, hammers, and who knows what else along with boxes of food supplies. Yup you heard me, drills and hammers. The night before, a

team from Louisiana had arrived in Santarem and would be joining us as we traveled up the Amazon River to a village called Tucamatuba (pronounced as it is spelled). There we would be rebuilding a church for the village as well as doing other mission work like visiting the local schools and village leaders. I was super excited as this would be my first experience with “village life”, which was something very near and dear to my heart.

We reached the river and the first thing we did was start to load up our boat. The b

oat is called the “Portador de Luz” or “Bearer of Light”. It is the flag ship of Project AmaZon (the mission group I was in Brazil with). The Project boasts many boats some of which are literally small wooden row boats as the Amazon Basin where I was located is largely water and there are many small villages that can only be reached by water as they are in the middle of the swamp. This boat in particular is large compared to the row boats. It boasts a kitchen, two bathrooms and two floors. The upper floor where we will be staying for the whole week is literally an open deck with side railings and a roof. The Portador is used mainly for the Project’s medical mission, but given the size of our team and the huge amount of supplies we needed to carry (we had huge bags of cement and miles of wooden boards with us as well), they gave us the use of the boat.

After traveling on the Portador, I have decided Amazon boat travel is my all time favorite way to travel. We hung our hammocks among the rafters on the top deck and literally were rocked to sleep by the waves as we swayed to the breeze. I have never slept so good in my life. If only the scenery weren’t so amazing, I would have slept more. I was to worried about missing something though that I was wide awake the whole six hour trip in. How do you describe this world? you don’t. My pictures will do a way better job than my words ever could.

our view from the dock, yes someone lives there

our view from the dock, yes someone lives there

the view from my hammock

the view from my hammock

Entering the swamp lands

Entering the swamp lands

funky football trees which I'm told bloom at night and drop these huge white flowers that float along into the water

funky football trees which I’m told bloom at night and drop these huge white flowers that float along into the water

I love the calmness of the water that reflected the clouds

I love the calmness of the water that reflected the clouds

The view from my hammock every morning that week. (Its a tough life I know)

The view from my hammock every morning that week. (Its a tough life I know)

our guide boat and guide/ team leader

our guide boat and guide/ team leader

people actually live here 6 months out of the year. When the flood season is done and the water recedes its mind boggling 30m, the family will come back, clean it out and move back in until the rains come again when they will move back up onto high ground.

people actually live here 6 months out of the year. When the flood season is done and the water recedes its mind boggling 30m, the family will come back, clean it out and move back in until the rains come again when they will move back up onto high ground.

Its a good thing I didn't learn the water buffalo song until a few years later or I would have annoyed my teammates singing it every time I saw these guys which was all the time.

Its a good thing I didn’t learn the water buffalo song until a few years later or I would have annoyed my teammates singing it every time I saw these guys which was all the time.

I was fascinated by these tiny wooden canoes the local fisherman would paddle around in

I was fascinated by these tiny wooden canoes the local fisherman would paddle around in

as you can see, they looked really tiny and tippy to me. But they would have a big catch of the day in them lots of the time and I would watch them tossing out their nets with no fear of falling in and getting eaten by a cayman (amazon alligator) (more on them later)

as you can see, they looked really tiny and tippy to me. But they would have a big catch of the day in them lots of the time and I would watch them tossing out their nets with no fear of falling in and getting eaten by a cayman (amazon alligator) (more on them later)

and the view from my hammock at sunset.

and the view from my hammock at sunset.

the photos really don't do this building thunderstorm at sunset any justice at all. The colors were indescribable.

the photos really don’t do this building thunderstorm at sunset any justice at all. The colors were indescribable.

Thank Goodness for Hammocks, Beans and Muddy Rivers

Boats along the Orla

Boats along the Orla

The morning after I arrived in Brazil, I woke up with a screaming back ache. Being crammed into airplane and airport seats for over forty hours had taken its toll on me. The hard tiled floor I slept on didn’t help. But I was determined to not be a wuss. I crawled out of my bed, wiped the thick sheen of humidity off my skin and hobbled my way into the kitchen where my host was busy making fruit juice and beans. I was never much of a beans person, but I was about to become one whether I wanted to or not. Brazilians love their beans as do most countries south of the USA (even they love their beans in the southern states). Every meal would have beans in it. Beans, carbs and protein with no vegetables. My family laughed at me when I got back home because the very first thing I wanted to eat was a huge salad.

Since I wasn’t a bean person and had no idea how to even help her cook them, I decided the best way to help was to stay out of her way and wash the dishes. Arriving at the sink I received my first of many culture shocks. It’s never the big things that surprise me, but the little things. My first surprise was that there was no hot water. Hot water was such a foreign concept to my host Vanessa. The shower heads, I later learned, were electric (because water and electricity are always such a good combination) which warmed up the water for a shower but since it was so hot here, most people never turned them on preferring cold showers. One thing I know about myself…It doesn’t matter how hot it is outside, I still love a hot shower. But I swallowed my surprise, and started washing dishes wondering why Vanessa was giving me such strange sideways glances. I didn’t know there was another way to wash dishes, but apparently there is many different ways and I was definitely not doing it her way. Thankfully she was gracious to me despite my cultural clumsiness and I was soon enjoying my first taste of authentic Brazilian cuisine. Delicious. Lets just say I am definitely a bean fan now.

After lunch Vanessa took me down to the marina which she called “Orla”. For the second time since my arrival, my inner scaredy-cat jumped out of my skin as I watched all the small and large wooden boats pull up to the edge of the muddy Tapajos river. My vivid imagination turned all of the street vendors into pirates and drug dealers and I couldn’t understand how Vanessa walked so calmly among the men carrying massive loads of bananas, fish and other edible goods. Then I saw a few of them lying in hammocks on their boats and I became envious. Those had to be comfier than my floor.

After walking for four hours along the marina I came to a conclusion. I had not been kidnapped or mugged, or even really been acknowledged other than the odd pushy salesman. I decided to throw my first impression out the window and take a second look. What I saw was beautiful. What before had seemed rough and dangerous had somehow morphed into a stunning cultural mecca. Families bought and sold produce and fruits that were so bizarre I couldn’t even start to describe them. Artisans showed off their colorful handmade crafts, loud Portuguese music blasted from speakers and everywhere was the smell of food and dirty water. There was beauty here that did not rely on striking architecture, or majestic scenery. Instead here on the banks of this muddy river, I felt a strange sense of peace; I felt like it was a small piece of home despite it being a place where nothing was familiar. The first seed of the joy of discovery was planted in my heart.

    One of the homes I stayed in

One of the homes I stayed in

That night, laying in my new hammock, (Amazonian homes are built with hooks in the wall for hammocks. Instead of offering guests a bed, you offer them a wall and they bring their own hammock; convenient and fascinating to me), I pondered this new found joy. In my life before traveling, I had lost almost all of my curiosity. I had grown stale in my willingness to stay within the known and not push the boundaries into learning new things. New became scary and I had grown slightly disgusted with my own cowardice. Suddenly like a burst of light, I felt a surge of curiosity flow through me. How much more was there to discover? New language, new food, new culture, new everything.

I’ve created a monster. I have now cursed myself with wanderlust. Any longer than a year in one place and I get such itchy feet that I literally get claustrophobic staying in the same place. The fear is gone. If anything, my family wishes that some fear would come back, that way I would stay put a little longer. But that’s the price we pay for adventure and a free spirit. Curiosity is a gift. Man was created to explore and explore I will. But first I’m getting a good night sleep in my new hammock!

Nothing Like Diving Into The Deep End

It might not be a white horse, but it does sweep me off the ground

It might not be a white horse, but it does sweep me off the ground

I was never one to edge my way slowly into anything. As a baby I went directly from my first step to running flat-out. There was no slow walking in between. Same thing happened when I first learned to ski; skis pointed straight down the hill, daredevil to the teeth. So naturally the first time I decided to travel outside of Canada, I thought traveling to the heart of the Amazon in Brazil for two months by myself would be a great idea. As you can imagine from the first two examples, I obviously didn’t learn my lesson the first time. Running flat-out without learning to walk first involves a lot of head injuries. So does skiing without the brakes.

But, bold as brass and confident of my ability to handle any situation, I booked my ticket and off I went. I took a leave of absence from my job, gave my parents the ultimatum that I was going with or without their blessing (which they didn’t end up giving until after I got back from my trip) and failed miserably at packing two months worth of gear into a backpack. I had a minor (OK… major) panic attack when my passport and attached visa didn’t arrive until five days before I was supposed to leave. I had to send it back…twice…because the pictures weren’t approved despite having them taken by recognized passport picture issuers aka: Wal-Mart. But several dollars and a lot of miles later (I lived in a small, middle of nowhere town) I had my passport and Brazilian visa in hand. Talk about relief.

I arrived at the airport in the wee hours of the morning exhausted from no sleep as I had been way too excited to sleep for the past two days. I was so jittery that I just about dropped my coffee three times between the Tim Hortons and the security gate which was right next door. Now armed with caffeine and adrenaline I made it through security somehow despite my noticeable trembling. The most embarrassing part after finding my gate, is that I lost count of how many times I ran to the bathroom before I boarded the plane. I couldn’t decide if I was going to throw up or faint. Thankfully I did neither and boarded my plane in one piece, and thanks to my incredible acting skills (or so I told myself) I even looked cool as a cucumber doing it, which of course was a total lie.

What they say about jumping into the deep end being sink or swim is true. But where I thought I was jumping into a swimming pool, I was in fact jumping into the ocean during a monsoon. During the thirty-nine hours of my travels from Canada to Brazil, I got caught in a lightning storm, diverted to another city where we were grounded for four hours, just about hit by lightning coming into Chicago the second time, delayed on the tarmac for another hour and when I finally made it into Chicago O’Hare airport, famous for its ridiculously huge size, I was Spanish inquisitioned by a border guard. My connection changed gates no less than four times. By now I was going on three days of no sleep and my caffeine and adrenaline high had worn off leaving me dizzy from exhaustion. I made my red eye flight to Sao Paulo, Brazil but only got about two hours of sleep during the long flight. Arriving in Brazil I was again thrown to the monsoon sharks as they posted my gate wrong and no one spoke English to help me find it. I would hand them my boarding pass and they would keep sending me down to gate 1A. At gate 1A was a very grumpy man who kept yelling at me in Portuguese and waving me away. After learning some Portuguese during my trip I now know that he was telling me that it was the wrong gate, but at the time I didn’t understand and wanted to find a hidden corner, curl up into a ball and cry. I ended up finding the right gate, but even as I was boarding the plane, the boards still stated my gate was 1A. I boarded my plane through gate 1C.  Welcome to Brazilian air travel.

Several connections later, I finally made it to my final destination at a bright and early three am. I was picked up at the airport by the local missionaries and taken through the what looked to me to be the ghetto of Santarem. I had never seen extreme poverty before and three am on almost five days of little to no sleep was not a good time to absorb it with what it deserved. I closed my eyes and just prayed for a bed. What I got was a thin mat on a hard cement floor. My back would not thank me in the morning, but right now, it was a flat surface that didn’t move and felt like heaven.

Canadian breakfast of champions.

Canadian breakfast of champions.

having traveled a few times now, I’ve learned a lesson or two:

First lesson: always book way far in advance. It’s cheaper, it gives you wiggle room for sudden changes (like a passport that has to be sent back), and if you get cold feet, having it booked gives a lot more weight to your decision to go.

Second lesson: Learn at least a couple of words in the local language before you go. “Where do I go?”, “hello”, “Please and Thank you” and “where’s the bathroom?” go a really long way. Not only will you hopefully not run into the problem I had at Sao Paulo airport, but locals really love it when you try to learn their language. Luckily, you should be able to find at least one person who speaks at least passable English. I always struggle to learn a language when I travel because people are always brushing off my attempts at their language because they want to practice their English. But at the end of the day if you have no luck at that either, as happened to me, sign language is still the universal language of the world and you would be amazed at what can be communicated through it!

Third lesson: If at all possible, try to book flights with longer layovers. Yes they can be annoying and boring, but they also can be lifesavers in case of flight delays. and hey, if your layover is long enough, you might even have time to check out the area before catching your next flight. Spur of the moment adventures… I think so!