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Paddling the Mangroves of Sao Paulo Brazil

Pygmies not only sell boats. We go adventuring in them!


Looking out the truck window, bananas, cows, and red earth stretch in front of me. One week ago my Father picked me up from my host family's home in Joinville, Santa Catarina in Southern Brazil, where I had just spent a year living abroad. As we drove off, a year of living in another country with its people, customs, and friendships, culminated in tears, hugs, and waves. I’m on a new journey; a journey in my Dad’s old truck that smells like life back in the USA. At 50 miles an hour we move through a landscape of luxury resort communities and cardboard shack camps. The gap between privilege and poverty stretches like the abyss of the Grand Canyon, yet everyone I meet smiles big and is willing to help. But after a year in the city, I yearn for the serenity of a natural place, a place to slip into the water and leave humanity behind.
     We are driving towards ecological reserve Jureia-Itatines.  It is one of the last reserves of Atlantic rainforest in Brazil. The Atlantic Rainforest, (Mata Atlântica), is one of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. Today through development and agriculture 93% of the forest has vanished. Its destruction continues largely for the production of coffee.  There are however a few pockets remaining, one of which is the Jureia Reserve in the State of Sao Paulo. The reserve covers 792 square km, and is a beautiful example of what once spread 4,000 km from the Brazilian state Rio Grande do Norte to Rio Grande do Sul.

On the shore of the Una do Prelado River, the tide licks my toes as I carry my 14-foot Arctic Tern to the bank. The Prelado River winds northeastward through Jureia-Itatines Park following the Atlantic coast for 80 km, carving out the mountains of Jureia. A bumpy old cement boat-launch leads to the water. On the right side a concrete wall advertises, “passeio de barco no rio e no mar,” (boat trips in the river and sea). Under the collapsing awning of a small seafood restaurant, a few old men drink the signature Brazilian beer, Skol, and watch as I get into my boat.
     The tide is coming in, flowing into the mouth of the Prelado, which will make an up-river paddle much easier.  Lining the bank and spreading into the in-between area linking land and sea stands a forest of Mangroves. Looking like Dr. Seuss creations, the Mangrove roots curl in unusual directions, creating a forest of spindly-legged jungle gyms. Since the tide is still low the swamp bottom is exposed. A blanket of murky knotted fingers reaches out of the muck. Like worms, dried and planted erect they stretch as far as I can see. They are pneumatophores, upward growing root extensions of the mangroves underground root system. Since the pneumatophores are exposed for at least part of the day they help the tree breath in the oxygen poor swamp ground. Pulling close to shore I can make out red bodies hiding behind the roots. As my eyes adjust, hundreds are visible. They are swamp crabs. The easiest to see have red shells and cling to the roots that extend into the river. Less obvious are turquoise and brown ones that seem to cling to the openings of mud holes. Stopping, I try not to make a sound. Subtle cracking and popping sounds fill the space where silence should be. A smell of decomposition and dark salty earth wafts from the roots, and the clicking reminds me of a horror film sound track. Looking past the root spikes, the ground appears to be moving. White squirmy things are moving all over the swamp floor. Instantly I conclude they are bloodsucking leaches dancing for a taste of my blood. Digging my paddle into the bank I pull myself closer to shore, the bottom is so close I can see the watermarks on the mud.  The squirming movements aren’t leaches, but thousands of tiny crab arms waving white claws in broad sweeping hellos. A blanket of baby crabs is welcoming me to their home.  

The tide begins to rise as we creep deeper into the swamp. Taking a right fork when the river splits we wend upward. The river has carved many channels. We take the deepest. Now the pneumatophores are completely underwater, only the arching legs and bushy tops of the mangroves are visible. I feel like I’m on a water elevator, slowly inching to the 12th story. Dangling from the upper limbs of the trees are epiphytes. A mixture of bushes and vines cling to the higher ground. As we go deeper, the bank gets higher, replacing the mangroves in spots. Palms, and thick jungle vegetation envelop chunks of earth, while the soft cooing of a bird echoes from the woods. We see a Snowy Egret take wing from a clump of weedy grass. After a few miles of wandering upstream, we get out and stretch on a portion of high ground. The land is squishy humus. Perched on the exposed roots of a straggly palm, in the midst of yucca like plants, we eat banana chips and listen to the croon of a motor somewhere in the maze of channels.
    Paddling further the current begins to slack and the walls of vegetation close in. Older trees hang out over the water, and some intriguing star like flowers dangle from them. Finally we hit the end of the channel. The water is covered with a thin layer of green scum and the bank has a smoothed-out place where a boat has been pulled up. It looks like a deserted fish camp. Small branches have been broken off and fashioned into lean-tos, and a few forked sticks are driven into the ground, the left over supports of fishing poles. We back out and turn around silently retracing our strokes. Getting to where the current is again, I can still sense the push of the incoming tide, but we are with the river flow now. The light is getting low. Suddenly a burst of sunlight dips under the clouds. As we pull into the boat launch, shafts of radiating light break like a burning star on the lip of Jureia-Itatines’s low hills, turning the horizon into a smoldering flame.

As I load my boat back onto the truck, I feel balance has been restored in me. Over the river two gulls fly towards the sea and the sun fades from the hills. Birds whistle as they settle into the braches for the night, and I want to curl up in a treetop as they do. The feeling of being in my boat lingers in my arms and I feel like I can return to driving past farms and cows, bananas and tarpaper shacks. I know in about another week I will have to return to the water, wind up the side of a bay and find a piece of nature I’ve never seen before. But for tonight the waving arms of a million baby crabs will welcome me to my dreams.
By Freya Fennwood







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