Posted by: standing_baba | May 19, 2010

Patanal by Pictures

This view is from atop a small mountain that surprised me with its steepness—I thought I was done with climbs when I entered Brazil. Here a group of Brazilian country boys that passed minutes before in a red pick-up were waiting for me. They asked why I was there (it was a remote road), where I was from, and most importantly if I wanted a cold beer. Traveling, the United States, yes, I responded in my first-day Portuguese. Drinking our beers we chatted with the entire Patanal spread before us. They gave me some oranges for the road before coasting down the dusty road toward their ranch.

I camped my first night in Brazil with these construction workers who were building a wood bridge across a river where men congregate to fish at sunset. They had lived on-site in a giant tent for twenty days of the estimated forty day project. The workers were playing some card game I had never heard of when I rolled up to ask permission to stay the night. I did my best to understand the rules, was given a home-cooked meal, then a bed with mosquito net inside their living quarters. I’ll never forget my waking view through the thin white net: silhouetted against the sunrise the workers walked out the tent with massive tools over their shoulders, just black outlines moving against a red 6am haze.

Fishermen near the construction site. Some were throwing nets as the sun dropped below the horizon. I’m kicking myself for not documenting this beautiful technique in photos.

This man fishing from a bridge on the Parque Estrada road acted as if I—an American cyclist with a funny-looking trailer—was a completely normal creature in his native lands. When I stopped to ask him about his catch (piranhas) it never occurred to him to ask what I was doing on a bike in such an off-beaten place. We talked about bait, the weather, the herds of capivaras that would scatter when I surprised them with my silent Surly attack. Later I learned that long-distance cyclists travel that road about once a year. He knows because he fishes there every day.

View of port town from barge that carries cars and passengers across the river. Cars are charged US $10 for a two-minute ride. The captain shuttled me across for free.

Photo of road through Patanal. For an entire day both sides of the dusty, sometimes sandy road were views of an endless swamp that stretched as far as I could see. The path was like a raised landing strip dividing two oceans. At each bridge I’d stop to search for wildlife. Groups of twenty lounging crocodiles became normal. I was told my best chance of seeing an anaconda would be when they swim below the bridges from one side to the other. Instead of the elusive snake, I saw birds of all kinds, frogs, plants that live in water, and even pedaled through a herd of 300 cattle being driven on the narrow road by three cowboys on horseback. The photos would have been amazing, but unfortunately the kicked-up dust prohibited me from taking out my camera. The cowboys tipped their hats to me when I finally emerged from the mass of cow that surrounded me for thirty minutes.

View of Patanal from river boat. Seeing much of the area from the road made me want to see it from the water. Randomly, at one of the two restaurants on the entire stretch I was recommended a lodge where foreign backpackers stay to do tours. When I arrived I was surprised to be greeted by a Swiss friend I met in Bolivia. Just as surprising was to find thirty some backpackers from all over the world tucked away in this off-the-road budget lodge, some in tents, others in hammocks. That night we made a bonfire, shared stories, and washed down our food with caipirinhas. The next day I went on a disappointing riverboat tour with a guide who would have rather slept late than point out wildlife. Despite seeing monkeys, capivaras, exotic birds, and one climate-confused crocodile, it was too cold to see the Patanal at its best when animals sun themselves on its wide-open shores. All the wildlife was underwater where it was warmer than air.

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