The most difficult part will be getting there. It will take two and a half hours to get to Kennedy Airport, 3 hours to line up for check-in, 12 hours to get to São Paulo, two-hour wait to change planes, get a taxi in a strange land, check into a hotel in Campo Grande. If I have any umpfh left, I understand that the nearby museum of pre-European stuff is worth investigating. No jet lag as Campo Grande is EST. After a night in a strange bed there is a two-hour mini-bus ride to through the forested section of the Pantanal to a small airport in Aquidauana, and there we get a five-passenger plane to the research center at Fazenda Rio Negro and we are there.
It proved not as difficult as I had imagined. First, Suzanne gifted me with a limo to get to Kennedy! Second, Varig Airlines is attentive to people with white hair. They board them first. And if you say you need help (I did as we sat at Kennedy for almost four hours before take off; no explanation, of course, and I had that connection to make), they give it in
full measure. In São Paulo I had an escort through immigration, through baggage check, a VIP lounge to wait in, and an escort to the next plane.
The hotel in Campo Grande, which is a large, open city, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, was comfortable. The Museum Dom Bosco was within walking
distance. The deskman at the Hotel didn't think so, but he gave me a map and I braved it. And that museum proved great. Not only were the exhibits of native artifacts really good, it also had a mollusk display that seemed to me most complete. Fink would have certainly enjoyed that. I finally met two other teammates, Antonia and Mark, and we braved the city for dinner. We found an outdoor pizza place where they continually come around with one kind of pizza after the other, thin crust, small slices, and all kinds of
topping. You can eat all you can hold, and that, with a beer and tip, came to about ten reals (less than five dollars). We could sure use that kind of place here at home. (On our return to Campo Grande we had hoped to lunch there, but all eating establishments seem to close for siesta. We had to opt
for the mall and a local version of MacDonalds.)
The mini-bus through the city, out into the open country, was really comfortable. We finally came to a spectacular escarpment seemingly of red slate and sand stone, which I took to be the border of the Pantanal. I could find no one then or later who could tell of the geology of this wonderful wetland. After a two-hour drive and a stop at a shop that seemed to cater to fishermen, we arrive at Aquidauana, the gateway to the Pantanal. This is a town, typical Latin-American, open-fronted shops crowded together along
the streets, homes with gated walls on the street side, few cars, some horse-drawn carts, bicycles. BUT none of the squalor that I had encountered elsewhere. (Mark says there is such squalor in Rio, but also noted the lack of same in Campo Grande, São Paulo, and Aquidauana.)
There we boarded our five-passenger plane. I sat next to the pilot in the co-pilot's seat and was able to video from the window. Forests and farms and on and on, snaking rivers that seem to flow nowhere, isolated oxbows, myriad white cattle (with obvious Brahman ancestry) in isolated pastures, an occasional ranch house, forest and savanna and snaking river and isolated ponds, on and on.
When we finally spot the Fazenda, not another dwelling is to be found from our plane. We land, are greeted, and shown our rooms. They scheduled us four women in one room, and how impossible that would have been. Four twin beds, awkward electric outlets, shelving for duds with hardly walk-space to get to them, john with shower, and an extra basin in room (good). Jan speaks
up. There are plenty of empty rooms. She and Bitsey should have one. So they do. I use a bed for my bureau and Tony one for her stuff as well as the shelves, and she needs it all. So we use all four beds for the two of us. I must prop up a lamp on my pillow when I wish
to read in bed. Tony has a stand for hers. There are ceiling fans as well as air conditioning and we need them both every afternoon during siesta when the
temperature registers over 100°F.
The farmhouse itself is charming and functional, the meals GOOD, especially the desserts, and the quantity of Brazilian coffee always more than adequate. Drinking water has to go through three filters before it was potable. Not surprising when I see the streams close by. The water is nearly opaque with
sandy, brown silt.
Step outside the room and the land is full of life. Rheas and buff-necked ibis peck at something in the lawns. Capybaras swim and graze by the river. Parakeets quarrel in their palm tree nest. Kisskadees, doves, humming birds, woodcreepers are in and out of the bushes and trees. One morning, ten or so hyacinth macaws are eating in one of the fruit trees along the fence. Another morning a hawk invades the parakeets' domain. Once three jubiru storks stood amidst the hyacinths at river's edge. And always the horses,
the pigs, and the cattle are there in the pastures beyond, and the two half-grown puppies are ready to greet anyone!
Most days we are up at 4:00 (yes, four a.m.), breakfast at 4:30, and are on our way by jeep (which occasionally got stuck in mud) or motor boat (whose motor was occasionally hard to start) to the assigned tasks of the day by 5:00. We always pack something at breakfast for a much-needed snack: a banana, a roll with jelly, a piece of cake and, for the men, ham and cheese sandwiches. We are back at the Farm by 10:00, for by then the birds are hiding from the heat. Then there are the computer records to update. (I really don't know how many bird species we saw. My personal checklist shows 135, but I know I missed some in my recording.) We really need a shower before lunch.
Lunch is really dinner. We always have three or so salad vegetables, greens, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes, potatoes, and rice, beans, meats, fish, a vegetarian casserole, puddings, flan, cakes and, of course, that high powered Brazilian coffee.
We siesta until 3:30 or so, when we go again out into the field until dark. Shower again, have dinner (menu as sumptuous as lunch), and are ready to retire early.
What do we do in the field? We mark stations by tying numbered ribbons on trees, every 200 meters on the right bank of the river going down stream, on the
right side of the road leading away from the farm, on the wooded edge of a salina or bayier proceeding counterclockwise. (These ribbons also name the pertinent researcher, so REG is there on many of them.) Then on a following trip we spend twenty minutes at a station, IDing species and counting
their numbers and then we move on to the next station. We cut bamboo poles, dig holes with a post hole digger (easier work in the sandy Pantanal than in
rocky Maine), hang mist nets, roll them up at dusk, open them when we next visited the site, wait nearby for twenty minutes, look for netted birds, band,
weigh, measure, record what is netted. (I think we netted only five for all the times we opened the nets. Of these, one was already banded, although his current
statistics were recorded. One lost his tail feathers on escape (Reggie assured us he'd do fine.). One was a humming bird which Reggie was not permitted to band
although we took all its statistics.)
We go to the boat landing at 5:00 a.m., and there are three caimen waiting in the hyacinths. We go to the sand bar for a dip (not swim as the water is swift and shallow), and there is a caimen drowsing under a bush. We are returning at dusk from a bird count down the river, caimen are feeding along the bank, and fish are leaping to escape them.
At a salina we count 150 egrets on the further bank. Across the sky at dusk we count a flight of 46 roseate spoonbills. At the rookery we can tell by the noise and the smell that there are hundreds of nesting birds, cormorants and egrets and a couple of other species all in the same grove of trees together. Many of the high branches are bare. We are told that the acid in the droppings eventually kill the trees.
We see tucans daily and stop on a jeep trek to observe a pair of nesting macaws. One turtle* sits in the wheel track in the road. We stop to photograph
him/her and to move him/her out of the way. We see marsh deer on a night ride. And owls. Every morning a few crab-eating foxes scurry out of the jeep's way. And try as Reggie might to call the jaguar with his gadget, we never hear a real call. That gadget is a sort of bongo drum. A stick penetrates through the skin and up the hollow body. By running a damp cloth
up the stick a really believable jaguar cry is produced. We believe it. Do the jaguars?
From the far side of the river we see a family of giant otters feeding. We stop on the trail to observe one family of black howler monkeys. Papa is really big and black. His ladies are beige with longish hair. This is obviously a different species of black howler from those in Belize. Butterflies we see a few blue morphos, many deep orange ones with black dots, and lots of other smaller ones. We see a sapling cut through by the larva of an insect and termite and bees nests high in the trees. Occasionally a troop of feral pigs root by. We have tree frogs living in our bathroom sinks and toads feasting every evening under the lights along the walkway. We celebrate Mark's 32nd birthday. Cook bakes a special cake and places a sparkler on it. Mark can't blow it out.
I see the Southern Cross, and find Scorpio riding high and Orion lying in the North. I see the conjunction of the five naked-eye planets from a boat on the river at 2:00 a.m.
Was it Thoreau who said something like "That which we truly sense becomes a part of us"? What is now a part of us is this endless stretch of fecund earth, this marvelous abundance and variety of life that it holds, this easy comradeship of those who go in comfort and wonder amidst it all, this Pantanal.