Saint-Georges de l’Oyapock – Santana

Christmas! We’re going to be spending Christmas in Brazil. Rio ? Salvador? No, in Counani! A tiny little quilombo* lost on the equator.

It is the beginning of the rainy season. At St-Georges goods from Brazil are being unloaded onto the quay. A two-masted wooden boat about fifteen metres long, a “tapouille”, is being emptied of all the food on board by sailors carrying the loads on their backs. A bit further on a rusty old cargo ship looks like it is awaiting its final journey.

Our barge goes up the Oyapock for about thirty minutes to one of the most northerly towns in Brazil. A bridge will soon link the two banks, and for some years now it has been much talked about.

Route 156 to Macapá is a laterite trail which is ravaged by the rains each year. Lorries, buses, and even 4×4′s often get bogged down, but we will be going straight across Uaça territory. The Amerindians there speak a language which sounds strangely like French.

What a crazy idea to go and spend Christmas in Counani! What will the inhabitants think when our impromptu team arrives in the dark wet night? We leave the main road and take a trail for about sixty kilometres to the banks of the Counani.

A suspension bridge high above the river lies between us and the village, but we can still make out the festive atmosphere. With our hearts in our mouths we start walking across it. Surprising music can be heard, a mixture of Brazilian forró and drumming reminiscent of Maroon aleke and Creole kaseko. Seke, a reputed Aleke musician from St-Laurent-du-Maroni is travelling with us and the whole village dances to his improvisation with the Zimba percussionists. The Maroni and Counani rivers have met!

Christmas celebrations are only just starting, but will go on uninterrupted for three days in a festival of dance, fireworks, and gengibirra, a heady combination of cachaça and ginger. After the festivities we take the trail towards Macapá. A fascinating archaeological site on the way there draws our attention, the “Equinox”, a circle of standing stones thought to be 2000 years old. Apparently it lights up in a strange way at the summer solstice.

After a few days spent in Macapá our group splits up and heads of in various directions. I decided to continue my journey and do another crossing, of a different scale this time. The Amazon is there and I have decided I am going to go and see what is on the other side.

Embarkation is at Santana, a dozen kilometres upstream from Macapá on the Amazon. From there you can also go to Santarém, Manaus, and all the other places in Caboclos territory along this legendary river,.

The Caboclos are the descendants of mixed unions between the Amerindians and the colonials. They are the mixed Brazilians. They are the issue of cunhadismo, a Portuguese term for the old Amerindian practice of integrating foreigners by binding them to a woman of the community. For from the earliest days of colonisation the Europeans and Indians mixed, pursuing their respective interests, building up strategic alliances, or else via the imposition of detribalisation and the constitution of a colonial economy. Whilst the Anglo-Saxons were careful not to “sully” their blood in North America, the Portuguese crown actually encouraged mixed unions. Is there any other country with so mixed population?

The Caboclos live on the countless islands scattered along the history of the Amazon. Their wooden houses rise from the silt on the water’s edge and are always surrounded by graceful açai palms whose fruit is used to make an excellent drink which is now exported to be sold as far off as the fine food stores in Paris.

The crossing

I have heard a lot of stories about this crossing, but the only thing I remembered was “twenty-four hours”. A twenty-four-hour crossing to go from Macapá to Belém. How can it take so long to cross a river? Is it a river? Is it a sea? The Brazilians have solved the problem by calling it the rio mar, the river-sea.

The boat is alongside and people hurry aboard to get the best places for their hammocks. Far away from the engines. There are a lot of young people, especially Brazilians. They are going to the Social Forum in Belém.

Packed together like sardines we really are all in the same boat. My neighbour spends his time going and getting “mixto”, a sort of toasted cheese and ham sandwich that tastes divine -something to do with the sea air no doubt.

“Where are we?” I’m wholly unable to answer. There is water everywhere, we are nowhere. Rumour has it we are going via the ocean. I look around and cannot see any land. I don’t tire of looking at all this water. Right, that’s it. If you can call the Amazon a river, then what can you call the things we have back in France?

I regularly turn over in my hammock. It’s my home in this sea of people. No, I’m not dreaming, I can smell cheap perfume. The man on my left has just sprayed himself with it. He has just come back from the shower. Some girls go past dressed up as if off to a ball. I’ve got it. It’s night time, and people are going to dance. It’s true that groups have formed, you need to do something to while away the time. I’ve even seen a few new lovebirds.

“Where are we?” The boat is lost in a labyrinth of channels snaking between the islands on the river. Most of them are vast and you can’t land there as they are surrounded by mangrove forest.

As we come around a bend dwellings suddenly appear. A pontoon, a hut on stilts, and children, there are always children. They watch us as we go by, some of them even have little pirogues. I find myself dreaming, what would it be like living there? It is another world. They cannot imagine my life, and I can only guess what theirs is. I am on my way to the World Social Forum, but I know very well that I will find people I know there.

Coming back down to earth I go to the lower deck, as apparently you can get coffee there. The noise of the engines quickly drives me back up again. People are talking politics around me. Surprisingly, people listen to each other. But then here you have the time to.

A few card players cry out jovially, and further on people are dancing again. The light is magical, the sky shimmers green and blue. Is it a mirage? An immense concrete oasis in the middle of the Amazon? We approach and Belém rises up before my eyes. It is eleven o’clock. I know where we are.

From Belém to Souré

I arrive when it is all go, and you can feel the buzz from the World Social Forum everywhere around the town. The inhabitants explained to me that this is an important event for them, not only for its ideas and image, but also because it will put their town on the map. Two Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio) are enthused to discover a developed city, like many people from the South are.

Personally, I head for the Ver O Peso, the old market in the town from the golden days of the Brazilian rubber industry. Beneath its parasols you can find the symbols of Para, the açai palm and castanha do Para (fruits of the palm tree and Brazil nuts), as well as many products from the forest with the most unlikely virtues.

The town of Belém bears the marks of the passage of time, sometimes giving the strange impression of being a disaster zone. But public works are being carried out. “Estaçao das Docas”, the old docks in the town, have been redeveloped for the townspeople to walk around and enjoy themselves. There are restaurants, cafés, souvenir stores, and lots of people there, especially in the evening. Even though it is peaceful and charming, it is a bit lacking in authenticity.

It was when going down one of the sidestreets in the town that I encountered the Brazilians’ legendary “party spirit”. On a night-time visit of the “Forte Do Castelo”, built in 1616 by the Portuguese to protect the young town of Belém from attack by the French, English, and the Dutch (a lot of people wanted it), I arrived in a square where a group of Carimbo were setting the rhythm. There were just a couple dancers, but soon the whole crowd threw itself into the hectic dancing.

The rest of the journey was spent in Marajó. This I learned lies at the mouth of the Amazon and at half the size of French Guiana is the largest river island in the world. I set off for another four-hour crossing on an old vessel that made as much noise as it did smoke. But there was a friendly atmosphere on board and the people were relaxed. On arriving an army of peddlers awaited us. The ones who did best were certainly those selling queijo do Marajó, a buffalo milk cheese that is very popular in the region.

The landscape is very different with vast green flooded plains. There are buffaloes everywhere, on the plains, in the streets, on the beaches, and in the water. Legend has it that they swam to the islands after a French ship heading for French Guiana sank in 1920. Since then there have been the symbol of Marajó’s farming and cattle rearing.

I arrived in Souré, the main town on the island, and took a room in a pleasant poussada run by a German and Brazilian couple. It is a very peaceful little town. There are few cars on the island and Souré is no exception to this. So I headed off looking for a bike to get around on. But it was something of a struggle as nearly all the bikes I found didn’t have any brakes. I decided not to worry about it and just wear out one of my soles a bit more quickly than the other one. Once in the saddle I headed straight for the beach. I cycled through the same landscape of green plains with mud huts scattered here and there. Marajó’s beaches are enormous, and the one I found was all but empty. But despite this I still heard someone cry out and there was a second of panic further along. A girl has just been stung by a ray fish. They are common here and the distress on the girl’s face dissuaded me from going in for his swim.

Even before I got to Marajó a lot of people had talked to me about the fazendas. My jovial host offered to take me to visit one of these giant forms. On the way there he explained that were the source of considerable friction. Land in Marajó, as in Brazil in general, is not owned equally, and there are a few big landowners of enormous properties. The Landless Workers Movement (MST) is a Brazilian organisation that is active in the struggle to gain access to the land. It is resolutely anti-globalisation, and gets a bad press despite the large number of followers it attracts. Some newspapers even describe it as a terrorist movement and military crackdowns at its demonstrations have resulted in the death of several dozen of its members. In Marajó the MST is demanding land from the major landowners, but they are turning a deaf ear. Nevertheless I decided to go and visit one of these fazendas to see what it was all about.

The Bom Jesus fazenda

Once you get through the gate of the fazenda a new horizon opens up in front of you. The only indication of any human presence is the trail snaking its way the marshes. Everywhere else what looks like unspoiled, harmonious nature lies spreads out before your eyes. But in reality it is a farm. But for the moment I was alone in the marshes with the grazing horses and birds everywhere.

And so I was lucky enough to observe the preening of the black-necked stilts, a roseate spoonbill busily looking for shrimp, and the many different species of egret and heron as they fished.

Further on I saw my first red ibis of the day. At this time of the year nearly all of them have left the coast of French Guiana and it was nice to see them where I was holidaying. But they were accompanied by another extremely elegant bird not seen in French Guiana, a buff-necked ibis.

I continued walking around, wending my way between the water and the horses, feeling at one with the world. Even the gentle rain that started falling didn’t bother me. Suddenly a savannah hawk flew overhead and perched twenty metres off, the late afternoon light setting off the violet reflections of its plumage.

I had the feeling that I had been admitted into some rare spot where the fact that there is virtually no hunting means that you can be one of the wildlife. It was with a pang of regret that I turned around and headed back home, leaving the horses galloping in the pastures.

Marajo, the buffalo island

In the Amerindian tongue Marajó means ocean shield. This 48,000km² alluvial island in the State of Para lies between the mouths of the Amazon, Para, and Tocantins rivers. Some say it was placed there by the gods to protect the Amazon from the power of the ocean. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Marajó was inhabited by the Marajoara Indians, a civilisation of the Aruas nation renowned for their mastery of water, their large ceramic funerary urns, and their pottery. Nowadays the island’s population of about 200,000 inhabitants is of mixed race and their living conditions vary widely. Some indigenous Amerindians live in isolated spots. Buffalo breeders, known as fazendeiros, have about 400,000 head of cattle. They are also the owners of large ranches and their fairly luxurious yet rustic homes sometimes double up as guesthouses (offering accommodation in poussadas, board and outings). The buffalo meat they produce is exported mainly to the Lebanon. It is a lean, tender meat with half the amount of cholesterol as beef. Buffalo milk is used to make cheese and desserts which are only sold locally. The villages and small towns are home to the descendants of black slaves (the quilombos), Indians (les mocambos), and Europeans from the colonial era. People live on manioc farming, gathering, and fishing (which is banned during the four months of the rainy season to allow the fish to reproduce). Sinse 1988 the quilombos and mocambos may lay claim to the collective ownership of the land they use, but they are frequently in conflict with the fazendeiros. Life can be hard for the inhabitants of Marajó. The standard of living tends to be very low, and the minimum revenue is 95 reals (40€) per family per month. Over half of the population is without running water, electricity, flushing toilets, and sewers, which leads to the proliferation of disease. There is little infrastructure: the health centre has insufficient equipment, and only one forty-kilometre stretch of road is tarmacked. However President Lula declared in 2007 that housing, sewerage, and electricity for the island of Marajo would be a priority for the Growth Acceleration Programme.

Practical information

Oyapock

Places to visit Museu dos Povos Indigenas do Oiapoque

Kuahi Museum of indigenous arts -Av. Barão do Rio Branco, 160- Oiapoque - museukuahi@fundecap.ap.gov.br

Amapá nature sites: information from the IBAMA (departmental agency in charge of protecting the environment)
3214 11 22 rua Hamilton Solva / Av Antonio Coelho de Carvalho

Amapá tourism agency: “un Autre Amazonie” 06 94 43 25

Macapá

Accommodation: Pousada Ekinox www.ekinox.com.br (55) 96 32230086

Belém

To get to the ilha de Marajo : Foz do rio Camarà to the south of Joanes

2 departures per day during the week.

Souré (ilha de Marajo)

Accommodation:  Casa Alema – German House – www.bernado-pe.com bufalobernardo@gmail.com (55) 91 3741 1234

Joanes (Ilha de Marajo)

Accommodation: Pousada Ventania do Rio-Mar
3646 2067 www.pousadaventania.com

The Friends of Marajo: Marajo island development Association

13 lot. Amaryllis 97354 Rémire-Montjoly – 0594383217 or 0594384879
lesamisdemarajo@ifrance.com.