Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Dolphins and Indigenous People in the Amazon

As I mentioned on my pre-Manaus-trip post, there is an amazing bird that only exists in this region of the world. It's called a cock of the rock, or galo-da-serra in Portuguese. It's not in any zoo (legally, at least) because it has never survived or reproduced in captivity. This is one of the only places I can see it.

Akin to my dream of seeing the mot mot in the Pantanal, one of my goals of this trip was to see a cock of the rock. My strategy for seeing rare birds on trips is to unabashedly tell everyone I meet during my trip that I'm hoping to see this bird, in hopes that someone will have information for me.

After our day trip to the Meeting of the Waters here in Manaus, we made plans with the same travel agency for a day trip full of activities on the Rio Negro. I told the tour guide that I wanted to see a cock of the rock, and she told me we had to sign up for a day trip to a town near Manaus called Presidente Figueiredo, so we signed up for that trip, too. The plan was that we'd go on the Rio Negro trip on the Friday, and the Presidente Figueiredo trip on the Saturday.

The Rio Negro trip was such a treat. We took a boat out of the same port, except this time, we were on a tiny speedboat:

the one on the left - is that technically a speedboat? This trip showed me that I know nothing about water vocabulary

We went under the giant bridge that now links Manaus to cities on the other side of the river. It's more than 3km long, and it was just finished recently. Before the bridge was available, the guide explained that there was a ferry that had to take both workers and semi trucks back and forth. She said it was a mess and could take hours! That bridge was probably a godsend for a lot of locals.

As we went under the bridge, I sang the Red Hot Chili Peppers song to make Alexandre laugh. It stayed in our heads the whole day!

The farther up the river we went, the more remote the land became.

After about 45 minutes or so, we came upon an igarapé (remember my new word? Thanks to Wendy for the correction), and the boat driver led us inside. We stopped at a floating houseboat thing. The guide explained that this was a good place to see botos, or pink Amazon river dolphins.

When we got onto the houseboat thing, the men working there seemed to be waiting for us. We had to strip down to swimming clothes and get in the warm water! They'd set up a sort of platform underwater for us to stand on. One of the men explained that only he was allowed to feed the dolphins (we'd already heard of that rule; remember that any agency that lets you feed them is breaking IBAMA rules!), and he had a limited amount of fish he could give them. But we were allowed to get in the water with them and pet them. He explained that they're not easily trainable like ocean dolphins. They're much wilder and not as intelligent. So there's no riding or tricks, OK?

That doesn't mean the experience was any less amazing. Alexandre kept saying how it was his favorite part of the trip (that was before the later parts...!). The dolphin expert guy got in the water too, and he slapped the surface with a fish.  After a few minutes, the dolphins came! The other guys were in charge of all of the tourists' cameras. That's how we got these amazing pictures:

They were so cute and rubbery! I don't care if the guy didn't think they were intelligent. I thought they were. It was like they waited in line for fish! Once one got one, he swam away to eat it, and the next one came up. But they're not really interested in being petted. I think I'll stick with my cat. ;)

I asked the guys working on the houseboat if they'd ever seen galos-da-serra. They said no, that they were only in the forest around Presidente Figueiredo, and they were hard to find at that. I was trying not to get my hopes up, since we'd be going on a guided tour and all. 

As we were leaving the houseboat, a beautiful striated heron came to join us! He was such a ham!

If the day had ended then, we would've thought it was amazing and we would've been satisfied. But there was more!

Our driver (captain? pilot?) took us on another ride to an area with a restaurant, this time one that was built on land. The food was forgettable -- I saw a bunch of yellow-rumped caciques (xexéus), and that was much more exciting:

See its yellow rump? That's how you know it's not a crested oropendola, or japú

those are their nests!
  Their calls and songs are just wonderful. You can listen here.

Eventually the guide called me away from them and called us all back to the boat. We were on to our next destination: to visit an indigenous tribe -- the Tatuyo people of the Alto Rio Negro. They are sometimes referred to as Tucanos, which is actually the language family that their lingua franca belongs to. The guide explained that they do actually live at the settlement permanently, and that on certain days they have performances for tourists to make some extra money. As part of our day trip, all tourists at the agency we used were encouraged to bring food donations. We were the only ones who did. :(

We came upon their area of the riverbank, and it looked like this:

We had to climb up a steep hill, so I sang a new song to Alexandre: Devendra Banhart's When They Come, because it felt so appropriate.

At the top of the hill, we got to the tribe's main hut, where they invited us in:

Their houses had been built off to the right, just out of view of tourists. The hut reminded me of a community center, and I think they must use it for community meetings and meals and stuff. Around the edges inside, they'd set up booths to sell arts and crafts to tourists. They were also benches, and the middle was open and empty. They were dressed in their traditional clothes, makeup, and jewelry.

The children were running around being children, and their mothers were trying to round them up and shush them. Then the men did a traditional dance for us. The chief spoke to us in Portuguese, but it was more of a Portunhol, since Portuguese was his fifth language after Spanish, Tucano (the indigenous lingua franca), Tatuyo (that tribe's language), and his mother's native language that she only used with him and his siblings. He explained that their tribe and surrounding tribes do not allow for intra-marrying. That means the fathers of daughters choose husbands for their daughters outside of the tribes the daughters grew up in. The daughters go and live in the new tribe, and they don't go back to visit their tribe until they have children. That means the adult women we met had grown up in other areas.

They encouraged us to take pictures, but I didn't really feel comfortable with that. I didn't want to treat them like show people. I was really curious and I wanted to talk to them. After the dancing, we tourists milled around the arts and crafts booths, and I went around chatting.

There was one woman who was scolding her kids for bickering. I asked her what language she used to speak to her children. I explained that I worked with languages and that I was really curious. She's the one who gave me the lowdown that I explained above. Her native language from her tribe was Guanano, which is what she spoke with her children so they'd learn it. She told me that she was still learning her new tribe's language, Tatuyo, because it was the language her husband (the Chief) preferred, but that the tribe members used Tucano when they needed to talk to each other or to people from other tribes. She said that all of the three languages were really similar. She said she grew up learning Spanish from the community close to her tribe, and had started learning Portuguese when she got married and moved.  (She and I spoke Portunhol together.)

Well. You can imagine that I was over the moon with all of this information and the exchange. But the best part was hearing her speak Guanano, because, according to some estimates, it has fewer than 1,000 speakers left. It was no Pirahã, but it was still a really, really exciting experience for a linguist.

This same woman took me over to her arts and crafts booth and showed me the rosary she'd made out of guaraná seeds. I asked her if she was Catholic, and she said she was. She asked if I was, and I said no, that I wasn't very religious. She chuckled nervously. I don't think she knew what to do with that information. She said, "I see. Well, ceremonies are important. Like the ones we do here. They're not what I prefer; they're not Catholic, but it's important to participate with your family and your community." I liked her.

Later, I talked to a man in his early 30s and asked him if he lived full time in the houses to the side of the community center.  He said he did. I asked him if he ever thought about moving to Manaus proper. He said no, that he only goes there when he really needs to buy something, and that he's scared of the cars.

I really enjoyed my conversations with the indigenous people. Before I knew it, we had to go. I had so many more things I wanted to ask them. :(

The last leg of our day trip was a visit to the "Museu do Seringal," which is a rubber plantation museum. It's actually a fake rubber hacienda that was built for a movie about rubber plantations, and since it was so much like a real hacienda, the city left it up and now uses it as a museum. At this point I was really, really tired and the batteries on my camera had died. Plus, the museum was less exciting knowing it was all just a movie set. The general message of the tour was that the slaves (most of whom were actually brought over from Brazil's Northeast, and not all of whom were of African descent) were horribly mistreated and exploited. But it's pretty much what you'd imagine that you'd see at a plantation museum. One interesting fact that I remember the guide telling us is that the Europeans who lived on these plantations were convinced that the Rio Negro was dirty, so they sent all of their fine European clothes back to Europe by ship to be washed. I thought it was amazing that no one thought, "let's just try washing ONE garment, like a rag, in the river water to see what happens."

We went back to the hotel and crashed! What an amazing, unforgettable day. It's hard to believe that things got even better, but they did. More posts soon!

UPDATE: This is Amazon Post two. You can read post one here, post three here, and my general tips about Manaus here.


  1. What an adventure!! I can't believe you swam with pink dolphins and heard an endangered language all in the same day!! Experiences like you had with the tribe can be really awkward. It was like that when I went to Alaska. I felt weird taking people's picture and it took some guts to ask people more pointed questions about their culture. You are quite the little ethnographer!

  2. Hi Danielle! I'm Liz from NZ (currently living in Western Australia). Just want to say i love reading your blogs, they are fascinating. i love the brazillian culture and am planning to go and live there next year to study portuguese and teach English. I have a question: Do you think this trip to the Amazon is safe to do alone? (29yr old female). Merry Christmas, can't wait to hear more!xx


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