We learned that Panelas, the tiny settlement we stayed in last night, spends half the year under water. During the rainy season (November to April) the Rio Roosevelt rises nearly 30 feet. The surrounding forest is completely flooded, along with shoreline farmsteads and settlements. Residents move inland and wait for the waters to recede. In fact, the mile-long rapids here, part of which we portaged around this morning, become completely inundated.
A jungle homestead offered the only flat dry ground we could find for a midday break and the native family there kindly let us cook our campfire lunch there. We visited with the mother, Doca, and her lovely 7-year-old daughter Clarice. The father was in the forest, gathering food to eat. They live in a special rainforest reserve where native people can live a subsistence lifestyle without cutting the trees or farming the land.
This family, like the others in the reserve, collects latex from rubber trees and Brazil nuts for their cash income. They raise manioc near their thatched hut. The fibrous, potato-like root of this tree is ground and baked over an open hearth to produce a gritty starchy food staple called farinha which is added to just about everything Brazilians eat, both in the forest & in towns.
Life on the river also means that fish are a big part of the diet here, as it has been for us. Once again tonight we’re camped on a sandbar and fishing fun is well underway. Piranhas as big as fry pans are coming out of the river with nearly every cast — the same river we all just bathed in. Yes they have been known to nip off fingers & toes with their razor-sharp teeth that snap shut like a steel trap. But their predator instinct is triggered by lots of thrashing. So the safety secret for us is to bathe gently.
Brazilian believe it or not
Brazil is named for one its earliest exports, rosewood or Brazilwood. It’s sap is famed for its “brazed” color like burning charcoal and was used to die cloth. Today it is still used to die DNA for genetic studies. Wild rosewood trees are now protected but the crimson-hued wood from plantation-raised trees is highly prized for musical instruments like guitars.
Brazil’s other famous product that shares the country’s name are Brazil nuts. They grow on a strikingly handsome tree with a towering pillar-like trunk and a massive canopy. The nuts grow in a husk the size and heft of a cannon ball that crashes 150 feet or more to the ground with a thud.
The trees are a source of Brazilian pride and a fiercely protected. When forests are cut for harvesting, ranchland, or farms, the Brazil nut trees remain behind as lonely lovely sentinels. Sadly, some die. As our team member Norberto put it with his poetic touch, “they miss the presence of the other trees and lose the interest to live.” All Brazil nuts are gathered in the wild. None are farm raised. How many other global food products are still harvested only from the wild and largely by native hunter and gatherer families?