Posted by Emily Block | 0 comments

Brazil! (Day 1)


  As far as epicness goes, my first day in Brazil pretty much wins.  It started early with my alarm rudely waking me up at 7:00 followed by a quick breakfast.  I hurried to pack my bag, take my meddies, change into my swimsuit, and put the gel backs in my cooling vest.  By 7:45 I was meeting with my group for the swimming with dolphins field program.  
  As usual the crew was wonderful and carried my chair down for me so I could focus on getting down the 5 flights of stairs leading down from the boat.  I immediately noticed that I may have some trouble with the heat and humidity.  It's the kind of heat here where you almost feel like you can't get your breath because it is so muggy.  I was definitely glad that I had decided to bring my chair that day.  We all loaded up on a small boat that would take us on our day's adventure.   I had awesome help all the way, probably more than I needed in fact.




   The boat ride to the first stop of the day was really relaxing.  I had secured a window seat and enjoyed the refreshing spray of the Rio Negra (the other large river in Manaus) and the scenery.  Right near the port, there was a small hill of houses built on stilts to accommodate to the different river levels at different times of the year.  In 2009 and 2010 the difference between the highest and lowest level of the river was 53 ft!  We also passed under a huge bridge spanning across the whole river.  It was the first of it's kind in the Amazon.  









   We arrived at our first destination by navigating a smaller offshoot of the Rio Negra.  None of us were prepared for the impromptu "nature walk" that was announced once we were off of the boat.  We were not allowed to wear sunscreen or bug spray since we would be interacting with the dolphins later and hardly any of us had long sleeves or pants.  I guess all of those things are pretty much necessities for a track through the rainforest.  Our guide was uneasy with our lack of preparedness but he shrugged and told the people in shorts to stay in the middle in case we encountered any of the venomous snakes.  I got a further shock of my own when it was announced that this little nature walk was actually going to be an hour long hike!  I immediately stepped out of the line we were forming to venture into the forest and resigned myself to spending the time in the boat.  The professor in charge of this field program saw this and offered that he would stick with me and go back with me when I was tired so I wouldn't have to walk through the forest alone.  I felt bad, but agreed because I really wanted to see the forest.



   I started out on the walk huffing and puffing and thinking with each step that I should probably not be doing this.  I kept taking steps though and soon came to the realization that I could quite possibly do this.  Over the next hour this girl who has been in a wheelchair or in bed for the last four years went on a 50 minute hike!  In the rainforest.  With excruciating heat and humidity.  Climbing over logs and ducking through spiderwebs as I went.  



That is one of the guides cutting through the forest with a machette.  How cool is that!?!



   I can't even put into words how amazing I felt when we got back to the boat.  I kept thinking, "did that really just happen?"  I never thought I would be able to do something like that years in the future, let alone just months after my CCSVI surgery!  





   As excited as I was over this achievement, it was only the beginning of the day's adventures.  A short boat ride across the river allowed us to get somewhat cooled off before we once again clamored ashore.  This time it was to a small village where we would be having lunch.   The food was fantastic.  I usually am not too crazy about fish, but the fish on the menu was done fantastically!  I helped myself to a few other delicious things that I am still not really sure what they were.  As we were eating, the professor leading the field program told us about the river dolphins that we would be getting to swim with at the next stop.  The dolphins were the source of scandalous folklore where historically they were believed to disguise themselves as distinguished and sexy young men who would then seduce young women who ventured out on their own.  Any mysterious pregnancies were blamed on the seductive, shapeshifting dolphins.  The professor added with a chuckle that he wouldn't be surprised that this myth was started by the missionaries to explain the emergence of pink skinned babies.   In terms of the dolphins biology, an interesting fact is that they change their skin pigment and mellon (the bump on their head) shape as a means of communicating emotions.





  With full stomachs and brains, we boarded the boat to our final and most anticipated destination.  We were entertained a long the way by one of the kids in our group and a daughter of the boat driver playing games that didn't need any common language.  



  We were greeted at the floating dolphin place by the family who ran the place and some very cute dogs who were only too happy to have us ogle over them.  I could tell that many of us were missing our pets at home.  After a brief introduction, it was time to jump in the water.  Swimming with the dolphins was quite an experience!  They are wild, so this isn't anything like my previous dolphin experience where the dolphin was trained to do tricks and sit calmly as we pet it.   Basically we would be floating in the murky water and all of the sudden our foot would touch something or we would get a gentle head but from a dolphin.  There were many yelps of excitement and surprise as the dolphins would brush against us or suddenly appear bobbing in the water next to us.  The people running the place enticed the dolphins to come to the surface so we could get a better look (and touch them) with fish.  These dolphins were certainly not flipper.  They were almost frightening looking with their slightly angular proportions and very sharp teeth.  They were very friendly though and seemed to be as curious about us as we were about them.  The place we were at didn't' get many tourists, so this was somewhat of a novelty to the dolphins as well.  
  Too soon it was time to get out of the water and shower to get rid of the slime that coated us from the river.  We were each given a necklace from the family with a scale form a fish that lived in the river.  After we got dried off, we were able to see this fish firsthand as the family showed us how to fish for them.  It actually wasn't' true fishing with a hook.  We used a fish tied into a string as bait which caused the fish to latch onto the string just long enough for it to be pulled out of the water for a quick glimpse of the full size of the thing.   Just as the huge scale suggested these fish were huge!  It was a little scary that we were just swimming in the same water as them!  I got to try my hand at fishing and managed to "hook" quite a few.




   Then it was back on the boat for a relaxing journey back to our boat.  



Normally this would have been more than enough for me for one day, but I still had another field program to go!  I hurriedly took a shower to get off the last bits of slime and got dressed in my evening gear.  This consisted of lots of bug spray, long pants and long sleeves.  I ate a quick dinner on the boat, rested for a few minutes back in my room and then was off to meet my group.  I was excited that two of my new good friends were doing the field program as well!  As we were talking, one of them mentioned that she had had brian surgery when she was younger and started describing it.  It started to sound extremely familiar so I asked, "Was it for chiari malformation?"  Her eyes got huge and she replied, "Yes!  How did you know about it?  No one knows about it!"  I told her that many people with Ehlers Danlos have chiari so I have tons of friends who have had the same surgery.  I was even tested for it several times before I found out my real problem was CCSVI.  As if we weren't already good friends for both loving biology and Doctor Who, that pretty much cemented it! 

We soon were back on another boat that would take us to our caiman spotting adventure.  This boat was pretty big and I wondered how we were going to see any wildlife until I realized that we would be transferring into smaller boats later.  The ride was pleasant as all boat trips seem to be.  We were all very tired, but didn't' sleep because we didn't want to miss the view of the city at night.  

I somehow managed to get prime seating in the front spot when we transferred into the canoes.  Our fearless guide hoped onto the boat and we were off.  It was very exciting cruising around at night!   The guide scanned the shoreline  with a flashlight hoping to spot the reflection of caiman eyes.  (Caiman are an alligator like reptile.)  After some meandering I thought I spotted an eye glowing from the water grass and sure enough we made a beeline to it.  The guide got down on his stomach and expertly scooped up the caiman out of the water.  We all cheered and then got the surprise that we could hold it ourselves!  The little caiman was very calm throughout the whole experience, letting us pose of pictures and inspect it's scales and feet.  It felt different than I expected.  It looks really rough, but it feels more like a snake with smooth scales.  I was particularly fascinated by the feet which were fragile looking yet very strong.  The guide let the caiman go after a belly rub that is seemed to enjoy.  We cruised around for a while after that spotting many more caiman and successfully catching another tiny one.  This one was a bit feisty and I confess I squealed a little when it began to thrash about while I was holding it.







I was completely exhausted by the time we got back, but it was completely worth it!  Holding a caiman was the perfect way to end such an awesome day!  

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