Wednesday, June 24, 2009


After returning to Yawpasi from Baixao Novo, we had to wait around for a little while to find a canoe to take us back up the river. The man who had been so sick days before was now walking around just fine, playing pool with his friends. I was feeling better too. I liked the idea of rejoining the group, of not have to ever ride on that road again in my whole life. Hedley had seen one of the ATVs flip over the first night we arrived in Baixao Novo. It frightened him, even though no one except the driver was riding and somehow he didn't even get hurt. He said later that maybe there are just some places that are not worth the risk to the team to reach. He said, when people make a decision to live that far away from the rest of the world, they can't expect that we could help them. And they probably don't expect any help.

We took the three hour canoe ride back to near Cabana-Fort. The river was so beautiful and peaceful. Even as it got dark and a little cold, I was feeling happy that I had this oppurtunity to see this part of the world. We are taught as young children that the rainforest is this special place, so to actually spend so much time in did make me grateful. I saw lots of interesting plants and flowers, bright blue butterflies. I only saw one monkey in the wild, and three that were kept as pets. I also saw a domesticated macaw and Amazonian deer. The first night in Baixao Novo I woke up in the early morning to the most horrible sound I have ever heard. It was a low, airy growling sound. Not the way a large cat would growl, but in my sleep I imagined a giant, ancient sloth-monster being disturbed and expressed his displeasure. In the morning Hedley asked if I had heard the howler monkeys. I'm glad he told me what they were; I might have gone on thinking that the terrible noise was something created only in my mind.

Out of the boat and into trucks and down a dirt road to Benzdorp, and then on to Antino where the rest of the group had already gone. The campsite at Antino was worlds better than any other place we had stayed. There was toilet paper readily available, and running showers. At the other places I had had a hard time even getting confirmation on where I was supposed to use the bathroom. This was the first place we stayed that was not a sometimes brothel, the first place lacking amorous graffitti on the walls and stains on the mattresses. I never really figured out just who normally slept in the dorm-like rooms at Antino, but the food was good and the people who worked there were really cool. And the roads around Antino were so much better than at Baixao Novo that I really started having fun on the ATVs when we went out to visit the little garimpeiro camps surrounding the area.

We would go out in teams of two to test for malaria. I would just do the intake form and teach anyone who owned a bed net how to treat it with insecticide to make it more effective against malaria. I also took GPS coordinates of the camps, asked about anyone absent at the moment we were there and took pictures of the lack of bednets in the hammocks where the garimpeiros slept.

The night we returned from Yawpasi we had to drive through Benzdorp to reach Antino. This is a fascinating town. There don't seem to be any structures that are simply houses; everyone has a bar or grocery or pool table in front so that they can make some money. There were colored lights at all the bars and forro and sertaneja music drifting out of them. In most places there was a television playing the current novela, Caminho da India, coming in via satellite. The roads were unpaved and people drove ATVs through the streets instead of cars. When I went back to Benzdorp to help with a net-treating presentation, I learned a little more. Everything is priced in gold. Nobody wants Surinamese dollars, nobody speaks Dutch. I took a great picture of a sign in a Chinese grocery store of food listed in Portuguese and Chinese and priced in grams of gold.

For example: one litre of coca-cola would be 2 decigrams of gold, or 4 euros.
one can of beer might be 3 decigrams of gold, and a case would be 1 gram
What occured to me was that I would never be able to afford to live in this city. The streets were unpaved and most buildings seemed not to have indoor plumbing- and I couldn't afford to buy a coca-cola here. It must be the most expensive slum in the world. I asked Hedley about it, how lacking indoor plumbing was an indicator for poverty, but you could argue that people walking around with little pouches of gold couldn't really be called poor, could they. He said, well, who makes up these indicators anyway? Do these people think they are poor?

The priorities of the garimpeiros are strange. You may not have a toilet, but you might have satellite tv. You might not pay for a mosquito net for 5 euros, but you would buy a beer.

But the garimpeiros were also very generous with us. Every camp we went to we were offered coffee or cola or even beans and rice and cake. Knowing how much food costs in retrospect makes these offers even more heartening. It's hard not to like these people- for me anyway. They are destroying the rain forest and releasing mercury into the air- but they are good people, respectful and generous. I was nervous about the men before I went. I thought I might get harassed. I was told it was dangerous in the gold mines, that I should never be alone. But I think it's dangerous in the mines the way it's dangerous in New Orleans. If you don't have a big cord of gold around your neck and aren't walking about insulting someone's don't really have to worry. I felt totally comfortable walking around interviewing people by myself- I received nothing but respect. It probably helped that I was wearing a uniform with a name tag and was talking about malaria, which is a real concern for people here.

playing shoebac with my colleagues

We left the following Monday. I'm sure I forgot several good stories, maybe I'll add them later. I hope I didn't leave you with the impression that the trip was a negative experience for me. It was an amazing thing that I feel very lucky to have been apart of. From a public health perspective, from a pushing-your-personal-limits perspective, I can't imagine a better internship. Today at the clinic I saw a young woman just in from France. In every one of her front teeth shined a small diamond. But she didn't have a mosquito net.


Nafeeza said...

"The priorities of the garimpeiros are strange. You may not have a toilet, but you might have satellite tv. You might not pay for a mosquito net for 5 euros, but you would buy a beer."

Typical south american mentality. My family lives in new york city and will sit in the scalding heat because they can't pay for airconditioning. WHY you ask? They have 4 plasma screen TV's and they're already tight on money.

Go figure.

Anonymous said...

Love you story, brings back great memories. I used to sleep in those dorm rooms at Antino. It used to be an exploration camp for a Canadian gold mining company. And I'm pretty sure that the Shoebac table is the one in my old mess.