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Nobody's Land: A Journey to the Pantanal, Brazil

By Namit Arora | Jul 2001 | Comments


(This travel essay was published in Words and Pictures Magazine, Issue 4, Spring 2006.)


    "Cuiabá is the city of mangoes. We don't buy them, just pluck and eat," says Rizardo, our wildlife guide. Riding in the bed of a pickup truck, we are going down the Transpantaneira, a dirt road that runs 145 KM south into the Pantanal, one of the world's largest freshwater wetlands in Mato Grosso state, Brazil.

    I understand what Rizardo meant when we get to the first fazenda, or private farm—mango trees galore, alongside those of guava, papaya, lemon, coconut, grapefruit. The mangoes he likes, he tells me, are borbon and pequi, not rasa or coração de boi. After lunch, I rest in a hammock and watch a sly-looking toucan struggle with a hard-shelled fruit. On a branch above, a blue-green macaw nibbles on a ripe guava; partly eaten ones lie scattered on the ground; they are pink inside. It is hot and humid but a breeze is blowing across the parched farmland.

    I am here with my friend Laura to see some of what is the largest concentration of fauna in the New World. Nearly half the size of France, the Pantanal features 700 species of birds, 200 species of fishes, jaguars, ocelots, armadillos, anteaters, tapirs, agoutis, marmosets, iguanas, anacondas, otters, capybaras, and other "exotic" animals. The Amazon hogs the limelight for fauna stats but to see wildlife in wide open spaces, the Pantanal is the place to visit, even when many species rarely oblige. Last year, I went to the Amazon via Manaus and saw precious little in the wild. (The highlight was the Amazon River itself—miles upon miles wide even at its halfway point to the Atlantic, a sea unto itself. Yet the jungle lodge I stayed at boasted of famous visitors: Jimmy Carter, Bill Gates, Helmut Kohl, Hollywood icons, prime ministers, kings, and princes of constitutional monarchies. The entourage of the Prince of UAE—so went the salacious gossip at the lodge—included four muscular bodyguards and twelve stunning Brazilian girls.)

    My first impressions of Cuiabá—northern gateway to the Pantanal and a frontier boomtown—proved deceptive. We flew in from São Paulo at 3 A.M. The only people we saw from our cab were a few gum-chewing young women on street corners, inappropriately dressed for any weather. The town appeared non-descript and dusty. Streets were grimly lit, some not at all. When we reached the hotel that we had booked from São Paulo, its doors were locked and the lobby was dark. Many minutes of frantic knocking brought forth a grumpy man who handed us the key to a musty room with bare walls and an anemic bulb.

    We shopped around for a Pantanal tour in the morning; that done, we lazed around on public squares, watching the bustle and drinking chilled sucos, or fresh fruit juices: acai, acerola, abacaxi, cajú, capuaçú. It remained hot and humid even in the evening. By then, I had upgraded my initial impressions of Cuiabá. A short-term energy crisis explained the grim street lighting at night. We had dinner on a public square: roasted corn with salt and lemon. I had fresh sugarcane juice; a beaming Laura intoned at her suco de cacao, "So good! I could write a poem to it." After a good night's sleep, we left Cuiabá early in the morning.


    We have a small group of three: the two of us, and Jennifer, a slender, thirty-something, soulful woman from our part of the world—San Francisco. She is backpacking solo through small-town Brazil and is full of wryly amusing anecdotes. Her plan is to volunteer a part of her two months to an environmental non-profit group.

    Late afternoon we go out on horses. My horse, I soon discover, has an attitude problem—it refuses to follow my commands and docilely follows the cowboy leading us (I'm reluctant to lay it upon my inexperience). The horses wade through swamps infested with piranhas. If we fall in, Laura wonders aloud, would we get nibbled to the bone by piranhas? It strikes me that city slickers on a farm are such a comic spectacle. Rustic thrills are partially offset by the terror of falling off the horse, discovering cockroaches in the bathroom, or getting bitten by strange bugs. Wall lizards and the occasional baby toad in the sink elicit fond affection. We moan about horse smells and juggle pre- and post-bite lotions, sprays, sunscreens, straw hats, water bottles.

    Within minutes, we run into a jabiru stork, the meter-high, black-hooded, scarlet-collared symbol of the Pantanal, big enough to need a run-up to take flight. This tree, Ricardo points out, is para tudo; the Pantaneiros drink tea made of its bark, "a cure for all ailments." The one with the brilliant pink leaves is ipé, or piuva to the Native Indians, and that is cambara, which yields fine fence-wood. Look up there, a turkey vulture surveying the landscape! Then a sudden, raucous, demented bird sound—they are the chaco chachalacas, derived from charlar, to talk. They go karakaká-charatá-karakaká-charatá.

    We spot a savanna hawk, a tiger heron, a buff-necked ibis. The one bobbing its head and wagging its tail is the oven bird, or joão de barro, named after its domed oven-shaped nest, or the "teacher" bird for its song tee-cher. Robert Frost dedicated a poem to it. The locals call it the most jealous of birds, there is even a popular song about it. Rizardo tells us that oven birds mate for life but if the female ever cheats, the male pecks her to death and lives alone like a hermit for the rest of his life. If this is a fact, it sure is stranger than fiction. We witness a spectacular sunset: flocks of birds gliding across a tree-lined, purple-pink horizon.

    On our way back, the topic turns to strange animals. Ever heard of that Australian bird without eyelids that periodically licks its eyes for moisture? My soporific horse falls behind once again.

    Dinner consists of rice, beans, manioc flour, fried plantains, salad, and "cattle meat." My conclusion after three trips is that Brazilians could use some help in the cuisine department, i.e., a few wholesome curries, lentils, nan, tandoori chicken, papadams, and pickles. The Indians in turn would do well to embrace the Carnival. After dinner, we go out in our pickup truck to see fauna by flashlight. Along the road and under the rickety wooden bridges we cross are ponds infested with jacarés (caimans) and piranhas. Jacaré eyes gleam, scores of pairs, the air is dense with bugs. An occasional stork takes flight but tonight no capybaras—the largest rodent, an adult can weigh over 60 kilos. It is a new moon night; the Milky Way is stunningly clear, the Southern Cross, shooting stars; I gaze in awe and delight.

    On the way back, we are stopped by another pickup. Our driver stops, steps away, and talks animatedly with his counterpart. Jennifer thinks it is the Pantanal police, stopping us for DUIC—DUI of Capybara. The timing and the silliness of the remark makes us laugh. It was only a friend. By now, the mosquitoes are out in full force. Few repellents work anymore in the Pantanal; a local joke runs that the mosquitoes have even come to like the taste of some. At the farm, Laura inquires about mosquito nets in the room. "Sorry, we have none," says the caretaker. Laura lets out a helpless sigh followed by a nearly inaudible, "Bloody hell!"

    Travel tales accompany Antarctica lager. Laura plans to visit India soon; Jennifer has been there twice; she recalls her night under the stars on the sand dunes near Jaisalmer. Both graduated from UC Berkeley, both have traveled solo in Central America. Others on the veranda compare mosquito and weather woes in European accents. Small talk abounds: animal sightings, itineraries in Brazil; what is a hammock in Portuguese, a cowboy, a guava? And what do you do back home?


    The Pantanal is a vast alluvial plain, not a swamp, though pantano means swamp in Portuguese. Winter is the dry season, the best time to visit. During the rainy season, October to March, Rio Paraguay and its many tributaries flood their banks, replenishing the soil but making systematic farming impossible; this has discouraged human settlement. It also provides a rich feeding ground for wildlife when shallow lakes, ponds, and marshes teem with fish. The animals take refuge on island-like areas of higher ground, cordilheiras. During the dry season the water recedes-savanna, forest, and meadows overlap.

    In her travel story, Where the Wild Things Are, Julia Preston recounts how the Brazilians' interest in the Pantanal got a boost by a recent telenovela titled Pantanal whose opening segment showed "a long-haired nude swimming in the waters of a clear and tranquil lake. Surrounded by swaying grasses, the woman fell into an underwater embrace with a man whose state of undress below the waist was implied but not revealed by the camera ... The other two networks promptly responded by refilming the opening segments of their new evening soaps to add some naked women ... But the nude dip was not all that made Pantanal popular. There was also the lovingly shot aerial footage of curling rivers, pristine forests, multitudes of herons taking flight with glinting wings. There was the tradition-bound ambiance of the fazendas, which structure the social life of the Pantanal, a contrast to the collapse of the order in urban Brazil."

    In recent decades, a few fazendas that tend to tourism, cattle, and horse ranching have sprung up along the Transpantaneira, the only road in the Pantanal. To say that the fragile ecosystem is increasingly threatened resembles an all too familiar litany. Guidebooks cite the anteater example, a local delicacy hunted close to extinction, raising ant and termite populations for which the locals took to insecticides. Cow dung and insecticides in the outer wetland drove many birds and fishes into the interior, reducing their habitat. Then there is the dumping of toxic waste into rivers that drain into the Pantanal but which lacks a natural flushing mechanism. An ambitious hidrovia, i.e., an aquatic freeway across the Pantanal, is coming soon, which, many people claim, will unleash havoc. These include indigenous groups, whose representatives met to collectively write a letter to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) on 27 January 1996,

    We, the Guatos, Terena, Kaiowa, Bororo, Umotina, Pareci, and Kinikinao, are traditional peoples ... our ancestors taught us to live in harmony with the waters, birds, and plants, as a way of giving thanks and nurturing this gift for our well-being.

With the arrival of the white man came the roads and the railroad, and then came diseases and new customs unknown to us. This was the new civilization.

    The IDB is now financing a large-scale project under the pretext of developing the southern cone. We know that this project is part of a new re-organization of the world economy, which will truly attend only the ambitions of unscrupulous whites, where egotism, nepotism, and political rivalries reign and only the fittest survive.

    In this context of the decadence of the white man, we indigenous peoples were never considered, and were instead only victimized ... this type of ambition must be halted for the good of humanity. Their money must not disrespect and destroy the homes of our people and of the Great Creator.... the indigenous voice asks: Why do they want to destroy the natural waterway? Who is going to benefit? Who is going to become rich with this? ...

    We appeal to the Bank to be clear and transparent in its proposals, because our villages are worried. Will we be victims? Or may we dream of a better future?

    But not all is gloom and doom; many conservation policies and regulations, too, are now in place and some species have revived. The steady shift from ranching to ecotourism is expected to benefit the fauna—the locals' regard for wildlife has increased with tourism and education.

    Nearly ninety percent of the Pantanal is privately owned-Brazil has never had land reforms, now an explicit objective of the Sem Terra grassroots movement. Three percent own sixty-seven percent of Brazil's arable land. Our first fazenda spans 27,000 acres—the owner's share after his father split his land among eight offspring. There are few people and no towns in the Pantanal, but its other name—Tierra de Ninguem, or Nobody's Land—is clearly a misnomer.


    Across the plain the sun rises behind thin scattered clouds; we are out hiking. Rizardo spots a howler monkey high up on a tree. As we approach, he climbs higher still. That is the southern lapwing, or quero-quero, I want-I want. Shall we call it the yuppie bird? It screams, tay, tay, tay-oh, tay-row as it dives on intruders and insects. A red crab scuttles across the path; two marmosets scurry over low branches. "How cute!" exclaims Laura. Look, on that bough, a crested caracara: a bluish-gray beak, yellowish at the base, brown iris, orange cere, yellow legs. Its courtship call: krakkrakkrak ... arrrrrrrarrrrrrr. All four of us walk in a single file through a dry mangrove swamp, a dense tangle of skeletal stalks.

    After breakfast, we bike along the Transpantaneira. We stop near a pond or marsh; we gaze, marvel, and fret over the decrepit farm bikes. A flock of great white egrets glides past, their graceful, willowy necks springing back and forth. I struggle for words to describe my elation. A woodpecker, a roseate spoonbill, more jabiru storks. Scores of well-fed jacarés are sunbathing or cruising across mud-colored ponds, their exposed lengths glisten in the sun; what a cushy life! A snake bird, or anhinga, swimming with its slender black neck above the water, ducks in, disappears, emerges, then takes flight skimming the surface. Two Pantaneiro fishermen stare as we pass—they hope to catch dorado, fresh-water skate, pintado, pacu, or piranha. A horde of monk parakeets raising hell with their shrieks; a passing vehicle kicks up dust, scatters the birds.

    Before lunch we ride in a pickup truck to another fazenda deeper into the Pantanal. A small, tranquil Rio Clarinho runs nearby, a pond in front of the farmhouse teems with jacarés. It is hot. I lie in a hammock, sip Guaraná, and read. Soon I am distracted by an excited voice—look, an iguana! Laura has a praying mantis on her hand. A tourist nearby plays with a raccoon relative, the coati. I wander near the yard behind the kitchen where an adult jabiru stork—wings clipped—has been turned into a farm pet. When Laura and Jennifer find out they are aghast and sad for hours: "Oh, the poor thing without a mate"; "What a cruel thing to do"; "He looks soooo melancholy."

    Late afternoon we go on an oar-powered boat. The wine-dark river mirrors everything. Light green, brown, purple fronds float on the surface, dense vegetation on the banks spills in. Look there, a black-collared hawk, "the handsomest hawk of the Pantanal." A coffee-colored bird flutters nearby—cafezinho, or Jesus bird—it walks on water. During the day when jacarés sunbathe, jaws held open, the cafezinhos clean their teeth. A red-headed cardinal, the bright orange troupial, the black crested orupendola who weaves hanging nests. That hole in the mud bank is a kingfisher's nest. A dove calls: hoo, hoo, hoooooo.

    Then we hear a sharp growl behind the trees on the left bank, then again, louder. Rizardo has no idea what it is. Jaguars are unlikely here but I want to believe we heard one; at any rate, this is what I'm going to tell my friends back home: a jaguar growled at me! The sunset is one of chaste, primordial beauty, abstract reflections, a riot of colors.

    Evening is languid, slow to pass. I recall a passage from Epitaph of a Small Winner by the 19th century Carioca, Machado de Assis: "Is there not, at times, a certain wind, not strong or raw, but sultry and listless, that neither blows our hats from our heads nor raises women's skirts, and yet is, or at least seems to be, worse than if it merely did these things, for it depresses, weakens, and virtually dissolves the human spirit? Such a wind was blowing upon me." But after a long day, it feels more like a decadent ache than a spiritual dissolution.

    By now Laura and Jennifer are fondly remembering Samba, Meringue and Bossa Nova joints in San Francisco. Isn't Gal Costa great? And Tom Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil. In the soft evening glow, Jennifer's demeanor is reminiscent of a lone great egret in flight; I sense in her a restless mind, a rebellious spirit, a self-effacing modesty. A bit later they gang up to tease me about my Cadence "Customer Satisfaction" T-shirt and Oracle baseball cap—"Why not get one that simply says I love Larry?"—Larry is the chairman of Oracle Corporation. Ah, such romantics these two are!

    A German couple joins us on the patio. The woman is more gregarious, she teaches philosophy in Cologne. They're visiting her brother in Brasilia who works there for an NGO. I ask which German philosophers she likes. Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, she says, but then notes pointedly that both had a rather dim view of women. Wittgenstein is one of her favorites. I recall that it is now believed he was gay; I am mildly amused.

    Futebol is on and the locals are glued to a TV set in the dining room. Brazil is trailing Paraguay—a hated neighbor, and not just in sports—by one goal. They sigh, gesticulate, exhort. Later, I watch a stream of morose faces emerge into the night. A couple of weeks earlier, in Mangue Seco, Bahia, I asked a vacationing sports journalist from São Paulo what the second and third most popular sports in Brazil were. Futebol, he replied, Volleyball is fourth.

    Futebol, sun, sand, sex, hard bodies, music, dance, tropical fruits, and drinks—picture-postcard Brazil. But there is plenty to ruffle this youth-worshiping light-heartedness and hedonistic living in the present: extreme wealth disparity, violence, corruption, unemployment, illiteracy, high birth rate, cast off children, the horror of growing old. Children are ubiquitous in Brazil—half the population is under twenty. Evangelists strive for their souls in small towns and big cities; religion is resurgent. Our fazenda's workers have a disposable monthly income less than the going rate for an average back-rub in San Francisco. Yet, Brazil has also made important strides. Communication, roads, transportation, housing projects, drinking water, and sanitation have come a long way. Multiple races and traditions coexist reasonably well. Villages and large cities rarely betray the kind of crushing poverty one finds in many other developing countries.


    Rizardo by now has revealed to us many aspects of his life. A handsome man of 21, though he seems many years older, he lives with his mother in a leafy part of Cuiabá. In time-honored Brazilian tradition, he says, his father ran off years ago with a younger woman. He has been a freelance Pantanal guide for two years and loves it—he certainly knows his birds, even aspires to a degree in biology. He dislikes crowds, big cities, and finds nourishment for the soul only in the Pantanal. On one such tour he met a 29-year-old German woman from Dusseldorf and they had a steamy affair. She returned to spend a month with him and then invited him to Düsseldorf. Rizardo spent three months in Germany and soulfully describes how he was soon overcome with saudade (saw-daa-jay), a word to describe a Brazilian's pining for home, familiar food, samba, the tropics.

    It is an unlikely arrangement; a common Brazilian put-down after all is sistemático, i.e., too serious, Germanic. He now sees two paths ahead: Move to Germany, study German, undergo vocational training and find a job, or build a tourism business in Brazil—in the Pantanal, or perhaps in the Northeast where tourism is bigger. He is cheerful, starry-eyed, full of optimism; he is yet to make his mistakes. For a moment, I envy his insouciance.

    The last fazenda is the best of the three. Along the private road leading to the farmhouse is an astonishing array of fauna. Jacarés crawl up on the road and then skitter back into the pond as humans approach; lots of storks, egrets, ibis, hawks, cormorants, herons, kingfishers. Rizardo animatedly rattles out names. There, a migratory North American wood stork that no North American he has met has heard of. A canary, a kisskadee, a snail kite. Closer to the farmhouse we encounter several South American rheas, the big flightless birds. As we approach, they dart on their clumsy, skinny legs.

    The farmhouse is surrounded by the kind of trees I loved to climb as a kid. Siesta time, my thoughts flit across home, friends, work. Does a conscious and deconstructionist take on life lead to bleak despair or joyful freedom? I go for a walk. Memories from this journey too will fade over time: landscapes paler, faces mistier. Horses graze lazily, tourists loll under shady trees, a radio plays a haunting, earthy, sensual song in a woman's voice—this one has managed to avoid the near obligatory coração and amor. Two ruddy-faced Englishmen have seen an armadillo and the paw prints of a jaguar, another group has seen an ocelot up close. The Englishmen are planning to go out in the hot mid-day sun—but of course, I silently chuckle, only mad dogs and Englishmen!

    We go horse-riding in late afternoon. These horses, too, are an unresponsive bunch; they've done this routine a zillion times. Mine is called Diana; I inspect her belly to see if she might be close to realizing the goddess' mission, but find no telltale signs. Approaching the farmhouse they all begin to neigh joyously and strut on their own, reminding me of bored office clerks approaching 5 P.M. I hear frequent cicada squeals; Laura recalls what a nuisance they were at night when she lived in Newcastle, Australia. We see an armadillo's burrow, ocelot paw prints. After four days of bird-watching, we still get most of them wrong. Rizardo is all smiles at his inept students. No that's a roadside hawk, no, no, not a capped heron, a bare-faced ibis, the ibis have the curved bill.

    A stunning attraction on this fazenda is the blue macaw, or arara. They mate for life, and apparently, only 300 pairs remain in the wild. Around 20 of them call this fazenda home. A key reason for their continued patronage is the huge investment they make in carving a nest in a tree trunk, effectively binding them to it. Here comes a pair in their cobalt-blue plumage, bare skin at the base of the lower mandible, yellow ring around the eye, a pleasure to behold. In the illegal poaching industry, they can apparently command $20,000 per pair. By early evening the air reverberates with their raucous sounds.

    After dinner we go out on the bed of our pick-up truck; I sense the mosquitoes following the dictum, carpe diem. With the flashlight, we spot a large family of capybaras, a pair of jabiru storks perched like sentinels on their nest, gleaming owl eyes, scampering rabbits, more jacarés. The ponds are abuzz with toads. Rizardo talks about his peccary sighting the other day—small pig-like animals dangerous to humans. They move and attack in packs. The best defense, he says, is to climb the nearest tree. When the hungry peccaries gather below, the thing to do is to piss on them. This makes the peccaries attack and devour their sullied brethren instead. Nature may have brutal ways, but pissing in the wind can save your life.

    It is our last day in the Pantanal; we pack and drive three hours to Cuiabá where Rizardo takes us to his favorite pizzeria. He asks what it is like to live in the US. It depends, says Jennifer, on who you are, where you are, what you do. Laura knows some Brazilians and pitches in. The consensus: San Francisco is cool. Rizardo has heard that it's not easy for Brazilians to get a tourist visa. Would we write an invitation letter if someday he can afford a visit? Shortly after midnight we leave for the airport. We go through dusty, grimly lit streets; on occasional street corners are the gum-chewing young women, inappropriately dressed for any weather.

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