Thursday, January 19, 2012

In Santarem

Boats near the orla.

The meeting of the waters -- The Tapjos, left, and the Amazon, right .

Part of the market.

A boat parking/airport hangar that looks out on the Tapajos.

Playing volleyball with some kids.

I'm spending my first two and half weeks in Brazil with a class of American students in Santarem.  The class is about the sociology of sustainable development and we've been talking with different groups of people, exploring the area, and helping with the construction of a satellite site for a local youth organization.  The city has 300,000 people and is located at the confluence of the Amazon river and its giganticly wide tributary, the Tapjos.  The two rivers flow side by side without mixing for several kilometers -- the Amazon a creamy brown, the Tapajos a clear blue.  Someone told me this was because of the natural oils in the waters, another person that they have different densities.  But it's visible from the city center, and even more distinct up close on the water.

Every night people come out to walk the orla -- a boardwalk along the river that goes on for at least a mile and a half.   I had a milkshake -- which in Portuguese is milkshake -- with green corn flavor and joined the city with some Brazilians friends one night.  Though the town is ten times bigger than my own, the Brazilians I was with stopped repeatedly to hug people they knew and wish them a happy new year the night I walked along it with them.  People hang out at restaurants along the way, vendors sell plantain chips and cachorros quentes (hot dogs).  Children ride in those mini motorized four wheelers that are popular among pre-schoolers in the suburbs back home.  People sit on benches or on the concrete, their legs hanging over the side of the pavement, and talk.  A group of guys who've had a few try excitedly to make music and laugh hysterically.

Some striking things about Santarem:

 It's a pretty big city in the middle of nowhere.  The nearest movie theater is a two day boat ride away.  That's the easiest way to get to the state capital, Belem, a two day boat ride.  Santarem might be the biggest city in the rainforest after Manaus.  And Manaus is gigantic, a couple million people, and even deeper into the Amazon.

There's a lot of missionaries here in Santarem , most of them American evangelicals I think -- Baptist, Nazarene, etc.  They do social programs in the city and surrounding communities and build churches with names like Igreja da Paz (Church of Peace) and Igreja do Deus no Brasil (Church of God in Brazil).  The people we talked to were very open about the fact that their primary goal is "church-planting," as they put it, and while they provide water filters and medical services to communities regardless of whether they accept the church into the community, their concern is for people's souls first, their bodies second.

Violent crime and drugs are relatively small problems in the city.  I heard someone speculate there isn't a lot of drugs because the city is so far out of the way of the trafficking routes. They said they only see it among the wealthy.

Children go to school in one of three sessions -- morning, afternoon or evening -- for fewer hours than do kids in the United States.  They have vacations for all of January and July -- to coincide with the changes in the dry and rainy seasons.

 It's freakin warm, I don't know if I've mentioned that yet.  The rains were supposed to start by now but haven't so the rivers are still low and there's plenty of beach for people along the Tapajos. The river is so wide and the beaches so large that it's easy to forget it's not the ocean, it's hundreds of miles inland.

People who live along the rivers will occasionally move into a surrounding area of Santarem and cut down all the trees and build houses with hopes the government will recognize them and provide services, because there is a sentiment to help "landless people".  Sometimes the government does, other times they forcibly remove them.  Recently, there was a group that people assumed was going to be benignly neglected initially and eventually incorporated.  But during the three months the man who told me about this was away from Santarem, they were evicted.  When he asked people where they went, people told him, "They went back to the rivers."