Monday, January 31, 2011

Morning birds off the coast of Brazil

I love the mornings. Hours before anybody else I stand on deck and watch the world. Today a flock of birds accompanies us. I know they see me, but their interest goes after the fish our bow scares up. I don’t know what birds they are; they look like gannets but I recall that gannets don’t occur in South America.

We’re rounding the eastern most point of Brazil. The sun rose warm and the ocean is blue and smooth. The birds take turns diving down, then they glide along side us. I’m sure they’re looking at me, like I am looking at them. For one brittle moment we belong together. Then they go back to diving, and I return to work.

Morning birds off the coast of Brazil

A gannet, perhaps?
A bird flying over the ocean
Bird over water, seen from above
Bird over water
Two sea birds flying toward the sun

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Fortaleza, just north of the eastern-most point of Brazil

A small but beaming man stands on the dock arrested in a half-dance. “Welcome, welcome!” he shouts when the first lines are cast through the pelting rain. “Welcome to Fortaleza!. It rarely ever rains here!”

We Dutch are no strangers to rain but rain like what’s falling on this city of millions, notorious for its drought, is powerfully at odds with our sense of moderation or justice for that matter. It’s really denser than a shower, raising a deafening racket from the roofs and decks and the water around us. During our approach we saw the sun-bathed skyline of Fortaleza rise like a tsunami on the horizon, but as soon as we reached the breakwaters, the sky turned black and the city disappeared behind a sheet of frosted glass.

We’re in with a group. It’s always a bit strange to see other ships so close. At sea encounters are deadly and are avoided with zeal. In ports we carefully drift together, forgiving and needy, like clumsy nomadic creatures during mating season. Directly to our stern a Panamanian vessel is loading. Off the pier are tankers, rubbing like whales. Crews stare at each other, wondering if life is the same, better or worse on the other ships.

Landlubbers have no idea about life at sea. Even the passengers of the great white cruise ships can only guess. Sometimes an apprentice turns into a writer after a few months of sailing, but very rarely a true veteran - a true ancient mariner – remembers enough of land-life to be able to convey the slings and arrows of sea-life. We stand on the aft deck and look silently at the men standing on their own. Someone ought to go tell them, we think. Let them know where we are.

Approaching Fortaleza, Brazil

Ships in the harbour of Fortaleza

A ship in the harbour of Fortaleza

Fortaleza, Brazil

Tug boat in the harbour of Fortaleza

Out to sea again

Nightfall over Fortaleza

Fortaleza by night

Panameaian vessel loading

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Crossing the Equator

It’s always a bit of an adventure, crossing the equator, and although I’ve crossed many times before, crossing the equator never ceases to instill a certain other-worldly feeling in me. Crossing the equator brings us as much to another world as is possible. We will spend the next few weeks in the southern hemisphere. It’s summer here. Ocean currents and thermal winds go the other way and we are aliens to whoever we meet.

The equator is exactly 1296000.000 (that’s six raised to the power of four followed by a bunch of zeroes) nautical miles long, which may seem a miracle in an Intelligent Design sort of way but is far from it, in any way. One sea mile is defined as one arch-second of the equator. Since the equator, like any other circle, covers precisely 360 degrees, and every degree consists of 60 minutes, and every minute consists of 60 seconds, the length of one mile equals the circumference of the earth at the equator, divided by 360 x 60 x 60. When the mile was standardized, the equator was thought to be 2400192000 meters long, resulting in a standard length of the sea mile of 1852 meters.

Pushing mile after mile behind us, we’re headed for Antarctica. It may be the last time I see that great continent. In an emailed newspaper we read that international shipping agencies have decided to no longer allow larger vessels access to this great wild continent. That’s probably better for all of us, I must confess, but I’m glad I’ve been one of the very few who’s seen it, and will again, once more.

Crossing the Equator

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

East bound on the Amazon

It takes us days to follow the Amazon river east out to the Atlantic ocean. And all the while the ship is enveloped in the thick smell of rain and jungle. We cut through showers so thick that we have to slow down blinded, then speed up again beneath towering cumuli, crying out in amazement that the Amazon has beaches like Greek islands.

Whenever we stop – to disembark a pilot, to wait for something that the captain knows about but the engineers can only guess at – canoes pull off the banks towards us. Four kids approach us slowly. Shouldn’t you be in school? we shout in English first, then Portuguese, but the kids stare at us silently. Two men come in from behind and try to climb on board through the bunker break. We ward them off. The kids stare and say nothing.

The coasts diverge and fall away but the yellow mud is still around us. Geographically we’re on the Atlantic again, but the water we drift in is still that of the river. Then the ship gets picked up by the swell that rolls in freely from the east. We head south towards the equator and the water turns to glass.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Felipe Lettersten at the Palace of Justice in Manaus

Have we heard of Felipe Lettersten? asks the kind lady who guided us through the museum of the Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus. Draga and I confess that we haven’t. Well, that’s an outrage then!

We follow her to the Palace of Justice, just down the street. The exposition is closed, explains a nervous young man at the entrance but the kind lady wags her head, unclips ropes and pushes us past the ticket counter. Shouldn’t we pay something, I try, but the lady urges us to keep moving.

Felipe Lettersten appears to be a sculptor of Scandinavian descent but raised in South America. A text explains that  he’s learned his skills in various places in the world – hyper-realism in the Netherlands, I proudly learn – and now uses it to depict South American natives in full sized sculptures.

His work is nothing short of amazing. The exposition covers several rooms and everywhere we’re met by the dreamy, other-worldly stares of real people that were alive just a minute ago, their movements arrested in their frozen times. It’s probably as close as an uninitiated observer can ever get to these people without turning them into tourist attractions. Draga and I stroll like invisible angels through an ancient village, feeling like we’re truly treading holy ground.
Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten

Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten - close up
Sculpture by Felipe Lettersten


Friday, January 21, 2011

The Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus, Brazil

It takes crossing a few noisy, filthy streets to reach the park around the Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus, but any crossing is worth the effort. The church grounds are converted to a haven to stroll or sit or admire the ancient trees that tell of the jungle that once was here. In the middle of it rises the white and yellow sanctuary; low, horizontal, with two pivotal belfries over its main entrance.  At night, well-aimed lighting transforms the building into an almost elfish haunt, like something out of a story; baby blue, perhaps to recall Mary’s royal color, and an ochre in complimentary contrast.

We enter through its massive main doors and are immediately arrested by the dramatic altar piece, showing an enraptured Mary, probably ascending, amidst cherubim and standing on her signature lilies. The backdrop is heavenly blue and illuminated to ultimate effect.

Draga masters Portuguese and while I’m trying to figure out who the effeminate angelic figure in the pink robe might depict, she engages a kind lady who’s obviously involved in the church’s goings on. We should really check out the church’s museum, insists the lady, and we follow her to an adjacent chamber. She points at a kind of wooden throne.
“This is where the pope sat,” she whispers, pointing at the picture of John Paul II on the wall, and explains that the wall is a remnant of the original church that stood here. It burned down and the present white cathedral was build in its place in 1850. Some of the artifacts in the room are from the earlier period.

A striking Lady of Sorrows stands facing a rather unusual sculpture of the Deceased Christ, laying horizontal and covered in a death shroud. Against the back wall He falls under the weight of His cross. Priestly garments hang behind glass. In a cupboard against the opposite wall are manuscripts and antique Bibles.

As we walk out of the church I realize what great comfort I draw from finding any kind of church, or even any kind of fidelity to the great mystery of who we are. Whoever walks this planet baffling at the great differences that seems the divide us, will find ultimate kinship in religious expressions, but only when he remembers that these images reflect questions, never answers. 
Tree in the church yard, Manaus, Brazil
The Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus, Brazil
Marian altar piece of the Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus, Brazil
Pink angel shielding a child

Pink Angel - close up
St. Jospeh, I'm guessing
The chair that once held JPII

An unusual depiction of Christ; deceased and covered with a shroud

Our Lady of Sorrows

Our Lady of Sorrows - close up

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Manaus at the confluence that makes the Amazon

Ever since my errant roots touched ground in Belgrade, I’m a sucker for confluences. Like Belgrade, the city of Manaus in Brazil owes its existence to a confluence, namely that of the Rio Solimoes and the Rio Negro. Their yellow and black streams flow side by side for three miles before blending; a rare phenomenon brought about by perfect circumstances and marveled at by anyone who’s dared to brave the mighty Amazon these rivers form.

Manaus was carved out of the wilderness and funded largely by the rubber industry. That industry crumbled when a clever entrepreneur purloined enough rubber tree seeds to start a plantation somewhere else, and collapsed entirely when the invention of synthetic rubber in the early 20th century made natural rubber obsolete. Now an impoverished populous dwells the remnants of a golden age. A few opulent buildings – such as the opera house and the palace of justice –  have kept their purpose and shine, but many are converted into deteriorating apartment buildings or markets.

We’re scheduled for an overnight. That means that the chances are excellent we’ll be able to squeeze out a few hours of shore leave. A big white church looms over the concrete just outside the port and becomes a beacon to home in on as Draga and I march off the gangway in search of freedom.

Torrential rain in Manaus, Brazil

The port of Manaus, Brazil
Dilapidated building in just outside the port of Manaus
The Church of Immaculate Conception in Manaus, Brazil
The Opera House, Manaus, Brazil

The Palace of Justice in Manaus, Brazil

Inside the Palace of Justice in Manaus
Port of Manaus on the Amazon, Brazil

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