The Museum of Tomorrow in Rio de Janeiro is not a collection of old things, but a cutting-edge collection of scientific ideas and information about where we as a species came from and where we might be heading. I found the most striking aspect, though, was how so many visitors ignored the exhibits in favour of their phones, checking messages, updating their Facebook profiles and posing for selfies. People’s inability to interact with the present and what’s in front of them strikes me as just as alarming as what the future of the planet might have in store for us. Technology has allowed us to capture and record images like never before, but somewhere along the way we seem to be becoming less capable of really looking and seeing.
My three month tour around Chile, Bolivia and Brazil came to an end yesterday and a visit to the brand new Museum of Tomorrow (O Museu do Amanhã) in Rio de Janeiro seemed like an appropriate way to finish. It opened just six months ago and is part of the port revitalisation project. The design by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava and the setting on the waterfront with a view of the Niterói bridge are simply stunning.
Inside you find a sequence of rooms about the cosmos, our planet, our effect on it and the possible futures that might unfold. There are a lot of statistics and information to take in, but inevitably it’s the more interactive displays that get the most attention. I went on a Tuesday which is free, but packed, so it’s not the best day if you want to go and contemplate the future of our planet in peace and quiet.
As for my future, I’m heading back to São Paulo later today to pack up my things after six years living there before returning to the UK for a month. Then in August I’ll be off again on my travels, this time to India for 5 months.
It was 4.30am and still pitch black as Francisco, my guide and seringueiro (rubber-tapper) by trade, was trying to persuade me it would be a good idea to wear a poronga on my head,a kerosene headlamp with a naked flame. In fact, these are no longer used and have been replaced by the more sensible, not to say safer, battery-operated ones, but the idea was to learn about how life was for the seringueiros and this was all part of the experience. Nevertheless, being over six feet tall, I could just picture myself hitting an overhead branch and starting a major forest fire, so I posed for a few pictures and then went out into the jungle armed only with my torch.
I was spending a few days at the Pousada Ecológica Seringal Cachoeira which stands in a preserved part of the jungle near Xapuri in the state of Acre in the far northwest of Brazil. So far west, in fact, that it’s in a different time zone from the rest of the country. This is where Chico Mendes first worked on the rubber plantations before his assassination in his house in Xapuri in 1988. Chico organised the rubber-tappers into a union and also fought in direct confrontation with the landowners, loggers and ranchers who began moving in and turning the forest into pastures and farms for cattle.
My guide for the three days, Francisco, was related to Chico and he had great stories to tell. His first wife came from a family who lived in the jungle and her father taught him much about the plants, trees and animals of the forest. Plus, he has worked there for 48 years and his knowledge of the surrounding nature was staggering. He delighted in tearing leaves of trees and trying to get me to identify them through smell. I correctly got cinammon, but the next was more fascinating – it smelt like an ointment you’d put on a strained ligament and, in fact, that’s exactly what it’s used for.
On our treks into the jungle he showed me not only how to extract the latex from rubber trees (best done before dawn), but also Brazil nut trees, the samauma (the biggest tree in the forest) and the açaí palm from which comes the purple berry which is eaten all over Brazil usually as a kind of frozen yoghurt in a bowl with granola and fresh fruit. It’s one of my favourite things in Brazil and is a must when you’re travelling here.
Another tree which Francisco showed me was what he called quina-quina, good for malaria, he told me. I realised it was where we get quinine from, used to treat malaria for centuries. Wildlife was pretty scarce. Francisco told me that in all his time in the jungle he’s only ever seen a jaguar three times and admitted to being quite frightened. He did a very good impression of one snorting and roaring though.
I travelled there from Brasileia on the border with Cobija in Bolivia and the scenes from the bus are ones of depressing devastation. All the way to Rio Branco and further to Porto Velho in Rondônia, a journey of hundreds of miles, the road is lined with cattle ranches and farms. Occasionally, there is smoke to be seen as fires burn, clearing the way for pastures. On the television screen in the bus station the commercials were dominated by companies selling tractors or pest control; cattle flies can really damage your profits if not treated, we were warned. Nobody seemed too concerned about the damage to the environment.
In these two remote states of Brazil everything seems to be about commerce, raising cattle or popping across the border into Bolivia for cheaper goods. Tourism and indeed ecotourism are not promoted here, with the honourable exception of the Seringal Cachoeira. But when I was there, I was the only guest.
It was a privilege, though, to spend time with Francisco and marvel at how in touch with nature he was. He told me he once spent a year in the jungle and declared that all you need to survive is a lighter and a knife. Not totally true, I replied, pointing to my head, you need knowledge too. He smiled wistfully in recognition, as if aware that that knowledge, like the jungle itself, is slowly disappearing.
I knew that my final bus journey through the Bolivian Amazon from Riberalta to Cobija was going to be an adventure, as it involves two river crossings, but the onboard drag show came as quite a surprise. I had arrived in Guayaramerin after 5 blissful days on a cargo boat from Trinidad only to find myself in the middle of an all out stoppage.
I had planned to cross the river to the twin Brazilian town of Guajara-Mirim, but a local strike protesting against the high energy costs in the region meant that everything was at a standstill. And I mean everything. Ferries, buses, immigration control, even shops and restaurants, everything was shut. It had been going on for five days, and I was dreading being stranded there indefinitely, but luckily at lunchtime the strike was lifted and I was able to cross for the day to visit Brazil to have an açaí na tigela, one of my favourite fruits.
By this time, though, I had also discovered that there were no direct buses to Rio Branco in Brazil, so I decided to return to Bolivia and head west to Cobija and cross into Brazil from there. In fact, it would be a shorter and more interesting (and, as it turned out, rather surprising) journey. My full return to Brazil would have to wait a few more days.
The following morning I caught a bus to Riberalta, a hot, humid and dusty riverside town. In the wilting afternoon heat I had just enough energy to get my laundry done at an open air place in a field, where many women were washing by hand in sinks. It reminded me of the dhobi ghats in India. Fermina did a great job and my clothes were ready in a few hours.
I had dinner in the main square and watched the locals doing laps around the plaza which is apparently the thing to do here. Years ago people would have been just strolling in a paseo, but nowadays it’s clearly necessary to display one’s wealth and show you own a motorbike or large car. It seemed like a colossal waste of petrol and money to me, especially offensive when there are barefoot children in rags begging at tables.
The most recent editions of guidebooks warn that the journey from Riberalta to Cobija in Pando province can take over 12 hours, so I was pleased to discover that we would do it in 9. It proved to be a memorable trip. The Amazon scenery was impressive and we had to cross two rivers by ferry, the Beni and the Madre de Dios.
The bus was more decrepit than any so far, but I’ve learned one thing about bus travel in Bolivia. The seats may be broken, the curtains ripped, the windows filthy, the air conditioning non-functioning, but one thing will always be in perfect working order: the radio, blasting out at full volume some usually really awful music. But I didn’t care, because the journey was so fascinating. Among the passengers was a boy clutching a live chicken, whether a pet or lunch I never got to discover.
On every bus in Bolivia somebody will get on and try and sell you something. It’s how they make a living. I’m not just talking about food vendors, but people selling sweets, cosmetics and jewellery. Two hours outside Cobija in Pando Department in the middle of nowhere a guy in half drag got on and did a cabaret act and magic tricks as a prelude to selling some chocolate cakes. In a remote part of the Amazon on a dusty, red dirt, unpaved road it was one of the most incongruous sights I’ve ever seen. A kind of Priscilla, Queen of the Amazon.
In Cobija I took my last moto taxi in Bolivia to the border with Brazil where you can cross to the remote town of Brasileia. I completed exit formalities at Bolivian immigration, then started to cross the bridge. There’s something quite fascinating about walking across borders on foot, since for a short while you’re effectively in no man’s land. I began to reflect on the amazing seven weeks I’d spent in Bolivia and the extraordinary diversity of the landscape, from the high altiplano of the Andes to the sweltering heat of the Amazon. But the bridge was short and in no time at all, I was in Brazil.
It began badly. I missed the boat. In 6 weeks of travelling by bus in Bolivia I had never left on time, but last Saturday I was left stranded at the port. The epic boat trip down the Rio Mamore was something I’d been looking forward to for weeks and I’d planned part of my trip around it. From the destination port of Guayaramerin I could cross into Brazil and from there fly back to São Paulo, but now it all looked in jeopardy.
I had arrived in Trinidad late Thursday night after another long bus journey from Santa Cruz and the following morning I jumped on a moto taxi to Puerto Almacen to try and organise the trip. There are no passenger boats, you have to speak directly to the Capitanía in the port and find out what boats are leaving. I was in luck. The Boldito was scheduled to head downriver the next day.
I spoke to captain Alfredo who told me I would even have a small cabin. I just needed to buy a mosquito net and some provisions. It would cost only £30 for four nights, including all meals, so I knew it would be extremely basic, but that was fine, I was going for the scenery not on board entertainment. Alfredo told me they were still loading up the cargo, 35,000 litres of diesel, but they would be setting off the following day, so I should arrive at 1pm.
The rest of the day and Saturday morning were spent buying the net and extra food and water and exploring the laid-back town of Trinidad. After an early lunch on Saturday I arrived at the port at 12.45 only to discover the Boldito had finished loading early and so had already departed. But I had one last chance. The lorry drivers at the port told me the boat would be passing Loma Suarez, another port further north, just after 2pm, so if I caught another taxi I might just make it. Someone rang the captain telling him I was on my way and I rushed off in a cab. Well, actually, it was a flatbed truck pulled by a motorbike, a kind of rickshaw, but it got me there in time.
On the banks of the Rio Ibare I waited and waited. After about two hours sitting in sweltering heat I was ready to give up, but then the Boldito appeared round the bend in the river. However, it was clear it wasn’t going to stop. They sent a crew member to the shore in a small motor boat to pick me up. Finally, I was on board and I met my two fellow passengers, Johanna and Peter from Germany. My cabin was in fact being used as a store room, but it was fine. Just after dusk on the first day we finally entered the Rio Mamore and began the long journey north.
It’s surprising how quickly the days passed, doing very little apart from reading and watching the river banks glide past. We saw many white herons, a caiman and some tantalising glimpses of the noses of pink dolphins. Sunrises and sunsets were particularly beautiful, when the colours changed dramatically, the temperatures were lower and flocks of birds swooped low over the water or high above the trees on their way to and from their nests.
We made only one stop, at a tiny port, called Puerto Siles, for Alfredo to complete some paperwork. The captain, who has been doing this run for 10 years, told me all the diesel was bound for Riberalta and Cobija further west. Close to another village a local boat pulled up alongside and the crew delivered some sacks of rice and at some point we took delivery of a pig.
Johanna and Peter practised their juggling skills. My party trick was banging my head on door lintels, rusting pipes and overhead steel vents, something I did at least a dozen times a day. Whenever I go on boats, I’m somehow always surprised that they are never built with someone over six feet tall in mind. Conditions and food were basic, but it was incredibly relaxing and I was quite sad when on day five, Wednesday morning, we pulled into the port at Guayaramerin.
But I was now excited to get back to Brazil which I could see across the river. Unfortunately, Guayaramerin was hit by a strike and as we got off the boat we soon realised that none of us were going anywhere. All ferries and buses were suspended. Five wonderful days to get to Brazil by boat and there it was. So tantalisingly close and yet so far.