Sunday, May 27, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

How can it be so hot and humid so early this morning at our remote Amazon jungle lodge on the Rio Negro up river from Manaus? Of course, our local guides, Marco and Anderson, tell me that it is a cool morning for this time of year! I walked out of my small cabin this morning and immediately started sweating before reaching the thatched lodge that serves as our dining area.
Our CCF sponsor group is staying right in the middle of a high forest jungle with tiny cottages built around a lake full of caymans, snakes and who knows what else!

Our sponsors are an energetic group; they arrive for breakfast to find a strange tropical fruits, various breads and meats, juices and very strong coffee. They are entertained (not me!) by the arrival of several macaws from the jungle as well as a large mischievous monkey that tries to steal everyone’s breakfast. The macaws are more polite and merely land on the table waiting to be fed morsels of bread and melon. There is also an assortment of cats here at the lodge, reportedly to keep the snakes away. Ironically, in the dining lodge, there are assortments of snakes in large jars for your viewing and perhaps as a caution to guests that these snakes are all around the lodge and ready to bite you if you make take a wrong step. Anderson assures me that more people die from cayman and jaguar attacks in the jungle than snake bites…

After a bountiful breakfast, we board two small boats on the Rio Negro for a visit to coboclo compound not too far from the lodge. Coboclos are the descendants of indigenous people who married foreign settlers. We arrive at their compound which consists of several simple houses and outbuildings. The patriarch and his wife greet us as our boats come ashore. He welcomes us by proudly stating that he has 40 grandchildren. We are shown their home and given an explanation of various plants and their uses by the indigenous people. Manioc is grown by this family and we are shown their plants and shown they process this root. It is a poisonous root that requires a multi-step, multi-day process to make it safe to eat. Most maniocs here is turned into a fine powder called farinha that is sprinkled on rice, beans, and meat, quite tasty if you can forget that it is deadly in its raw form, and on that note, on to lunch!

After lunch, we carefully board our little boats (a large black cayman reportedly swam below the dock) and head downriver for the rubber museum. After numerous twists and turns through these waters and tributaries, we arrive at a house that looks like it’s from a Lord Jim type novel. Before us is a small colonial house and outbuildings surrounded by dense jungle. On the dock, a short, older woman stands at the end of the small dock to greet our arrival. Beatriz is the most knowledgeable women in the world about the history of rubber growing and production in Brazil and the riches it brought to a few and heartbreak it created for thousands.

We are shown through the house of the rubber baron with furniture that was imported from Europe, the architecture not normally seen in the jungle. This guy was so rich; he used to ship his laundry in steamer trunks to Europe for cleaning. The baron, his wife and children all dressed like they were in a European castle, can’t imagine wearing these layers of shirts, pants, and long coats in this heat and humidity. Beatriz gave us a wonderful tour of the house and grounds, such a hospitable and warm personality had made us forget our clothes seemed to be melting off our bodies.

Tomorrow, we must be up early to travel west to where the Rio Negro meets the River Salimoes to form the mighty Amazon River! Boa Noite or Good Night!

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

What is that awful irritating noise outside my hotel room? It sounds like a pig, or cats and dogs fighting. I wearily get up after only three hours of sleep and look out my window. In a nearby tree, I see a large monkey teasing two brightly colored macaws that have decided to share the monkey’s tree house. Apparently, the monkey is not in a hospitable mood… and neither am I at this time in the morning. It is 7 a.m. and I have to meet 28 CCF sponsors for a breakfast buffet and orientation to the Brazil Study Tour. I don’t know why the Guns and Roses song “Welcome to the Jungle” keeps running through my brain, but give me a big cup of that strong Brazilian coffee and I think I’ll survive our first day in the Amazon city of Manaus!

After a quick shower, I walk to the hotel’s restaurant to find over half of our CCF sponsor group in animated conversation and enjoying the largest breakfast buffet I have ever seen in my life! The Hotel Tropical Manaus is surrounded by rich jungle vegetation. The interior resembles a cross between a Portuguese monastery and Buckingham Palace. The staff is superb and genuinely warm to this sleep-deprived group who arrived late last night. I greet the group at breakfast and do a fast headcount to find out who is missing, time for me to make some wake-up calls!

We are off to a day of visiting various sites in the port city of Manaus which still retains a flavor of colonial gentility and rubber boom lawlessness. Our first stop is a big city market with stall after stall of fresh vegetables, thousands of fish caught that morning in the Rio Negro, and rolls of butchered meats, fresh and ready to be prepared for your dinner menu. Our CCF sponsors spring to action photographing every fish, pig’s head, and chicken breast that they see, the locals seem slightly perplexed, if not amused, as our gang makes their way through the market with cameras flashing and faces contorted at seeing such unending quantities of butchered cattle, skinned fish, and seared pigs.

From the market, we make our way to Manaus Opera House, a tribute to the riches and excess of the rubber boom in the Amazon jungle during the late 1800´s. Goodyear, McIntosh, Michelin, and other rubber barons of that time would still recognize the beauty and elegance of this magnificent opera house right here in the middle of the jungle. The sponsors went gaga when they entered the building and a reverent hush descended over this chatty group. The interior of the building is just stunning… and to think that the entire building and its furnishings were imported by ship from Europe. Incredible!

We returned to Rio Negro to start our adventure to the real jungle-----an eco-lodge in the jungle about eight miles up river from Manaus. Simple, yet comfortable, CCF sponsors will be housed in comfortable little cottages surrounded by a natural lake. We warned everyone about snakes, caimans, spiders, poisonous frogs, and malaria-carrying mosquitoes... but everyone settled in quickly and came to dinner at the main lodge by nightfall. Our naturalist guides, Marco and Anderson, greeted the group with an explanation of activities planned for the group for the next few days. They are natives of the Amazon and really know their stuff. The tempo of our group is beginning to quicken, but by 10 p.m., everyone was ready for bed. Now, to tackle those mosquito nets over our beds!

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Note from Editor: Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing is in charge of traveling with and leading sponsors on Study Tours to unite sponsored children with their sponsors for a brief but wonderfully emotional encounter. Gary is traveling to Brazil with 25 sponsors.

My emotional anticipation and anxiety was increasing by the hour as I waited for 30 CCF sponsors to arrive at the Miami International Airport. People of different ages (19 to 76 years old,) from multiple states throughout the US, new sponsors and people who have sponsored children for over 25 year are all going to be on this year’s Brazil Study Tour. What a variety of people!

Despite having traveled with CCF sponsors for almost five years to over 14 foreign countries, you never know what shape the group will take; what the individual demands will be, who will need extra support, how to respond to the difficult personality and how to keep them safe and interested throughout our trip. The Study Tour this year to Brazil is especially challenging since we will travel over 22,000 miles in 12 days visiting CCF projects throughout this immense and diverse country. The first few days will be especially challenging since we will fly directly to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon. The days will be hot, humid, and full of activities for the participants.

As I stand near the TAM International Airline ticket counter, the first few participants start to arrive and take their place in the long line of passengers. I recognize many of them from their passport photos or from the Brazil/USA friendship lapel pin they are wearing (Editor’s Note: Each study tour participant is given a pin with the flag of the country they are traveling to along with the American flag to help Gary and participants identify each other in the airport). All of them have the expression of a child just before Christmas morning barely able to contain their excitement and anticipation to finally meet their sponsored child in Brazil!

It is only an hour away from flight time and I am still missing a few of our participants. They have not checked in at the ticket counter nor have they called my cell phone. It’s rumored around the airport that the LA airport is closed and there are bad storms delaying all flights from Texas. I go to get a very hot cup of coffee and a pastry that tastes like the paper it was wrapped in... where are those missing sponsors?

Finally, we are boarding the plane and everyone is now here. I feel an irrational sense of relief since I know the next 12 days will be full of challenges and surprises. A decent dinner is served to us a few hours after we leave Miami and this group of CCF strangers is suddenly becoming a CCF family sharing personal stories and family photos as we fly south to the middle of the Brazilian jungle. At 1:30 am Saturday, we arrive at the international airport in Manaus and are processed through customs in remarkably fast time. Our guide, Walter, awaits us in the terminal’s lobby area. Walter was born and educated in the Amazon and speaks excellent English. He relates that his mom made him learn English so he could find decent employment in this remote part of the world-- I only wish I could speak Portuguese as well as he speaks English.

Now, it is a short walk to our bus- yes! The weather is hot and humid. We head to our hotel for the night. Dalton, a Brazilian CCF worker from the state of Minas Gerais joins us as we register for our rooms. It will be good to sleep tonight! I can’t believe the energy of our sponsors and their positive spirits so early this morning, some have traveled for 12 hours before reaching Miami. It’s going to be a good group and we are going to have fun on this trip, I think. Time will tell who these people really are and why they sponsor children through CCF. The answers may surprise us all… it usually surprises me.

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