Under the Southern Cross

Under the Southern Cross

By Rick Cleveringa

Caraça – Pronounced /KA-RAH-SA/

There was packing and much paper work in obtaining my visa to head to South America. Months of prep work and attempts to learn a language that I could only order bread and coffee in. After a10 hour flight we arrive in Brazil. This would be my first trip south of the equator. “E’s” family met us at the airport and welcomed me to their home as if I was a long lost brother and son. It was wonderful to share in the daily life in the city of Belo Horizonte. Walking to the tiny shops and feeding the chickens in the yard. After a few days in the busy city “E” has planned a trip to the mountains in her state. I was sitting in the bus station under strict orders “To keep my mouth shut” and watch my backpack closely. The dust and pollution of the city has taken its toll on me and I am ready for the four-hour bus travel to fresh air and Caraça.

After a very dusty bus ride and a cab that takes us high into the mountains, we make it to the office to check in. Our arrival was early and the young woman at the desk gave us vouchers for lunch and told us to walk around, have lunch, and our room will be ready at 1:00. “E” and I are very excited and joyfully explore Caraça. It’s a Portuguese style Mission, built in 1774. The hand dressed stone walls have been standing now for the last 240 years. The jungle and surrounding mountains seem timeless. We walk past some of the buildings, find a path, sit near a pond, and relax. The sun reaches noon and is smiling on us. We make our way to the dining hall. Lunch was serve-yourself with large pots on a wood-burning stove. It’s beautiful, pots of rice, beans, vegetables and large hunks of meat. We filled our plates and our bellies in the great echoing hall.

Room 147 was now ready; we get our key and walk the stone path to our room. It’s clean, sparse, a large bathroom and comfy bed, but its cold and damp. It feels like a cave. The door and window go open and fresh air comes in. I lay down to nap and “E” goes to explore the grounds. Our room is on the main walkway and shortly voices wake me. I go out to find “E”, sitting on a bench in the front garden I spy her. She says, “how did you find me?”, “I am a hunter” I say. From the front garden with its fountain, hedges, and Jaku birds, we look down deep into a valley towards a river that could be heard but not seen through the thick jungle. “Its beautiful”, “E” whispers. Indeed…. We sit for some time in peace.

Dinner and a Show

The old bell in the church steeple banged six times, by then we had our showers and clean clothes on. We walked in the dusk cold mountain evening to the dinning hall, which now was lamp lit and gave the room a warm glow. The hall and all its long dark wood wooden tables, chairs, floor, cream-colored walls and amber light were inviting. The visitors now were all overnight guests and an older crowd for the most part. We get our plates and line up to the wood stove. More rice, beans, meat, veggie, and something called Shoo Shoo. It was a

tasteless green vegetable, boiled lifeless and served. Dinner was nice, dessert disappointing. Desserts are served in a large bowl. Typically it could be a caramel sauce or some fruit puree’ + sugar. I could kill for a piece of cake, a big yellow cake with chocolate frosting. It’s all nice and “E” has spoken in a whisper since our arrival.

Lobo-Guara (Chrysocyon brachyurous)

A priest in a red hoodie calls out into the pitch-dark night. His deep voice and strange words go deep into the jungle. He calls again. The flashlight in his hand signals safe passage. The beam of light cast a tiny spirit against the endless dark of the forest. Before too long a wolf appears. It timidly approaches and climbs the stairs up to the balcony where we wait. With long elegant black legs and red coat she looks much like a giant fox. The priests here have been feeding them for generations. There is a large tray of bones and meat sitting on the stone porch in front of the church. She comes to feed nightly. The priest speaks and “E” translates. There has been trouble in the jungle and wild dogs have attacked this wolf and now she is more cautious than ever. These wolves are specific to Brazil. Never before have I seen a more elegant, graceful animal. She is lean, tall, beautiful and pranced over to the tray; she retrieved some bone and meat. With powerful jaws and without effort she crushed the bones, the sound was magnificent. I loved it. It reminded me of my dog eating her treats but this is no ordinary canine. “E” and I are in heaven. The wolf would eat, tip toe off, and then come back later. One could stay for hours watching this and I did. At 8:00pm “E” went to the church and attended the mass. I pulled my hat down over my ears in the mountain cold and stayed to watch.

After mass “E” joined me outside to watch wolves. A most remarkable sight that was special beyond words. At 9:00pm, popcorn and tea were served in the hallway. It was a simple but welcome treat in the cold night in the jungle. We walked back to our little room, under Jupiter and Venus, the Southern Cross, and stars unfamiliar to me. Stars Shackelton would have known. We climbed into our cool bed and warmed each other, and slept like children.

A Walk in the Jungle

Some of the most inviting features of Caraça are the many hiking trails. Each has a point of interest or some natural feature of beauty that draws the mind to jungle adventure. They all sound wonderful and “E” picks out a trail to ‘Cascade’, or a waterfall. I woke early the next morning and walked to the breakfast mess hall. The great wood stove was roaring away. There was actual coffee here. With a cup of coffee, and my book, I waited for “E”s arrival. The local practice for breakfast here is to cook a hunk of cheese and toast a bun on the stove. There were also some brown eggs and a bowl of white batter. By now I’ve had enough bread for breakfast, so I dip a large spoon into the batter and pour a 4” circle directly on the stove face. It certainly was not Aunt Jemima pancake mix. The batter made a thin ‘cake’ of a far less tasty corn based goop with the cooked consistence of a wrapped single piece of American cheese. Maple syrup was well over 6000 miles away so I drizzled some honey, and ate it.

“E” has come, eats her bread and cheese, we look at the map and get ready. We cross a large gravel parking lot for buses, tour groups, and school groups who come regularly to the mission that is situated in a national park. We find the trailhead and make the 3-4k hike to the falls. Its flat, easy, a kind hike, an enjoyable 1st trail and exciting first look at real jungle. The trail is earth and sand and winds past jungle vines & trees. Then it would open up to grassy savannahs. This is Atlantic forest, a transition to the deep jungle of the Amazon to the west. “E” explains this to me as my fascinated heart sucks in the adventure.

The path twists about and I see black sand and quarts all over, signs of gold. This country was once rich with gold. Even the road heading here is called “the road of gold”. We reach the falls, its wonderful. The falls are perhaps 20-30 feet tall, a small stream with water brown as tea runs over the black rocks. We take our shoes and socks off and join others wading, climbing and enjoying this place. As “E” finds a place to sit I begin searching for gold. Sifting sand and pebbles in my hand, looking for a nugget. It was a pretty place; we sat close by one another, talked, felt the joy of being close. Walking around we see there were some bees drinking. Stepping on a South American been seemed like a poor idea. We put our shoes and socks on and left the bees to their work. The hike back was fine; we spent some time in the room. The old church bell rang 12 and we were off to lunch.

Once again we poured over the map and picked a trail. This one was about 6k up the mountain, gaining about 1000’ of elevation. About half way there, is a smaller mission and at the top there is “Gruta de Lourde”, a cave! Yes! Lets go see the cave! Now I’m ready. A big lunch and more jungle. Back at the room “E” gets her hat and tells me to bring my hoodie, it might be cold up there. “It won’t be cold, lets go my love.”, and we set off.

Danger on “Onça” Trail

The day was bright and sunny as we cut behind the mission, up a small hill, past a tiny cemetery with its white wall, and iron gate that protect those who need no protection. A gardener with a machete in hand, points the direction to the trail, we go happily. One difference on this trail is we start climbing up right away. We crossed a tiny rustic wood bridge that your step had to be most cautious on. You have seen this bridge in every jungle movie. It’s the one where the planks give way and you find yourself dangling uncomfortably, legs kicking away high above a ravine. “E” crossed first and I would not get on it until she was safely across.

She spied it on the ground and grabbed it up, it was a 3’ crooked walking stick. This was a fine idea as the climb was noticeable. She was most happy with her “sticker” as she called it. Then she prompted me into finding one. Yes! And I looked but found nothing suitable. “E” pointed out every rotted, way too long, way too heavy, log, stick, branch, vine and root she saw. Now I’ve gone calling her “Heidi – There’s s good walking stick Brian!”. I tell “E” the story of our hike on a hot summer day in the Shawnee National Forest.