Açai fruit

The açai (ass-eye-ee) is a tropical palm that grows mostly in swamps and floodplains. This palm can be as tall as 30 meters (about 90 feet) and produces a small, round, black-purple, and very hard fruit, known as açai berry, which contains a seed that occupies almost three-quarters of the fruit.

For many rural villagers of the Brazilian Amazon, açai berries—when ripe—are a very important item in their diet (42%). Açai berries are so tough that stepping on them will not squish them! They must be boiled and pounded with mallets to extract a purple pulp, which can be so thick that it can be eaten by the spoonful with farinha (manioc flour). When the pulp is mixed with water and sugar it makes a refreshing drink.

Some local villagers collect açai berries from the forest or from small, cultivated areas. The first challenge, though, is to climb the palm trees to reach the fruit.

acai palm trees.jpg
Laura makes the first move to climb an açai palm.    Looking good! With a cloth around my feet, have a good grip...and this is as high as I got!

Laura makes the first move to climb an açai palm.

Looking good! With a cloth around my feet, have a good grip...and this is as high as I got!

Here is a video that shows how açai fruit is traditionally harvested.

Açai has become a popular fruit, creating a demand that results in agribusiness that can have detrimental effects on rainforest conservation.

On Houseboat Amazon we were lucky because the local people often shared the prepared açai with us! So delicious!

Açai leaves are also used to make baskets and roofs for homes, while seeds are often ground for livestock food.

If You Don't Look, You Won't See

We're crazy.

"We" being those of us who work in the Amazon chasing monkeys. Of course, we don't think so. We think it's perfectly normal to get up before dawn, put on heavy long pants, long sleeves, hats and boots in 100% humidity and up to mid-90 degrees and go slogging through various habitats, covered in biting insects and mud.

And rain. Pouring-so-insane-you-have-no-idea rain. Sometimes we have to swim across channels in all of our clothes with all of our gear. And plus more biting insects. All perfectly normal. I have told everyone on Houseboat Amazon to look at everything twice—something my grandmother used to say to me when I would go off and travel. What she meant was, "Look at it once for you and once for me." "That way," she rationalized, "I can hear your stories and feel like I was with you."

The directive here is about surveys. I changed it to, "If you don't look - you won't see." I look at all kinds of things that are not animals: dead leaves, wind-wiggling leaves, far-away dark spots on branches, and lots of termite, ant, wasp, and bee nests. I also see lots of stuff that we are meant to see like monkeys and other animals, but I don't feel foolish looking around through my binoculars because sometimes I see things I might not have if I were not looking as intensely (besides, just two days ago I discovered that bats use old termite nests as roosts to sleep during the day!).

I realized that all of the fun and amazing photos we send of the boat and forest don't describe a normal day for us. The "how" behind the things we are seeing. There are a lot of variations on "surviving" we must do—both in our daily lives on the houseboat and in the forest or on the rivers. Remember: All of this is normal for us, but even so, we definitely notice the insects, rain, fatigue, food—especially since we are getting lower and lower on supplies, living conditions and working conditions. And insects.

And we still get up each day and go for it (unless the day comes with pouring rain and then it's Life of Pi. I'm the tiger.) We all have variations on this workday, but it goes something like this: The night before we do surveys, Alessandro and Ivan go into the community where we have parked (intentionally or opportunistically, depending on the river and survey needs) and speak with potential guides—local men who know the area. Often this is done on a moving day when we have sailed the barcos from one village to the next as part of the general methodology to survey as much different habitat as we can (if you have real interest in this, our publications are starting to be submitted—soon you will be able to use Google Scholar to search "Houseboat Amazon" science papers!).

Once we know how many possible trails, igarapés, or várzea/igapó there are, how many guides are available, and how many small canoes they have if needed—THEN we make a plan for the next few survey days. We try to do five surveys a day in a combination of flooded or unflooded forest (small canoe or walking), terra firme (hiking) igarapé (large canoe). The "real adventure" part of our day isn't simply that we are working in the Amazon. It is that we are facing trails and areas we have never seen previously, meaning—we are surveying in novel areas that have surprises for us all day long. We regularly face too small and too fragile tree "bridges" that are slippery, high off the ground, expand a long distance over streams, and/or are half rotten and break or large fallen trees. We have to carry canoes over in an igarapé or constant showers of ants and spiders in our faces and hair in varzea when the guide makes a choice to go through a tight spot in the flooded forest. All the while taking notes, photos, and observing the creatures around us. So many adventures in a package that is entirely adventure!

On a hike day, I get out slightly different clothes and gear than I would for a boat day. Even igarapé days are different than várzea/igapó days. The size of the canoe makes a difference in how I manage my gear and data collection. For a hike in all kinds of habitats, I need a backpack. I used to carry my normal field pack with a poncho and large plastic bags and an umbrella (Sim! In rainforest! It works perfectly for a downpour if standing still).

But with the business of having to swim or wade across streams, go down igarapés or through small igapó to get to a trail—I have been using a dry bag backpack instead. It's easier in some ways and more of a pain in others. It's easier because it can withstand a downpour. It's harder because if I need anything, the item swims around in a single compartment making it impossible to get anything out of it quickly.

In every habitat I carry: my notebook and pencil and pens (in case the pen fails or gets wet, I have a pencil), GPS, extra batteries for GPS, camera, extra battery and card for camera, GoPro, and binocular. I carry a compass in one pocket for triangulation of primates. Depending on the habitat, I carry different things: in terra firme I have a knife, sometimes a machete, a water filter in case I run out in my Camelbak, a torch in case we come back late, insect repellent, lunch (unless the guide or someone else carries it), and in my pocket a ziplock with wipe cloths for the camera lens; walking in the forest makes the lens fog up from my body heat alone.

On boat days I add sun cream, sunglasses, and earplugs because the small motors are so intensely loud.

On days when it's a small paddle canoe, I make sure to have my purple rubber shoes and hat (always a hat and bandana for me—so many variations for swatting or keeping bugs away)—in várzea and igapó, the forest is at once trying to pull you and all of your things out of the boat—and all of the small creatures are falling into/ running toward the boat to get in. The small "tipy" two-person canoes for surveys in closed várzea or igapó means making sure everything is somehow attached to my body or secure in the bottom of the boat, so I take fewer things.

In terra firme I can have my notebook in a ziplock in a pocket for easy access, but in the canoe, it sits on the dry bag in front of me so I make less noise. The sounds we make in flooded forest carry like bombs going off over the water. It seems super loud to step on a dry stick in terra firme as well, but the flooded forests have a sound system all of their own.

Once the day is decided and things are packed, we get up at 5 AM for a 6 AM leaving time, depending on rain and whether the guides have shown up on time or not. Remember: these are local people we have descended upon in the middle of their normal routines to ask them to take us on tour of their worlds. We pay them and give them lunch and gasoline for their boats, but it truly is an imposition. So if they show up late, we try to be gracious. Often we have to take canoes to get to our starting points where we leave the canoe behind on the shore and go walking, or we transfer mid-stream to a small canoe for paddling. Or 100 variations of this idea!

We spend until 4-5 PM on the trail or in the canoes and then come back to the houseboat. We take lunches with us—generally rice and meat and farinha—and then have some dinner at night.

There is data to organize, clothes to wash (see the video!), equipment to dry and sort for the next day. If we collected fruits, seeds, specimens like dead animals shot by hunters, bones, poop, hair—it needs to be curated for genetics, measurements, or sugar content (fruits) for later study.

We have a meeting each night to prepare the crew and researchers for the next day's work: how many canoes going where and at what time, how many lunches, who is hiking, who is boating, where will Alejandra go to study people in the villages, and will there be anyone working on the houseboat or will everyone be in the field. I decide things like when we need to move the barcos (unless it is low water, then Bitito decides), where we study, and for how many days. The decisions constantly change as well.

For instance, today I was supposed to be doing a survey in igapó this morning and sending the team to the next community to sort out other surveys in igarapé and terra firme. And it is an all morning rain. So—we will stay one more day and lose a survey day, but be able to do recon to the neighboring village to get us set up for tomorrow. All day, everyday I am solving big and little challenges all so that we can have excellent days in the forest, seeing everything twice for people like you!

Sometimes the Amazon Wins. Sometimes I Do.

The Amazon is an incredibly beautiful, magical, glorious place—if you are looking at our pictures with a cocktail in your hands. If you are in it—well, sometimes you have to keep telling yourself how beautiful and magical it is while a nest of ants is biting your chest under your shirt or the water surrounding the barco is such cloudy varzea that it's hard to tell if your filthy jungle pants are maybe cleaner than the water you are washing them in.

Mirror-like water of Lago Mirranda

Mirror-like water of Lago Mirranda

The first month of investigation was a chaotic mix of surviving the barco and all of the people living together on it; surviving terra firme, varzea and igapo surveys with each of their own unique sets of challenges for study; managing all of the tech for documentary and social media; and for documenting the presence and absence of animals along the Rio Eiru, including the use of night camera traps. So, y'know—at least 5 balls in the air at all times.

And for me, the first month involved managing how stressed I could get while being simultaneously an expedition leader, a documentary film director, the evil overlord of all things research and social media, a subject and narrator for the documentary, B-roll camera filmmaker, a camp counselor, therapist, science mentor, and field researcher. Every day, all at once! We accomplished amazing work on the Rio Eiru. We confirmed the Flying Monkeys were where they had gone missing since the 1930s where they were originally collected, and we got good photos and videos of them as proof.

And the real lessons were about all of the other primates and animals. Remember: while we work under the banner (literally!) of the (formerly) missing saki monkeys, we are also a mammal and primate survey. As part of that work, we have been doing community outreach everywhere we stay, and have learned amazing things in turn: all of the unprotected area of the Rio Eiru (anything not part of the Indigenous Reserve) is severely hunted and fished.

Our original model was to cook some rice and farinha and catch fish for food as we went along. The Rio Eiru is so impacted that we could not find fish bigger in some cases than about 8 inches long! In the Amazon this is unheard of. So we have been eating very little fish as a result.

The other major lesson was how much mammal hunting occurs, including primates. In the drone images it is easy to see miles and miles of seemingly untouched forest. But wherever it is easy for people to get, such as two days walking into the forest, all of the mammals that can be hunted and eaten are. Even our parauacus—Flying Saki Monkeys—are hunted and eaten, but not with the intensity of some other species like uacaris, spider, howler and wooly monkeys and even the wedge-capped capuchins. Hunting occurs day and night on the Eiru and the biggest pressure is not from the local communities, although they hunt with great intensity as well, but from the city of Eirunepé where the bushmeat trade is high.

We found that in some areas with terra firme the sakis were the biggest monkeys left in the forest. Once we moved to varzea and igapo, they were easier to see because even though hunting occurs in these habitat types, the sakis are one the least favored meats if other kinds of monkey can be found.  

A sunny but boggy barro.

A sunny but boggy barro.

Our last week with Juan Pablo Bueno, we were working on filming in the Igarape Preto/Lago Miranda area not far from Eirunepé. During the day we heard three very loud gunshots, and they sounded like small cannons being fired. And each time, the local guides working with us smiled and said, "Guariba" (howler monkeys). I have never worked anywhere in the tropics that has had this high of hunting pressure on the primates and all mammals and fish in the same place at the same time.

Selfie with crew!

Selfie with crew!

We sadly said goodbye to our HBA team members Shayna (to USA) and Felipe (to UK), photographer Marcelo (to Brasilia), journalist Christina (to USA), and practico Sineca (to Tefe) on 1 March. On 8 March, Juan Pablo Bueno went back home to Colombia. Only Alejandra, Lisley and myself are the remaining original HBA team.  On 8 March we got a whole new group of student researchers: Anamelia de Jesus (Mamiraua Institute, Brasil), Karine  (Brasil), Alesandro (Brasil), Gerardo (Mexico) and Leticia Cazarré—a Brasilian journalist. We converted from the original expedition team to one where we are doing a lot more training and lectures—soon to head off for the Rio Gregorio to begin new adventures!

Insects are Better Than You (Part Dois)

I have personal swarms.

Sometimes they are in the form of a mosquito cloud that follows me around the rainforest. Sometimes they are in the form of piyums, a small nat-like, big-toothed biting fly thing that are relentlessly filling the boat in clouds, all day, every day—biting and biting and biting. Sometimes it's at night in my room when the piyums are finished, but the small mosquitos and night wasps come on. 

Sometimes I have a personal ecosystem. When I'm working in varzea or igapo, everything from spiders to ants to mantis to snakes and lizards and fish drop into my canoe on my head/lap/backpack, shoes, and guide.

And then sometimes, my body is a host. Over the years I have been host to things like botflies and tapir hook worms, leishmanisis, and impetigo. I've had parasites like giardia and malaria and whoknowswhat the "three other species" of gastric friends I obtained working in Panama years ago. I've had dangerous viruses like dengue and annoying viruses like what I call "Jungle Croup."

And now I have macun. I have some sort of chigger relative, living, breeding, and spreading all over my body. They started in a classic manner on my belly. I used special soap (Enxofre and Veneno) and rubbing alcohol; special powders (Polvilho Antisseptico Granado), creams (hydrocortizone), taken antihistamines, and even used a "Grandma's Potion" of Anti-Coral. The belly seemed to sort itself, but the ones on my back I couldn't reach and they have exploded up my neck and wrapped back around returning to my belly.

And as a bonus, I think I am having an allergic reaction to them/an allergic reaction
to the soap we use for clothes (we ran out of the gentle coconut soap)/heat rash on
what precious little clear skin I had left: on my arms and legs. I'm a hot mess.
No fever, no stomach issues, good spirits—just buggy and rashy. We don't have
internet with enough bandwidth for me to self-diagnose on WebMD, so we are doing
the best we can. 

For now, I am trying to not scratch, not worry—and to find a local Brazilian
equivalent of a brujo. Let's hope for some fancy plant burning and prayers make it
all go away.

OY! My arms!

OY! My arms!

Oy! My back!

Oy! My back!

Oy! My neck!

Oy! My neck!

OY! My belly! (although this looks not so bad—half are healed scars)

OY! My belly! (although this looks not so bad—half are healed scars)

Swamp Thing

First of all, my name aside, I do not love a swamp. There is the challenge of walking through muck and water and gluey muck, and more water, and then over bridges of fallen almost supportive trees and dodging super prickly palms and underwater tangly vines -- and sure, that can be fun. But yesterday, I was almost killed by a tortilla (yes, the edible kind) in the swamp. And I did not love it.

Ivan, my Super Guide from Mato Grosso, and I were going out on a regular survey that included setting up a camera trap. Normal day on the Rio Gregorio. We thought we were going to terra firma, but we went to a riverine trail to a barrero -- a salt lick where animals in the night, and sometimes the day depending on the lick, come to eat clay minerals.

Almost everything does this: tapirs, peccaries, deer, porcupine, opossums, rodents, paca, birds, bats (for the insects there) -- and monkeys -- especially spider and howler monkeys, but also "Cayrara" (Cebus) and "Macaco Prego" (Sapajus). The barrero we placed our camera in was really amazing--a huge trail for tapir and other large mammals, and exposed roots of trees where small things could cross the mud and still get a taste of minerals.

Tasty mud for rainforest animals!

Tasty mud for rainforest animals!

That morning before we reached the barrero, we saw a group of Vanzolini sakis. I am generally really excited to see them even though on the Rio Eiru where we were in February, they seemed "abundant" compared to the lack of primate community there because of intense hunting pressure on all mammals, but especially primates.

But I was not excited to see them. And here's why: On the night of the 24th we had a celebration for my two-month anniversary of being in Brazil. Alejandra and I cooked Mexican food--her student Gerardo brought tortillas from (old) Mexico when he came two weeks ago, so we made burritos New Mexico style (The tiny kitchen on the houseboat is absurdly small. I became more impressed with Luis our cook who is the biggest person on the boat, for his skills in making our daily meals from that cubicle.)

Anyway -- I had some powdered Chimayo red chili to make sauce, I cooked black refried beans, and Ale made red rice. We had ham, eggs, cheese, onions and tinned crema. Perfect! Ale had been saving some chocolates with tequila inside for dessert. Viva! I have been doing so well not eating wheat (because in the last year I have become sensitive to it), but thought, "One tortilla can't hurt!" And ate my burrito folded in floury deliciousness.

Then in the night, I paid for it. In the AM, after a sleepless night and some gastric difficulties, I mentioned it to Lisley who wisely said, "You don't have to go. Ivan and the guide can go." But, it's me! So I said, "It's only a tortilla. I'm sure I will be fine." And then there was the swamp. I felt woozy and yucky the whole day, slogging for 9 hours on a trail that was 90% inundated with hidden traps and deep mud so thick my boots kept slipping from my feet -- but I kept up with the guys and was a good sport.

After lunch I felt worse and realized in this habitat there is no graceful way to have a poo stop, so I literally had to hold it for the next 4 hours until we got back to the boat. Meanwhile, my boot got stuck in the mud and under a vine--we cannot see our feet in this habitat. The submerged trees we walk on are only by feel and the knowledge of placement by the guide. Otherwise, it's jumping from hummock to hummock, slogging along -- you get the idea. Plus, needing to poo. [Oh and -- super mosquitoey. Like, stop for a second and be swarmed hard by your own personal group of mosquitoes. They follow you in a swarm like a tapir and stopping is a meal for them. So walking too close to the person in front of you means double the mosquitoes.]

Yep, no feet!

Yep, no feet!

Anyway, boot stuck. I pulled hard -- and toppled over -- flailing to keep my camera from going into the water, which wasn't super deep, only like mid-thigh. But the angle I was in made my left boot submerge (the right was caught half above water) and make me do a floppy-dippy-flop, which wetted my camera and the left side of me.

I generally laugh at things like this--mostly because I rarely fall or misstep -- hence why I had my camera out. I'm pretty sure footed with good balance. Except--I had a tortilla on board. I howled in US swear words at the top of my voice and burst into tears. Ivan doesn't speak English nor did my guide, but they got it. It was an F-Bombardment worse than anything Ralphie in Christmas Story could have conjured. My howl was one of anger at myself for a stupid move and for dunking my camera and needing to poo and for eating that stupid, stupid tortilla in the first place, AND for thrashing my hand against one of the aforementioned spiney palm guys -- all of that.

Ivan, a calm, kind man who has been an exceptional field professional for this whole project, and the type of man who would fall on a sword for me if asked -- panicked. I saw it in his face as he reached for the camera (!) and helped me. So I quickly pulled my tears together. There is no crying in rainforest: unless you are about to poo yourself in a swamp with a wet camera hanging around your neck.

For Ivan's sake, I mugged for the camera and he felt better. It's scary to see the boss cry!

For Ivan's sake, I mugged for the camera and he felt better. It's scary to see the boss cry!

The guide was watching this whole thing and wasn't too sure. We made it home, and I made it to the bathroom. I skipped dinner and went straight for bed (with some EmergenZzzz Shayna left me).

Today, I am taking the time to rest and sort myself with coconut water (from orange young coconuts!) and macaroni that we bought, especially for me, that has no gluten. I am working hard to get that tortilla out of my life!

Delicious young coconut water from the village here in Mochilla on the Rio Gregorio. Such a big help!

Delicious young coconut water from the village here in Mochilla on the Rio Gregorio. Such a big help!

Expeditions Are Like Tar Pits

Expeditions are amazing and exciting projects that capture the imagination of scientists and laypeople the world over. They promise tales of daring and survival and of new discoveries and confirmation of creatures.

Getting ready for an expedition, though, is like being a mastodon accidentally slipping into a tar pit. You struggle for a while, and then drown in sticky goo. Several million years later your remains are found: clutching your gear lists to your chest.

So what does it really take to go on an expedition?

It takes planning and preparation. So easy to say. So simple to understand. Let me demonstrate some of the minutiae we must manage.

Let’s start with something easy. How about plane tickets for the HBA team? Easy right? Well, we had people flying from Brazil, UK, USA, Mexico and Colombia. They then needed domestic flights as well—and not everyone was meeting in the same city, at the same time.

And: bonus! After securing everyone’s international flights, we needed to delay. So then there was rescheduling flights. And accounting for oversize and overweight bags, because, gear and supplies and stuff for 4-months. AND not everyone leaves at the same time, so we had to plan various exit strategies.

It currently looks like this:

Here is an example of the level of detail we are talking about in terms of things we must have on the boat. This is shopping for food and supplies. This is only ONE of our many, many lists:

There are the people who help us along the way. Lisley and I were in Cruzeiro and needed to print and bind a document to give to the military about our project (the Brazilian military is donating gear, boat engines, a boat and emergency services, including a helicopter medevac if we need it!).

This poor guy had to hand-bind the document, but first he had to find the right spiral binder!

AND – then there is the gear for research and living. Shayna and I worked on packing and ordering all of the electronics and gear – and we are taking the limit with us on the plane: 5 trunks, 70lbs -- each!


It is the old saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

13 gear.JPG

This elephant is almost out of the tar and into the water!

A New Motor for the Houseboat

OK, OK, this isn't exactly a blog.

But hey, this is Rachel speaking, not Laura. 

We just got some photos from Lisley (who as we speak is working with Capitao readying the boat). Check out below the new houseboat motor and propeller, and the benches that Capitao made for the houseboat.

The new motor is more efficient and faster - so --- fuel savings! We still have a couple of back- up motors just in case... (The study region is remote.)

The benches were totally our Capitao's idea and a very sweet surprise. They will go on the top deck so the team has a place to sit and put things.

We are so delighted that Capital Elival is as keen as we are to go find the monkey (and whatever other cool stuff is living in one of the last bastians of intact rainforest).

For perspective - here's the old motor:

old houseboat motor

Here are the new motor and new propeller.  And new benches.

new houseboat motor
capitao with propeller
houseboat benches
propeller in the water

That's all I got :-)  -Rachel

Recap of Nov, 2016 Reconnaissance Trip

Watch the videos below for a recap of what happened in November, 2016 as Lísley, Laura and Alejandra worked with Capitão to get ready for the expedition!

It started in Manaus, Brazil—Pedro Santos and Lísley Lemos load huge trunks full of gear into Pedro’s car en route to the airport.

Join Laura’s tour of construction happening on the dry-docked Houseboat Amazon (Barco Bruno)! When the rains come in, this boat will float. - Next 2 videos (parts B and C).

Lísley and Capitão discuss creating a place for HBA team members to work under a back porch complete with a mosquiteiro (in Portuguese).

Capitão tells Lísley he will arrange for a Houseboat Amazon flag we can fly on the boat! And then Lísley tells us about it in English! (next 2 videos, Parts E and F)

Then Laura and Capitão head off on the moto.

Insects are Better than You

Insects are Better than You

Whenever I meet someone new, say at a Christmas cookie party, the conversation typically goes something like this:  “I’m a realtor here in town. What do you do?”   “I work in the rainforest and study monkeys. I’m going on expedition in January to Brazil.”  “Really? Monkeys? In the rainforest? Wait—doesn’t that mean lots of…bugs?”

Buying Petrol by Canoe

Buying Petrol by Canoe

What does it take to power our houseboat? Learn how we purchased and will transport our fuel for all the journey along the Amazon River. In countries like the United States, going to the gas station means driving up in your car.  It means that in Brazil too, but for much of the traffic in Amazonas, the travel is by boat on lots and lots of rivers of various sizes. And that means having gas stations that float on the water.