Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Quick Trip up North

Tom was invited to give a presentation on autism in Sao Luis, Maranhao, Brazil. It is a coastal city on the top of the country--very near the equator (HOT!!!). The whole family was able to go, and we had a great time! We flew up there last Thursday, April 18, arriving (luckily) in the afternoon. I say "luckily", because the odds were against us. Actually, my crappy driving was against us...

We had a Young Men/ Young Women activity for our church at our house on Wednesday night. (I am the Young Women President ((?!)) and Tom is the Young Men President). I drove everyone home after the activity. Because of the crazy streets (the streets are COMPLETELY to blame here!), I had to make a U-turn along the way. Our car does not "turn on a dime". Anyway, the curb jumped out and grabbed the front passenger tire. I didn't think I had hit it very hard, and I swore the girls to secrecy. I drove all the way across town to drop off the next group, and as I pulled off of their street, I heard a funny noise and felt the tell-tale "clump, clump, clump" of a flat tire. My heart sank. This was the second time I have done this SAME thing--on the SAME tire--DURING a Young Women activity!! Tom was very forgiving the first time. I wasn't too eager to try his patience this time.

I pulled over and I sheepishly called Tom. I admit, I thought about concealing the fact that I had hit the curb (OK, I concealed it for the first half of the conversation--I didn't hit it THAT hard!!!) We have only one car, so there was nothing that Tom could do. I had the phone number of one of my Young Women, whose dad is a mechanic, and who lives close to where I was stranded. I called and tried to explain the situation in Portuguese. What the heck is the word for "tire", or "flat", or "stranded"?! These are not words in my vocabulary (but, judging from my track record, they probably should be.) Luckily, I still had two of my girls in the car with me. I threw the phone at one of them to explain. After what seemed like FOREVER (probably 20 minutes), the dad showed up. He put the spare on, and we were on our way. By now, it was late, and I still had to pack, wondering with each garment I put in the suitcase, "can you drive on the freeway with a spare tire?" Well, we did. We had to leave at 7am, and there was no way we could take the tire in to get fixed before we left. I prayed the whole way that the spare would hold out, just to the airport. It did. Phew!

We made it for our first flight with plenty of time. We had a quick layover in Belo Horizonte. When we disembarked, Tom checked the flight board, only to find two listings of the same flight/same time departing from two different gates in completely different locations in the airport. So, he asked a gate agent for help, and she directed us to a gate downstairs in another area of the airport. We went down close to our gate and took turns using the restroom. While doing so,we heard an announcement overhead for the final boarding of our flight---back upstairs, where we had come from! So, we hustled through the crowded airport, back up the stairs, and were rushed onto the plane just before the doors were closed. Second phew!

We arrived in Sao Luis, found our driver, and made it to the hotel, only to discover that they could find no reservation for us. The travel agent who was arranging some excursions for us, arrived at the hotel to give us our itinerary, just as Tom was trying to find us a room. He (Tom) was a little preoccupied with our lack of lodgings, understandably, to fully pay attention to the travel agent's directions. We had told him to arrange a trip to a famous national park, Lencois Maranhenses, with huge sand dunes that fill with rain water every year during the rainy season to create these beautiful, crystal clear lakes. But, he had arranged a trip to a different part of the sand dunes with only one large lake that was fed by a river, "So, it is like Coca-Cola, but it is clear." He assured us that this would be a better experience, because the small, more popular lakes were not very full this time of year, due to the fact that the rainy season is just starting up North.  We had to take his word for it. This is what we were supposed to see:

This is what we saw:

Okay, so this was just one of the small lakes along the way, here is where we actually got out and swam:

Not quite what I had in mind, but it was clear; Coca-Cola clear. I took comfort in the fact that the smaller lakes were not full this time of year... until one of the couples on our excursion told us that they had been to the smaller lakes the day before, and they were "spectacular". But, I'm over it now...

It actually was a really fun day. We got to ride on the back of a Toyota truck fitted with seats in the bed:

It felt like we were on safari, with the wind rushing through our hair, bumping around on the soft sand dunes at high speeds. On this special ride, I discovered an interesting fact: while Tom is taller than me, I have a longer torso--(I hit my head a few times when we caught air; he didn't.) We all laughed and laughed--the trip was worth it just for the ride (sometimes it's not about the destination, but rather, the journey, right?)


Keira was excited to finally be tall enough to ride on the "Indiana Jones Ride"!
The dunes were pretty cool, too:
Sand as far as you could see.

Steep dunes with soft sand--great workout!

Jaden conquered the hill!

Flying leap!

Striking a pose

Tom definitely caught the most air

Mom's still got it!

Bathing Beauty

                                                                            Sand Surfing

Cherry Bomb/Drowning

The boy loves digging holes

                                                                    Beautiful girl
After a long and exhausting day, we returned to our resort hotel for some pizza and a good night's sleep:
I forgot the camera at dinner, but you can see the outdoor pizza restaurant behind Marissa and Jaden.

Another shot of the restaurant the next morning. It was surrounded by a thick jungly area on one side, and a river on the other side. While we were dining, it was dark, and loud with the sounds of night creatures, just beyond the dim lighting. It felt like eating at the Blue Bayou, but I don't think the creatures were animatronic.

 The next morning, we went on a boat tour up the river with three stops:


First Stop: Monkeys!

These were pretty aggressive little critters. We bought a basket of bananas to feed them. Tom warned me to guard the basket while he took pictures. I clutched it in both hands for about 5 seconds before these clever creatures outsmarted me! (They work in pairs!!) One of them jumped on my shoulder, distracting me, while the other hopped up on my hip and snatched the basket right out of my hands! We scrambled to pick up the sandy pieces. Everyone got a turn to feed them. One little guy just hung out on my shoulder until the bananas were gone. It was a dream come true! Like I posted on Facebook: I always wanted a monkey. My MEAN parents wouldn't get me one, but my sweetheart got me one for 5 minutes!

Next stop: Lighthouse

Chillaxin'   "Mom, wake me when we get there"

When we pulled up to the dock, a whole gaggle of little children came running out to the boat, each one talking just as fast as he/she could, trying to sell personal tour guide services. We had the convenient excuse of not understanding Portuguese.
It was a cute little town, with artisan shops. They weave fibers that they collect along the river. I got a  handmade bag--I love bags!!

View from the top

Lots of stairs!
Cooling off after our lighthouse tour with a Guarana "Jesus". This is a special brand of guarana soda only sold in the state of Maranhao. It is pink, with a slight cinnamon aftertaste. We grew to like it.

Final stop: Ocean beach!


The waves were big and strong. I got rolled one time and dragged along the ocean floor. I am still picking sand out of my ear!

We all decided it would be safer for me to remain out of the water. Which was fine, since the beach was covered in shells. I LOVE shell hunting! I even found my favorite--a sand dollar!

We had taken a 5 hour bus ride from Sao Luis to arrive at the resort in Barrerinhas for our excursions. Now it was time to return back to Sao Luis. I thought I had seen poverty since moving here to Brazil, but our river ride and bus ride showed me a poverty I have never imagined. We saw huts made out of nothing more than sticks and grass or palm fronds:

These pictures aren't very clear, but the houses were literally framed out of sticks. Some had mud bricks holding the sticks together. Few had windows or doors. They were all thatched with dried palm fronds, sticks, or grasses. There were laundry lines strung up outside, and little children (sometimes naked) running around with the chickens and goats. On the river, there were fishing nets and small boats nearby... And, I complain about not having a garbage disposal!!!
Back in Sao Luis for the real reason we came here--for Tom to work. I am very proud of the work he does! He has been asked to come back and has received other invitations around the country. One of the women who helped drive us around during our stay, thanked the kids and I for our sacrifice of sharing our husband/father with them. She called him a "genius" and said, "The world needs a thousand more Dr. Higbees!" I agreed with her. And, I think it really helped the kids to understand how important their dad's work is to people. Tom gave presentations all day long at his conference on Autism. Meanwhile, the kids and I got a personal tour of the city. It was really neat. I enjoy learning about the history of places. Sao Luis was conquered by the French, only because the Portuguese couldn't get there first; their ship sank on the way. But, after 2 years, the Portuguese came back and reclaimed it from the French. Most of the original houses and buildings in the historic center are covered in Portuguese and Spanish tile. I was told that this was not only for decoration, but also served the function of reflecting the hot sun to keep the interiors cooler.
Cool tiles and cobblestone streets

The king's palace--a museum now, and I think the governor's mansion? It has original furniture inside, but it was closed the day we went. Bummer!

Just a neat building that houses the Marines. It was covered in tile, but the picture doesn't show it.

Beautiful church. I felt a little irreverent snapping photos during mass.

The outside of the church. Oops, not a very good photo. The stones for the walkway and steps were made out of a special Portuguese stone, called, "singing stones", because of the sound they make when struck with a hammer.

Original fountain in the center of town, where, in the old days, people from all over the city would come for their water. Apparently, it was pumped in from the ocean through those portholes, after going through some sort of purifying process.

Old theater with great acoustics, according to our guides.

The oldest church in Sao Luis--Igreja do Desterro--built in 1618 (400 years old!)

Another cool church

During our tour, we spotted a group of people practicing Capoeira--a form of Brazilian Martial Arts. They all sang me a song and showed off their moves. This guy posed for a picture.
Our tour guides, Karina and ? (unfortunately, I couldn't understand her husband's name). They were very professional, knowledgeable, and kind.
They even bought us some fruit at a fruit stand along the way:

This was my favorite. (Marissa's too) Can't remember the name. Looks like an artichoke on the outside. Soft and sweet on the inside.



Overall, we had a wonderful trip--but no rest! We were looking forward to returning home and sleeping in. However, our flight was cancelled the morning of our return, and they were going to put us on a flight for the following day! After a few phone calls by Tom (my hero),  the airline  discovered a later flight. It would put us back in Campinas around midnight. Campinas is a 1.5-2 hour drive from our house. So much for a good night's rest! But, we were ready to go home. We had one layover. When we disembarked, we checked the flight board, only to find no gate listing, just a departure time. So, we parked by the screen, in what we thought was a central location, and watched and listened for announcements. All of a sudden, the screen changed to "final boarding", still with NO gate listed! So, we asked an agent, and were directed down the same stairs we had gone on our flight to Sao Luis! It had a strange hint of deja-vu, but this time, our departure gate was truly where they said it would be. We were the last ones to board the bus to our plane. Third phew! (But not out of the woods yet--remember that spare tire?!) I prayed all the way home on that last leg that we wouldn't arrive in the middle of the night to a flat tire-- 2 hours away from home, and I got more and more nervous the closer we came. But, the tire looked good. The car started... Forth and final PHEW!!!

We made it home, tired and sandy in the wee hours of Monday morning. But, the good thing about homeschooling is, you can sleep in as late as the teacher wants--and this teacher slept until 10:00!