This week I am in Brazil with my good friend Abe Bicksler and nine UI-ACES students. The Sustainability Spring Break Study Trip is being hosted by Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a diversified organic coffee plantation, near the town of Mococa. Here we are learning first-hand about sustainability, and developing ideas for potential research projects that will help the owners of FAF realize their vision of a truly sustainable farm.
Friday, March 27
We were looking forward to what was planned for Friday, but couldn’t believe it was already our last full day in Brazil. We rose early, ate a quick breakfast and piled into our rented van. The plan was to go river rafting down the Rio Pardo. It was about an hour drive on roads of varying quality, past a sugar cane refinery, and finally to a little motel/resort type establishment where we were outfitted with life-jackets and helmets.
Helmets? I thought we were just floating down the river.
We loaded ourselves into an old school bus and rattled over more dirt roads. Finally, on the bank of the river we were schooled in basic paddling and the instructions we would need to understand (in Portuguese) so that we
would know WHEN to paddle. We were divided into groups of five and six and assigned our paddles and rafts. Once on the water our boat captains reviewed our instructions and we practiced while we were still in calm water.
Still in calm water? I thought this was just going to be an easy float down the river, quick, safe, calm. What’s going on here?
Next our captain gave us detailed instructions on what to do if the boat turns over, how to float through the rapids and get back in the boat. This was obviously not going to be what I was expecting. Next our instructor got us ready to be intentionally dumped so we could practice. Cool! In we went. The instructors were very experienced rafters and good teachers. They let us float (without the boat) through a class-3 rapid. A couple more rapids in the rafts and we were pros. Finally we got to some water that we couldn’t do without a lot more training so we disembarked and walked down river to rocks from where we could watch our captains go through the big water without us. They let Jason Barton join them because he was experienced. The last wave of the class-5 (class 6 is the highest) rapids was just off the rocks on which we were standing. The captains rigged up a rope with a loop on one end, then demonstrated our next option. One of them, with the rope looped around his wrist jumped into the open mouth of the monster rapid. When he came up a couple seconds later the guy on the other end of the rope pulled him back around to shore. We all ended up doing it, and it was a blast. All of us were commenting on how different this was from a rafting trip you might find in the states. They actually let us do some very exciting stuff, but not before they trained us and let us practice. The people in charge were very professional and very competent. None of us felt unsafe in the least.
After rafting we drove up some steep rocky roads to an diversified organic coffee farm in the mountains. Emilson and his family welcomed us with a delicious lunch and traditional Brazilian songs on the guitar. We also got a tour of the farm. On this farm there is no waste. Every thing is used and re-used. Within a home-made digester they capture methane from the pig and cow manure and use it for cooking in the kitchen. Catchment ponds grow fish they sell at market. Weeds in the coffee were controlled with a weed whacker and free-range chickens. They use propolis from their honeybees to treat leafcutter ants and fungus in the coffee. They grow most of what they eat and take things to market weekly. Coffee is the main cash crop, and Marcos is helping Emilson market his coffee based on quality. Like Marcos, he gets much more for his coffee than his neighbors.
Back at the place we have started calling “our farm” we cleaned up and had our group time before the party was to start. It was our last night and we were starting to sense the end and feel sad, but we put it on hold to make homemade pizza and have one more night of fun.
People started arriving. Almost everyone we had met and visited with during the week showed up. It was a great time to say thank you again and good bye until next time. We had become so fond of all these people. We had started to really feel a part of this beautiful place. The next morning at the little goodbye ceremony, we gathered in a circle, holding hands, I realized again what it feels like to leave a piece of your heart somewhere.
For more pics, click HERE.
The plan was to leave by 8:00, spend some time in Sao Paulo before heading to the airport about 5:00. Me and Daniela where talking about it, planning, when she said to me, like she thought I might be upset, “You know, you may not get away exactly at 8:00.” I said, “Daniela, I am absolutely certain we WON’T get away anywhere near 8:00.” Then we laughed. We had definitely become Brazilian in our attitude towards time.
It takes a long time for 11 people to get packed up, organized, loaded up and ready to leave from a place. In addition we had to say good bye to everyone about four times, before we got to the real goodbye, the one that happened right before we all finally climb into the van to drive away.
But it worked well. By the time we finally did drive away almost all the tears had been shed and much of the sadness of it had drained away. It was probably closer to 9:00 when we finally drove off. I didn’t even think to look at my watch. I only know this: I’m already looking forward to going back.
Thank you again to our hosts and all the people at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza for taking such good care of us, and making our week so memorable. Also to all the people in the Igarai and surrounding farms who visited with us and allowed us on their farms — thank you, thank you, thank you!
A special thank you must be said to our good friend Rafael Perroni. Marcos asked him to meet us at the airport and guide us to the farm. He was there with a smiling welcome and his “University of Illinois” sign. He even took the time to download an image of the block I. He helped us exchange currency and was our life-line to the Portuguese language. A college student himself, his school was not on Spring Break, but he ended up skipping class and staying with us the entire week. He was a huge help in so many ways. We would not have survived half as well without him. We all became very fond of Rafael. I consider him to be a close friend and brother. When one of the students had to stay over an extra night, Rafael made arrangements for her to stay in safe place in Sao Paulo and he watched over her until she was safely on the plane. Rafael, you went way beyond the call of duty and we all appreciate putting your life on hold to help us through the week. You are our good friend. Your Grandfather would be proud! Please come visit so we can return the blessings.