After finishing the riverboat cruise, my itinerary had given us a weekend in Manaus. I think we spent the time pretty efficiently. The top priority, as I have said like three times, was of course going to the Teatro Amazonas. It was within easy walking distance of our hotel, so we uh, walked over there, and they offered regular tours. I demurred from thinking too hard about the impacts of the rubber trade on the people of the Amazon in my last post, but the Teatro Amazonas was built on their backs. The reason that Manaus is where it is is because it is about as deep into the jungle as ocean-going ships can get. Where those ocean-going ships were going was to haul rubber out of the Amazon, which of course was a big commodity. To get the rubber out of the jungle, the rubber barons mercilessly oppressed the indigenous people of the rainforest, forcing them to harvest vast quantities of rubber and drive themselves into debt to do it. The rubber barons got rich off of this, considering themselves more European than anything, to the point where they sent their laundry to get done in Portugal. Seeking some entertainment at home, they got together and built the Teatro Amazonas.
It’s certainly opulent. They spared absolutely no expense and on the tour they showed us a lot of the features. It even had an intricate ventilation system that came out from underneath the chairs to try to provide the space some air conditioning. It’s covered in busts and has tapestries hanging from it and all sorts of statues. I utterly failed to get a single good picture of the interior, so here is one from Wikipedia:
On the tour they acknowledged how and why the thing was built, but were very proud of all the intricate details that highlighted it’s place in Manaus. There were paintings all over the place of idyllic jungle scenes, and particularly impressive parquet flooring made of jungle hardwoods:
The theater is itself also set in a large plaza with a very nice fountain out front. After our tour dad and I hung out at one of the outdoor cafes across the plaza and enjoyed a beer while plotting our next moves.
The rest of our time in Manaus, and Brazil, was pretty quiet. We went to the Museu do Índio, which didn’t let you take pictures but where I was particularly excited to correctly identify an indigenous still. The museum itself was set within a convent and was a very peaceful spot, with gardens and flowers and if I recall correctly a nice-looking basketball court. We stopped for lunch at a small corner restaurant where everyone was distracted by a soccer game.
We spent the largest chunk of the next day visiting the Manaus Zoo, which if I’m reading everything correctly is run by the Brazilian army, I think to provide an opportunity for their soldiers to see what sorts of animals they’re likely to run into in the jungle. They did indeed have a variety of animals (some pictured above), house in a variety of habitats. Not too shabby a little zoo, and it gave us an opportunity to see more of the animals of the Amazon that we hadn’t been able to bother in person.
After that, our Brazilian adventure was largely done. We spent some additional time wandering around in Manaus a bit, seeing the sights, and at one point eating at a Brazilian steakhouse, or, as they’re known there, a steakhouse. Finally early the next morning we trekked off to the airport to catch our flight back stateside, having had a fantastic time in the great country of Brazil and enjoying our final cup of Brazilian coffee at the departure gate:
The above link will let you download the first installment of a project where I might have bitten off a great deal more than I can reasonably chew. As the title suggests, it is a transcription of every article in The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society relating to their Central African Mission from the years 1876-1880.
The Chronicle is of course a particularfavoriteof this blog. As you may be aware at this point, I served as Peace Corps Volunteer in Zambia’s Mbala District from 2017-2019. I find the history of that area absolutely fascinating. A huge part of that is probably of course my personal connection to the area, but it also represents a crossroads of a complex array of different historical crossroads that I love to uncover. I’ve only come across it (relatively) recently, but The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society has been a really interesting resource to learn about a lot of the history of the area.
As you’ve gleaned from the title, The Chronicle was the monthly publication of the London Missionary Society, detailing its missionary efforts around the world. One of those worldwide efforts was what they dubbed their Central African Mission. There were a lot of different missionaries in a lot of different locations in Africa, but the missionaries in the area that would become Mbala District were representatives of the LMS. As The Chronicle documented the efforts of the Central African Mission for the benefit of its readers and the patrons of the LMS, it provides a glimpse into the area as the first Western missionaries and colonialists arrived, usually with first-hand reports. Therefore, it provides some of the earliest accounts of the people and areas that I would live in nearly a century and a half later.
One of the advantages of The Chronicle is that it is all available online, via Hathitrust, Google Books, and the Internet Archive. However, those resources can be hard to use. Despite the power of text recognition these days, the automatic text recognition in the files you can download online is not great. This makes it hard to search for things within them. Also, despite the power of the various search engines, the pictures from The Chronicle don’t show up when you search for the topics. This keeps a lot of really interesting information buried unless you painstakingly scroll through every issue.
What I therefore wanted to do is painstakingly scroll through every issue, extract all the pictures, and transcribe the text by hand. My goal here is to make the information far more easily available online to the casual researcher, like I was back when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer living in a mud hut just trying to learn more about the history that surrounded me. When I got the bright idea to do this, I pondered idly how far I should go. Should I stop at WWI? WWII? But then I got started.
I haven’t exactly been working on it full-time, but doing the first five years has taken me months. And these people were wordy. My end goal is to have a final consolidated document, ideally with some useful timelines and an index and a table of contents, but I have decided in the interim to release the results in five-year chunks. This is to make the project more manageable and to start getting things out there in the world. If or when I get the final version out into the world, it is going to be massive. The first five years, 1876-1880, have clocked in at 138 pages and over 81,000 words already. It’s supposed to be impressive that Hunter S. Thompson typed out The Great Gatsby, but that novel is only 47,000 words.
Despite my enthusiasm for getting out these first five years, I want to warn readers that it will not be a perfect document. I tried to be constantly proof-read as I typed it out, but I didn’t go back and check my work or anything, so there are probably errors. I was also in the process of making some editorial decisions I haven’t settled on yet. In the final document, I think I would like to standardize and modernize all the names, to again make it easily searchable for the casual researcher. Even in these five years the editors at The Chronicle had a few different spellings for some of the same people and places. That would still be a monumental undertaking once this thing is all done, again just because how long it is. One decision I have already made is that I Americanized all the spellings, but only because I am American and couldn’t be bothered to change the version of English on my spell-checker.
There is also some necessary editorializing to just pick out the articles relevant to Central Africa. Some articles are only tangentially related to Central Africa, and sometimes I left those out, but sometimes I added extra when there were interesting details about the Society’s finances, for example. They also have (tautologically) every year their Annual Report, which is both generally incredibly wordy and also only specific passages will pertain to Central Africa, so when I include those passages they’ll seem potentially disjointed. I also always skipped the individual donations noted in The Chronicle, though sometimes if you read into them they contain hints of very interesting stories. Despite trying to be painstaking, I might have missed something that could be important.
I am comfortable making these changes because I don’t intend this to be authoritative; my vision is that it will allow people to find articles and pictures useful to their research, and then they can use the year, month, and page numbers that I noted to go back to the source material and pull their information from there. If you find this document useful, I would be absolutely delighted if you let me know by uh, I can’t think of a less cringey thing to say than “by posting a comment below.”
It is important to say that I don’t endorse what the missionaries were trying to do. Missionaries and colonialism are big complicated topics, and fundamentally these people were going to Africa with the goal of totally upending a people’s religion and way of life. I value this resource because they do try to document a lot of the life there, even if their perspective is biased. Clearly, their language is going to sometimes be far from kosher, and even as they refer to some of the people they meet as friends their default assumption is that the people they are coming to proselytize to are “dark and degraded.” However, we are intelligent historians, and it is possible to understand the missionaries from their perspective without endorsing their beliefs as our own.
That is the project I am trying to undertake. But in the first five years of the London Missionary Society’s Central African Mission, what happened? There may have been earlier mention of the idea in The Chronicle, but I started in 1876 because that was when the earliest serious rumblings about a mission started. The most important impetuous was a conditional donation by one Mr. Robert Arthington of £5,000 (about $800,000 today) if the LMS would undertake a mission on Lake Tanganyika. From the start he wanted them to put a steamer on the lake, but that would still take a while to come.
The Directors of the LMS decided to undertake the mission and sent out Rev. Roger Price to investigate what would be required. Reading between the lines of The Chronicle, I think the LMS had a few mixed motivations for undertaking the mission. As a non-profit organization, they were always looking for funds, and the offer of £5,000 could not be turned down lightly (though the organization would feel a squeeze within a few years due to the expense of supporting their new mission). There was of course also a keen missionary zeal. It’s an organization run by and for people who liked to go out to the far corners of the world and preach, and so any new field held an enticement for them. I also think there was a bit of a missionary scramble for Africa, with the LMS winding up on Lake Tanganyika because choicer spots on Lake Malawi (then Nyassa) and closer to Zanzibar had already been taken. Nonetheless, out they went.
With a favorable report from Rev. Price, they soon dispatched the newly minted Rev. Arthur W. Dodgshun along with Revs. J.B. Thomson, and E.S. Clarke. They also sent lay members Edward C. Hore and Walter Hutley. They departed England from March to May of 1877. The next longest chunk of time would be spent just getting to where they were going. The Chronicle details in uh, detail, the monumental trials to get themselves and all their stuff overland to the Lake. Their vision was to set up a mission station about halfway between Zanzibar and Lake Tanganyika and another on the Lake itself. By the time they realized the beginnings of that vision, Revs. Thomson and Dodgshun would be dead. Central Africa was stunningly deadly for the missionaries that went there. At one point, in a crunch for missionaries willing to reinforce the remaining men after the losses, the Society’s Foreign Secretary Dr. Joseph Mullens volunteered himself to go. The Directors were reluctant to let him go, but I think this was a case of a man wanting to relive his glory days. As it was, he too died before ever seeing Lake Tanganyika.
By the end of 1880, however, they had successfully set up mission stations at Urambo, Ujiji, and across Lake Tanganyika at Uguha. Apart from the original cohort, the mission had been supplemented by Revs. William Griffith, A.J. Wookey, and David Williams, along with Dr. Walter Palmer and Dr. E.J. Southon. For me, the story really gets exciting towards the end of 1880, because our favorite mariner Edward C. Hore had taken an excursion to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, where he talks about my main man Tafuna and my good friend Chief Zombe. There were also further rumbles from our mysterious man behind the scenes, Mr. Robert Arthington, who was offering another £3,000 to accelerate the project of putting a steamer on the Lake.
Disappointingly, only two pictures relating to the Central African Mission were published in The Chronicle during these five years. The first is at the top, depicting the grave of Dr. Mullens. The second was a map showing where the various missionary societies had staked their claim. It’s included in the PDF, but the best map I’ve found so far comes from another pamphlet published in March 1879 by the London Missionary Society succinctly titled “The Mission in Central Africa, from the Letters and Journals of the Revs. J.B. Thomson and A.W. Dodgshun, and Messrs. E.C. Hore and W. Hutley.” I have included a crudely cropped version below (to save myself some filespace here on WordPress, but click to embiggen) with some of the most oft-mentioned placed highlighted, but the full version is available here (on Page 3 of the scan, and you get the best version if you download the jpg of the page). The scan could be better, but when I went to check if there were any copies for sale the only one I found was for £350, so I won’t be adding it to my personal collection anytime soon. The map is from 1879, so there are plenty of white spaces, but it highlights the route the missionaries took to get to Ujiji:
And so that’s the first five years of the Central African Mission, as told in the pages of The Chronicle of the London Missionary Society. I hope someone else finds this project useful and good research comes out of it. The area is sadly lacking in scholarship, and maybe we can help rectify that. I tried to summarize the major points above, but despite being wordy at times this saga is full of twists and turns and hope and despair and triumphs and failures, and sheds light into some of the earliest interactions in an area that would help shape world events, and so there’s little way I could have done it justice. I’m not the first person to discover The Chronicle, but hopefully now more people will, and help tell the stories of the people of Central Africa.
The Struggle for Zimbabwe by David Martin and Phyllis Johnson
Thank you for sticking with me on so many weeks of this Brazil journey! I promise this week I will wrap up the river cruise portion, and then next week I’ll probably do all of Manaus is a single post. And then! And then hopefully something noteworthy will be going on in my life, and I will make a note of it here. Until then, Brazil.
Now, we didn’t only bother wildlife and chop down trees in Brazil. Sometimes we met people! A chunk of these people-meets were in slightly more casual interactions. I thought it was great every single time we met another riverboat cruising down the river, because a lot of the time we would come alongside each other and the crew of each boat would presumably swap news or barter, with us exchanging ice for fish one time that I remember. And then we would cruise along our way. I also liked the see the people living along the river. Some were living on dry land, and had small herds of cattle and the like; when we got the best chicken ever, which I am still thinking about, it was just by stopping by one of these homesteads as we were cruising along.
I also deeply admired the river houses we passed by. Since, as I have revealed previously, the river level changes dramatically over the course of the year, a large chunk of people live in houses that float, like the one picture above. These are built on the top of gigantic floating logs that provide buoyancy. If I couldn’t quite afford a whole riverboat in my retirement, I was able to easily imagine myself living a life in one of these floating houses. We only personally got to visit one (the one above), because it was also a store:
I loved this store. Talk about character! There was a big ole’ crocodile skull on the counter, for chrissake! (I guess technically a caiman). Hello my Super Amazing Girlfriend, this right here is my retirement plan: sell cold drinks, pans, and fishing nets out of a floating house on the Amazon. Dad, at my prompting, bought from this store the paddle pictured at the very top, versions of which we saw in tourist shops in Manaus for much more than whatever dad paid for it.
Another fun excursion we went on was to a rubber farm. I don’t quite have the room here to talk fully about the long history of exploitation when it comes to rubber harvesting in the Amazon (maybe I’ll touch on it more when I talk about Manaus), but we went to go see how rubber harvesting is done. Basically, you have a plot with rubber trees, and then the tappers will go out and cut grooves in the bark of the trees. The sap will flow out into tins that the rubber collectors have nailed to the trees, and that is how they harvest the raw latex sap. With that sap, the rubber harvesters boil it down until it becomes actual rubber. At the rubber farm that we went to, they also had a variety of small things they had made out of rubber, like a coinpurse or some rubber booties. Elso had dad make the item that he is working on in the above photo. To actually make something out of rubber, they would dip a mold into the latex sap, and then cure the rubber over smoke. In front of the ladies, Elso told us with a straight face that the device dad is making there was a rubber nipple used to help feed baby cows. Later, away from the women, he told us that dad had in fact made a condom. The thing made our entire cabin smell very strongly of smoke for the rest of the week, so, uh, things to think about when you’re trying to choose a condom brand.
Alright enough of people! Back to bothering wildlife. One of the last things we did on the river was to shake a sloth out of a tree. Yeah, I know, gimme a second. The guides had been talking about this all week, and it seemed perfectly normal every time they brought it up. I guess if you’re a sloth, and you’re in danger, your first line of defense is to look like a tree. If that fails, your backup defense is to just let go of the tree you are holding onto. This is not too dangerous in a flooded forest, because they just fall into the water and I guess sloths are good swimmers. So off we went one morning to find a sloth to shake out of a tree.
This all seemed fine until we were actually doing it. I distinctly remember us finally identifying a sloth in a tree and then thinking to myself “wait… are we the baddies?” This did not deter Elso and his buddies from zooming up the tree and shaking the branch that the sloth was holding onto. This sloth, however, was stubborn. Turns out, that might have been because she was carrying a baby on her back. I felt bad about this the entire time, let me tell you. But eventually Elso shook the branch enough that the sloth finally activated its backup defense mechanism and dropped into the water. The only people left in the canoe were us tourists, so Elso was soon shouting for us to grab the sloth. I, for once in this trip being the brave one, plucked up enough courage to snatch out of the water a poor little baby sloth who was just trying to get back to its tree. The mom made it to the tree and started climbing back up, while our new friend clutched to the canoe’s life jacket for dear life.
Once the guides had scrambled down from the tree, they helped us all pose for pictures with our traumatized baby sloth. Above is dad cradling the little guy. I actually demurred, feeling terrible about this whole thing at this point, but I still know what I did. Poor thing. After a round of pictures the baby sloth was placed gently back on the tree near its mom while we darted off back to the boat. Elso assured us that everything was totally fine, but still somewhere out there is probably a sloth that needs therapy and I’m sorry, baby sloth.
Like I said, that was our last major adventure on the river boat. After that we more or less head back into town, where we piled back into some cars to drive us to the ferry terminal and take us to Manaus. I had a great time on that riverboat, and I highly recommend everyone give it a go before the Amazon is entirely gone. Or maybe we can work harder to save the thing? Food for thought. But all in all, a very nice time:
We have a brief hiatus next week from Brazil content to talk about a different topic, but in two weeks I’ll wrap up Brazil entirely when I will relate about all my adventures in Manaus, and the real point of this whole trip: the Teatro Amazonas!
On our last riveting installment, named Brazil Part 3, I told you mostly about all the animals we bothered while cruising through the Amazon. In this week, I’ll tell you about some of the jungle we hiked through. There was actually a lot of walking on this vacation for me having signed us up for a river cruise, though considering the cool things we saw, I’m not complaining.
The first thing I was fairly surprised to discover was how like, not strange the rainforest looked. The rain forest had always been this mysterious and exotic place in my head, full of vines and snakes and whatnot. It did in fact have vines in it that you could swing from, and we did that at one point (well, climbed like two feet up and swayed back and forth), but mostly the jungle looked a lot like a number of forests I had camped in as a Boy Scout:
On our hikes through the jungle, our guides tried to show us stuff about living and thriving in the rainforest. At one point, they had us eat a grub (or, at least, dad ate a grub, which he said tasted “like a grub,” and I politely declined). In the photo at the top they showed us how to make fans out of various palm fronds and whatnot, a very useful skill indeed. During one hike we trekked into the jungle and then after we got wherever we were going they told us to figure out the way back. Luckily I was a super-smart Eagle Scout and had studied hard in Navigation class and also noticed the guides had been making marks on trees with their machetes as we hiked along, and I managed to get us out of the jungle. I was very proud of myself. Another survival tip they showed us was that if you let the ants swarm all over you and quickly rub them off, they don’t bite, but do leave a small that discourages other bugs from biting you. Like the grub, I was also too wimpy to try this, but here is dad giving it a go:
These treks also couldn’t possibly go without us bothering wildlife, so here is Elso annoying a tarantula:
One night, we actually stayed in the jungle instead of our cozy bunks on the boat. This was a lot of fun. After we landed ashore, the first thing we had to do was to build ourselves a shelter. This was quite the undertaking. We were of course under the tutelage of our very experienced guides. Step number one was to clear an area to set up camp. This involved clearing away all the small brush and small trees from our chosen location. Dad had a blast doing this. Once he got hold of a machete, he could barely be stopped chopping down the trees that were in our way, and then harvesting the many many palm leaves that we needed to thatch our little hut. Look at him go:
One of the things I remember most from this experience was it being hot. Out on the river, every single day was extraordinarily pleasant. Just the right temperature, and cool river breezes. But man, once you got into the jungle, it was boiling. The humidity was at 100% and there was no wind or anything to keep you cool. Just a whole lot of sweat. I was drenched. After finding four suitable trees to serve as the corners of our shelter, assembling it involved tying a whole bunch of sticks together. Larger poles served as cross-beams, and then small poles as the support for the thatching. The whole thing was assembled using tree bark as rope, a technique I later became very familiar with in Zambia but which was new to me here. After all that thatching was cut down, my own major tasks were trying to help tie stuff together and then handing things to the guides, who were clambering all over the structure. After the roof was on, all that was left was to hang up our mosquito-netted hammocks and settle in for the night. Here is the group posing proudly in front of the structure, and me with half my bodyweight in sweat in my shirt:
Dinner that night was the best chicken I have ever had in my life, as I mentioned all the way back in Brazil Part 2, cooked on a stick over an open fire. The only other exciting part of the night was listening for jaguars, which seemed to be about the only thing that Elso was actually afraid of. In the morning I think he reported hearing them, but I was too blissfully asleep by that point. In the morning we awoke to our guides making us a literal pot of coffee, which I found deeply amusing. We drunk it out of tiny little plastic cups, and all in all it was an excellent morning in the jungle:
And that is where I will leave you this week. Come back next week when I will finally reveal… the infamous sloth story!!!!
The prompt for this post is that yesterday, as I am writing this (you won’t see it until later), I received the first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. My super amazing girlfriend pointed out that it was the one-year anniversary of the pandemic. The reason it is causing me some internal angst is that I only got it because I am a veteran.
Here in Connecticut, they’re deciding vaccine eligibility (at least at the time of this writing, which is gonna be the caveat for this whole post) based purely on age, which I think is probably the best way to go about it. Given my youth and vigor, that would have made me eligible May 3rd at the earliest (at least until President Biden bumped up the time table slightly). However, turns out the Connecticut VA was providing vaccines for any veteran enrolled for health care, regardless of age.
I fretted about whether or not to go get it. I’m very enthusiastic about vaccines in general, and will take just about any I can get. However, during this particular vaccination drive we’ve seen wild disparities in access to the vaccine. As usual, people with money and resources have been able to get vaccines no problem while marginalized communities (I gotta figure out less sanitized language for those groups) have been turned away and maligned despite being eligible. So it felt very weird to me to be able to just waltz in yesterday and get it without even waiting in line.
The level of privilege we afford to veterans in this country is absolutely wild and it has always seemed that way to me. The photo at the top is me as a young Midshipman and it all started there. Even back then I was thanked pretty constantly for my service, despite never ever actually done anything besides go to school. I went to the Naval Academy from 2007-2011, so that was still in the era when 9/11 was a fresh memory and anyone tangentially related to the military got all sorts of free stuff. I think every single one of us felt weird about the whole thing, but I mentally justified my free tickets to Busch Gardens by imagining that one day I would actually do something.
Now, post my military service, I constantly wonder what was so special at military service at all. This hedging might be moot, since no one ever reads this blog, but I know I lived a very particular brand of military life. I never had to face down an enemy trying to shoot me and all my friends, nor did I ever feel that I was in real danger anytime during my service. I was also an officer, which meant that not only did I get eggs to order even when our ship was on a “mission vital to national security” (as the parlance goes), but that I also got to jump right to the front of the waffle line. Even given that, whenever I am afforded a privilege like getting to jump the vaccine line, I’m forced to wonder why I’m so special for this job I used to do.
Military life in many many ways was not a whole lot of fun. We spent a lot of time out at sea away from the world, we worked constantly, and there were a lot of different ways it was potentially dangerous. But is any of that all that special? Long-haul truckers spend a huge amount of time away from their families, but they don’t get the GI bill. Amazon warehouse workers are worked so hard they’re barely allowed to pee, but they don’t get discounts all over the place. And there are tons of dangerous jobs in the world, like loggers and septic tank servicers, but those people don’t get preferentially hired for government jobs and contracts.
I wonder what effect all the privilege granted to veterans has on both them, and currently serving military members. There is plenty of reason to provide veterans with extra resources when you consider that, as a group, veterans can have higher rates of homelessness and suicide than non-veterans (to caveat the other way, I also worry about even bringing that up, because there is another negative stereotype of veterans that they’re unstable and PTSD-riddled, which isn’t true either). My specific worry is that providing all this privilege to veterans is a way to avoid looking at the root cause of many of the problems that military members and veterans face.
The above meme caught my eye early in the pandemic. Even outside a pandemic scenario, I really hate martial metaphors in any discussion that doesn’t directly tie to actual warfighting, and even then I don’t like a lot of the terminology. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was especially queasy about all the “front line” language, and it wasn’t until I saw that meme that I really figured out why. The meme criticizes equating health workers with soldiers because it implies a certain number of health workers are going to die and that’s just something we should accept, instead of it being something avoidable.
In the same way, I think we need to interrogate how all the hero worship of veterans and the military implies about what we expect them to put up with. Another friend of mine from the Navy visited me the other weekend, and we were swapping sea stories when she told me that they recently figured out only at the last minute that one of the sailors she supervised had been planning to murder his entire chain of command (including her) and kill himself on his last day at work. This is a very normal story, actually. One night when I was on duty our topside watchstander (who was armed with a handgun) was talking about wanting to kill himself. I did not handle this situation well (no one was harmed in the end), but frankly it was just like, one of the many annoying things that happened that night. We had a number of suicidal sailors, and like my friend a sailor that I supervised who was armed seriously threatened to shoot a number of people. This event was too mundane for anyone to even tell me directly; I found out about it when it was mentioned in passing in the wardroom.
Suicide is the extreme end of the scale, but there are a whole lot of things that people in the military are just expected to put up with and are somehow considered just the normal and perfectly fine way of going about things. I think because we view military members as heroes that are making a sacrifice, and who will gain benefits for life for these sacrifices, we have no real motivation to actually make their life better. Or, at least, it keeps us from conceptualizing a world where we should do that. Every time I think about the terrible parts of Navy life, I think about the sailors on merchant ships, who do stunningly similar jobs to sailors in the Navy but somehow can also get months off every year just as a matter of course.
There are a whole lot of other things I’m not going to be able to eloquently weave in here that should also be interrogated on this subject (race and class are the obvious ones, but other things too). I think the progressive dream for America is in fact currently being implemented, at least in many ways, albeit it only within the confines of the veteran community. If the progressive dream is good, then it must be good that it is at least being partially implemented, right? But since it is framed as something that veterans “deserve” for their “sacrifice,” I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to work on making military service less of a sacrifice, or more importantly really remember why we granted veterans these privileges in the first place (veterans deserve a lot of things, but since when has what people deserve ever been a basis for governance in the United States?). Until we do the work of figuring out as a nation why we venerate veterans so highly, and importantly what effect and implications that has for every other American, I don’t know if we’ll be able to judge whether it’s more toxic than good.
Last week, in Brazil Part 2, I brought you, my very patient readers, many details about the river boat I stayed on, along with my dad and three German women, as part of a week-long riverboat cruise on the Amazon river and its many tributaries. This week, I shall bring you tales of… adventure!!!!
When I booked this river cruise (I don’t know if you’ve picked it up by now but I sometimes do an absolutely stunning lack of research before going on a trip) I had actually imagined that it would be just that – us on a boat cruising around a river for a week. This sounded great to me and still does. However, turns out this trip was gonna be chock full of adventure. The normal daily schedule for this trip was to actually go on two adventures a day – one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. After the boat cruised to some convenient location, we would pile into the canoes that we towed behind us and go off to look at the jungle. The picture at the top is me in one of the launches, with two of the German girls behind me. I haven’t brought it up yet, but the reason I had that mustache is because at the Academy you aren’t allowed any facial hair, but now that I was a Big Bad Ensign I was of course allowed to maintain my facial hair within normal “Big Navy” regs, which meant that I was exercising my freedom to grow a mustache. My grandma says it makes me look handsome.
Our guide, who I have mentioned several times at this point, was named Elso. He had grown up in the area and told us many tales of going off into the jungle as a kid with his buddies to go hunting and such, only swinging by home when they ran out of coffee or somesuch. He was extremely well versed with the jungle, its inhabitants, and how to find his way around and how to show us all sorts of cool stuff.
One brand of these adventures was going out and interacting with the local wildlife. In the above photo you can see me interrogating a caiman. I think this was one of our very first evenings out and about. The process of catching caimans wasn’t particularly difficult, at least for Elso and his other guides. They shined a flashlight to blind the poor critters for a sec, and then just snatched out and grabbed ’em. The tourists (us) could then pose for photos. In the downtime between caiman photos, we spent the time battling mosquitos. That was a very silly task. During this particular trek I really hated it when someone shined a flashlight, because then you could see the just absolute swarms of mosquitos surrounding us. It was a very, very dense cloud and I have never seen so many mosquitos since. We spent much of the trip rubbing salve over our many many bites.
As I’m writing this I’m trying to remember how much wildlife we actually saw. In some sense it wasn’t all that much, as we cruised down the river there I don’t recall seeing huge troops of monkeys flitting on by in trees or anything like that. We did manage to interact with a large chunk of wildlife, like the caimans I just mentioned, or during a memorable encounter with a sloth I think I will save for next week (not much going on, gonna milk this decade-old trip). I saw a number of animals from far away, as the above photo will attest (the top left photo is a sloth if you couldn’t tell, and the monkey was actually a rather close up one that lived at a lodge we stopped by at). In the mornings I also remember the howler monkeys waking the entire jungle up, and I remember seeing tree branches sway as they made their distaste at our presence known during one early morning trip. Perhaps the coolest thing we saw were some pink dolphins, which we caught only glimpses of. To make up for not having a photo, please enjoy this picture of at least one very pink creature bobbing around in the water:
“But wait!!!!” you exclaim, “What about the piranhas????” Well we did actually see some piranhas; in fact we went fishing for them. As Elso explained to us before encouraging us to jump into the water, the piranhas aren’t particularly dangerous at all during the wet season. With the forest flooded, they can go wherever they want to find food. It was during the dry season, when the piranhas got trapped in ponds with a limited food supply that they become dangerous. No matter what time of year, however, they apparently like steak. Fishing for the piranhas was a fairly straightforward affair; we put a small piece of the aforementioned steak on a fishing hook, and the only trick was you had to yank ’em out of the water real quick as soon as you felt a nibble. Here is me having caught one:
And here is dad proudly displaying our group’s catch for the day:
They later served ’em up to us for lunch. They were good, if a bit bony, and honestly the major appeal was the table-turning nature of it all.
And with that, I think I’ve written enough for this week. I think I can stretch the river boat portion of this thing out for like another few weeks, and then we’ll talk about Manaus itself. Should be a hoot, stick around! Until then, please enjoy this picture of an Amazon sunrise from a canoe:
Last week, in Brazil Part 1, I left you off at the epic cliffhanger of finally, after a plane ride, a boat ride, and then a kinda long actually overland journey, arriving at our riverboat home for the next week or so. It was a pretty neat boat! Here is a more holistic picture of it:
This was a pretty typical boat style in the Amazon. Throughout our week of cruising around, we would pass a number of other boats that were very much like ours, except with different cabin configurations and the like. I would have liked to have figured out where they were building them, and I spent a good chunk of time fantasizing about buying one in retirement and just cruising around the Amazon (provided it’s still there). When we eventually got back to Manaus, it was clear that there were tons and tons of these types of boats:
What I was delighted to learn when we actually arrived is that we had come to the Amazon at more or less the perfect time, at just the tail end of the rainy season and beginning of the dry season. I was stunned to discover just how significantly the river flooded during the rainy season, with the water level being maybe 20 feet or more higher than where it is during the dry season. That meant that our river boat could go all over the place, cruising through wide river channels that in the dry season would be tiny little streams at the bottom of narrow valleys. At night, we would tie up to the very tippy-tops of trees just barely sticking out of the water. Since it was the end of the rainy season, the weather was mostly absolutely gorgeous, with nice breezes keeping us cool as we cruised through some of the world’s densest biodiversity. We did get a few rain showers, but safely ensconced on the boat those were fairly pleasant affairs:
As you’ve probably caught glimpses of, and of which you shall catch more glimpses, don’t you worry, along on the trip with us were three German women. They were very pleasant company to have on the trip, though I remember being very disappointed that they weren’t more impressed with my super cool Actual Naval Officer status due to my being a newly-minted Ensign (“And what do you do?” “Oh, I’m an Ensign.” [here I showed off my Naval Academy ring] “And… what is an Ensign?”). They were backpacking around South America I think, on a very impressive trip, and had opted to “rough” it by sleeping at night in the upper deck in hammocks. That was the option I was initially going to sign dad and myself up for, but at the last minute back in Maryland, unsure of exactly what I was willing and able to put up with in the world, I opted to get us a cabin. This is that cabin:
I took this picture towards the end of the week, and the cabin at this point bears witness to the debris of our many adventures. Since I had paid for the trip, I claimed the bottom, larger bed, relegating dad to the top bunk. The biggest drawback of the cabin, despite it being advertised as its best feature, was actually the air conditioner. This is probably because we had no real idea how to actually operate the thing. When it was running, it was VERY effective, and rendered the cabin freezing cold. We actually asked our hosts for a blanket (there had only been a sheet), a request to which they responded by looking at us confused and then bringing us an additional sheet. Horrible problems to have, I know.
One of the things I remember most fondly about this whole trip was the food. I promise, I have never had so much good food and so consistently as I did aboard that tiny little boat in the Amazon. The cook I remember as being a tiny, old, wrinkly, hobbled indigenous woman, and I swear I contemplated marrying her so I could bring her home to the states with me. Above is a typical breakfast spread, with fresh fruit and fried eggs and local cheese and stunningly good coffee and my absolute favorite, fried plantains. I would eat plantains every chance I got until I was ready burst. Lunches and dinners were also stunning, usually featuring fish just plucked out of the river, along with sausages and rice and of course more fresh fruit and toasted manioc powder to sprinkle over everything. To this day the best chicken I have ever had is a free-range one that our guide had purchased from a riverside homestead that morning and then cooked on a stick over an open fire in the jungle that night.
But that’s just the boat and the lifestyle. Next week, we’ll discuss…. adventures!
As I mentioned somewhat in passing in my last post, back in 2011 I went to Brazil. To set the scene: I was a young, newly minted Ensign, having graduated from the Naval Academy like a month before. I was granted about 30 days of basket! (the exclamation mark is because I couldn’t remember that it was called “basket leave” until just now) leave, and wanted to spend it in some dramatic way. I chose to go to Brazil! Specifically, Manaus! The reasons for this were several-fold: 1) I had for some time wanted to see the Teatro Amazonas. I forget how I first came across the Teatro there, it was potentially on Atlas Obscura, but once I got it in my head I wanted to go that was that. I’m not even like, an opera fan. Next, 2) I wanted to see the Amazon rain forest before it all disappeared. The sense of urgency was probably prompted by both like, reality, and also a memorable display at the National Aquarium which showed in a series of LEDs the whole Amazon disappearing. I figured I should look at it before the illuminated prediction came true. And probably 3), people who go to Brazil go to Rio or something like that, and I gotta be hipster and different!
I had been planning this trip for a bit, but, lemme tell ya, not too well. I convinced my dad to come by offering to buy his plane ticket, which I thought would be relatively cheap for me because I had a voucher due to a disastrous series of events that went down in the American Virgin Islands just months before, but in a fit of Spring Cleaning I think I threw it out. That’s pretty irrelevant to the story, actually. I figured it would be nice to bring dad because I dunno, he’s my dad, and also because he spent several years in Brazil as a youth and I thought his familiarity with the terrain (not that familiar, he had never been to Manaus) would be handy. Bringing Dad along came even more in handy than I thought it would, because this being my first big international trip that I had planned I was pretty dumb (hence my “not planning it too well” comment from the beginning of the paragraph). I had been out of the country before, but other people had planned those things, and I just followed instructions. It was Dad that brought up unsavory topics such as “have you applied for a visa” to which my answer was “what’s a visa.” American privilege at work!
Because by this point we were pretty late in the process, getting the visa was another harrowing series of events involving an impromptu trip to the Brazilian embassy, beseeching mom’s lawyer cousin to act as our legal representative in picking up those visas, and then mailing them overnight to an at-that-point-unidentified motel in Florida where we stayed while watching the Shuttle launch. But it all worked perfectly! I was pretty stunned. If I was by myself this would have been a very short trip, involving me flying to Brazil probably and then flying right on back, if I even made it that far. As it was, travelling there went great, and the only downside was a pretty long layover in Panama which was boring. The only other solid preparations I had made in conjunction with this trip was buying some shirts and pants I thought would be rainforest-appropriate, and trying to study Portuguese only to never make it much farther than “Não falo português.”
The trip itself was to be split into two parts. The second part was going to be a weekend in Manaus, looking at all the sights. The first part was to be a very exciting week-long river cruise along the Amazon! Very cool I know! I was looking forward to this because I like the concept of boats! Dad as well! Awesome. I don’t remember exactly how I found the company, I think on Yelp or somesuch, but I had contacted them via email and I think had to provide a down-payment via international money order or something else terribly straightforward. This was 2011, I guess they might have had a website, but it couldn’t have been great. Nevertheless, I had sent the company my flight information, and we were expecting to be met at the airport by one of their representatives who would take us to suitable lodgings for the night.
And they did! Again it worked perfectly. Dad and I landed in Manaus and got through customs and a very nice lady met us there and between dad, myself, and this lady, we cobbled together enough Portuguese and English to confirm we were the people they were expecting and that we should get into the van. After getting into the van, we proceeded to drive into Manaus. She drove us to a part of town that now, in my worldy and cosmopolitan post-Peace Corps days I would probably find very very lovely, but back then in my cloistered youth seemed suspicious. We arrived at a corner that appeared to hold an office, and she turned around and asked us for the relatively large amount of money our trip had cost, an amount we had on us in cash (as we knew would be required), but which was a fact we were loathe to admit to here in the dark. Dad and I looked at each other, and then dad suggested to our host we pay after actually seeing the river boat, which apparently was amenable to all parties. She then drove us to a hotel and we checked in.
We awoke in the morning to discover that we had already achieved the end-goal of this whole trip, in that the hotel room had a lovely view of both some electrical infrastructure and also the Teatro Amazonas! Looking back at the pictures I had actually identified this the night before, but that makes for a less dramatic reveal. We had an amazing breakfast, and before long our friend was back to pick us up and carry us off to an adventure of a lifetime!
Here a lot of my geographic sense is going to break down. The whole time we were on the riverboat I knew we were like, on the Amazon, or near it at any rate, but I never had a solid clue of our exact coordinates. I only bring that up to say that it was quite the journey to the river boat from downtown Manaus. The first thing we did was see one of the sights of Manaus, which was the riverside fish market. I think the point of this part of the journey was to demonstrate some of the huge diversity of ichthyic fauna. There were a lot of fishes, let me tell ya! None interesting enough that I thought them picture-worthy, apparently, but I didn’t have a way to charge my camera the whole time I was in Brazil so I was worried about conserving battery life.
The next thing we did was to hop on a ferry to take us across the mighty Amazon river. This was super cool, because, as you’ve picked up by now, I like being on boats. Being on this boat gave us an excellent view of the economy of the river. Manaus is where it is because it is about as far up as sea-going vessels can travel on the Amazon. It’s kinda crazy to see cargo ships like the ones I captured above this far essentially inland. Pretty neat!
The big attraction in the middle of the river, however, is the Meeting of the Rivers. At this spot, the dark-colored Rio Negro meets the light-colored Rio Solimões to form I think the Amazon proper. Because of the different characteristics of the rivers, they meet but don’t immediately mix, allowing enthusiastic tour guides to park their boat right on the border of the rivers and provide ample opportunity for neat pictures. If I recall correctly, legend says the two rivers never really mix. So that is cool. After gazing at this, we had more river to traverse, and I remember admiring various ranches with cattle and other animals abutting the river and getting my first glimpse of something jungle-like. After a while we finally disembarked, and then there was a very long (it felt like) land journey in jeeps (or jeep-like things). To break up that part of the trip we saw several more sights, including very large lily pads:
And a cashew in its natural habitat:
Until finally, have a long and perilous journey, we arrived at…
Aaaaaaand that’s where I’ll leave you for this week. Return next week, same time, same place, for the interestingly-named, Brazil Part 2!
I saw the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Not recently of course. Avid fans of space will know that the last time a Space Shuttle was launched was back in 2011. Astute readers of this blog will also know that I have been in New Haven recently because of grad school, and haven’t gone anywhere at all because we’re not supposed to leave New Haven. That has left me with a dearth of things to write about (my super amazing girlfriend (hi!) suggested I write about cats, a suggestion I callously tossed to the wayside, though maybe I could have combined these topics), so I think I will dig through the unpublished annals of my personal history to come up with some things to write about. Thus, today, I am talking about the last Shuttle launch.
To set the scene, it was way back in the halcyon days of 2011. I had, just that May, graduated from the Naval Academy. Upon graduating the Naval Academy, the Navy guarantees you, after your four years of hard work, 30 days of leave. This is nice! There was some special name for it. Guaranteed leave or comp time or something. The name is bugging me. Some people, like the very eager newly-minted Marine 2nd LTs, decided to forgo this leave and jump right into training. Not I! No siree, I took that leave. Plus Nuke School didn’t start until like September anyways. I spent some of that summer in a stash job (the Navy needs to justify your paycheck or whatever, so they “stash” you in a job somewhere) at an officer recruiting office which was both low-stress and illuminating, but for my big vacation I decided to uh, go big. Specifically, I decided to go to Brazil so I could see the Amazon rainforest before it all disappeared.
I did not watch the last launch of the Space Shuttle from Brazil. I watched it from the Kennedy Space Center, which is where they launched Space Shuttles from, but you see it was all part of the same trip, which is why I bring it up, and also some foreshadowing that the next couple of weeks probably will be about Brazil, or what I can glean from the pictures, at any rate. Anyways! I think this was my grandma’s idea (she lives in Florida), or else my aunt and uncle’s idea, who are the kinds of hip and cool people that would come up with the sort of idea to go see the last launch of the Space Shuttle. I was rather excited at the prospect of seeing a Space Shuttle launch. I, being at times uncreative in my youthful interests, used to be a big fan of space, and had even gone to Space Camp when I was younger. And since this was gonna be the last chance to see one, it seemed like a cool thing to do.
I had nothing to do with the planning of this portion of the trip, and was therefore carried along somewhat bewildered at it all, the same way I imagine the various animals they’ve sent to space must feel. The crowd for the launch included my grandma, my dad (who was coming to Brazil with me), my aunt (the three people just mentioned are pictured above), my uncle, and myself (neither of us pictured above). Apparently, to see a Space Shuttle launch, you show up very early, which is why it is dark in the above picture, which depicts us showing up very early. We set up chairs and a blanket to claim our spot on the lawn of the Kennedy Space Center, and fell asleep again.
By later in the day it had become much more crowded. To justify the ticket price, I suppose, NASA put on a whole morning of events for us to watch. They hauled out some astronauts that weren’t flying that day to talk to us about like, space and stuff, and a jumbotron that displayed interesting facts and stuff. One thing I remember being particularly perplexed about was them droning on and on about how impressive the commander of the Shuttle mission, Christopher Ferguson, was, specifically due to all the time he had spent in space (if I’m doing some math right from his Wikipedia profile, 27 days). Meanwhile, they were like, oh yeah and Sandra Magnus is flying too. This is perplexing because Dr. Magnus there, due to a stint on the International Space Station, had spent (again if I am doing some math right) 143 days in space!!!!! A friend of mine tried to argue that ISS time was less impressive than Space Shuttle time, but I’m Team Magnus all the way.
There was some tension that morning because there was a chance that the Shuttle might not go to space that day, which I suppose is always a chance when it comes to these things. Those coy people at NASA also like to amp up the suspense by pausing the countdown at various intervals. But eventually, the Space Shuttle launched! That was really cool! It looked like this:
Please admire the guy closest to the camera, who is my dad, praising the Space Shuttle as the super cool thing it is (as an aside, during nuke school, they tried to emphasize how smart and stuff we were by saying that nuclear submarines were the most complicated machines on the planet, except, they admit in a touch of modesty, the Space Shuttle). I know that picture isn’t very illuminating, so I prepared a closeup:
So that was super neat! As you have gleaned from the pictures, we weren’t particularly close, so the noise wasn’t particularly Earth-shattering or anything, but it was pretty cool! And now I can say I saw it. Having been at the Kennedy Space Center since the wee hours of the morning, at this point we went and saw the rest of it. I had been before (both during Space Camp and like, other times), but rockets are always cool, and especially cool that day was an exhibit they had on Star Trek (the original/best series), which included several sets you could take pictures with. I am a particular fan of the below picture, because it looks like I am in charge of the Enterprise, but my crew has all been turned into children, a fate I was spared from by being on an opportune vacation:
So that was seeing the last launch of the Space Shuttle! Highly recommend, though that’s not a very useful recommendation. Please come back next week, when I will (probably) write about going to Brazil!
Be forewarned! Today’s post is largely me whining. I think there may be a point to my whining, but that is largely irrelevant; I gotta get a post out and this is the only thing I’ve been really thinking about. What am I whining about? I am whining that the world has not heeded all the wonderfully amazing advice I gave in my post Zoom Pedagogy.
As you are probably well aware, unless you are from the future and haven’t learned about it in school yet (or I guess a time traveler from the past just getting their bearings and for some reason using my blog to do it), there is a pandemic on and that has forced many schools, including the one I am currently going to (Yale, nbd) to shift to largely or entirely to remote classes. I am not fundamentally particularly upset about this. I would prefer that classes be in-person and that we could all jostle together and discuss deep thoughts while huddled around tables (or whatever it is we used to do here at Yale, it all seems so long ago now), but it’s vastly better we take measures so that we don’t all die and/or suffer the long-term consequences of COVID. And also while this isn’t the Yale experience I was expecting, I didn’t actually know what to expect anyways before I came to Yale, and I am taking it all in stride as an experience that isn’t necessarily better or worse, but just different. I’ve also gotten very used to not having to run around campus to get to my classes and can instead just open up a new browser tab to get to my next class and being remote makes it much easier to play Pokémon during class. This is not really the point I am trying to make!
What I am here to whine about is the fact that we are somehow not all phenomenal at teaching online. Here at Yale, we have recently begun the spring semester. It will be my second-and-a-half semester of taking online classes (half of the Spring 2020 semester, all of Fall 2020 semester, and now Spring 2021 semester), and I gotta say, we don’t seem to have gotten any better at this. When all of our classes suddenly went online over Spring Break last year, I was very sympathetic to teachers that were struggling to make the transition to online. Teaching online is a very different beast than teaching in a classroom, and it was a hurdle that they were not expecting and is not easy to overcome anyways. But I feel that whatever consensus method we had achieved by about late April last year is just what we’ve been doing ever since.
And lemme tell ya it is not great! That last sentence lacks nuance, so let me put some in. There is a lot of variability in the quality of classes, which comes down to both the fact that some classes lend themselves to the format more, and also a difference in ability between teachers. But as far as I can tell there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to figure out the best way to teach an online class and disseminate that among all the professors. Given that literally every professor here at Yale is taking a stab at the online thing, you’d think it would be a great opportunity to very quickly identify the best practices and the ideas that work and make sure literally everyone knows about them. I don’t seen any evidence of that happening.
I’m getting increasingly frustrated at the little things. I actually have one “hybrid” class, where I am attending in-person (masks, testing, social distancing, all that), but some people are online. The first day of class, the professor was somewhat flummoxed because he had intended to use a white board to keep notes but hadn’t figured out an elegant way to let the online students see the board as well. Then, he wound up walking around holding a desktop microphone because the online students couldn’t hear him. These are little things, and my condemnation here might be a bit harsh, but on the other hand, how do we not have something like a standard package for all of this? That is, as soon as a professor decides they’re gonna teach a hybrid class, why does Yale not have myriad resources that tell them exactly how to do it? “Ah, hybrid class I see. Here is your lapel mic! Were you planning on using a white board? Excellent, here is what we have found is the best way to go about doing that. You’re going to be splitting the students up into groups occasionally? Yes, that is a great learning tool, other professors have found a lot of success using this method…” Why do we have every professor reinventing the wheel for themselves?
There are larger problems as well. My most frustrating experience this semester has been my Spanish class. Again, here I have a lot of sympathy. I struggle to imagine how you could do a really effective online language class with 15 people in it, like we have. If there is a way, however, the Yale Spanish department has not figured it out. One of my biggest frustrations is their decision to go from five days a week to three days a week. When we were in-person, and then last spring when we suddenly went online, we had class for 50 minutes five days a week. Then, in the fall, and now again this spring, they have decided to teach only three days a week for reasons that are mysterious to me. This hasn’t been an unpopular move; it’s kinda nice to free up that block of time on Tuesday and Thursday. However, they still expect the students to do the same amount of work to the same standard. This seems ridiculous to me. If you operate under the belief that teachers add something to a class, then having less time with a teacher is going to make that class less effective. I have to imagine this is especially true in a language course. But instead of cutting out 40% of the work to go along with cutting out 40% of the teaching time, the students are just supposed to do the lessons on their own twice a week. I have found it difficult to teach myself Spanish, which is not surprising, because I do not speak Spanish.
Last Spring, when we all suddenly went to online classes, the school made a huge effort to acknowledge that it was a difficult transition. I realize they were also responding to the pandemic in general, but students were given a lot of leeway in how they managed to achieve the requirements of the course. Professors were told to be very generous with extensions and allowing for Temporary Incompletes with the classes. Every student could change their classes to pass/fail with no questions asked up until the very last day of class. As soon as fall semester hit, however, I guess it was decided that This Is Just What We Do Now, and all that extra leeway was taken away. I understand the need to keep a rigorous standard when it comes to student work, but on the other hand I don’t see that same rigor being applied from above to make sure the classes are effective in the online format. I am floored that a year into online school we all aren’t phenomenal at it, because I feel like we could have been. Where are the numerous online thinkpieces about effective online teaching? Where are the Wikis to cover every conceivable online teaching scenario? Where are the virtual conferences about Zoom pedagogy? Am I just missing them? My super amazing girlfriend, who has thought deeply about education for years, figures that the answer is research universities like Yale just don’t actually care about teaching quality. Let’s hope she’s wrong.