American Civil War Museum

Reading this week:

  • Moon Witch, Spider King by Marlon James

Look, loyal reader(s), I feel kinda bad. I feel like whenever I talk about an art museum, as I did just last week, I leave on a total downer about the injustices of the world. There are many injustices, and none should be glossed over, but still, I feel bad about leaving you on a downer. This week I shall try to do better with a subject that will lift all of us up: civil war.

As previewed in my Richmond post, one of the things my super amazing girlfriend and I did was visit the American Civil War Museum. I was worried. I was wary. I didn’t know what kind of museum we would find. Back when I lived in Charleston I visited Fort Sumter and look the museum didn’t go out of its way to paint slavery as all that unpleasant nor did it point out while The Citadel is very proud of the fact they fired the first shots in the Civil War (on the wrong side, to be clear) they really shouldn’t be. Jeez I hate The Citadel (look at that “War Between the States” bs). So being a Civil War Museum in the capital of the Confederacy, I didn’t quite know what to expect.

Lee’s boots and sword belt.

All that to say the American Civil War Museum was really good! I have a few quibbles. They bother to go into the whole “Lee couldn’t decide which side to fight on” thing, which as I have discussed here I think is absolutely a ludicrous way to frame a betrayal of your country in order to uphold the institution of slavery. There was also a concerning placard mentioning that Black soldiers fought on both sides of the war, but pleasingly they have a much more nuanced blog post about the issue. Though honestly it seems like the bedrock and raison d’etre of the ACWM is to house some really old food:

Of all the things in the museum this is the thing that stuck out to me the most, just the astonishingly high amount of old food on display. In the above photo, clockwise from top left we have: a piece of hardtack provided to Pvt. Thomas Penn (CS) upon his release from Point Lookout prison camp in 1865, a piece of bread given to a Confederate soldier when discharged from Fort Delaware in 1865 (along with bread plate wielded by Emily H. Booton), coffee beans (and sack) exchanged for tobacco by Lt. Joseph R. Taylor (CS) in 1863, and biscuits left over from the siege of Vicksburg in 1863. I suppose at some point you can’t get rid of this stuff and it makes you wonder how many old chunks of food they have not on display. How much of the museum’s budget is spent on climate control to keep this stuff from disintegrating? I mean probably not a big part but makes you think.

But back to the museum being good (besides as a sort of historical larder). They had a range of interesting (again, non-food) artifacts on display, like the pocket telegraph unit and telegraph wire above. Given the carnage and senseless bloodshed of the Civil War it is easy to forget how modern the whole affair was (I don’t know why carnage and senseless bloodshed makes that easy, now that I type that out). They also had on display a chunk of a balloon used for spotting over enemy lines. They tell a really good overall narrative of the Civil War and make sure to highlight plenty of the horrors and depravations it entailed. The path they had you wind through the exhibits wasn’t miles long so there was only so much of the story they could tell, but still it was pretty good. I appreciated that at the very end of the narrative portion of the museum they close out with the sign that reads “Did slavery end?” just to make sure you don’t walk out of there with the Civil War tied in a pretty little bow.

However, I thought the best part of the museum was actually upstairs. I think they’re temporary exhibits, but they had two very interesting sections on the war’s effect on U.S. money and monetary policy, and another section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy. The stuff on money was interesting because it is another avenue to explain how the Civil War impacts us even today (besides, like, the obvious). The section on the Confederacy’s foreign policy was even more important I think because it really puts a light on their ideology. For all the talk of them more or less just wanting to be left alone to treat Black people as something other than human, turns out they also wanted other people to betray the natural rights of those of African descent as well. It details how they searched for allies in Brazil and Spain and wanted to expand slavery back into Mexico and other Caribbean countries, and actively too. Tell you what man, good thing the right side one. And too bad we haven’t been more forceful in remembering that.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

As I coyly mentioned last week in my post on Richmond, we did some big things in and amongst the little things we did. One of those big things was visiting the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which was quite an experience!

Having alighted from the train and had our fill of Chinese food, my super amazing girlfriend and I proceeded directly to the museum. She has the habit of looking things up beforehand, so maybe she wasn’t impressed, but I was extremely impressed by the size of the museum and the breadth of the museum’s collection. Not that the state of Virginia, of which we are both at this point proud(ish) citizens, isn’t impressive or anything, but who woulda thunk that Virginia would have put together such a gigantic art museum? The art ranged from contemporary to ancient, and from lifelike portraits to impressionist to beyond. For dedicated art lovers I recommend several trips; much like my experience at the Yale University Art Gallery the collection is so wide-ranging that it becomes overwhelming to one’s aesthetic sense.

One thing I especially liked about the museum is that it very much felt like a community space. Admission is free for everyone (though there are certain exhibits that have a separate admission) and there is wifi, so there were people clearly just hanging out and doing work or whatever while absorbing all the culture. The picture above is of the courtyard/sculpture garden space they have right outside the museum, and the photo fails to portray how many people there were just milling about enjoying the space. There were families with little kids, skateboarders practicing their tricks, and at least one man eating out of a bucket of fried chicken while his girlfriend looked a little bored (not me, to be clear, with the chicken).

Having wandered in without plan or indeed a map, the first wing we perused was some more contemporary art. The one contemporary piece of artwork I am going to show you as a representative sample is the above Horseman by Cynthia Carlson from 1974 (maybe half a century ago isn’t so contemporary). My photo doesn’t do it justice but the paint in this piece of artwork is thick like frosting, literally applied with cake-decorating tools as a comment on “women’s work.”

Other notable artworks were some modern-day masters, such Sisters (Susan and Toni) by Barkley Hendricks (VMFA frustratingly doesn’t appear to have an online catalog of their collections) and a sculpture of Paul Mellon’s head that looked like I imagine it would if place on a spike; he got this treatment due to donating a lot of money, it appears. Besides these galleries we also saw a collection of works by the Fabergé workshop, including several eggs, works on paper that meant, in this case, gorgeous Japanese woodblock paintings, and a huge hall of Egyptian art, including the obligatory dead guy the morals of which we won’t go into because we got other things to talk about.

Again, since I don’t read things, it was my girlfriend that informed me that the VFMA is known for its very large collection of African art. The picture above captures one small portion of a very large gallery arranged largely by geographic location of the arts’ origin. The gallery is kind of hidden in the back of the museum and it took us a bit to find it, but it is certainly worth a look. I won’t discuss the artificial distinction between “Egyptian” and “African” art, but within the African art section they had a range of religious and ceremonial objects and even things like iron currency.

However man this museum seems like, five years behind the curve when it comes to restitution and deep thinking about African art. If they didn’t seem like such sincere and nice people I would think they were courting controversy. For example, the sign they have by the door of the African art wing proudly proclaims that they are actively trying to acquire “rare works from antiquity,” which, I know what they mean, but man maybe read the room guys. In the above photo on the left is a statue of Maximilien Balot, who was killed in response to the cruel treatment perpetrated by the Belgian colonial administration. The statue was likely created as a way to immobilize his spirit. I don’t know if the controversy had erupted at the time, and I took the picture just because I hadn’t run into anything exactly like it before, but man it is a whole thing. And then, of course, they proudly display their de rigueur Benin bronze, even at a time when we are firmly on the side of restitution. After I visited the National Museum of African Art and wrote about it, next thing you know the Smithsonian is working to return their Benin bronzes, so maybe I can make some changes here too. The plaque next to the VFMA’s doesn’t even mention why this bronze no longer decorates the royal court in Benin City.

Overall the VFMA is a very nice museum and well worth a visit. It is a wonderful community space and I am very glad people are able to access all the culture and history it collects. I know I like to complain about these things but you gather enough of another people’s culture under a roof and you are going to run into problems of equity and historical wrongs that require contemporary solutions. But man you should make sure you are making an effort towards righting those historical wrongs before saying you want to buy more of them.

Richmond

Last weekend, both as I write this and per the inaccurate time of publication, my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Richmond. There were several reasons we went to Richmond. I think first and foremost because my super amazing girlfriend read an article about going there by train from DC. The second is that we are both a fan of train travel, so having read about the train thing we of course had to give it a try. The third is the fact that we are both now proud Virginians, so it made sense to see the seat of our government and contemplate yelling at the anti-mask brigade there.

It was a lovely train ride! The most harrowing part was getting to the train via DC’s other train system, the metro, which I love but is suffering from a lack of preventative maintenance right now, the poor thing. But we made it and I read while Krista read and then also knit. Unfortunately the train to Richmond doesn’t deposit you in Richmond but outside of Richmond, and it being lunchtime we hunted for nourishment in the cold and wind-swept plains of the Staples Mills strip malls. We found a Chinese place with quick and reasonably priced fare and, having prepared ourselves both body and soul, caught a ride into the beating heart of Richmond.

Small-W wontons.

During our time in Richmond we did several big things, which I shall detail in the coming weeks as part of my ongoing efforts to milk my life experiences for content. Truly I am the first person to ever do this so please be patient on this journey of discovery together. In this blog post I shall detail some of the smaller things we did in and amongst the big things.

Big-W Wonton

Perhaps the best of these small things was visiting Chop Suey books. Having really hit it out of the park in Charlottesville it is now Our Thing to go to book stores and yarn stores when we go travelling. Unfortunately Richmond has a dearth of yarn stores, which might honestly be the root cause of some of this state’s political troubles, and only a slightly more accessible selection of used book stores. Chop Suey was the only one we wound up at, but quality made up for numbers. The most significant discovery here was made when my super amazing girlfriend reported to me that there was a fake cat on the chair in the children’s section. I went to investigate and marveled at the realistic paws on the fake cat, and then was even more impressed with the realistic simulated breathing, and then utterly floored when the cat moved its head and turned out to be real. The cat was named Wonton and from all accounts completes his myriad duties as a bookstore cat, i.e. napping in various locations, with aplomb.

From the bookstore we proceeded to our hotel, which was fancy enough that the wifi was not free but had a fairly expansive view of the river. Inspired, we got a closer view of the river by proceeding to walk eastbound down the canal along the aptly named canal walk. Richmond has made the walk along the canal very nice, and although it was a bit chilly as we explored (not Richmond’s fault) that meant we had it largely to ourselves. We walked along it for several locks and we both enjoyed spotting various pieces of infrastructure along the way. If you’re a fan of infrastructure they have plenty to see, from flood control walls to train trestles to draw bridges, not including of course the canal itself. A lovely dinner capped off the night and we returned to our hotel to be energized for the following day.

Infrastructurrrrrrrrrrre

We used that energy the following day to once again explore the canal. This time we proceeded westbound, on our way to (not the ruin the surprise) the American Civil War Museum. As picturesque as the eastern portion of the canal is, the western portion tops it for sure. This is not least because there are a lot more pictures, painted on the walls of various former structures. It also deposits you at a bridge you can take across the river, which is a wonderful thing in and of itself but also provides impressive and informative views of the whole area. Once a historian friend of mine told himself off for saying that one location had any more history than another, but in this case you can see a lot of the history in this location via various old bits of (you guessed it) infrastructure. Plus it was sunny and just generally a nice place to be. There were also monuments.

After doing a few more big things, and also there were elaborate waffles at one point, and secret sandwiches at another, we head back out from town, caught our train in the nick of time, and deposited ourselves at the food of the mysterious temple to George Washington that is perhaps Alexandria’s most famous landmark, we walked home to our cat who we assured ourselves missed us very much. We had certainly missed her but it is sometimes nice to get away from the kids and see a new little corner of the world. I suspect we’ll be back to Richmond at some point; there were bookstores we didn’t get to see.

Savannah Part 2

Reading this week:

  • I Saw Congo by E.R. Moon

The first place we went to on our second full day in Savannah was the Pin Point Heritage Museum. The Pin Point Museum was fantastic and I’m gonna say it is a gold standard for cultural heritage museums. It is housed in the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory, which was for many years the major employer of the Pin Point community. The community of Pin Point was founded by freedmen after the Civil War, and became part of the Gullah/Geechee culture in the coastal region. One of the big claims to fame of Pin Point is being the original home of Justice Clarence Thomas.

The museum was founded and run in a close cooperation with the actual community. Our guide was Herman “Hanif” Haynes, who grew up and lives in the community and told us about his mother and grandmother working in the factory. He brought us through the story of the founding of the community and where the people came from. Then we learned about the fishing culture of the community and the history of the factory. They have a fantastic documentary to watch, and displays talking about how through its exports Pin Point was connected to the surrounding area. I’m going to say the museum is an absolute must-see if you are in Savannah. I always enjoy boats and crabs and the like but what really made the museum great is how it worked to serve the community it was based in.

Heading back into town, the next place we went was the Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum. I really liked this museum mostly because it is filled with ship models and that’s great! The museum focuses on the maritime history of Savannah. It’s housed in the William Scarborough house, who made his money as a maritime trader, and besides ship models in general it houses specifically a huge number of models of ships named Savannah, including one of my favorite ships ever the NSS Savannah, pictured above. That sucker was nuclear powered, and although all ships are beautiful, and nuclear-powered ships especially so, the NSS Savannah was meant to be beautiful and I think they pulled it off. Though, on that note, I noticed this time around the model features a tiny Confederate battle flag, which unfortunately does a lot to mar its appearance.

Knowing my boat obsession, my super amazing girlfriend gamely looked at all the models with me. The house itself is pretty neat too. Although it’s one of the historic houses of Savannah, and there are many, it’s not really presented as a house because it’s gone through so many changes throughout the years. One of those changes was serving as a school for Black children. It was, as a sign in the stairway notes, very inadequate, but it existed and at least that was something until Brown vs. Board of Education. After this museum we were pooped, and headed back to the hotel for the night.

Our third and final full day in Savannah was all about the Telfair Museums. This is a group of three museums and we bought the pass to go to all three. There are various different museum groupings in Savannah and I wonder what kind of inter-museum politickings there are. At any rate, we started off at the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters. This used to just be the Owens-Thomas House, but a little bit ago they decided they needed to Do Better and made sure to incorporate the history of the enslaved persons that lived there. Overall I think the museum did a pretty good job at this, though my one criticism is that they were a bit self-congratulatory about it. Maybe it’s necessary to hype it up to get other museums to follow their lead, but it’s really sort of the bare minimum for a space like this. The above picture is the slave quarters themselves.

The rest of the tour is a fairly standard house tour, and this was the first house tour we went on to like, see the house instead of learn about the people or see a bunch of ship models. I guess the house tour was pretty standard overall, but in the basement they have preserved and put on display more of the infrastructure than usual. They have the ice well and cisterns on display, along with a shower room. They also have on display the kitchen, and put a lot of effort into further documenting the lives of enslaved persons here because it is in the basement that a lot of them would worked. This makes it a lot more interesting than the average house tour and I do recommend going.

After the house we went to lunch, and then after lunch we went to the Telfair Academy. We didn’t get a lot of time here because of how late our lunch reservation was, but it was a great museum and apparently one of the oldest in the United States. The above picture is of their very very large octagon room, full of both large pictures and tiny little ones. My super amazing girlfriend particularly admired a picture of a lady with a goldfish bowl, and since the gift shop conveniently had a print for sale I went ahead and bought it. Although I liked that one a lot as well, the below picture was one of my favorites because it displayed what is nearly my ideal future lifestyle:

Titled “Le déjeuner sous les bois,” the one thing it is lacking lifestyle-wise is of course my super-amazing girlfriend.

Upstairs in the museum they suddenly veered into fossils and some of the more old-timey stuff they had. By “old-timey” here I meant the sorts of things popular in old-timey museums, i.e. random collections of interesting things, which I think would make for excellent modern museums, but there are disagreements on this point. They also have some more sculptures upstairs, and although last week I accused my super amazing girlfriend of plotting to steal a spinning wheel, I too am a fan of textiles, specifically old ones, which I mention because they had a small collection that I found cool:

Also, the below statue was outside, but I took a picture specifically to make a joke about sandwiches:

After the Telfair Academy, we did run over to duck into the Jepson Center, but only got a few minutes in there because our day was running out. We were pretty pooped already, but decided to take one last walk along the waterfront to admire the sights. This was a Friday, and by this time the revelers were coming out in full force. It’s a very nice thing to look out over the river and just enjoy being in the place you with absolutely fantastic company. We had a great time in Savannah and hope to be back soon.

Savannah Part 1

Please enjoy the most stereotypical picture of Savannah!

While on our Florida vacation my super amazing girlfriend and I decided to take a vacation from that vacation and headed up to Savannah, GA. We wanted to get as much travel in as possible, see the sights, and explore exciting new cultures (new for her, because she’s from New England. I, raised a Marylander, am technically from the South). It was, overall, a lovely time!

To start, I want to say is that Savannah is first and foremost a city comprised of historical markers. This is how it seemed to me anyways. As we walked around the city I started taking a picture of every one we passed, and this still only represents a small selection because I never dragged us too far out of the way to take a picture. My impression is that most of the signs were put up in the 50s and 60s, so I had to ponder who was trying to shape what narrative. There were also a number of signs put up more recently. Still, it seemed to me at some point the city decided it was now Historical (as an aside, the city was founded a lot later than I thought, only dating to 1733) and went about documenting it.

Picture taken by my super amazing girlfriend.

The very first thing we did in Savannah was stop by the Savannah Seafood Shack to tuck into a lowcountry boil. We ate a lot of good food in Savannah, with other highlights including Treylor Park for their PB&J wings and The Pirate’s House so we could mark off an Atlas Obscura sight (I dragged us to a lot of Atlas Obscura sights this trip, though my super amazing girlfriend has started tracking her sights as well!). I used to live in Charleston, SC, and my only regret during my time there is that I couldn’t go to more phenomenal brunch places, so tucking back into some southern cuisine was a particular treat. On the way back from Savannah we also stopped by a Cracker Barrel so we could really round out the list of stuff-I-have-talked-up-during-our-relationship, but I was a bit disappointed they didn’t have fried chicken gizzards on the menu.

But now into the metaphorical meat of the trip, instead of the literal. Having tucked ourselves into bed after tucking into that lowcountry boil, our first major destination the next day was the Bonaventure Cemetery. The reason you visit the Bonaventure Cemetery is for the vibes. This destination was suggested by my super amazing girlfriend but I am anyways a fan of walking around old cemeteries. This cemetery wasn’t all that old, being only from I think the 1850s or so, but giant oak trees and plenty of Spanish moss made it clear it wasn’t exactly new either. The site was also previously a plantation, and had some revolutionary war history attached to it.

Since the cemetery is a major tourist site for Savannah, it’s got a whole list of popular graves to see, like that of Gracie Watson above. Again, I dragged us around looking for the ones on Atlas Obscura. I’m trying to think of what I liked about the place without just repeating the vibes line I used in the last paragraph, but no yeah the cemetery is in a beautiful location (though, as a former plantation, with a dark history), with a “bluff” overlooking the river and nestled within trees providing shade. And maybe the best part is just walking around with someone you love, thinking about beauty and other philosophical thoughts. After we were done with that, we went to lunch.

A portrait of Juliette Gordon Low
My super amazing girlfriend plotting to steal Juliette Gordon Low’s spinning wheel to add to her collection.

We began the afternoon of our first full day in Savannah at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace Museum. She founded the Girl Scouts, and the museum is now run by the organization. This was a pretty quick tour, but well done. Most of the museums we went to were having you do self-guided tours due to COVID of course. They typically had you scan a QR code on your phone which brought you to an audio tour you could walk yourself through with. The tour walked you through the house and focused on what inspired Juliette Gordon Low there to found the girl scouts. Besides her uplifting story of wanting to inspire girls of every race and class to better things, I also admired some very nice crown molding and some of her art collection.

After the museum, we wandered off through Savannah, looking at sights including Forsyth Park pictured at the top. We admired more signs, more graves, and a collection of hats before getting a drink at a rooftop bar and tucking into dinner. Afterwards we head back to our hotel, and in my notes about the day I wrote down “lovely showers.” I used to judge events by how nice the shower would feel afterwards. After a day of hiking around Savannah and getting to know the city those showers felt very nice, giving the day quite a high rank indeed.

New York Part IV

I was once again in New York! Except this time the weather was much better! The purpose of this expedition to New York was to see New York. You will recall there has been a pandemic, and so despite spending two years only a very short train ride from the Big Apple, neither me nor my super amazing girlfriend had spent much time there. In the free time between finishing all of our final papers and graduating we decided to head down there and see what there was to see!

The first major thing we went to go see was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I had visited both back around Thanksgiving of 2019, but my super amazing girlfriend had never been. Besides the patriotic fervor that of course burns in her heart, she had relatives that came through Ellis Island and wanted to investigate the origins of her family’s American adventure. I, too, have relatives that came through Ellis Island, but she actually knows who her’s are and was therefore much more equipped to gain deep insights from the experience. Visiting the two islands was very nice and made for a lovely day out, and the only disappointing bit was that the area where you can actually research the people who came through Ellis Island was closed for COVID, seriously knocking the knees out of our attempts to investigate people who came through Ellis Island.

One thing I saw this time that I hadn’t seen last time I was on Ellis Island is a section about more modern-day immigration into the United States. This section had me in my feelings because while it wasn’t exactly jingoistic it didn’t quite reach the full level of reflection that I think the immigration paradigm needs these days. A particular example is the sidebar above. I’ll only bother to link to one random article on the perils of international adoption (which doesn’t even touch on the cultural components that need to be reckoned with), but man that sidebar only bothers to note some minor difficulties before firmly coming down on the side of believing adopting “orphans” from other countries is always a good thing. The National Park could do a lot better than this!

Every time I pose like this I think to myself “why do I always pose like this?” and then I pose like this.

Having gotten a satisfactory fill of American history, our major excursion the next day was up to The Met Cloisters. I am bad at researching the places we go to, especially when my super amazing girlfriend selects the destination, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was nice! When we went they had set up a one-way path through the whole museum for you to go through. When we got to the first cloister (which is a courtyard sorta thing), I took lots of pictures because I was like “I like courtyards so I better document this courtyard, which I assume will be the only courtyard we’ll see, what with most locations in the world only having one courtyard if they have any.” But then we came across several more cloisters and suddenly I understood the name!

Frankly I’m not all that much into medieval art (maybe I mean early modern?), so a lot of the art-art wasn’t totally doing it for me, but I liked The Cloisters a lot. First off, I am still stunned by the concept that you could just go over to Europe, buy loads of bits of old churches and stuff, and then just cart them to the US and use ’em to build a museum. I suppose the Benin Bronzes wouldn’t be surprised, but still. I am also unclear if the various sarcophagi they had still had dead people in them, or if they didn’t where those dead people wound up. The architectural bits were in fact very pretty though! And I like the overall philosophy of just stuffing as many courtyards into a place as you can. We also liked the unicorn tapestries they had, one of which I am doing my pose again in front of above. The Cloisters is nice!

After we finished up at the Cloisters, we took the subway back downtown and wanting to fill our afternoon with something else we decided to go to the American Museum of Natural History. This was nice! I liked the bits about Africa the most. I mostly take photos of very niche things however. The photos above are of some dioramas I found particularly interesting, showing various ways that people had to raise water up. These might have been handy back when I nominally taught people how to fish farm for a living. They had an Archimedes’ screw, which I knew about, but that counter-balanced pot thing on the left would have been a lot easier to build.

I am also a particular fan of reed/grass baskets. This is mostly because back in Zambia I would wake up in the morning and watch my host mom use a winnowing basket in order to winnow, and then go to the Moto Moto Museum and see those exact same baskets in a museum, and I find that funny. The bottom three baskets in the picture above are from various places in Africa, but the basket on top is actually from the United States, woven by the descendants of enslaved persons. I own a very similar one I bought in Charleston, SC. I am writing this blog post from the ~future,~ so I will have even more pictures of reed baskets to show you in follow-on posts.

The various halls of various animals in the museum are a particular bounty for Atlas Obscura, including the gorilla diorama above. I particularly liked it because I have been pretty much literally in the exact spot the diorama shows, which Mt. Nyiragongo in the background. Pretty neat! That’s um, that’s all I have to say about that.

The rest of our time in New York, when not at museums, was very fun as well! We looked around and saw the sights! We met up with a friend of mine for dinner, and also had dinner with my aunt and uncle, and also had dinner with my super amazing girlfriend’s friend! It was great! We had New York Pizza and looked in at least one bookstore! Very nice! All in all a very nice time. On our very last day, as we were walking to the train station, we also got to see “Ghost Forest” by Maya Lin. I thought it was pretty funny that people were just using the trees as like, regular trees, lounging among and against them. On the one hand, maybe that is a pretty blasé way to face climate change and the inhabitability of large swaths of the planet, but on the other hand it’s nice to see people interacting with and using public art, you know?

And so that was our New York adventure. A pretty nice time!!!

Brazil Part 6: Manaus

Reading this week:

  • Peaceland by Séverine Autesserre

This, my friends, I promise is the last installment of my riveting Brazil Series. Thank you for sticking with me for so long. Over the past five installments, I have described how my dad and I landed in Brazil, got on a riverboat, bothered a bunch of animals, and went on adventures, among other things. As I mentioned way back in the beginning, one of the major things that actually drew me to Manaus was visiting the Teatro Amazonas, which was a thing that I got in my head that I wanted to do, probably from Atlas Obscura (where so many of these blog posts originate).

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:

I used to wear shorts.

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:

Brazil Part 5

Reading this week:

  • 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.

It’s just tied up to a tree or something.

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!

Brazil Part 4

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:

Dad is on the left, Elso is on the right.

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!!!!

Brazil Part 3

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: