Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mergulho em Abrolhos 2: My dives 1000 and 1001, Aug 4, 2010

This continues my saga of arranging diving in Abrolhos from here:

The diving off Caravelas was to me, disappointing. As you've seen if you've visited the link above, I arrived there Saturday night, discovered there were no liveaboard dive trips going to Abrolhos that week, but I could come back Monday (closed Sunday) and get on a day trip to the islands Tuesday which was really for whale watching and snorkeling, but I could be assigned a dive guide (monitor) and be taken on one dive there.

But as it happened, the boat to Abrolhos on Tuesday broke down in one engine and turned back halfway to the islands. It at least got to an area where there were a lot of whales, and we spent an hour with them. But I returned to Caravelas at mid day still without having got wet with diving. The company that had to abort the trip (Horizonte Aberto) offered all its passengers to come back next day and return for free, and many did, and those staying at my pousada said the snorkeling at Abrolhos was great, good vis and lots of fish. But I had booked the diving the following day (and already paid an advance to book the boat) so I was given a complete refund. When I said that I was going to Parcel das Paredes the lady at Horizonte Aberto said, that's good! That's also a good dive site, you'll enjoy it.
So next day I was looking forward to it as I hoofed it down to the pier (everything is in walking distance in Caravelas, or jogging, as I most often got about if I needed to use the Internet or grab a bite). Rodrigo and Mauricio, a divemaster I'd met whom I was aware would be accompanying us, were loading the boat, which they called a tototo after the sound the engine makes as it chugs to its destination.
Rodrigo had said we were diving under the auspices of Apecatu, the dive center which had a house on the wharf where we had gone the day before for me to try on a wetsuit and BCD. They had taken 3 regulators from there and they were loading these and our tanks from the deck of a liveaboard, the Titan, onto the tototo tied alongside. There was a lot of gear lying about on the liveaboard and I asked if they were taking spares. As people who dive with me know, I always pack a spare dive bag with at least one extra kit. Even when training I take along a spare tank, and I have o-rings in my dive bag. Also, I pay regularly to have my regs serviced, but despite that they sometimes develop leaks, so it's always good to have a spare, and I try to see that I have at least one handy when diving.
So later I discovered there were problems with the equipment. The low pressure inflator connections had corroded on all the regs and were hard to clip into place, though Rodrigo was able to do it. When we started diving I discovered my depth gauge didn't work, so I had a look at Rodrigo's computer, 51 feet (our max depth that dive). Back on board when I asked for another reg I was told that none of the depth gauges worked on any of them and in any event they had brought no spares, so I had to do both dives without a depth gauge.  Rodrigo assured me we wouldn't go over 14 or 15 meters.
On that first dive, Rodrigo had an interesting rig, no BCD (he had rigged an air bladder around his waste for buoyancy control) and he had a harness to carry his tanks side-mounted. He explained the advantages, for diving in caves and wrecks for example, but on the first dive he carried two tanks, each with just 100 bar. This was strange, why not bring full tanks? 
This turned out to be doubly odd because for the last dive, the valve on Rodrigo's tank was faulty and spewed air when turned on, so we couldn't use that tank, and he had brought no others. Fortunately the first dive had been shallow and short and I had consumed just 70 bar, so my first tank still had 130. I noticed when he was testing the valve that his tank had just 150 bar anyway, so I suggested he use my first one, which is how we barely scrounged tanks for two dives.
We were diving in Parcel das Paredes, an area with chamaraos, or mushroom formations Rodrigo said were similar to those in Abrolhos. The boatman whom Rodrigo had hired, who was a very nice fellow, used no means of navigation that I could discern; that is, he had no compass, nor GPS. He steered seemingly by instinct, but one thing I noticed, when we arrived at the site, we still had land just visible on the horizon.
I took over steerage on the return trip because my companions were sleeping in the tiny cabin and the boatman was pulling in a fish on the line he'd trailed aft, and once I got the till, he just left me with it. The one time he took the till back was to get between the waves that marked the safe passage on the return to the river, so that had to be done in daylight for sure.
When I was steering on the return trip, the boatman indicated the direction through knowledge known only to him, so I put my compass on the top of the cabin and navigated according to that, which was between 320-330 degrees. I had noticed on the way out that the boatman had gone southerly and then easterly.The return compass heading gives me a fix on about where we were, more or less 150 degrees from the mouth of the river at Barra, and it took us about 3 hours to get out there going not many knots in the tototo, and a little over two hours to get back. The first and last hours were in the river and its brown water as it entered the sea.
The shoals we dived both had names the boatman knew. The first place was called Pedra de Leste, and the second Sequeiro do Sol. I got Mauricio to write that down for me/

I have been Googling the places we went, and I found this document
It has a map of Parcel das Paredes and Pedra de Leste is indicated as being in (or near) that chain, and Pedra de Leste is also mentioned as being in Parcel das Paredes in this document:
And finally, I found a map of the area at the bottom of this document:
and I hope they don't mind if I put it here, with credit to the makers of that site (and I'll take it down if they ask me to):
The two sites we dived were not far from one another, both essentially the same environment. The second dive was supposed to be on a wreck, but during the surface interval I was told the GPS had been dropped in water, so they wouldn't be able to find its location.
All of this could be taken in stride if the diving itself had been worth the trouble and expense, but it wasn't. There were lots of coral mushrooms, but the bottom was silt here. I stuck my hand in it to check it out and penetrated easily to my arm. The silt made the water milky, so vis was only 4 meters or so. There weren't many fish there, some angel fish, some parrots, some fusiliers, a couple of crawfish. Rodrigo pointed out the fire coral and brain coral and whip, or black coral. It was very poor diving, reminiscent of the breakwater at Abu Dhabi, on the inside, on a poor day. Each dive lasted about 40 minutes including the safety stop, and on each dive I exited the water with well over 100 bar in my tank.

In fairness I have to say I was not there in season.  Apparently in summer (winter in the northern hemisphere) water clarity there reaches 20 meters. Winter, the time I was there, was the season of whales, and there were plenty of those about. As we were about to motor back to port, I noticed spouts on the horizon and got the captain to turn the boat around and go to where the whales were playing. In the small boat we got much closer than we had the day before. There were lots of whales at play but we approached three arching out of the water in unison. They were on the move so by spotting them surfacing more than once we could anticipate where they would come up next and point the boat in that direction. They came up together like three roller coasters cresting and then sinking back gradually into the sea, and then they changed direction and came toward us. But we didn't know that until they re-emerged all together just off out bow, heading our way. That was impressive, and I just managed to get the picture at the head of this post before my camera malfunctioned (I'd just changed the batteries, but they were bad apparently). Anyway, I'll never forget the site of those three whale backs, like glistening elephants, rising together out of the water, arching, and with loud huffing, rolling back under the waves. But they must not have liked our boat because the next time we saw them they were heading away from us.

My trials continued the next morning when I got up to catch the one direct bus at 6:20 from Caravelas to Porto Seguro. Gao had said it stopped right on the road right outside the pousada.  But when it didn't come by 6:30 I asked some passersby what had become of it.  They said, not today, tomorrow.  Huh?  I walked the kilometer into town with my pack and checked at the bus station and there found the words on the schedule Secunda e Seixta.  And that's how I acquired the names for those two days of the week.  Seixta was the next day, Friday.

The next bus out of town was not until 10:00 so I went back to the pousada and rested and then returned to town around 9:00 to use the Internet.  At the station I could get a ticket only to Teixa da Freitas, the nearest transport hub on BR-101.  I already knew, having checked at the station a few days back, that I would not be able to catch the noon bus to Pto Seguro from there (I'd just miss it) and the one after was not until 5 p.m.  So I was anticipating a day just hanging out in bus stations, with an after-dark arrival in Pto Seguro.

On the bus to Teixa da Freitas I read my lonely planet more carefully.  I saw under "Getting there and away" that there were frequent buses to Eunapolis, an hour west of Pto Seguro on the BR-101, so when I arrived in Teixa da Freitas and asked for a bus to Pto Seguro and was told not for 5 hours, I then requested a ticket to Eunapolis, on a bus leaving in only an hour.  If you ask for a ticket to Pto Seguro, they don't offer you the obvious time-saving option.

The day got even better when I reached Eunaopolis and from the bus saw road signs for Arraial d'Adjuda and Troncoso.  I was thinking to go to Troncoso from Pto Seguro the following day anyway, but in Eunapolis it occurred to me that maybe I could go directly there and sleep there.  Checking Lonely Planet I found it had a central square called the Quadrado that was magic when seen at night, and also there were cheap pousadas right on the Quadrado.  

So on the spur of the moment I got the bus from Eunapolis at 6:00 and arrived at 8:00 to find a busy center square lively and brightly lit.  I asked the way to Quadrado and arrived there shortly, was ushered to a peaceful pousada on the Quadrado with wifi, and to make a long story short, it was magic just like the Lonely Planet said, and now I'm writing this over prolonged breakfast, view of the sea from the garden breakfast area, much happier than I would be in hectic Pro Seguro.  Which is where I need to head today, via the coast road and the people ferry across the river into town.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Mergulho em Abrolhos

I came to Brazil as part of what we call FLNW, not much to do with diving, but for what it's worth,

Long ago I met a guy online whose name is Felix.  He was one of the first participants in a community of teachers and students called Webheads,  I almost visited him last century, the year I almost missed Christmas with my family in Houston because I was stuck in Caracas due to incessant rains that cut the road from the city to the airport.  I didn't visit Felix that year due to the expense of going south from Venezuela but I always wished that I had.

So this year, going to Brazil for the BrazTESOL conference and FLNW, I decided to pay a visit to Felix since in 1998 he had been one of my first stops in the future of learning in a networked world.  So I booked a flight from Sao Paulo to Porto Seguro, near where Felix lives.

The day before I was due to fly I caught Felix on Skype and he told me his uncle had just been killed in a car accident and he had to rush there.  He was unable to meet me in Porto Seguro as planned.

However, these days, when you buy a ticket online, you use it or lose it, so I flew to Porto Seguro as planned and after two nights, even with a visit to Arraial d'Ajudos, I was bored and decided to move south to Caravelas, opposite the Abrolhos Islands.

The Abrolhos have humpback whales this time of year and reputably Brazil's best or second best diving, depending on where you get your information.

However, if you don't speak Portuguese you are at a disadvantage if traveling on your own in Brazil. People there resemble Americans (the USA ones, I know, we're all Americans, north and south ... ) in that most speak only one language, and only a few speak a little Spanish.  If you speak Spanish you can accomplish a lot in Brazil in the way of eating, sleeping, and getting around, since the languages are similar, but if you want to arrange diving, which I quickly discovered was mergulho in Portuguese, well, you can see that the languages start to diverge at that point (buscar in Spanish).

In Porto Seguro I looked for any kind of travel agent where anyone spoke English, stopped in at hotels (that's where I learned it was mergulho) but I couldn't find anyone who could advise me about diving in Abrolhos.  My hotel had wireless access so of course while passing time there (while the neighbors were out partying, the quiet time of night, but they returned at 4:30; OUCH, radios, yelling) I got online and managed to send an email to a company called Sanuk Abrolhos via their website.  They responded with a pricelist in Portuguese, I ran it through Google translator, and I replied that yeah I'd like to do that, if I come down Saturday can I get on a trip Sunday?

That was Thursday, no reply Friday, and having exhausted all other avenues I decided Porto Seguro wasn't meeting expectations, I'll just go to Caravelas.  So I went to the bus station Friday and worked out the route  (no other way to get the info but go to the station) and Saturday, won't bore you with details, I wound up in Caravelas at sundown.

Here I found a relaxed but pretty, shall I say normal, or backwater (not sure how to describe it, suffice it to say that everything closes early in Caravelas) town with a main road and a small quarter of streets surrounding a small cathedral, all parked on a river that empties into the sea 10 km downriver at Barra.  I had a Lonely Planet Guide that listed two pousadas in Caravelas and a hotel in Barra for over 100 riais a night.  Commentary on one pousada was that it was nice but  out of town and "there are a lot of mosquitos."  So guess which one I chose (the one in town).

Getting off the bus I asked some people if they could direct me to the Pousada Canto do Adoba.  A couple of locals indicated the direction, one said it was a kilometer and I should take a taxi, I had a backpack so I said I'd walk, and to my surprise he showed me his car and said he would drive me there.  That was my welcome in Bahia, pretty much what I would find as I stayed on. Friendly Bahian people.

At the pousada they had plenty of rooms, I was the only guest.  The lady who ran the place, Gao, struggled to communicate with me but she gave up easily and resorted to the phone, where she called a friend who spoke French. My requests were twofold, diving and wifi.  As I would find out, neither were really available in Caravelas.

However the lady in French directed me to contact Fatima, who worked at a dive center and spoke English. Fatima didn't answer at first because she was at the supermarket.  However when Gao located her, she said they might be making  a two day trip to Abrolhos on Tuesday, she would check.  Later she called back to say that it would be a one day trip, which was mainly for whale watching, but they would be taking people try-diving, and I could join them.  It would be expensive about 400 Riais ($250) for the 4 hour trip out, two hours on the island, an hour diving (just one dive, beginners you know, shallow, splash splash) and then 4 hours back on the boat.  On the upside, we'd likely see whales.

She told me if I was interested I could stop by Monday and pay.  They were closed on Sunday. Sunday was looking to be a slow day in Caravelas.

No wireless but Gao had a computer in her office where the old old dog slept underneath.  Would I mind the dog? she asked.  If not, I could use the computer.  There I found a reply from Rodrigo who had been directed by Sanuk Abrolhos to get in touch with me and see what the heck I was on about in my foreign tongue.

I replied to Rodrigo, telling him I had just arrived in Caravelas, and next morning when I again checked internet after breakfast his reply to me came while I was at the computer. He said there were no Abrolhos trips that week but we could go to a nice dive site halfway.  I dashed back a reply that I'd be up for it that day or Monday and since he had given his number I would call him.

Meanwhile I was motioned to come to the kitchen. There was a guy there named Renaldo, same as the soccer player he pointed out, who spoke some English, and Gao wanted him to help me.  He said he didn't know much about diving but as to my second request, to find wifi, I might check at the hotel in Barra and he was going there, and i could ride with him.

So I called Rodrigo and told him I would be going to Barra and could we hook up later, and he told me he was in Barra at an Internet cafe.  I called Renaldo over, and Renaldo learned over the phone from Rodrigo where to take me to meet Rodrigo.

Rodrigo was a young PADI instructor born in Rio but living in Brasilia, but his girlfriend Luciana, who was there at the Internet cafe, had tempted him to come down to Caravelas and check out the lifestyle there.  So he was on a three month trial teaching diving, which he'd learned in Florida.  This long story I got later down on the beach over several beers and fish and farofa. Luciana was of Italian ancestry born in Curitiba.  She was living in Caravelas traveling 100 km a day on her motorcycle teaching in 4 jobs, which she loved because the people there were so appreciative.  I can relate to that! That's why I'm in Brazil and Argentina right now.  So Rodrigo was living mostly with Luciana in a house in this small town near the beach in Barra, both of them diving at every opportunity (she's a divemaster), and trying to decide if he should make this his life's calling. Duh!!

Let's hope he makes the right decision.  Meanwhile I'm trying to get on a diving trip. Rodrigo was working on a boat for Monday but meanwhile his company was supposed to maybe run out to Abrohlos Tuesday and pick up some people there and bring them back so it would be a three day dive trip for me. Sounds heavenly, expensive probably, but nevermind.  And that's the way we left it on the beach at Barra.

Rodrigo drove me to Caravelas to check if any of the three Internet cafes there were open.  None were so we returned to Barra where I hung out in the Internet Cafe there where I had met him and Luciana earlier and I caught the bus back to Caravelas.  I rode past my pousada into the city center, such as it was, thinking to get a bottle of wine at the supermarket and take it to a restaurant. Wine is problematic at restaurants in this region.  Red wine is kept in the fridge and you are offered sec or suave.  One is dry, one is sweet, and both are cold and crap if you are expecting a nice room temperature red wine with your meal (and both are 13 riais a liter in the supermarket here). But guess what, Sunday evening, sundown, the supermarket in Caravelas was closed, as was the Comidas self serve I'd eaten at the night before.  All dark and shuttered on a Sunday in Caravelas.

However, driving out of Caravelas earlier that day on our search for Internet Rodrigo and I had passed a bar with nobody there where the band was warming up on the open air platform outside.  This bar just opposite the BR petrol station in the center of town was in full swing when the bus pulled up at sundown when I returned to Caravelas.  There's nothing else to do there so I checked it out.  A big beer 600 ml was just 3.50 riais, $2.  Hey what else you gonna do on a Sunday night in Caravelas, Brazil?  I sat myself down among 100 other revelers.

The music was magic. I don't know what else to say about it.  Also all the town freaks were there.  There was a noticeable gay crowd, most you wouldn't notice except for the occasional grab for the crotch, cause they were dancing with ladies (not grabbing at their crotches ;-) Well one senuous sensuous guy slim with long hair and moving with the music, facial expressions beckoning (moi?) was obvious.  The blacks did their own thing with handshakes, one got me to fill his glass, but another came along and refilled it, helping each other. Also there was a dwarf.  It was a Fellini film, with samba.  Bahia.

When the band petered out, after people walked out of the crowd and sang (competently) I went across the street and ordered a chicken dinner for a lot of money 30 reais.  I found out why. It was a meal for three people.  I ate it anyway.  This was open air and the air was filled with music.  I paid the bill and walked back into the street.  The party, the same queers and blacks, and others recognizable, had moved around the corner, where another impromptu band was playing.  I figured they were impromptu because they were passing instruments around and I could see how one was mentoring another percussionist, trying to emulate the former's riffs.  Difficult.  This was cool stuff. Street music.  People recognized me, spoke to me in Portuguese, one in English.  Where do you stay here? I'm always evasive about that question.  Eventually I returned there.

Rodrigo called when I was in the shower.  They knocked at my door so I got out quickly and came to the phone in receptao.  The 3 day Abrohlos trip was not confirmed he said.  He would try for another intermediate trip for Tuesday.

Hmmm .. next day, Monday, was looking to be a slow day in Caravelas.

But hey, this is traveling. I like it!

Next day, no word from Rodrigo so I went for a jog.  I jogged to all the mergulho shops I had seen on my way up and down the one road in and out of Caravelas.  It was true, no one was diving that week.  Next week (smile, they were serious! friendly, what kind of dive resort is this??).  Anyway I ended up at Horizonte Aberto where all roads led, and to the place where I could at least go on a boat and get in the water next day at the Abrolhos Islands.  I sent word to Rodrigo that maybe he could set something up for Wednesday?  And then I jogged to LAN house and stuck a wire in my laptop (no wireless, remember?) and now I'm posting this.

By end of that day I had success.  I met Rodrigo in the road on my way back to the pousada to call him.  He had found a boat for the next day, but we could use it Wednesday as well so I decided to go with Horizonte Aberto on Tuesday (whale watching and try dive, except they would give me my own 'monitor' so it was sounding better than a splash) and Rodrigo on Wednesday.  I dropped by HA and paid for the trip, and gave Rodrigo an advance.

Next day was the big day.  I was actually finally going on a dive trip.  Only one dive to be sure, but they had me try on gear, they brought it to the boat, I met my 'monitor' who spoke no English, but we had common hand signals.  The boat filled with tourists there for whale watching and looking forward to snorkeling in Abrohlos.  We were told we could eat sandwiches and drink coffee as we liked and we headed out the river and into the open sea.  Within an hour we saw whales, lots of them.  Some came near the boat.  Some poked their heads out of the water, or rolled and waved huge fins in the air, or dived and showed us their flukes.  Water spouts dotted the horizon.  Occasionally one would leap from the water, they knew how to put on a show.

Meanwhile, disturbing alarm sounds were coming from the instrument console, then part of a carburetor appeared on deck, then we were told we'd be turning around and heading back, one engine out of commission.  We were back in port by noon, instead of at 5 or 6 as anticipated, and no diving, no Abrolhos Islands.

There were many GOOD things about the trip.  The whales were amazing and there were dozens of them.  We had a pleasant morning out and spent about the right amount of time on that activity.  I came back full of fruit and sandwich.  I reported immediately to the HA offices in town, just ten minutes walking from the wharf, wondering how much refund I would be able to manage, and they apologized and were sorry I still didn't make it diving there, how unusual, how unfortunate, and without argument simply refunded me all my money. Now, that was fair to a fault. A free trip whale watching goes a long way toward tempering disappointment!

Plus I get to spend the afternoon in an Internet cafe reporting on the situation.  I'm supposed to meet Rodrigo at 4:30 to try on my dive gear for tomorrow.  Rodrigo has one last chance to convince me that there IS diving in Caravelas.  He's reading my blog and wishes this were not the case so far.  I said it would be different if I could go on Portuguese websites and book diving in advance, and then I wouldn't just fall from the sky as it were during a week when there was not diving in Abrohlos.  He said normally I should just be able to fall from the sky, normally there is diving, but on the other hand, he agrees that the situation could be improved, and there's a problem here that a diving instructor should fall into Caravelas and after 4 days not be able to go on even one dive.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm enjoying myself, very relaxed here.  Gao's Pousada is filling up partly due to the word of mouth from the customers who are spreading the word.  It's already full of over 200 cats and dogs which she rescues from the neighborhood and keeps on the premises.  It's a very comfortable place, and she no longer gives up on my Portuguese (smile).

Continued with the tale of my 1000th and 1001st dives, here: