Thursday, 30 June 2011

Amazonas adventure Day 4

The initial order was 5.30 for sunrise but the majority negotiated it to 5.45. The morning was cloudy so it didn't make any difference. There was one last big attraction to see: Victoria lily, the legendary plant that I remember from geography lessons in school and that I recently got to know better through Attenborough's Life of Plants. What shall I say? I have run of adjectives. Amazing, remarkable, incredible, awsome...?

There are many amazing, remarkable, incredible features about this plant. It blooms white on the first evening and is male, attracting pollinating insects and trapping them as it closes. Then it changes gender, blooms pink, releases the insects, and they fly away and pollinate other flowers. Or something like that. It's just too overwhelming, too clever.

There were many birds walking on the leaves - I am afraid I haven't managed to capture them.

On return, we had breakfast and packed while the boat navigated toward Manaus that we reached about midday. Hugs, goodbyes, promises to stay in touch, share photos. Back to the hotel, retrieving the stored luggage and taxi to the airport.

The rest is history.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Amazonas adventure Day 3

No early morning activities, but I woke up at seven and went up on deck for a cup of coffee. We started to sail downstream toward Manaus, with the goal of seeing the Meeting of Waters, the black of Rio Negro (although it is actually dark blue) and the white (in fact, yellow) of the Solimoes. Ruben was very emphatic about the Amazon only existing after the two rivers meet. I have seen pictures, but you cannot imagine it from a picture - well, you can try. The waters do not mix for about four kilometres because they have different speed, different temperature and different chemical ingredients. It's truly amazing.

Manaus is a huge city. When I first started thinking about this trip, three years ago, I thought Manaus was a little village where you went by a tiny plane. There must be places like that further up the rivers, but Manaus has a population of 2 million and it isn't precisely a beautiful city, at least not from the river. We saw the famous Opera House and decided that we didn't need to see it again. The long stretch of shore was docks and oil tanks. And many boats. During the first two days we hardly saw any boats and just a couple of houses.

After Meeting of Waters we went upstream on the Solimoes (note that I am using the correct name!) to the place where we anchored for the night and took another canoe trip. I must say that it felt a bit like anticlimax, because we did some more fishing and some more caiman patting, but I may be unfair. The vegetation was completely different, and there were lots of birds – all because the Solimoes (note the name!) is six degrees cooler than the Rio Negro, which is simply too hot for most forms of aquatic life. Apparently, the gender of caimans is dependent on the temperature: in hotter waters they hatch as males and in cooler water as females. Somehow they must meet in between. Quite right, the Rio Negro caimans were boys and the Solimoes caimans were girls, whom we named Margarita and Josefina before Ruben threw them back in the river. By that time Viki became so brave that she held the beasts, and Enrico and Costa did too. I now regret that I didn't. I am not scared of crocodiles, not like snakes.

Fishing was fun too, and some of the fish were catfish that look like something from a horror movie. I didn't get any and mostly sat and watched birds in my binoculars.

Viki had to go back to Manaus in the evening because she had to catch a 1 am flight to Sao Paulo (for some reason, Brazilian airlines have these crazy flight schedules). We were all curious about how she was going to get there – helicopter perhaps? No, she said, James Bond style, by speedboat. We stayed on deck to watch her leave. There were all kinds of boats passing by, in pitch darkness, without lights. At ten sharp, Ruben came up on deck and beckoned to Viki: “Ready? Let's go!” Guess what? The promised speedboat was the canoe. Frankly, I wouldn't feel safe going in a little boat on the big, big river in pitch darkness without lights or life jackets. I am not sure Viki was so happy either, but did she have a choice? According to Ruben, it took no more than forty minutes. But by the time they gor back we were asleep because the next morning we we getting up early to watch the sunrise.
Enrico and Josefina

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Amazonas adventure Day 2

We got up at 6, and fortunately there was some coffee waiting, as breakfast was not until 8. Down in the canoe, into the flooded forest, out with fishing rods. I haven't angled in the past twenty years at least so it was very exciting, only there was no fish. Normally, you are supposed to be quiet when you fish, but Ruben showed us how to make huge noise by tapping the water fiercely with your rod. Piranhas was supposedly attracted by the noise thinking that there was a fight going on, so there will be a corpse waiting.

Of course I wished with all my heart that I would catch something, but I would be happy if someone else did, and actually I was just happy to be there, once again watching the reflections of trees and plants in the blank water. We changed places three times, and suddenly fish began to bite. Manolo, who steers the canoe, got two, and we all took pictures and admired, then Ruben got one, and then Enrico got one. I was all the time feeling gentle nibbles, and the hook came up empty, so I thought perhaps I forgot how to set up bait. And then, suddenly, I had a fish! A real, live little piranha! And then another one. So Enrico and I ended up saving the honour of the guests against the hosts.

Then we went back to the boat to have breakfast, and then another excursion into one of the tributaries and into the thicket where we were suddenly surrounded by monkeys. Small squirrel monkeys, so cute (hate this word, but it's the only adequate one). We had bananas with us, and the monkeys came and took bananas from our hands. And we learned how to talk to monkeys: ”Cheep, chip” apparently means: ”Come, lunch is served”.

Then it was time to learn dolphin language, as we tried to attract the dolphins' attention by beating the water surface with the fish we had caught in the morning. There were at least half a dozen pink dolphins around, and finally they came and feasted on our fish. It is very hard to capture the moment when a dolphin reaches for fish, so I have no good pictures. But it was amazing.

Then we sailed on for a while and anchored by a little village - I expected an ethnographic show with song and dance, and small boys trying to sell souvenirs, but there was fortunately nothing of the kind, they just went about their own business. We saw more dolphins by the shore, but of another kind, grey.

Waiting a bit until the worst heat was over, we started on the next adventure which was a hike in the rainforest. A very easy hike, but it was terribly hot, my shirt was absolutely wet. There were many remarkable things we saw, and some I have managed to get good pictures of, but no picture can do it justice. It was a fantastic feeling just to be there. And of course I know that the trail has been used by hundreds before us, and yet it was easy to imagine that we were really the first ever explorers.
I was hot and tired when we returned, but there was the final excursion of the day, looking for tree boas. I am not particularly fond of snakes, and told Ruben so, but he assured me that we won't get too intimate and that boas were not aggressive. We didn't find any snakes, just a couple of tree frogs, but it was once again that magical feeling of gliding in mid-air when you couldn't tell when real world stopped and reflection began. It was pitch dark, and Ruben had a torch. It was weird. Like a fantasy film, but real.

We were all very tired and went straight to bed.

Amazonas adventure Day 1

After our interrupted sleep, I was sure we'd sleep at least until 10, when they stopped serving breakfast. However, we woke up, fresh and full of energy at seven, as usual. It was much too hot to go to Manaus, opera house or not, so we started by visiting the hotel zoo, which did feature the promised jaguar, but otherwise rather pathetic. I went down to the river, following the sign ”Embarkation”, only to find a little beach. Apparently embarkation was somewhere else. They promised at the reception desk that the company would fetch us at 1pm. The internet connection in the room was ridiculously expensive, so I sat in the lobby, responding to dozens of urgent emails by saying: ”Sorry, I am in the heart of darkness, will get back some time”.

We checked out at 12 and sat further in the bar/lobby, Staffan drinking beer to kill the time, and me getting anxious again that something was wrong. Finally, a quarter past one, somebody did ask for us and introduced himself as Ruben, our English-speaking guide, telling us cheerfully that they never picked up their guests earlier than a quarter past two. This information made us suddenly very hungry, and we ordered a light lunch. Then Ruben came back, and an old man got hold of our suitcase (we had deposited the second one at the hotel), while Ruben introduced us to our fellow passengers: Viki from London, Madeleine and Enrico from Barcelona, Ciara and Constantino from Rome. That's it.

When I booked this trip and looked up options, given that I was very late because of the ever changing dates of my commitment in Rio de Janeiro, I immediately picked up Desafio as my type of trip: small boat for maximum twenty people, personal, no bars, karaoke or swimming pools. But alas, the only cruise available on the dates we could do was one of those huge boats. Well, beggars are no choosers, and I agreed to that: however, the travel agent got back after a few days to tell me that the Iberostar was chartered. There went my dream, but still a few days later, the agent emailed to say that he had an option, which was Desafio, which I wanted in the first place.

So there are just the seven of us. We were taken to the beach on the path I had followed in the morning, and there she was, some hundred metres from the shore, and a little motorboat to take us there. By that time, the river got waves, and I almost got seasick watching them. My dream was quickly turning into a nightmare, and I already saw myself flat seasick in the cabin for the next four days. Staffan on the other hand had some difficulty getting into the canoe and when we eventually came on board swore that he would never set his foot into that boat again, which is a shame, since it is the boat used for excursions.

I sat on the open deck, trying not to think of being sick, while we sailed away and everybody was given a welcome drink. I had expected a long session with safety instructions, but there wasn't any. Ruben started directly with sailor's yarn about all the anacondas he had encountered, and everybody was happy except for me. I was apprehensive.

Of course I have seen dozens of films about the Amazonas, but no picture can do justice to this huge span of water, and we were going right into it. I sat in my deck chair while everybody else went to inspect the cabins, scared even to move. Presently, the waves calmed down, and we entered one of the tributaries and anchored. I ventured into the cabin, too anxious to notice how tiny it was as compared to the picture in the brochure – but I know how such pictures are taken. I decided that I'll worry about it later, because we were now going out in the canoe, and that's what we had come there to do. No safety instructions, just a couple of life jackets thrown casually into the canoe. It was a pity Staffan didn't come, but I fully understand it, because you don't sit particularly comfortably in a canoe. Off we went, entering yet another tributary or flooded forest. Again, I have seen it in films, but no films can convey the sense of being there, with blank surface of water, reflecting the vegetation in quickly fading daylight. We saw a sloth, a couple of herons, but I would have been just as happy with gliding there over the water, listening to cicadas and birds.
Then we got back, were served a sumptuous meal, and off again, in pitch darkness, Ruben with a torch. In the thicket of the forest, first a porcupine – frankly, I didn't know they lived in trees – then a whole family of porcupines. I didn't bring my camera because it is a very simple one and doesn't do good pictures with flash. It was all spooky and incredibly beautiful. Then Ruben caught some caimans with his bare hands and held them for us to pat. The starry sky was amazing. I have seen the Southern Hemisphere skies several times, and it is always a wonder.

By the time we got back it was half past ten. And we were to get up at six next morning to go fishing. So I went down to the cabin and was sound asleep within five minutes. I had forgotten all about being sick.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Amazonas adventure: Day -1

So yesterday my work in Brazil was over, and holiday started. Night flight from Rio to Manaus. We kept the hotel room as long as they would allow us, until 6pm. Suddenly my credit card didn't work (it had worked both before and after). Fortunately Staffan had some US dollars in cash. We took a taxi to the airport, and, well-travelled as I am, I have never been in a worst nightmare. It was as if all 10 million Rio-inhabitants were on the same motorway, each in at least two cars. After an hour of slow crawling, our driver took off on a small road, through villages and slums and whatnot; pity he was not the only one with this clever idea. I must confess that I broke down, not because I was afraid to miss the plane - we were really well ahead - but because I was sure we'd never get out of it alive, with what Staffan calls creative traffic slalom.

After more than two hours we were finally at the airport, and then everything went smoothly. I had four solid hours of sleep, the luggage arrived safely, we were pciked up as promised and taken to our hotel where, half past three in the morning, I feel happily asleep again.

We are going aboard in a couple of hours. There will be no internet access on the boat, so all reports are coming on Sunday at the earliest. If not - we have fallen victims to caimans or piranyas.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Green is good for your soul

I first saw a rainforest in Australia in 1993. It was love at first sight, and I was convinced that I would never live to see anything more sublime. The day after I went to the Great Barrier Reef and had to admit that it had its points as well. Finally, I went to the desert, and a good portion of my heart has remained in deserts ever after.

A desert may seem a complete opposite of a rainforest, but it isn't. Life in a desert is more subtle, hidden, disguised, but it's there nevertheless. A desert in bloom is unforgettable.

And yet there is something very special about the rainforest. As with most things, you must take your time. There are amazing details in a symbiosis of plants. There are forms you have never seen before. It is possible that David Attenborough's The Secret Life of Plants has made me more sensitive. I cannot compete with Attenborough, but here are some attempts to share my fascination.

Close encounters with children's writers, part 2

Here is the next installment of my encounters, prompted by my present location. I happen to have a decent knowledge of Brazilian children's literature because some of it is translated into Russian and Swedish. Ana Maria Machado is by far the most famous, and I have read some of her books in Swedish. She is a great writer, or Writer, or crosswriter. She has received all possible awards, including the Andersen Medal. At the time, I was in San Diego, and the editor of the IBBY journal Bookbird approached me before the winner was announced to ask whether I would be prepared to write about the winner very quickly for the special Andersen Medal issue. I'd have to do it within two weeks after the announcement. I looked at the list of nominees and said to myself, OMG, hope it's someone I know well. I was delighted that Ana Maria Machado won, not only because she was worth it, but also because it was a joy - and a challenge - to write about her. My text was sent to Brazil for approval, and the Bookbird editor got back to me with a comment: "Who is this person and how can she understand Brazilian children's literature without being Brazilian?" I asked the editor to forward my reply: "I grew up under dictatorship".

Since then I met Ana Maria several times at book fairs and other events. She is an extremely warm and generous person and has sent me loads of books, some of which I have read, with my non-existent Portuguese.

I know that writers of her rank are busy, so I was a bit uncertain when I tentatively responded to my Brazilian hosts' question about any special wishes during my visit. I don't know whether they were surprised or impressed or whatever, but today I had the privilege to have lunch with the most famous and loved Brazilian children's writer, and, incidentally, the President of the Brazilian Academy of Letters. All because I grew up under dictatorship.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Mother of the bride

I am fully aware that I have not shared my experience of being the mother of the bride. Those of you who may have read about my shopping for my wedding outfit are probably expecting a report on how it felt to be wearing it. I have during the past week started a blog post several times and given up. What can I say? That I cried exactly when I was supposed to cry? That the bride was pretty? That they looked each other in the eyes so that I would have been envious if I hadn't been so endlessly happy? That every detail in the wedding was perfect, and there were wonderful funny touches, such as the bride being kidnapped by a bunch of Finnish cousins, so that the groom had to pay ransome (apparently this is a Finnish custom)?

Here are pictures that supposedly say more than a thousand words. You can see my outfit, that almost everybody complimented me for.

What has changed for me now that my baby is a married lady? If anything changed, it happened a year and a half ago when she told me she had met the right one.

I know it's a privilege to be happy on behalf of your children.

Academic serendipities

My Brazilian contacts are, like almost everything, the result of serendipity. Six years ago (as we figured out yesterday) a younger colleague from Brazil who had a fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich, contacted me because he wanted to take some side trips while in Europe. I wasn't in a position to invite him to Stockholm, but offered Åbo as second-best, and he did an excellent presentation at the children's literature colloquium, and I also remember some nice meals together. As usual, we talked a lot about my coming to Brazil, but if I pursued all casual invitations to diferent parts of the world, I would never have time for anything else (I also tell everybody I meet: "You must come and visit us in Cambridge").

However, three years ago I received a proper invitation to a conference in Sao Paolo, and then I contacted André and came over for a few days to Rio de Janeiro and the wonderful Catedra de Leitura. I have a strong interest in Brazilian children's literature because of two great writers, Lygia Bojunga and Ana Maria Machado. I met Lygia in Stockholm in mid-80s, and then she won the ALMA award and came to collect it, so we met again. I met Ana Maria Machado on several occasions. I have written about both, and I find thier books absolutely fascinating and like nothing else. For obvious reasons I am interersted in children's literature in totalitarian and post-totalitarian countries. In passing, I have also discovered that Brazil has some marvelous picturebooks.

So this is what brought me here this time, picturebooks. My book, co-authored with Carole Scott, How Picturebooks Work, has been translated into Portuguese (Livro illustrado: palavras e imagens), and yesterday it was officially launched, accompanied by a day symposium. The speakers were a great mix of academics and non-academics, and the organisers managed to find an illustrator who can talk about picturebooks (far from self-evident); the audience was enthusiastic and asked so many questions that the round table would never end. Afterwards, I sat at a table, next to another launched author, and signed the book. There were people who actually bought my book! Presumably because they were interested. These moments make the pains of writing academic books worth while.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

More travel concerns

Apparently me and travel to Brazil don't go together. After my misadventures three years ago I couldn't imagine anything worse, but here we go. The travel agent told me that the flight would stop at Sao Paolo, but I didn't have to change planes. At check in they said the luggage was going straight to Rio de Janeiro. To be on the safe side, I asked the flight attendant, and no, it wasn't the same plane and I had to disembark. What about my luggage? I must take it through customs in Sao Paolo. Fair enough. The line for passport control is worse than Heathrow and Moscow together. Takes almost an hour of my precious hour and a half until next flight. My luggage is not on the band, and when I ask and show my boarding pass, they tell me that my luggage has indeed gone straight to Rio, and if I run very fast I may catch my flight. I run as fast as I can, but the airport is huge, and nobody can give me directions, and I miss the plane and have to stand in another long line to get a new flight, and nobody speaks English, and I know that my good angel Renata is waiting for me in Rio de Janeiro. When I have the new boarding pass for a flight two hours later, I try various ways to reach Renata. My British phone says "Thank you for taking me to Brazil" (honestly, that's what the message said!), but when it comes to ringing or texting, it just went dead. The public phone didn't take credit cards. I tried email, Skype and Facebook, but the connection broke all the time, and there wasn't any public computer around (of course, everybody has a laptop these days). I imagined myself in Renata's place (been there) and decided that she either waits until the next flight or assumes that I am a grownup person who can take care of herself.

At the gate, I tried to get some cash, but there were no cash machines in sight, and in the money exchange booth they didn't take cards. I changed the miraculously saved forty pounds and got a cup of something that was supposed to be cappuchino, but was more like brown syrup. I was the only alien on the flight, so the new passport control went smoothly. Don't ask me why the flight between Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro counts as international.

With all these changes I was fully prepared not to see my luggage on the band, and it wasn't. I went to talk to the airline representative, who didn't speak English, but after some thinking said very confidently; "Wait" and produced my bag like a conjuror. It had come on the previous flight.

I still had some vague hope to see Renata, but I didn't. There were several booths offering taxi service to the city, and I decided that if I pre-pay maybe there was a chance that the driver would take me where I wanted to go. And they took credit cards, and it only took two attempts before it worked. The hotel reception did have my reservation and, bless her, the receptionist called Renata who had, clever girl, left her number.

So the story has a happy ending, and I had a lovely long Brazilian lunch and a lovely walk on the beach. Yet: why does this always have to happen to me?

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Moominmamma's concerns

It just so happens that during our three years in the UK Staffan and I have not travelled together. We do not travel together often as we both usually travel on business and do not share each other's business. We have both travelled a lot these three years, but this is the first time we were away from home and had to ask someone to take care of the cat and the garden.

It is not very hard to find someone to cat- and house-sit in a large, well-equipped house in Cambridge, so we had a father and son from Finland staying here over the last weekend, and now that we are going away to Brazil, another family is coming.

In the Moomin stories, Moominmamma always asks guests and newcomers how many pillows they need and what they want for breakfast. Concerning pillows, I give the guests two each, and if they only need one they can throw the other in the corner. I asked the Finnish father and son what they wanted for breakfast and got a very detailed description of what kind of bread they preferred and the boy sometimes liked youghurt, but only banana youghurt, and the father wanted chicken or turkey for his sandwich, but not ham. I am glad I asked, for there were none of the aforementioned items available in the house. The family coming this weekend didn't specify what kind of bread they wanted. I hope they find something to their liking.

We will be away when they arrive, and we are leaving detailed instructions, including things such as remote control for the garage, rainwater tub by the greenhouse, garbage recycling and other things you normally don't notice. I am walking around the house thinking of daily routines and adding to the list: "Extra towels in the bathroom cabinet..."

I remind myself that I have borrowed or rented other people's houses and always survived.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Me and my Kindle

When I worked as a tour guide, rule number one was when the tourists asked how long it would take us to get where we were going, to add at least fifteen minutes to the estimated time and let it be a nice surspise when we are early. The other way round, you get grumpy tourists.

Amazon seems to follow the same principle. They give you an estimate delivery date with a wide margin, and you get happy when you get your order earlier. Since three days ago, I am a happy owner of a Kindle.

Being a professional reader, I cannot but reflect on the implications. I showed my new toy to a Russian friend with whom I was talking on Skype, and she commented, unimpressed, "Oh yes, I have one too". Apparently people do not make much fuss about their Kindles. However, I have resisted so long that I really need to contemplate the pros and cons.

It is vey small. Smaller than I thought it would be. It is smaller than a paperback book, and the screen is smaller yet. My first reaction was, I can't read that small text. But yes, I can. It is a pleasurable font size and background, and I don't feel any radical difference from reading a paper book. I don't mind having one page at a time, and I can get two pages if I want. It is very light and easy to hold, and after ten minutes I turn pages without thinking about it. After the initial settings, I don't use the keyboard because I find it too small and inconvenient to use. I have downloaded the first fifteen free classics that I wanted to re-read anyway, and they will keep me busy for a while. I downloaded them through my compuer, which I think is very good service. I feel much more comfortable with my computer with its large keyboard and mouse.

I have played a bit with the toy, reading the manual and testing what it can do. So far, I don't need anything that it can do. I don't want to clip my favourite passages and share them on Facebook. I may want at some point to clip quotes to paste them direct into my own writing, but I am not there yet. I don't need to read my Facebook or check my email on the run - I don't have a smartphone either.

So what is a Kindle for me? IT'S A BOOK!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Further reflections on e-books

Yesterday night I read some more Tess, this time on my little laptop, and it was just as easy and not as heavy. The cat was happy beside it. Apart from enjoying the book very much (I was too young to enjoy it when I read it first time), I tried to think what was actually different from reading a paper book. One thing, of course, is that you cannot physically see how much you have read and how much is still to read. Although Kindle told me, when I put in a bookmark, that I had read 15%. Putting in a bookmark is good, and unlike a physical bookmark, you cannot lose it. I have all kinds of fancy bookmarks, but I always end up using a receipt or a boarding pass.

What I definitely miss is the paratexts. As one of my students would expertly explain, paratexts is everything that is not part of the text. The cover, for instance. There is no cover on my Kindle Tess, and thus no cover image. I don't really mind it, but still worth noting. What I mind - or at least lack - is the back cover, with a publisher blurb. I tell my students to skip blurbs because they are stupid, but I always read blurbs carefully, perhaps exactly because they are stupid. Especially when you have read the book before and know how stupid the blurb is.

I also miss the pages where the author is presented.I miss the copyright page. I miss the table of contents - I always go back to it several times when I read a book. For Tess particularly, I miss the Introduction, timeline and notes they have in Penguin Classics. I usually read notes in advance because I don't wnat to be interrupted in my reading, but don't want to miss the comments. I guess there is another e-edition of Tess that has notes hyperlinked. Kindle has, without my consent, downloaded Oxford American (!) dictionary so that I can look up words I don't know. I haven't tried it yet, but it might prove useful. They say you ought to read books to learn.

I do not not miss the gentle rustle of pages, nor the feel of paper. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with me?