The sound of Black Howler monkeys is like the wails of a storm, a gale you want to close your shutters against. They appear suddenly far above your head in the forest of the fazenda, giving you fair warning as they leap and glide in the tops of trees, follow little tracks and pathways that exist only in their group memory, the way from tree to tree, trails that lead them to the places where the canopy crosses the road.
The female black howlers confuse me at first, and I mistake them for the black-striped tufted capuchins, both the colour of the Americano with a splash of milk I can’t get in this land of black biting coffee. But the faces are dark as they peer over at us, curious. Not nearly as wary as the ones we see later in the north, who chatter fiercely and then hurl a papaya at us. All of the creatures in the Pantanal are less fearful, watching us as we watch them.
Fazenda means ranch, vagely echoing the word hacienda, like so many portugese words sound like a word I know that stumbled and stubbed its toe.
This fazenda is bursting with monkeys and hyacinth macaws, and toco toucans, and the ever present rufous horneros, cocoi herons and other water birds, ferruginous pygmy owls, tropical screech owls and scissortail nightjars, sweet small red brocket deer, and sly caimans calmly sunning themselves right in the road. Capybaras I make scatter like sheep as I trot sweating down the dusty road at midday, determined to run at least a little to make up for all the meat. Crab eating foxes I come face to face with in the road at dusk, both of us unsure as to whether we should keep walking forward.
The streaming wildlife is nested inside a working ranch, brahmin cattle with strange hunched backs who look whitewashed in the sun clustered on every edge. Horses that are mostly kept for dude riding, placid elderly creatures that even I can control. I ride a horse I dub Flossie for two hours, through pastures and savvanah and a forest trail, as jaibaru storks fly across the vast open sunset. I am ten years old and delighted, figuring out how to steer this horse who can barely manage a trot.
The guide wants to practice his English and asks me for a particularly Canadian saying. I can only come up with “it’s cold outside, eh?”. Later I offer a more appropriate idiom — “all hat and no horses.” I reject “all fur coat and no knickers” as far too out there. The English sayings he regales me with all seem to be about warning men not to stray. The grass is greener. A bird in the hand. Something about not going to the candy store if you have cake at home.
Later, I try to leave him a small tip with the fazenda owner, who laughs in my face at the amount Eduardo told me would be appropriate. This place does cost 190 Reals (about $100) per night per person after all, and you can barely wring a tiny bar of soap and a clean towel out of them. The food seems to have been designed as a project in how far you can possibly stretch a Real, enlivened only by the rum-soaked caipirinhas they will make if beseeched. For a price.
But the narrow child’s beds, and dead beetles not swept out of the rooms, and the french woman who keeps taking the single communal bottle of salt to her table, and phone signal only in the one tiny spot near the dining room, where they’ve thoughtfully installed a little pouch you can leave your phone in to receive SMS messages if you don’t want to crouch there — these are irrelevant when you have hyacinth macaws and toco toucans outside your room at dawn. The owner is preserving really important habitat. And you can ride a horse and pretend for a moment to be a pantaneiro.