City out of Time

Walk through the Bab Bou Jeloud, the Blue Gate, and wander through the streets and narrow passageways of Fez el Bali (Old Fez), and it’s not hard to imagine you’ve gone back in time. Fez is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, dating back to the early ninth century.

Inside the walls of this ancient habitation, alongside buildings of stone, mortar, and wood, you’ll find palaces with elaborate tiled entryways. There are ramparts, balconies, courtyards, and apartments – all in the sand gray hues that intimate there is a desert not too far away. The cobblestone streets of Old Fez are a maze of alleyways and tunnels – too narrow for a car to get through. So the traffic is mostly people and donkeys. Here’s what it sounds like. Listen for the donkey driver’s cry of “Balek!” (“Out of the way!”)

More than 200,000 people inhabit the old city of Fez, in an area roughly one and a half square miles (3.9 square kilometers). For the folks who live here, it’s one enormous extended family. For a child growing up here, the alleyways of the old city are one extended playground.

Morocco is an Islamic country, and in Fez’s medina – that’s another name for the old city – there are literally hundreds of mosques. Five times a day you can hear the call to prayer throughout the city, but probably the best place to hear it is from a rooftop, where it’s just you, the pigeons, and a timeless sound.

The guerrab  dispenses water in the medina

The life of the medina hums right along, like a human hive. It’s easy to be drawn through the alleyways and tunnels replete with sounds and evocative smells, past sellers of fruits, herbs, spices, and foods of every description, including a major dose of dates and olives; past stalls and stores selling leather goods (supplied by Fez’s ancient tannery), sewing materials, carpets, ornamental brass objects, electrical supplies, school supplies, hardware, and yes, video games and cassettes. Like any venerable bazaar, it is the mold from which all shopping malls spring. Walking through the medina, you are accompanied by the floating attractions, such as the children carrying trays of dough or newly baked bread to and from the local bakery. And then there’s the guerrab.

Moving amid tourists and street hawkers, the guerrab carries a goatskin full of water and dispenses it in a brass cup to anyone who wants a drink. Along with the bell, his signature sound, the guerrab wears a broad-rimmed hat, fringed with tassels, and a costume sometimes bedecked with tiny mirrors. For a few dirham, the Moroccan currency, he’ll let you take his picture.

Street hawkers; the guerrab’s call and bell
Sounds of bargaining

On the streets of the old city, there’s a mixture of Western and traditional dress. Men still wear fezes in Fez, but you’re more likely to see them wearing a cloth or embroidered skullcap. Women are often veiled and wearing long kaftans.

In the ecology of the marketplace, tourists are both predator and prey, taking photographs at every opportunity of people who – for the most part – really don’t want to have their picture taken. In turn, the busloads of tourists who make their rounds through the medina are hit on by hawkers, stallkeepers and would-be guides. The sounds of bargaining ripple through the medina, and the merchants of Fez are master salesmen.

Rhythmic hammering at Place Safarine

Fez has a rich tradition of craftsmanship. Whole sections of the old city belong to artisans who work in brass, stone, textiles, wood, and leather.

The Place Seffarine is a bustling courtyard of stalls and workshops. Stone chiselers patiently ply their trade, and nearby men hammer intricate designs onto brass trays. Sometimes it seems as though the rhythm of one is picked up by another.

And then suddenly it’s dusk, and the trail of sounds and smells expands and intersperses throughout the old city. There’s magic in the air, and what better place to hear it than at the Blue Gate, the place where most people enter and leave the medina. In the throngs of humanity that parade by, and in the café patrons who sit and watch them, there’s an air of expectancy, punctuated by the excited chirping of the birds who roost here. It’s as if, in the midst of all this apparent chaos, there’s a last-minute chance to make some sense of it all. And for a fleeting moment, the music that is hidden in all things reappears.

The Blue Gate at dusk


Not that anyone needs an excuse to visit Fez, but a good one would be the annual Sacred Music Festival, which takes place in Fez every summer. Hamid Mernissi – owner of Sarah Tours – was responsible for introducing me to many of the wonders of Fez. He has also been instrumental in helping to organize and promote Fez’s Sacred Music Festival. For more information on the festival and traveling to Morocco, check out

African Ceremonies

The Wodaabe, Niger: Male Beauty on Display
Colorful jewels in a barren landscape, the nomadic Wodaabe people live a life defined by complex rituals, taboos, and a striking sense of visual and aural beauty – all set amid the harshness of the sub-Saharan Sahel of Niger.

Wodaabe men use ornate face makeup to compete in a charm competition to win wives or lovers. The contestants line up in front of hundreds of female judges, says Beckwith, “rolling their eyes around and showing their teeth and broad smiles and then puckering their lips up, and all the while they’re making these clicking and hissing sounds.” A man does not have to be beautiful to win but must have what the Wodaabe call togu, magnetism and character.

The Bedik, Senegal: Becoming the Mask
For the Bedik people of Senegal, masks have great ceremonial importance. Made of tree fiber, with slits for eyes, the masks are worn with costumes made of hundreds of leaves. Only members of secret societies are allowed into the mystical forest groves where the masks are kept. And it’s only during the annual ceremonies to bless the crops that the masks come out of the forest.

The Bedik behind the mask is not donning a disguise, but taking on a new identity that is no longer human. So the expression “mask” includes the costume and the individual inside.

Bedik Villagers welcome the masks into the community. (1:07)

“Their role is to enter all of the houses, to go into every nook and cranny of the village and make sure that there is nothing evil or negative that could impact the agricultural activity that’s soon to take place,” says Carol Beckwith. “The Bedik believe that the land was something given to them by the spirit world, and if you make any adjustment to the land, you have to ask permission of the nature gods.”

The Bedik – Land

The Surma, Ethiopia: Body Painting and Stick Fighting, In the Name of Love
“Surma land is like an absolute paradise,” says Angela Fisher, describing a remote area in southwest Ethiopia, green with pastures, valleys, and rain forests. “The Surma are very peaceful, serene people who are in love with their own lifestyle. They believe that God has given them everything, and the cattle they own are probably the best cattle in the world.”

A Surma plays a thumb piano

Surma men stick fight

Every year after the harvest, Surma men and women enjoy a leisurely courtship period, spending days by the river, painting their bodies with beautiful designs to make themselves attractive to the opposite sex. “Young girls sit under trees and play the thumb piano,” says Fisher. “It’s a very beautiful instrument found in different areas of Africa, and the Surma have perfected many tunes on the thumb piano.”

When the body-painting stage ends, the Surma courtship ritual turns violent, as men from different villages meet in day-long tournaments of stick fighting. The fierce jousting with donga sticks, six-foot-long (1.8 meter-long) hardwood poles, serves to prove their masculinity and settle vendettas, but most importantly, to win wives.

The victor at day’s end is carried to waiting girls on a platform of palms, and one of the girls accepts the man as her husband-to-be. The girl’s lower lip is then pierced and, over a period of months, stretched over a series of ever larger plates. The size of the final lip plate indicates how many head of cattle must be paid as the bride’s dowry.

The tribal customs of Africa, in all their vibrant variation, testify to a common human spirit that crosses all boundaries. “[You have] a sense that we’re all sharing the same emotions,” Beckwith says, “and the same desire to find meaning in our lives. No matter how different we are in terms of religious beliefs, body adornment, whether we wear clothes, whether we don’t wear clothes, who our gods are, we come to find we have an extraordinary common ground.”

Related Links, Products, Articles, and Events

Look for African Ceremonies, Beckwith and Fisher’s two-volume masterpiece, at your local bookshop.
“Passages,” an exhibition of selected photographs by Beckwith and Fisher, is on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through September 17, 2000, and will be touring to other museums thereafter. For more information, visit

Webcast: Beckwith and Fisher show and tell what it took to take these groundbreaking photographs in an exclusive National Geographic presentation.

David Bradnum recorded all sound in this feature story. Copies of his’s evocative African Passages CD are available through the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Call +1 718 638 5000 extension 238. Or e-mail

Learn more about African ceremonies in the following NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC magazine articles:

Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. “African Marriage Rituals.” Pages 80-97, November 1999.

Beckwith, Carol and Angela Fisher. “The Eloquent Surma of Ethiopia.” Pages 76–99, February 1991.

Beckwith, Carol. “Niger’s Wodaabe: “People of the Taboo.” Pages 483–509, October 1983.


One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2000.

All photographs are courtesy of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher.

All sound recordings are courtesy of David Bradnum.

Text is by Mauri Small, Rachael Teel, and Jim Metzner.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.

Singing Up the Sun

According to legend, Crete was where Zeus, ruler of the Gods, was hidden as an infant to prevent his father from eating him. It is also the place where King Minos built his famous palace. Although the legacy of its distant past is a powerful drawing card, the real magic of Crete is in its vibrant culture – as is evidenced by a visit to a cherry harvest celebration held in the northwestern region of the island.


Cajun Mardi Gras

The Sounds of Cajun Mardi Gras

It’s 5 a.m., too early in the morning to think about revelry, and yet here are dozens of people gathering at a ranch just outside of Elton, Louisiana. There’s a flotilla of pickup trucks, SUVs, horse trailers, flatbed trailers, and other support vehicles (including a “chuck wagon” and a pickup with a portable sound system), plus at least several dozen horses.


Casa de la Trova

In January 2001 photographer Phil Metzidakis and I traveled to Santiago de Cuba in eastern Cuba, in the company of a group of artists, students, and performers. It was part of an exchange program that allows Americans to learn some of the dynamics and intricacies of Cuban music and dance.

Some of our richest experiences took place in the Casa de la Trova, a world famous informal performance space very much in the spirit of the Buena Vista Social Club.

The Streets of Santiago

There are no new spare parts in Cuba. Things tend not to get thrown away but rather retooled, recycled, broken down into spare parts. Walking along the street in downtown Santiago de Cuba – the country’s second largest city – you’ll see repair shops for electronic appliances and sidewalk locksmiths. And on every other corner there seems to be someone painstakingly refilling disposable cigarette lighters with butane.

The streets of Santiago are made for strolling.
The streets of Santiago are made for strolling.

Santiago’s cars might make you think you’re in a time warp.

Lots of smokers here, lots of exhaust fumes coming out of the flotillas of buses and trucks that badly need valve jobs. And then there are the cars: vintage Pontiacs and Chevys – relics of the fifties, lovingly maintained. You’d think you’d entered an automotive time warp. God knows how many miles those odometers have cranked.

A street-corner BB-gun shooting gallery has a steady stream of customers.

My favorite sidewalk attraction in Santiago was an informal shooting gallery a few enterprising guys had set up, using BB guns and strings of tin cans.

Although the government pays a small stipend to individuals who hold down “officially recognized” jobs, it’s often not enough for people to survive on. Resourceful Cubans have found supplemental income by creating a subculture of unofficial jobs and services, from car repair to cooking.

If you have genuine Cuban pesos, as opposed to tourist pesos, you can buy an inexpensive snack from a street vendor. In Santiago there are relatively few souvenir shops and nothing much to shop for – T-shirts, curios, some clavés (smooth hardwood sticks used as percussion instruments), maracas, and the bottle of rum and box of cigars an educational visa allows you to bring back.

The Casas de la Trova
Americans may only visit Cuba with special visas. Tourists come from South America and Europe mostly, and what draws many of them, including me, is Cuba’s most popular export these days – music. Since the release of the Buena Vista Social Club CD and documentary film, sales of Cuban music have been booming around the world.

Although the Buena Vista club no longer exists, its spirit lives on in the dozens of clubs that can be found in virtually every major Cuban city, including the Casas de la Trova (state-sponsored music salons). One of the most famous Casas is in Santiago, on Calle Heredia, and it became my favorite haunt.

trova (as in “troubadour”) is a form of ballad. At the Santiago Casa, a cadre of musicians and ballad singers perform nearly every afternoon and evening. There’s a nominal entrance fee for tourists, and Cubans pay a few pesos to get in.

Casa de la Trova

Inside the Casa there are two performance venues. A “main room,” with a slightly raised proscenium and rows of chairs and benches, seats about a hundred people. Another 60 can be entertained in the more informal courtyard area, out in the open air. In between the two is a bar where you can purchase soft drinks. Adjacent to the main room’s stage is a funky greenroom, complete with water cooler and musical graffiti, where performers warm up and tune up.

It’s considered an honor to play at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova, and the quality of the musicianship is high. The audience is a mixture of local people and tourists. The atmosphere is informal. It’s not uncommon for people to get up and dance, particularly in the evening, when the music tends to be a bit more upbeat.

In the afternoon ballads rule, with soloists and duos, accompanied by guitar and clavés, singing tunes from the pantheon of great Cuban poet-composers. Portraits of the greats – Pepe Sanchez, Nico Saquito, and Miguel Matamoros, among others – fill one of the walls. It is Matamoros’s songs that I hear again and again, in particular the haunting “Black Tears” ( lyrics).

Origin of the Casas de la Trova
To the performers who play here and the fans who return, day after day, to hear their music, the present-day Casa de la Trova is a bit like a communal home away from home. But audience and musicians alike speak with great affection of the older, original Casa, on whose foundation this one is built.

Although little more than a shack, the primo Casa had a laid-back charm that still draws sighs of wistful nostalgia from the old-timers. Maria Ochoa, sister of the Buena Vista group’s Eliades Ochoa and one of the Casa de la Trova’s most popular singers, told me, “In the old days, anybody who had a guitar, who wanted to just go on stage and sing a troubadour-style song just did it – it was open.”

Maria Ochoa

“The old place became really popular,” Ochoa continued. “People would spill into the street and fill the street, and so it grew into what it is now. The new building is about five or six years old. But everybody preferred [the old place]. It kind of pulled you in, in a sweet way. There was no programming. Whoever felt like playing that day went. It had a special feeling.”

To sort out the history of this place, I sat down with Luisa Blanca, director of Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. She’s been working in some official capacity with traditional Cuban musicians for the past 33 years.

“The Casa de la Trova was founded as a cultural place on March 19, 1968, because our singers, which we call trovadores, didn’t have a place to sing,” Blanca said. “They used to play in the middle of the streets, parks, squares. There used to be a café here where singers would come too. Not only singers but carpenters, plumbers, people who worked for companies. When they finished work they would gather here and sing together. Sometimes they didn’t have instruments to play.”

“And this happened until the triumph of the revolution in 1959. The government recognized that the musicians had kept the tradition of music alive at the trovas house. So [the government] made a donation of a neighboring barbershop and gave that to the cafe, so that it could expand.”

“They founded the Casa de la Trova precisely on March 19 because that’s the anniversary of the birthday of Jose Pepe Sanchez. He was [one of] the [foremost] early players of traditional Cuban music, and he wrote the first bolero composed in Cuba, named ‘Tristessa – Sadness.’”

“A bolero,” said Blanca, is “a style of music with very romantic lyrics; couples dance very close to boleros. And every March 19, we celebrate national festivals of trovas.”

“The people who founded the cafe that became the Casa de la Trova in Santiago kept Cuban music alive – not just boleros but canción and danzon, which gave birth to son.” (For a taste of son, arguably Cuba’s most popular form of music, listen to the Quinteto de la Trova’s “La Rosa Orientale” audio clip below.)

“This place has great importance, because many of the greatest composers, mainly the first composers of traditional Cuban music, came here to sing for the first time. And others have carried on with much love. They put their heart in what they’re doing,” said Blanca.

Luisa Blanca

Sounds of the Casa
So take a front-row seat and spend a few minutes at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova. There’s no amplification here, and no windowpanes. The sounds of the street waft through the Casa and blend in with the music. After a while it’s as if the buses and ambient conversations are part of the sound mix, part of the experience.

Song: “La Rosa Orientale – Eastern Rose” (4:48) Performers: Quinteto de la Trova; Composer: Ramon Espigul 

Song: “Guantanamera – Woman From Guantanamo” (4:05) Performers: Xiomara Vidal, Irene Jardines, Lourdes Martuto, Araelis Romero, Daisy Isalque, and Nancy Lavanino Guitarists: Gabino Jardines and Raul Campos Composer: Joseito Fernandez, incorporating lyrics from José Marti, Cuba’s national poet

Song: “Lagrimas Negras – Black Tears” (4:32) Performers: Latin Voices; Composer: Miguel Matamoros 

Song: “El Fiel Enamorado – The Faithful Lover” (4:36) Performers: Informal Ensemble; Composer: Francisco Portela

The View from the Stage
Many of the performers at Santiago’s Casa de la Trova are classically trained. All the female vocalists are former members of state-sponsored choirs and madrigalistas.

Latin Voices and the Informal Ensemble (hear audio clips above) are good examples of daytime entertainment at the Casa de la Trova. Along with the beautiful harmonies, listen for the flawless guitar work of Gabino Jardines and Enrique Monet. The Quinteto de la Trova (hear audio above) is more typical evening fare. At the time of this writing (Summer 2001), they are on tour in Canada.

Many of Cuba’s musicians are justifiably wary of being taped. In the past their performances have been recorded without their knowledge or consent, albums have been released, and they have received no share of the royalties. U.S. record companies must do business with Cuban musicians indirectly, via international partners.

All the musicians, and indeed all the Cubans I spoke with, yearn for the day when relations with the U.S. can be normalized. In the meantime, as difficult as things can be in Cuba, it was great to experience it without the trappings of Americanization – the inevitable McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Starbucks franchises.

At night, most of Santiago’s streets are nearly deserted.

Speaking Through Song
Cubans are often gregarious people, and a microphone can open many doors via that most intimate of mediums – sound. Paradoxically, however, a microphone tends to keep you and your personality at a certain distance from your subject. And no one in Cuba is likely to really open up.

Every family has a musician.

There is a tacit agreement that certain subjects are just not broached. Even so, art, especially music, can successfully avoid the dangerous shoals of any literal conversation. It can cut to the chase of what really matters – usually matters of the heart.

All the passions, fears, pathos, resignation, and frustration are there – without the particularities of politics. Unencumbered by words or literal meanings, you can read between the lines and feel the intent, like a map of the heart.

— Jim Metzner


One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2001.

My thanks to all the musicians at Santiago de Cuba’s Casa de la Trova, Jack O’Neil, Robert Mann, Rob Norris, Omu, Cutumba, Chris LaMarca, and most especially, to translator and photographer Phil Metzidakis.

For design by Jennifer Kolansky, programming by David Logwood.

Map of Cuba by National Geographic Maps.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2001-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.


The political climate of Nepal has changed dramatically since the days of my trek in the 80’s and when this feature appeared in 2000.  Nepal remains one of the most beautiful places in the world.  It would be best to do some checking with the proper authorities to determine whether conditions are safe for trekking. 

It’s been almost 20 years since I walked, counterclockwise, around Nepal’s Annapurna Range, in the Himalaya. The trail, called the Annapurna Circuit, extends over 200 miles (322 kilometers), most of that either uphill or down, following the courses of rivers, passing through small villages on ancient trails in the company of donkey caravans, yak herders, pilgrims, farmers, schoolchildren, and fellow trekkers. It takes about a month, starting in a sultry, almost rain forest environment, ascending through terraced farmland and on past the timberline up to Thorung La, a mountain pass, and then on down to the lowlands again.

These sights and sounds from that trek are like jewels in a necklace of memory.

The Trek

rider valley waterfall vista pilgrims

In the Himalaya, there are no roads, only trails. So if you want to get somewhere, you walk or ride a donkey or a horse. If you want to transport something, you usually carry it yourself. On the trail you’ll see pilgrims carrying all their worldly goods on their backs and farmers hauling mini-bales of newly cut hay. I recall two men shouldering a telephone pole up a steep hill!

Once, near Manang, a village not far from Tibet, I encountered four girls carrying large baskets of dried dung to be used as fuel. They stopped for a moment to rest and were singing snatches of songs. I asked them if they wouldn’t mind my recording a few of their tunes.

Nepalese Girls Singing

girl_with_basket girls_sing children_baskets

Here’s a translation of one of their songs:

Hearing the sound of a flute being played at a chautari [stone
monuments built as resting places in mountain villages]

Nepalese girl carrying a heavy basket using a strap across her forehead

The queen is dancing before my eyes.
I cannot rest until I bring the master of the house here to this forest
(to see her).

If everything comes from the sky, they are for the Earth.
The younger sister is lovelier than the older one,
but she’s just an early bloomer.

Take me, my love, to the sugarcane field
If you love me, pick up a flower in remembrance
When will you forget this love?

The clothes my mother gave me are all torn and gone.
It’s a hot day, and as fate would have it
I’m all alone.

My heart cries –
Oh sister, for you a song!
Where is equal love?

For transporting bulk goods to the remote villages, there are caravans of donkeys, often with colorful bridles and bells hanging from their necks. You’ll hear them ringing faintly from far off. Then suddenly the caravan will round the bend, and you’ll be in the midst of a dust cloud of donkeys and their herders, whistling and shouting to keep them on the move. The whistles and shouts blend into the cacophony of bells – pure trail music. And then, just as quickly, they’re gone, leaving a haunting whisper of sound.

Donkey Caravan

hauling_hay caravan1 caravan2
 A donkey caravan along the trail (2:12) 

Click to enlarge map

The high point of the trek, altitude-wise, is Thorung La, a mountain pass with an elevation of 17,769 feet (5,416 meters). Under the supervision of Sherpa guides, you’ve spent almost two weeks gradually acclimatizing to the altitude. So when the time comes to cross the pass, you’re ready for it.

 Sounds from my ascent to Thorung La, a mountain pass, beginning with birds at the start of the climb and ending with Sherpas singing at the highest point (1:55) 

Although it supposedly rarely snows during early October (trekking season), it did on the eve of my crossing. The intense glare of the snow added to the list of challenges on the day of the ascent.

One of my strongest impressions is of the difficulty of breathing at the highest altitude. We lowlanders are attuned to a certain “density” of air. Up in the nether regions, when you breathe in, you don’t receive the amount of air you’re programmed for. It’s sort of like drinking a whole glass of water and ending up with only a few sips. Gradually you learn to economize your breathing and your movements, as you find your own rhythm to make it to the top.

Three Days of Puja

campfire dawn_thorung prayer_flag summit

A few days after traversing Thorung La, while dining at an inn in the village of Marpha, I was jolted by a clash of cymbals and a discordant blare of what sounded like trumpets in an adjacent room. It turned out that the proprietor of the inn had invited a lama to hold three days of puja – vigilant prayer and ritual observance – during the holiday of Dharma Mandal.

 Monks using the sounds of chants, bells, cymbals, and horns to celebrate a three-day-long Buddhist holiday (1:41) 

After receiving permission to enter the room and record, I saw Lama Lobsang Tempa intoning a chant from a sacred text. Next to him in a line sat four novice monks, barely in their teens. From time to time they joined in playing cymbals and reed instruments.

Everyone followed the proceedings with their own copy of the text, the older boys chanting softly in unison. At certain intervals the youngest novice replenished everyone’s teacup. The ceremony had the curious quality of being informal, unpretentious, and at the same time, quite precise.

Later, after he’d finished the evening’s puja and had a bit of dinner, the lama granted me a brief interview. In response to one of my questions, he said, “Once we come into this world, we must die, isn’t it so? We die and our external bodies might not exist, but our souls will still be here, accompanied by what good or bad we have done with our lives. What will you take with you?”

Trekking Advice
Tourism has become one of Nepal’s primary sources of income, and there are a number of options open to would-be trekkers. You can show up in Kathmandu and hire a guide, find your way to a trailhead and trek it yourself, or work with a trekking agency, which will help you handle all the details of the journey. I went the agency route and never regretted it for an instant.

Jim Metzner with a Nepalese musician
Jim Metzner with a Nepalese musician

On the trek my companion and I slept in tents, had our baggage carried by porters, and had our food cooked for us. It was wonderful. There are also inns and small restaurants along much of the route.

A number of trekking agencies have extensive experience in Nepal, including Mountain Travel•Sobek ( and Wilderness Travel (, both based in northern California. The company I worked with, Geographic Expeditions ( (no affiliation with National Geographic), was first-rate.

The typical cost of a trek today is approximately U.S. $100 to $200 per person per day, depending on the size of the group.

— Jim Metzner


One in a series of archival articles originally produced in 2000.

Photographs, text and sound by Jim Metzner.

Photograph of Jim Metzner and musician by Eileen Behan.

Special thanks to Shana Chrystie of Geographic Expeditions for generously sharing her knowledge of Nepal, and to Eileen Behan, my stalwart companion on the Annapurna Circuit. Although we encountered many difficulties along the way, I don’t recall her ever complaining, not even when she twisted her ankle along a rock-strewn stretch of the Kali Gandaki riverbed.

Pulse of the Planet  is made possible by the National Science Foundation.

This feature originally appeared on and appears here with their kind permission.

© 2000-2007 Jim Metzner Productions. All rights reserved.

The Pantanel

Earthly Paradise

View Pantanel Video

“Welcome to Paradise!” A pair of binoculars dangling from his neck, ornithologist Reggie Donatelli stands on the lawn of the Fazenda Rio Negro and invites me to survey the surroundings. Fifty feet away, nestled in a palm tree, is pair of Hyacinth Macaws, their plumage a gorgeous shade of purplish blue. A threatened species, this bird is found primarily in the region known as the Pantanal. Nearby, looking very much like its cousins the ostrich and the emu, a Greater Rhea pecks at the lawn, searching for grubs. Also within sight are a Jabiru stork, a Campos flicker, Buff-necked Ibises, Herons, Egrets and flocks of parrots – just a few of the over 300 species of birds which have been observed here. For bird-lovers, this place might well be paradise.

The Fazenda (ranch) is located on the banks of the Rio Negro, teeming with fish, caimans (alligators), and rarely seen creatures like the Giant River Otter. The forests and savannas which surround this land are home to jaguars, peccaries (boar-like ungulates), anteaters, capybaras (picture a dog-sized guinea pig!) monkeys, foxes, and countless reptiles, amphibians and insects. Included in the latter category is the mosquito, which in the early evenings does its best to make us feel like a part of the local food chain. “Us” is an Earthwatch team, here to assist Professor Donatelli as he monitors the avian component of the mosaic of life which comprises the Pantanal.

Located south of the Amazon basin and east of the Andes, the Pantanal is said to be the largest wetland in the world – an enormous river basin roughly the size of England (about 90,000 square miles), within the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia. It is the flood plain for the Paraguay River and its tributaries.

Although facing many threats and challenges from human occupation, the Pantanal (translated as “swamp” or “marsh”) is considered to be one of the last relatively pristine areas on earth, rich in biodiversity. A healthy Pantanal is essential to maintaining regional water quality. This enormous wetlands serves as a natural filter, a “kidney” to the super-organism of the ecosystem. It also acts like an organic sponge to buffer and control the effects of flooding.

The Pantanal is threatened by agribusiness, by pollution, and by efforts to dam, dredge and straighten its rivers. Alarmed by the deterioration of Florida’s everglades, a region smaller in scale, but similar in its make-up to the Pantanal, the governments of Bolivia, Brazil and Paraguay have thus far kept most large scale development in check. A number of government and non-governmental organizations have organized efforts to protect the Pantanal, in part through promoting ecotourism and cattle ranching which, historically, is thought to have a relatively light footprint on the grasslands of the region.

The Pousada Ararauna acts as base for scientists and research teams who are studying the region and its varied fauna. The accommodations are pleasant and comfortable, the food outstanding, and the wildlife viewing remarkable. They offer observatory trails, photographic safaris, and boat, canoe and horseback tours. Earthwatch also brings in volunteers to work on projects studying jaguars, peccaries, fruit-eating creatures, and otters. For more information go to or

There are two seasons hereabouts – wet and dry, and our Earthwatch team is here in January, the heart of the rainy season, when much of the region is underwater. Some of the research is done by boat, some on horseback, on foot and on four-wheel drive vehicles, which manage to get stuck in the mud on a semi-regular basis. Under Reggie Donatelli’s watchful eye, we learn how to take a daily census of birds, set mist nets (made of fine mesh) to catch birds, record their vital statistics, band and release them. Each band has a unique number which can be used to trace the bird’s migratory patterns if it happens to be caught again. On occasion, recordings are used to attract different species of birds to the nets. My role here is to help make recordings and to document some of the myriad sounds of the Pantanal. In so doing, the hope is that we’ll bring this extraordinary region to the attention of tourists and travelers. If you are looking for one of the few places on earth that remain relatively untouched by the hand of man, this is a destination you may want to seriously consider. The panoply of wildlife here is diverse enough to keep the most jaded observer occupied, and you can do your observing without sacrificing any creature comforts. Responsible ecotourism is one of the key elements in the plan to preserve and protect the Pantanal – an earthly paradise where humans and animals still have the chance to coexist.

Scientist Profile
Dr. Reginaldo Donatelli has a Ph.D. in Ornithology (1991) and a Master’s degree in Zoology (1987) from Universidade de São Paulo, SP, Brazil. He has been Professor of Zoology (Vertebrates) at the Universidade Estadual Paulista, UNESP, Bauru campus since 1991.

Dr. Donatelli’s field experience includes: study of migratory birds in the Lagoa do Peixe, and in the Taim’s reserve, Reggie with a birdRio Grande do Sul (bird banding); survey of birds in northern Pantanal (Poconé region); project developed in the Caratinga’s World Wildlife Foundation reserve and Vale do Rio Doce’s reserve, both in Minas Gerais; studies on Amazonian birds in Belém do Pará; bird-banding in southwestern SP, Assis region for three years (doves’ nesting in sugar-cane); and a survey of birds in many tropical forest remnants in São Paulo. He is currently writing a field guide of birds from Bauru and region (central-western part of the Estate of São Paulo) and is conducting studies on Birds and Dynamic Habitat Mosaics in the Pantanal, Brazil. Listen to the audio interview below:

Scientist Profile
Dr. Alexine Keuroghlian is a researcher and teacher at the University for the Development of the State and region of the Pantanal (UNIDERP). She participated in the primate project with the World Wildlife Fund project in the Amazon – now called the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragment Project.

Alexine KeuroghlianAlexine’s first research project was studying endangered black lion tamarins in the Amazon basin. However, after her brief work with primates, she began researching peccaries, first in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, and now in the Pantanal. Now Alexine has been studying the role of peccaries as a landscape species in fragments of the Atlantic forest, and in the Pantanal.

Keuroghlian’s education includes a Master’s in Wildlife Management from West Virginia and a Ph.D. in the Program of Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology at the University of Nevada at Reno. Listen to the audio interview below:

Other Interviews

Interview with Reinaldo Lourival

Renaldo Lourival Interview

TITLE:  Pantanal Wetlands           
WITH:  Reinaldo Lourival, regional director of Conservation International.           

We are talking about the Pantanal.  The biggest wetland in the world.  It’s 140,000 square kilometers, ten times the everglades, and it’s located at the center of South America. So, what we are doing in the Pantanal area, we are trying to implement a conservation strategy that is based on the concept of the ecological corridors, or biodiversity corridors.  So we want to link the Pantanal to the surrounding ecosystems. That means that animals and plants would have the chance to exchange genetic material from a population that is in the upper part of the basin or the watershed, and they can change genes, and they can breed.

What’s going on is the Pantanal is a complex ecosystem and it comprises the watershed which is in the central plateau of Brazil and the big flood plain.  The big flood plain is still intact.  We’re talking about more than eighty percent intact.  But the surrounding areas are going through a process of fragmentation due to agricultural development, human encroachment, and road building and stuff like that.  So the idea is that we can connect those areas using rivers and watersheds as a means to keep the gene flow, genetic material exchange. 

It’s a very rich ecosystem.  It’s very productive.  So in the case of the Pantanal we have more than three thousand and five hundred species of plants.  We have three hundred species of fresh water fish.  We have 100 species of mammals.  Six hundred and fifty species of birds.  Because of productivity of the ecosystem you have a big abundance of fish, which brings you a big abundance of waterfowl, which then gives you abundance of reptiles.  So, you’re gonna find there the biggest densities of crocodilians in the world. So you have, sometimes you can find a pond where you find more than a thousand animals together.

it’s not only because of the size, but the complexity.  It links many different ecosystems in South America.  So, it’s a place where species can use to breed and, or they can use for migration.  So, we have a lot of birds that migrate from the northern hemisphere.  They migrate from the southern part of the continent.  Also to visit the Pantanal and use the productivity of their breeding purposes. 

We have a major threat that is mining on some of the areas on the plateau that brings quicksilver to the flood plain which is incorporated in the food chain.  We are talking about the development of transportation routes along the Pantanal. We are talking also about human development, which increases sewage, that goes to the flood plain.  And in term of these internal threats, in the Pantanal we have cattle ranching as a major economic activity.  And it has been sustainable for the last two hundred years.  But then, due to difficulties in terms of cattle ranch development, some of the farmers are introducing new grazing areas. They put the forests down and put new grass on top of it.  So it creates a huge grassland areas that simplifies the ecosystem.  It’s bad for biodiversity in general. 

Biologist Leandro Silveira on the Pantanal Jaguar

Leandro Silveira on the Pantanal Jaguar

Well, The jaguar is a top predator.  It’s the largest carnivore in Brazil.  And, it is one of the best examples of habitat quality.  Its presence is one of the best examples of habitat quality because they require each animal.  Require a large home ranges and they depend on habitat quality.  They depend on good natural cover.  They depend on natural prey base.  That means the presence of a jaguar in one specific site, that means that site is in good quality. 

It is pretty difficult to see jaguars in the wild.  They’re very secretive animals.  To study jaguars we end up doing a lot of detective work.  We work on signs.  We have to learn to read evidence left in the wild.  It’s a better chance of seeing jaguars is along the river side, on the river banks and the sand beach early in the morning when they come out for sun bathing.

We have recorded jaguars calling at night.  And, uh, we have in Brazil, hunters use a caller, we call it a jaguar caller.  It’s an instrument they make out of a plant.  And  it’s a hollow plant.  And you call imitate the sound and the animal respond to that.

Jaguars play a very mystic role, in Brazilian culture.  Especially in indigenous people all those local up there in remote areas.  They are very afraid of the jaguars.  They are very afraid to be attacked.  And what we have learned studying jaguars is that the last thing that animals will do is to attack a human being.  All the attacks, when you go off to the records of jaguar attacking humans, it is always related to situations where they were they were treed or, you know, they were being hunted or they were shot and they wounded and they would come back to the people.  So, what we have learned we have been in situations where we have been very close to animals and these animals just walked away. So what we could see was the fear is so big, but, actually the animals , do avoid humans and there’s no record of natural attacks in this regions.Pantanal Research Links

Links to research being conducted at Pousada Ararauna may be found under the “Projects” heading at

Helen Waldermarin on Otters

Helen Waldermarin
Author, researcher, otter specialist

I’m work in Pantanal, in Brazil, in Central West Brazil. And I’m studying otters, giant otters and neo-tropical otters in Pantanal. We have thirteen otter species in the world, and in Brazil we have these two species: the giant and neo-tropical.
The difference between giant and neo-tropical otters — the giant otters are bigger, longer. They are social animals; they live in familiar groups. And the neo-tropical otters are smaller, and they are solitary animals. They live themselves, only are together during the reproductive time.
I have two main issues in the project. One of them is we are studying how the neotropical and the giant otters can live together in this area without have a direct competition. So they are using the same resources, they are using the same area, they are similar animals, and how they are not competing in the area. Another one is to try to understand the habitat requirements and the general requirements of giant otters – they are a threatened species. And, uh, especially, um, what they need to live and to have a healthy population in an area, and they try to use this data for tourism management in Pantanal.
Ecotourism in Pantanal is increasing a lot, and the experience in some areas, outside Brazil especially in Peruvian Amazon, they found that the otters can be disrupted. The behavior can be disrupted. So the idea is have a good, a good tourism that will not disrupt the giant otters’ activities.
I guess the first thing is that we don’t know almost anything about these animals, and so to learn about the animals, the wildlife that we have. And besides this, considering that they are top predators, they are very important to maintain the biodiversity and the aquatic environment and the environment as general.

The Pantanel

Video: Featured on the video, in order of appearance are — a Campos (or Field) Flicker, a Rufescent Tiger Heron, a boat trip up the Rio Negro, cowboy musicians Celso do Silva and Arnaldo Silverio – who diligently practice every night at the Fazenda, an Egret in flight from its nesting site along the river, some feral pigs who visit the Fazenda in the evenings, ants, a caiman, a Tri-colored Hog-Nose Snake, an immature Yellow-billed Cardinal with an injured wing being examined, a Greater Rhea, sunset from the Fazenda. (2:12)


Related programs on Pulse of the Planet:

Pantanal: Listening to Jaguars

Pantanal: Tracking Peccaries

For information on joining an Earthwatch Expedition in the Pantanal go to the Expedition signup page at

Thanks to Reggie Donatelli, for his patience, generosity and good humor, Blue Magruder and Heather Pruiksma at Earthwatch, photographers “Uncle Jeff” Himmelstein and Ellen McKnight, and all the other members of the team (Lee, Warren and Ron) who had to put up with the pesky demands of a sound recordist (“Quiet on the boat, please!”), research scientists Don Eaton, Alexine Keurohghlian and Marion Kallerhoff, Rick Prum and family, musicians Celso do Silva and Arnaldo Silverio, and intrepid guide Picolay.

Video and all sounds ©2007 Jim Metzner. All Rights Reserved. Portions of this feature used with kind permission from Sampling or any commercial use without permission is strictly prohibited.