A few vocabulary words for the uninformed:
igarapé — Indian word, meaning “canoe trail.” In Portuguese, and this journal, it’s used to describe a small, watered entrance into jungle that may go back ten feet, or ten miles
igapó — jungle flooded with blackwater, present for most of the year in the Rio Negro
cabeçera — headwaters of a lake, river, or igarapé
cachaça — Brazilian liquor made from sugar cane
caborclo — Brazilian with mixed Indian and European heritage
castanheira — Brazil nut tree, a massive thing
terra firme — high jungle that never floods, reguardless of the time of year
zagaia — a three-pronged fish spear
pano — one 50m length of gill netting
roça — a small, usually isolated farm with the principal function of growing mandioca tubers for the production of farinha
farinha — local stapel made from dried, crushed mandioca tubers
jaraquí — a medium-sized fish which feeds principally on algae and soft fruits
pescada — a nocturnal fish similar to a bass, but with teeth. Max size, 20 pounds.
surubín — a striped catfish with a long, flat head. Max size, 200 pounds
pacú — silver fish, round as a coin, can get as big as a dinner plate. Relative of the piranha, but with cow’s teeth
acará — a spiny, medium-sized fish, like a mixture between a bass and a perch
traira — a stout, fat, toothy carnivorous fish
rabeta — a motor, usually between 5 and 8 HP, with a propeller on the end of a long shaft, usually between six and eight feet long. Used to motorize wooden canoes of all sizes
lancha — an aluminum boat, usually with an outboard motor but sometimes a rabeta
When reading quotes from the charactars in this journal, the reader should remember that all conversations took place in Brazilian Portuguese. The variations in accents and exact word choice I use here reflect the way I imagine that particular person would talk were he speaking in English, based on mannerisms, disposition, and voice inflictions.
Day 0 –Novo Airão, AM – 24.08.2013
We found Zezinho’s boat easily enough in the igarapé, bearing the typical name 12 Irmãos. Zezinho himself was presumably still out in the jungle, where we had left him that morning. Unloaded my canoe into the rather decrepit 12 Irmãos, threading our way around rusty engine parts, old gasoline cans, and one of the only fiberglass canoes I’ve ever seen in the Amazon. Zezinho’s family receives us warmly and after exchanging pleasantries, Cindy and I head into town to commemorate her last day in the jungle. Beers are in order, and we weave our way back to the 12 Irmãos at two in the morning. Once aboard, whilst pissing over the side, I slip somehow and fall flat on my face in the mud, letting out a now-characteristic string of mixed Portuguese and English obscenities. Retire to hammock grumbling and dirty. Cindy, deep into her pre-sleep ritual, ignores this.
Day 1 – Rio Negro – Anavilhanas – 25.08.2013
Zezinho returned in the night, chainsaw all worn out. He’s got it on the picnic table in a thousand pieces, and is painstakingly scrubbing each part with gasoline when Cindy and I emerge from the 12 Irmãos.
A difference between Amazonians and Americans: many Americans own chainsaws and other motorized things, yet few have any idea how to take them apart, service them, and then put them back together. Every Amazonian who owns a chainsaw is also a chainsaw mechanic – oil-stained picnic tables and tree stumps across the region can attest to that.
I walk with Cindy into town and stay with her until her taxi to the airport in Manaus arrives. A smile, a wave, a flash of sunglasses glinting in the morning sun, and the first woman to paddle any section of river with me rolls away, destination Santiago de Chile, down the deserted streets of Novo Airão.
I sit later with Zezinho and his now partially-assembled chainsaw on the oil-stained bench of the oil-drenched picnic table. We sit for awhile. My host tells me the story of the numerous horrendous scars across his arms, back, and chest.
“I was drinking, New Years,” he drolled, tightening a bolt. “A man I know was there – he’s a thief, stolen many things, and everyone knows it. So I call him a fucking thief. He slinks away, then comes back an hour later swinging a machete. I was in the hospital for three months.” The bolt, now at maximum tightness, creaks in protest as the scarred hand forces it in another millimeter.
“What happened to the man ?” I asked.
“Spent a few years locked up. He’s been out for awhile though. Lives a few blocks from here.”
“Never any more problems with him?”
“Oh, no. The guy’s terrified of me. Thinks I want revenge. Never meets my eyes.”
“Do you want revenge?”
Zezinho stared for a moment, then chuckled. “I’ve got better things to do.” Another bolt creaks tight, and I let the subject drop.
Zezinho asks me about the death penalty. Yes, they have it in Texas. No, they don’t use the electric chair anymore. “But every prisoner, before being put to death, is allowed to choose his last meal.”
“Anything at all?” Scar tissue contorts into new and exciting shapes as the arms work at prying something loose deep inside the motor.
He thinks for a moment. “ I would choose…” The scars pause, as if they too are deliberating the contents of their last meal. “Pussy!” He roars with laughter at his own joke, face streaked with motor oil, open grin showing every one of his rotten teeth. “But,” he points at me, “not even that’s worth dying for.”
Zezinho recovers, and immerses himself in the chainsaw once more. The scars go on laughing.
Lunch with Zezinho. Fish soup, leftovers from whatever he caught out up in the cabeçera. One fish, a two-foot dogfish, is actually my catch, part of the armful I had gifted the man and his sons three days before when he passed by the roça. “The jaraquí, those went fast,” said the scars. “We sorta forgot about the dogfish. Slipped all the way to the bottom of the ice chest.” I eat my offering as the Globo and Zezinho’s old off-color cathode ray subject us to unconvincingly dubbed “Drillbit Taylor.”
By one-thirty I have my canoe loaded up and fifteen minutes later I put out into the igarapé, supplied for at least twenty days in the bush. Plenty of rice, at least. Zezinho gives me the thumbs-up and wishes boa viagem. The chainsaw, now fully assembled, sits next to him.
I pass a crescent of sand loaded with Sunday leisure-seekers from the town and clogged with aluminum lanchas sporting 15HP outboards. I round a point and they disappear. The jungle is, once again, mine and only mine.
The Rio Negro is silent and scorching. I paddle through tannin-stained blackwater, hugging the shore as the wind breathes quietly in my face. It’s good to be back.
Camp at five-thirty on a lightly-forested beachhead. Two nets in the water by six, both 40mm mesh, one full pano one half pano. Just one jaraqui is snagged by the time camp is set up, but it’s enough. Take the longer net in but leave the half pano in a bit of flooded trees, hoping for catfish or pescada for tomorrows lunch. Boil the jaraquí and make soup with plenty of onions and garlic. Doze for awhile, then get up and check the half pano net around midnight. Good hour for pescada in the Rio Negro, but also a good hour for black piranha, which is why it’s in your best interest to check the net often or risk removing only fish heads, relieved even of their eyeballs, come morning.
No luck this time. I see a strange light flicking about amongst the trees downriver. Flashlight, I assume. Ten minutes and I am exchanging pleasantries with another canoe loaded with a caborclo and his wife, a zagia fish gig, and hundreds of jaraquí, as well as a peacock bass the size of a cow’s head.
Tomorrow, I fish with the zagia.
Day 2 – Rio Negro – Anavilhanas – 26.08.2013
Slow, hot day. The Rio Negro, being the largest of the world’s blackwater rivers, is different from the other blackwater I’ve traveled in the past. For one, the current clips along at at least several knots, something that doesn’t happen on the Tapajós until Aveiro, 300 km up from the mouth, nor ever on the Canumã (except for within ten clicks of the Sucundurí). The presence of so many islands must have something to do with it. Though the Negro is nigh on thirty miles wide at this point, from ground level here in the largest channel the distance to the nearest island in the east is not more than a kilometer. “Island” it should be noted, is used in a very liberal sense this time of year. Every island of trees is 100 per cent igapó – flooded forest – at the moment, and so shall they remain until early October at least. For this reason it’s advisable to stick to terra firme, in this case the western bank, if you hope to find dry land to camp on by the time night comes around – and that should always be something you hope for.
The westernmost channel has been so far uncomplicated navigation-wise, with a high, distinct terra firme to the left and a uniformly distant, wholly featureless island to the right. West bank slopes lazily to the northwest with few sharp points, so not too much fighting with midstream currents bouncing off protruding landmass like on the Amazon River. Less points, however, means less deadwater and counter-currents, so fought a gentle yet steady current for most of the day. Lunched on rice and a sautéed filhote catfish found tangled in the half pano this morning, along with an acará, which I salted for dinner.
Today I noticed my canoe seemed to be filling with water at an alarming rate, perplexing since I just had her recauked in Manaus, and there was very little wind or waves today. Made a thorough leak check during lunch pit stop and discovered that rot had eaten a hole about the size of a dime on the port side of the stern, right under the bench. Fortunately the hole opens up onto an interior strut so what should have been a very bad, torrent of a leak was reduced to a mere trickle of water. Cut a piece of cloth off an old shirt and plugged it with that. It’ll have to do until I can get to Barcelos and buy some epoxy paste.
Found a nice igapó flanked by relatively flat jungle land to camp on tonight. Followed it back about half a kilometer loaded with nets, where it opened into a small lake, which, further down, can be seen leading back to the river. I suppose I’m technically on an island, though it is very high ground and I’m sure it is not an island in December. Set out the big 40mm mesh net and the 60mm mesh in the igapó in front of camp. So far, nothing, though I did notice a large black scorpion – probably Titus something or the other – scurrying around the prow of my canoe as I set the 60mm. Black scorpions in the Amazon belonging to the genus Titus have a nasty habit of sometimes paralyzing fingers and toes with their neurotoxic venom. I flicked it into the water with my paddle and made sure it did not reboard.
I have fried the salted acará for dinner with a smattering of rice. Hunger not totally satisfied but I believe I’ll make it through the night. Water too deep, flashlight too weak, body too tired for zagaia fishing tonight. Tomorrow, perhaps.
Day 3 – Rio Negro – Anavilhanas – 27.08.2013
Dawn brings rain which lasts until around 0630, followed by clear weather and a steady, bustling wind from the southeast. Wring out camp, break it down, and retrieve my nets, both filled with sticks and leaves but no fish. Paddle out the igapó and raise sail as soon as I reach open water. Wind quite strong and reliable today. Sail pleasantly, keeping about 30m between me and the west bank. Around 1100 the wind picks up, gusting ten knots or more as the sun burns high in the midday sky. Swells, children of the wind, roil up from three to five feet to eight to twelve feet. I take the waves at the stern and roll with the punches. At times my speed almost equals the speed of the waves, something that becomes apparent when my canoe surfs like a giant, heavy surfboard on the top of a swell for sometimes up to ten seconds, before the wave finally eases on ahead and I slide into the trough. Occasional rogue gusts shoot me foreword in bubble-ridden lurches, palm tree mast creaking and groaning under the strain of full sail, and the canoe leans hard to to port, nearly capsizing, as I throw my body weight desperately to starboard while simultaneously jamming the paddle as far out to port as I can to stabilize – sometimes not a very easy nor effortless maneuver. Oftentimes these gusts, despite my efforts, turn the canoe far to port, nearly due west, and put me in beam sea amongst twelve-foot swells which occasionally break in the middle of the river. Fortunately I always manage to correct my bearing before one of them breaks on me, though a few bail out sessions are in order before 1300.
Sail steadily northwest all day. Lunch is leftover rice and hard tack flour cakes, eaten on the fly. Great progress is made today, perhaps 30 kilometers. Am camped now in another igapó, about a quarter mile back from the river in a flat, squelchy jungle populated by enormous trees twenty feet wide and vines four feet thick, which snake up the giants in a decades-long crusade of slow, inevitable strangulation.
Set out the full pano 40mm net and the 60mm. While setting the 40, taking awhile to untangle all the leaves and sticks from last night, two jaraquí hit violently close to the beginning, flying clear out the water in their vain attempts to escape certain doom. A good sign. About a pound an a half each – plenty for a delicious soup to sip on as I write. I clean the fish, cook, make coffee, and go back to check the nets for lunch fish. After having a bit of trouble relocating the 40 in the blackness (there are few terrains in the world more confusing than an Amazonian igapó under a frail moon on a cloudy night), I finally find it and take out two more jaraquí. Sufficiently prepared for tomorrow’s lunch, I bring the net in. The 60 stays in the water – there’s a good chance for big pescada or surubín in this igapó. I need a stash of meaty, dried fish.
No zagaia tonight. Already have plenty of fish, and besides that – I’m exhausted.
Day 4 – Rio Negro – Anavilhanas – 28.08.2013
Another windy day – thankfully, favorable wind, again from the southeast. 60mm net yields no pescada or surubín, but anyways, lunch is already taken care of. Raise sail joyfully at 0700 and continue making my way northwest, still hugging terra firme in the western channel.
After 1100 the wind again picks up to ten-plus knots and the mammoth swells return. Same sailing routine as yesterday ensues, perhaps even more haphazard since I find myself in beam sea a bit more often and even have a wave break over the stern, flooding my boat up to my lower calves and coming dangerously close to swamping me. Skirt igapó with terra firme half a mile distant in the jungle for most of the morning, eyes peeled for a landing site where I can make lunch. Round a point at 1230 and lo and behold a patch of land awaits on the other side. Just as I begin angling for that miraculous bit of brown, a massive gust pile drives me from starboard and goes on for a full ten seconds. As I wrestle against it, flying foreword at what seems like a hundred miles an hour, my mast gives a final groan, splinters, and snaps in two about a meter up from the front bench. I drift to a stop, bobbing up and down as my sail splashes into the Rio Negro off the stern. Good thing I’m about to stop for lunch anyways. I crawl to the stern and collect my sail and the remainder of my mast, stow them, and paddle for shore.
The land is actually a strip of sandstone. Waves crash against it and send water jetting into the air, and I have quite a time avoiding being smashed to pieces until I finally locate a natural cove some ways back. Still, the waves manage to flood my canoe to an unacceptable level, and are battering me still even as I shelter in the cove. I unload everything, set it in the sun to dry, bail out, then push my boat up on land until the waves can no longer reach it.
Up the sandstone is an open hut covered with palm thatching, flanked on all sides by mandioca plants and spiky sprouts of pineapple. Another roça. The farmers, it seems, are absent for the time being. I haul stove, propane, and ice chest into the hut and get lunch started. A small area is closed off with boards to block out the wind. I put my stove there. Rice is seasoned and boiling on the fire and the first of the jaraquí is washed of salt and frying in oil before I foray into the fringe of the jungle with my machete, in search of a new mast.
An hour and a half later my belly is full, dirty dishes litter the hut, and I squat on the dirt floor as I tie my sail to an eight-inch thick, four meter long perfectly straight bit of tucumazeiro, stripped of spines and shaved of bark. My new mast; it shall be put to the test right away, as the wind continues to howl through the cracks of the boards blocking my stove. I haul gear back to the riverside and anchor the canoe about four meters from shore in shallow water where it is nonetheless too deep for waves to start breaking. In ten trips and a lot of wading, she’s loaded up and ready to go. I raise sail and rocket away from the sandstone, scooping out a drink of river water as I do. Northwesterly bearing resumes, as does wavesurfing and occasional gusts and their resulting beam seas.
At 1630 the wind begins to die down, and by 1700 it’s negligible. I take down the sail and paddle for a small strip of nearby beach where many small scrub trees and bushes are growing. Camp is made, but not before both 40mm nets are set out, full pano at the mouth of a small igarapé nearby and half pano about fifty yards further in. I drink coffee and roll a cigarette as I watch the colors of the sunset at my back bleed out of the sky. The equatorial stars pop out into the dusk, one by twinkling one.
The full pano at the mouth is heavy with fish by the time it’s fully dark. Seven jaraquí, one two-and-a-half foot dogfish, and a thick, belligerent aracú are all tangled within ten feet of one another. I bring the net in and paddle back into the igarapé to check the half pano, which is empty but snagged on some underwater protrusion. I dive for it; it’s a sunken log. It’s always a sunken log.
I cook a heavy soup with lots of garlic and onions and the last of my farinha, using four of the jaraquí. I cut the dogfish into pieces and fry them until they’re as crisp as a potato chip. The rest goes into the salt bucket. I gorge myself but there’s still two jaraquí and a few pieces of dogfish left for breakfast, which is good since I won’t have to spend time making hard tack in the morning.
I can hear a dog barking from nearby; perhaps I’m near a homestead or village. Tomorrow.
Day 5 – Rio Negro – Anavilhanas – 29.08.2013
Coco talks more than he breathes. Living alone and isolated can do that to people. It’s like, a man’s got to make up for a month of talking to nothing but chickens and dogs and stubborn cigarette lighters by spilling out thirty days worth of uncontrolled chatter to comprehending ears in one single afternoon.
“GIT AWAY THAT’S NOT YERS!” thunders Coco as he deals the resident rooster a kick. The bird squawks, flaps away, and promptly struts back to the scratch which is, apparently, reserved for peepers only. “I SAID GIT AWAY YOU GAD DAMNED BIRD, I’VE TOLD YOU A HUNNERT TIMES!” Another kick, lesson not learned, and peeper food vanishes down the gullet of JT Cluck for the tenth time in as many seconds.
“I’ll just feed ‘em in the house,” decides Coco, as the rooster triumphantly monopolizes the scratch pile. “They’re used to it, anyways. I do it mos’ days. In fact, they’re so used to it they seem to think this is their house!” Coco opens the door and peepers flood in from under the porch. “There ya go, have as much as ya want, that’s it,” cooes Coco as the peepers decend, vulture-like, upon the pile of chicken scratch in his living room, scattering crushed corn in every direction as they root instinctively for worms or some such thing in the middle of the food pile.
“You know, I used to have twelve,” begins Coco, revving up the speech engine and putting her into gear. “But then, a hawk took three and a python took five. I shot the hawk, but another one jest came an’ took his place. I looked all over for that python, even waited outside the chicken house ’til midnight. Never found ‘em, ‘least not that night. But then about a week ago I says to myself, ‘If’n I was a snake, I think I’d like to hide in that lumber pile over yonder by the outhouse.’ So I goes over to the outhouse and starts diggin’ around in that ole pile – with my machete close at hand, a course.”
The speech engine shifts into high gear.
“Well I dig and I dig and I dig and I dig, and I roots out a bunch a rats and tarantulas – the dogs have fun with ‘em, a course. I got this one pup who’s so fast she can catch a rat in nothin’ flat – don’t even eat it! just chews ‘em up and spits ‘em right back out, just fer the fun of it, I reckon. It’s that little female you saw out there, the one with the big hole in her shoulder. She got that a few days back when I was huntin’ hogs. Lord, was there a lot of hogs! ‘Twas this big band of the fuckers, right out across that field over yonder, and when I sees them my eyes musta done popped right outta my head, there was so many! I tell you, louro there musta bin two hunnerd of ‘em, right up on my mandioca field! So I grabs my shotgun, whoops to my dogs and off we go a-runnin’ after ‘em. Well, we run, and we run, and we run, my dogs theys out way ahead, bayin’ like the worlds ’bout to ‘xplode, and finally I catches up to ‘em, theys all circled around this big momma hog with a little babe piglet squealin’ and joggin ’round in circles behind her, all terrified and shittin’ everywhere – and I tell you what, Patrick, that momma hog was pissed.”
Finally, Coco takes a breath.
“So the dogs is bayin’, the momma hog she’s a-gruntin’ somethin’ awful, the babe piglet’s squealin’ like he’s havin’ his guts ripped out through his asshole, and meanwhile I’m a-tryin’ to get a bead on the momma hog ‘thout shootin’ one a my dogs, when suddenly my fierce little female makes a break fer the babe piglet! Only, momma she was too quick, and she punched a big, ugly hole right in the shoulder a my pup, who duddn’ even yelp, she’s so tough, and would you believe she still managed to grab that babe piglet and toss ‘em right outta that circle! Well momma hog, she starts figurin’ this situation ain’t gonna end well fer her if she sticks around much longer, so she lowers her head and charges right outta that circle a hounds, and they all tear off after her, a course, even my little female, who’s drippin blood and cain’t hardly walk – and purty soon I’s all on my own again. Well, that babe piglet, the dogs had fergot all ’bout him! He’s still squealin’ and stumblin’ around, kinda shocked, I reckon, and I moves over to smash ‘is head in with the butt a my shotgun – very tender meat, babe piglets – but then I sees how little and helpless the feller is, so instead I jest pin ‘em down with the heel a my boot and grabs him behind the head. Oh, Lord, he sure made a scene! But he was too little to be able to do much about, it ‘cept squeal an’ squirm, and I takes him back here to the farm. I reckon I’ll try an’ raise the feller, if’n I can get him to eat. He’s right there, under that there crate.”
Coco points to an old plastic milk crate over in the corner with rocks stacked on top of it. Sure enough there’s a tiny piglet crouched in the corner, no bigger than a month-old kitten.
“Careful, he’ll bite yer finger right off. Still haven’t been able to get ‘em to eat anythin’, but it’s three days now he’s under that crate, he’ll get hungy ‘nough purty soon, then I kin raise ‘em and p’raps sell ‘em to one a the cement barges that go down to Manaus. They’ll pay good money fer queixada meat. That’s ’bout all theys good for, I reckon. ‘Never they pass by the fishin’ goes to shit, too much motor sounds in the water. And their waves’ll sink my canoe. Say, a few years back this barge man pulls up to my house in his lancha, he wanted to buy some turtles…”
The speech engine rumbles on, unstoppable. I never find out if he got that python or not.
Not five minutes after leaving camp, I round a point and there’s Coco, squatted in the prow of his canoe and glaring at a passing barge. Five feet tall and brown as a coffee bean, Coco smiles, showing a full set of bottom teeth but just one top tooth, which is small, somewhat randomly placed, and black as obsidian. He’s a typical Amazonian caborclo, or local of mixed Indian and European heritage, the sturdy race which makes up 99 per cent of the Amazon Basin’s riverside population.
“Paddlin’ upriver, eh?” spouts Coco, delighted, as he poles over and hastily stows a trot line with close to thirty hooks on it. “I was jest looking fer a spot t’ set out my trot line, but then I sees this damned barge hammerin’ along downriver and I says to myself, ‘Well, so much fer that.’ Say, have you had coffee? I got plenty a coffee, I do. That’s my house right there. Won’t you come up for awhile?”
“Sure, sounds great,” I said, and we set course for a clearing about twenty yards away, which is dominated by an old, rotting farm house where a mess of dogs sit eagerly in wait for our arrival.
“Careful now, that barge’ll send a wake our way soon enough. I been swamped many a time by those damned things. No respect for the caborclo, those fellers. Once I even lost a spotlight and a zagaia. The fishin’ always goes to shit when they pass by, so it ain’t no use fishin’ fer now. Say, what’s yer name, friend? I’m Coco, ‘least that’s what they call me, my real name’s Manuel but I ain’t never gone by Manuel. That’s my house up there, or ‘least, that’s where I call home for the time bein’. The real owner he lives in Manaus, I jest take care a things while he’s gone, and Lord! he’s been gone nigh on five years now! But that’s all right. He pays my food and my cachaça, and me, I like livin’ out here. Nice and peaceful, it is. All those dogs, theys mine. Huntin’ dogs. There’s a female there who can catch a rat in nothin’ flat! Jest, she got a hole in her shoulder. I was huntin’ hogs, y’see…”
After coffee Coco just keeps on chugging along, and anyways, most of his ramblings are interesting. Around eleven he suggests we get started on lunch, since
“…there ain’t no use travellin’ on an empty stomach, I always says. I reckon I’ll make us a soup, I got plenty a fish from last night. The kitchen’s over there in that other buildin’, see, ’cause this one’s gettin’ all rotten and it don’t do to cook here, ‘cept if’n ya make a fire out on the porch. The owner, he built that other house back there for cookin’, and also it’s got a big room that I use ter store old nets ‘n things. It’s nice, real nice, and I’d just live in there, only I gotta sleep in the front buildin’ since I got plenty a stuff in there too – an’ maybe one night some sonuvvabitch decides he’d like to catch ole Coco with his pants down ‘n clean the place out – but no, I may not be smart but I shore ain’t dumb, neither! Nosir! So I sleeps in the ole house. Careful, there’s some tucuma spines down over there, watch ya don’t step on ‘em! Say, where’s your sandals? It don’t do to walk around here barefoot.”
“I left them at a campsite a few nights back. Never buy sandals that blend in with dry leaves.” Remember that, aspiring jungle traveller.
“Well, that won’ do! You wait right there, I got a ole pair one a the boys left here a few weeks ago. Every coupla weeks the boys from Arajú come up here an’ being me supplies, sometimes I go m’self but then there’s them days I done run outta gas for my motor, and so the boys they bring me the stuff I need — only sometimes they brings me flour without yeast, an’ I always say ‘Boys, I need flour with yeast, ’cause without yeast my hard tack comes out all tough n’ flat!’ An’ they says ‘OK Coco, don’t you worry, we’ll bring you the flour with yeast.’ Only sometimes they still fergets the flour with yeast, an’ then I’m eatin’ flat bread that’s tough as a damned cow’s stomach fer a month – but I reckon that’s jest the way things is, sometimes. Here they are! Only, you’ll have to give ‘em back b’fore ya leave, on account a the boys’ll probably be back lookin’ fer them here in a week or so.”
I slip on the sandels, and in we go to the “nice house.” The wood is new, at least. But the roof
“…is a Class A piece a shit, I tell you what. When it starts rainin’ real hard you may as well be standin’ out in the middle a the damned mandioca field, that’s how much good it does ya! See, the owner, he kin be kinda cheap at times, he’s a nice feller but sometimes he fergets things, like that if’n yer gonna build you a new farmhouse, the mos’ importan’ part is the gad damned ruf! ‘Specially in a place as rainy as this un! See, the stove gits all wet, y’can see where it’s startin’ t’ rust away, cain’t ya see it? all on account of a crummy ruf, an’ the owner, well he’ll have to buy a new stove once this one rusts away t’ nothin’ – and ole Coco’ll be the first one t’ tell ‘im, ‘Man. Ya shoulda built a better ruf.‘”
Coco manages to get some onions out and chops half of them before he stops to roll a cigarette. He asks me if I smoke, I tell him I do, and he asks me, where’s yer tobaccer, man? I tell him I ran out, which I have. Shocked, Coco quickly locates a new pack of Marata black tobacco and sets it down on the table before me, because
“…a man jes cain’t live out here without his tobaccer! I tell you what, Patrick, I kin do without a lotta things out on this here farm, a lotta things. But theys three things I jes’ cain’t do without, an’ theys coffee, sugar, an’ tobaccer. Once them things run out, I jes’ gotta make a run t’ Arajú an’ git at least them things, even if’n I have t’ swim. But the boys, theys usually pretty good about resupplin’ me on time, an’ I rekon I ain’t never run outta those things yet, thank the Lord. Now, onions I run out of from time t’ time, but that’s all right since a lotta times I don’ even use ‘em hardly, since when ya make a soup with lots a onions it’ll spoil faster! That’s right, it shore will! I ain’t too big on cookin’, me, so I usually makes food enough fer me t’ eat fer two days — save on time n’ such. I don’ eat much fer brekfast, jes’ some coffee an’ maybe a few hard tacks – an’ supper’s usually pretty light too. But today I’m cookin’ fer two, as it happens! So I reckon I’ll make this here soup with plenty a onions, since Lord knows it shore is better that way. Say, we should use green onions too! Patrick, be a good feller and go chop a few stalks outta that compost pile over yonder? Jes’ a few is all we need, theys pretty powerful green onions, them.”
I go out and cut the green onions. Many of them are covered with half eggshells, and the voice from the window tells me that’s because
“…the dern birds’ll tear ‘em apart if’n ya leave ‘em uncovered! Not a stem left, and that’s the truth! The eggshells, they fool them birds, makin’ ‘em think it’s jes’ a trash heap er sumthin’! P’rhaps may sound a little strange t’ you but I swears on my momma’s grave, t’works like a charm! Hurry on now Patrick, it’s a-startin’ t’ rain! O Lord, and it’s gonna be a big one! Say, we’re gonna get wet! This ruf, I ain’t never seen a worse one in my life! The one on the ole house, I belive it’s a sight better’n this one – and it mus’ be fifty years old! A few weeks back, we had this big storm, a real whopper, it was, worst I seen in quite a few years. And that wind, it blew like it wanted to tear the whole worl’ t’ pieces! And wouldn’ ya know, it shore did tear off a piece a the ruf on that ole house yonder, and that rain it poured in there – ‘least ’til I could git on up there and nail ‘er down again. But ya know what? That was still better’n this here ruf! Piece a shit, if’n I ever saw one!”
It rains, it pours. The ruf leaks and the cooking progresses slowly, interrupted by many cigarettes and long, drawn out tales, including, but not limited to, “Grandpappy, Who Used T’ Cut Off Indian Fingers Fer Fun,” “Tha’ Enermous Hog I Shot Twenty Years Ago,” and, my personal favourite, “That Purty Girl I Ploughed Awhile Back Down in Manaus.” She was so horny, but Coco, he was just too much of a gentleman. Finally, after much pleading on the girl’s part, Coco the Noble gave in and boinked her in the ass. In a nutshell.
Lunch is finally ready at 1600. I am by now ravenous. I inhale the soup and only half-listen as the speech engine reaches the 200,000 mile mark, all without any noticeable wear and tear. In fact, it seems to be going even faster, now that it’s been refueled.
1800. We’re back in the old front house, laying in hammocks, the rain still not having let up. This is the most rain that the Amazon has seen in awhile, not since
“..that storm awhile back that took off the ruf, an’ a few years back it rained so hard I lost a few peepers, they was flooded into the river in a wash a water headed down that bank! No, I reckon we won’ be able to go fishin’ tonight, Patrick. Too much derned water! I reckon we’d better git some sleep. Tomorrow oughtta be a long day! It always is, that’s fer shore! Well, g’night friend!”
And just like that, the speech engine powers down, sputters a few times, and is silent. I swear my ears are ringing.
Day 6 – Rio Negro – 30.08.2013
Back to the river. After some difficulty I finally manage to get Coco to realize his listening ear is ready to stop listening and travel on, and after returning my borrowed sandals I’m loaded up and ready to go by ten. Coco gives me a bit of the leftover fish soup, which did not spoil despite the onions, and Coco reckons it was because
“…’twas a very cold night, it was, lots a rain, just pourin’ down, and I do reckon I haven’t seen a rain like that since that helluva storm that took off my roof a few weeks back, and Lord! was that a storm!”
“See you later Coco! Thanks for everything!”
“Well don’ mention it m’ young friend! Don’ cross t’ that island yonder, thas Indian Territory! They’ll kill ya faster’n a dog on a rat! Say, did I ever tell you about my feisty female pup? She’s a trifle sick a’ the moment but boy! could she catch a rat!”
Coco dissapears behind a bend, surrounded by dogs and chickens and stubborn cigarette lighters.
I pass Arajú by paddle late morning, a small caborclo village of perhaps 25 people. I don’t stop; many miles await me still. Hard tack made without yeast curtosy of Coco tides me over until lunch, where I stop at a sandstone point and finish the onionized fish soup. Someone has carved their name into the soft sandstone, and I, adhering to ancient tradition, find a rock and write “is a faggot” at the end of the name. My dose of immaturity for the day.
Make camp up a small lake at the mouth of a narrow igarapé. After a little paddling around I find some dry land and make camp. Put out the full pano 40mm, snag a three foot dogfish. Diced, fried, and consumed as I work my way though a weird novel called When Rabbit Howls, written by a person with multiple personalities, about her multiple personalities. She has ninety-two separate people inside of her. I wonder if there is anybody else inside of me. I doubt it; it can get awful lonely out here. Poor Coco.
Day 7 – Rio Negro – 31.08.2013
Get lost coming out of the lake looking for a shortcut. Double back, lose three hours. By 1100 am back on the Negro and a brutal headwind materializes and creates eight to ten foot swells. Hug the shore, all igapó, and fight the waves and the wind for six hours. No lunch, no time for lunch. Only fight the wind and waves, and endure the sun, the blazing, punishing sun.
1700. Wind stops. Storm brews in the southeast, but no need to worry, the wind has been blowing the opposite direction all day. Twenty minutes later, there’s a need to worry, and the wind has quickly and abruptly changed directions. Storm thunders and menaces the entire Rio Negro, looking ominous. Luckily I find the mouth of an igarapé and manage to shelter behind a bluff of terra firme just as the thing hits. Thunder rumbles on minutes-long monologues. Rain drenches, and all hell breaks loose as I shelter under a tarp and watch as my canoe fills with water and the trees dance in the wind.
1800. Storm passes. All quiet on the equatorial front. Set up camp in the fading light, then manage to get the big 40mm out across the igarapé and the 60mm out in the river before dark. Exhausted. Read more When Rabbit Howls. Check nets – nothing. Dolphins hovering around the 60 out on the river, raping it. Bring it in. Damn those big, greedy bastards. Having missed lunch, my hunger is greater than my exhaustion. Leave the 40 out (dolphins less menacing in the igarapé), and go fishing with the zagaia.
2000. Wading around with a new Made in China flashlight (a gift from Coco), I hunt the shallow water fish. Stab at a few; miss. The thrill of the hunt gives me new energy. Spear a matrixã. No longer tired. Hunt more, wade more, shine Coco’s Made in China flashlight into every nook and cranny. Spear two acará, and a jaraquí. Avoid an electric eel and observe a small water snake hunting beneath some flooded tree roots. Twelve years old again. This is why I came to the Amazon.
2130. Check net. Snagged in it are two pirarára catfish, two pounds each, along with another dogfish, two feet. Large caiman eyes the size of 1 real coins are shining nearby. Net comes in. No more holes. On the way back, spot the ruby-red reflection of the eyes of an Amazon Tree Boa. Grey and orange, five feet long, impossibly slender, and 100 per cent arboreal, he hunts in a small tree over the water. I paddle over, pluck him down, and marvel at the beauty of reptiles and the snake’s zen-like tameness. Joyfully handle him for awhile, then release him back into the tree. Unfazed, the python works his way to an outer branch, coils around it, and resumes his absolutely motionless S-shaped hunting stance, patiently awaiting bats. I paddle off, starry-eyed.
2200. More zagaia fishing. I have plenty of fish, but I am too energized now to sit idle. Miss a few acará, and wade far back into the igarapé. A rustling sound on shore hails the arrival of a lone paca. I freeze, and the rodent, fifty pounds, brown with white spots, wanders towards me, apparently unconcerned with my presence. Almost close enough to spear, but I know he’s too big for my three pronged fish gig. I curse my lack of a shotgun; a paca, properly salted and dried, could feed me for weeks, stretched out over fish and rice.
2300. Getting tired again, and hungry. I wade back, and cook a soup out of the jaraquí, the acarás and the matrixã. Leftovers imminent. Everything else, into the salt bucket. The piraráras I’ll dry tomorrow in the sun. Emergency rations, good for months. Can hardly move, or write. A shitty day but an excellent night.
Day 8 – Igarapé Camp – Rio Negro – 01.09.2013
Day of rest, by order of me. The campsite is nice, peaceful. I lounge in the hammock until nine, then munch on soup leftovers and read some more. By lunch, When Rabbit Howls is no more. A strange book, can’t decide whether I like it or not. Reasonably well-written, but a lot of incest going on, all the time. Set out piraráras to dry in the sun, return to the sanctuary of my hammock and another book, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down.
Lunch is farinha with sugar and water. Tastes exactly like Frosted Flakes. Book too good to interrupt by menial cooking. Only look up when I hear leaves rustling as a three-foot tégu monitor lizard saunters by, tongue flicking, as he sorts out my leftover fish bones and selects the choicest ones to chew on. He lingers for hours. I lose interest after ten minutes and return to the flies have conquered the flypaper!
The Moon is Down is over too soon. As I roll out of my hammock to go check on my drying fish, I spook a cuxía, a small, ten pound diurnal forest rodent, munching on something nearby. Again, I curse my lack of a shotgun. In the Amazon, rodent goes hand in hand with tasty.
Survey drying fish. Have lost half of one to a thieving hawk or buzzard. Turn the remaining ones over. Return to hammock and start a new book, something easy and distracting. Congo, by Michael Crichton. Night falls, rain drizzles, and dry piraráras come to rest in a plastic bag under my hammock, tough as jerky and just as good. Fry the dogfish, hardly looking up from the killer mountain gorillas pillaging the pages of my book. Eat. Read. By 2200 the gorillas have disappeared under a swath of hot lava and the Congo is once again safe for diamond miners. End day of rest.
Day 9 – Boca do Jaú – Rio Negro – 02.09.2013
Just around the corner, I hit Airão Velho, the ruins of an old colonial rubber town and former location of present-day Novo Airão. Current population, 15 humans, a dozen dogs, and a mess of old buildings disappearing into the jungle. Am mildly interested, but only stop because I’m out of cigarette papers. Find one of the 15 humans and ask how far it is to Barcelos. Light years, apparently. I bum some papers, and it’s back to the river for me.
Quick lunch of hard tack and coffee – same as breakfast. To the west is the mouth of the Jaú River and the beginning of the Jaú National Park, and in order to bypass this, I must cross roughly one mile of open water to the adjacent island and then continue along the main channel. Something rumbles to the southeast, but I ignore it. It’s only a mile, after all.
I haven’t gotten more than a hundred yards from shore when the wind starts – at my back, at least. Fuck it; I’m paddling through it. Rain arrives, light at first but then torrential. All landmarks disappear in the downpour. I’m engulfed in grey rain and rolling blackwater. I point my prow where the waves are going and paddle furiously for twenty minutes until the thing lets up a bit and I can see the island. I’m about two-thirds of the way across. By the time I reach the point, the rain has passed. I bail water out, and soldier on.
So it goes, in the Amazon.
Fighting currents all afternoon. Small islands everywhere, rampant igapó, terra firme MIA. Making random choices, to the left of this one, to the right of that one. One small caborclo boat passes me, and children stare holes into my head.
No land. Night is falling. One of those nights.
I choose a random igapó at dusk and paddle in, hoping to find a sliver of land. All flooded. No surprises, I know I am on an island somewhere. I find shallow water, at least. Knee-deep, a mild current hurrying through the trees. Tie up my canoe, set up hammock and tarp between two small trees nestled up against a massive castanheira. Halfheartedly fish with the zagaia, but too much current. No fish here, only a medium-sized caiman brooding in the razor grass nearby. Soak the dried pirarára and sautée. So much for months. Rice…too much work.
Day 10 – Parque National do Jaú – Rio Negro – 03.09.2013
Packed up camp quickly, since most everything was already in the canoe and there were no nets out. Hard tack fried and consumed just as a swarm of tiny black sweat bees decend on the igapó. Sweat bees are like gnats; they have no stingers, but are attracted to salty things, like human sweat and particularly, human eyeballs. When one lands in your eye it sticks there, dies as you blink and jam your finger into your face in surprise and anger, and releases some sort of foul-smelling chemical that burns as you frantically try to remove the dead insect. Usually, you only succeed in spreading the corpse around in your eye socket and making things nominally worse. Fortunately, I’m able to outrun them today.
More weaving about in the islands. Lunch comes and goes; no fish, only more hard tack and coffee. Welcome to Civil War rations.
Weather oozes around between misty half-rain and oppressive sun, a combination which results in a biome-wide sauna steaming into existence. Zero wind. Even the birds have hunkered down somewhere. Coffee, river water, mild hallucinations. Keep paddling. Keep paddling. Keep paddling. I think I just saw a velociraptor. I swear I did. No sweat bees, at least. But a bumblebee buzzes around right behind my head for two hours, and I want nothing more than to destroy the little goblin. What do you want from me? I’m not a fucking flower. Fuck off, you fucking fuck.
Another caborclo boat passes, 1600, more or less. Far side of eastern island. Too far to see the stares but I can feel them. Am I still in the islands? Am I still on Earth? Does land still exist?
An entrance. Igarapé. Must follow it. Possible dry land in it’s tendrils. Only 1630 or so. Good enough time to stop as any. Paddle; trees enroaching, sauna cooks, bumblebee buzzes. Trees. Swamp. Steam. Sun.
Land! Good land! Flat, dry jungle, amongst thick high trees. Canopy, no river scrub. Igapó in the very high season for sure, but this is of no significance as it’s dry as a bone today. Rationality returns to the Earth, which, it turns out, I had never left.
Early camp. 40mm full pano in the water by 1700, filled with black piranha by 1730. Take in net, clean fish, swat the few mosquitoes, and smoke my heart out as I watch night decend upon the jungle. Fireflies, three colors. A possum slinks around brazenly. Frogs sing. The sauna is replaced with the cool night of the Amazon Rainforest and the smell of leaves rotting away in water. This, I have decided, is the best hour to be in the jungle.
Three piranhas cleaned. Big ones, three pounders. Deliberating on how to cook them. Instead decide to go out with the zagaia. More salt bucket chum. I’m fucking tired of hard tack. Shallow, ankle-to-calf deep water out about three yards from the edge of the jungle. Perfect spearing territory.
Four big acará in a hole in that log! Miss. Fat traira! Miss. Another big acará! Miss. Peacock bass in those weeds! Miss. Electric eel, way too close! No attempt. Pacú! Miss. Another pacú! Finally, a hit, from way off. I pratically have to throw the gig. Makes up for all the misses. He has to be close to a pound. The hunt is on.
Jaraquí! Score, right in the head! King of the jungle, master of the spear. Never mind the misses. Wade back to camp, nearly step on the electric eel, a bicycle inner tube who hasn’t moved one centimeter in 800 years. Why do they always sit so still?
Dried rations, must have some. Boundless energy, suddenly. Take a short paddle along the igarapé looking for a small caiman to spear and salt-dry. Between two and three feet. Nice and tender. I see nothing but big ones, mostly spectacled and smooth-fronted caiman. One black caiman, right in the middle of the igarapé, is floating ominously amongst a swirl of bait fish. He must be fifteen feet or more. Eyes the size of chicken eggs which say, quite clearly, Don’t fucking fuck with me. I will fuck you the fuck up. No spear for him. I don’t even know what a spear is.
Piranha and pacú soup. Salt bucket well-stocked with chum. Possum awaits scraps in the shadows. More coffee, roll another smoke, write. Possum crunches away. I wonder if they’re any good to eat.
Day 11 – Parque National do Jaú – Rio Negro – 04.09.2013
Leftovers for breakfast. Flour stays stowed in the ice chest. No hard tack today.
Food / Kitchen inventory:
Coffee: very low
Sugar: very low
Onions: low, remainder beginning to rot or sprout
Garlic: medium, but sprouting
Raman Noodles: two packs
Cigarette papers: high
Propane: very low
Coffee pot handle broken. Filter has a hole in it which sends coffee spewing out in one random direction until the grounds clog it up. All spoons lost. Fork only. One good tin bowel, tin plate has a hole rusted in it, plastic bowel MIA. Boiling hot soup in a tin bowel with a fork. The joys of the Amazon.
Instead of taking the easy route out the igarapé back to the Rio Negro, the route I took in last night, I reason the river must be just on the other side of a nearby igapó. A shortcut, obviously. I get lost in there, of course. Have to backtrack, again. Lose three hours, again. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Lesson not learned; JT Cluck scarfs down more peeper scratch.
Midday, another island in the Rio Negro. Terra firme visible to the west. Just about exactly where I camped last night. Small sandbar ahead, surrounded by water and short, squatty ferns. Lunch: fried piranha. Oil saved in old water bottle for later use. No after-lunch coffee. Instead, I roll two cigarettes and guzzle down lukewarm river water. Sandbar fades into the distance as wide, open area comes into view around the next island. Lake? Large main channel? Terra firme slopes southeast on the horizon where it should be sloping northwest. Mild confusion ensues; I shrug it off. A big island, nothing more. The Rio Negro must continue around the southeast point. It’s the only explanation. A map would be nice.
I cross the lake, and am followed by a pod of river dolphins, blowing their blowholes randomly here and there. To the left, there’s an entrance, wide and obvious. I take it, but it dead ends into igapó. I can see open river just on the other side, and after a minute with the machete and I’m threading my way through heavy igapó, though it’s only about twenty yards to the clear water on the other side. The dolphins follow me, somehow. I can see the trees shaking as they bump into them.
A narrow channel lies on the other side, maybe thirty yards wide. Current moderate. Afternoon sun not so hot and going down fast. Time to look for land. Up the channel thirty, forty, fifty minutes. No sign of land. High canopy trees up ahead about two kilometers, and certain terra firme further up, but it’s too far to make before dark. I aim for the canopy.
The trees are igapó, dry, though only very recently so. The ground squelches beneath my bare feet (still shoeless, for the time being). Firm ground is nowhere to be found. I am surrounded on two sides by ankle deep swamp and one side by the channel, which by now has widened to a few hundred yards. The sun is down; it will have to do.
As I set up camp in the dark, millions of small black mosquitoes decend upon me. While neither as aggressive nor as painful as their larger whitewater counterparts on the Amazon and Madeira rivers, they’re annoying enough to make me switch from shorts and a T shirt to my bug jumpsuit and rubber boots, the latter which I rarely use since they are four sizes too big and give me blisters. But for mosquito protection, they work just fine.
A run with the zagaia is in order. Salt bucket chum is exhausted, only half a piranha and some questionable-looking pacú eggs remain. I can hear many fish hitting in the ankle-deep swamp around me. Easy pickings. I wade in, boots and all, spear at the ready.
Boots far too noisy. Water sloshes around in them like a fish tank in an earthquake. Fish spook twenty yards away. I ditch the boots; back to bare feet. Stealth mode. Shortly afterward I gig a small jaraquí. I then proceed to miss one fish per ten minutes, for the next two hours. The thrill of the hunt gives way to the hardheaded determination of someone who just wants to spear another goddamn fish so he can justify the two hours of his life he just spent wading around in a godforsaken, mosquito-infested swamp in the Amazon. That fish, unfortunately, never comes. Grumbling, I clutch the now-stiff half-pound jaraquí in a grocery sack in my tired hands, and head back to camp.
Only…I can’t seem to find it. The swamp continues indefinitely in all directions, nothing but uniformly featureless small trees filled in with utter blackness, with an occasional downed tree which looks exactly like the last one I passed. For all I know, it could actually be the last one I passed. Circles are the easiest direction to travel when you’re lost in the jungle.
You see, when leaving camp I thought I was following my strip of soggy yet dry-ish land as I waded back into the swamp away from the river. But what I didn’t know was that the land gives away to more swamp about thirty yards back from camp. A soggy island, but it’s home! and for all I know it’s a mile away, in one of a thousand directions. I’ve waded far into the swamp, distracted by fishing, paying absolutely no attention to my surroundings. And…I’m barefoot. A stupid, rookie mistake, and now I may very well pay for it by spending the night in this vast expanse of dark, ankle-deep blackwater, which suddenly seems a whole lot more sinister than it did awhile ago.
Stop. Think. Reason. Don’t panic. Walk slowly and deliberately. Pay attention to your surroundings. Mark trees. And for God’s sake watch your step, you blithering barefoot idiot.
The trees, they’re all the same. Every goddamn one of them. It’s as if they were cloned. I make a mark on one with my zagaia, and I never see it again. The clones swallow it up into uniform nothing. They laugh at me, the clones. I’m not going anywhere. There’s too many of them, their wall is all but impenetrable. I plod slowly on. The darkness, utter and complete outside the beam of Coco’s Made in China flashlight, closes its mouth around me like a gulper eel. I will not sleep in this swamp. I will not sleep in this swamp. I will not sleep in this swamp.
Thunder in the distance. Followed by lightning. What sounds like a bad omen turns out to be good luck. The lightning illuminates the swamp, and the darkness is shattered for a split second. So, I guess I’ve got that going for me. The clones, however, look just as sinister in lightning – if not more.
An hour. Two. By hour three my drive is fading and the clones have gotten to me. I am just picking out the least spider-ridden fallen tree to spend the night on when a particularly bright flash of lightning sears through the sky. To my left I see, though the trees, open water illuminated in the flash.
I can almost cry, but that wouldn’t be very explorer-like. Instead I whoop, bang my zagaia into the least spider-ridden fallen tree a few times (causing spiders to scuttle about angrily) and slosh on over in the direction of the open river. It’s the same channel. I recognize the island out in the middle. I reckon I am about half a mile upriver from camp. All I have to do is follow the deep water and pronto! Home again!
An hour later I stumble into camp at three in the morning, beyond tired, still clutching my lone half pound jaraquí I’d speared ten yards from camp.
And still barefoot.
Day 12 – Boca do Uniní – Rio Negro – 05.09.2013
Mosquitoes disperse in the morning sun. Squelch out of this swamp double-time, ready to see it vanish behind the next bend. Follow an offshoot towards the terra firme I noticed yesterday, but after an hour or so it dead ends into an igarapé skirted by towering bluffs. Double back. Take the main channel, which goes on for awhile. Several hours of paddling. Hard tack lunch.
1400. An aluminum lancha overtaking me from downriver. Flag him down, attempt to orient myself. The conversation goes something like this:
Me: “How far to Barcelos?”
Lancha pilot: Silence. “Er…never.”
Me: “What do you mean, ‘never?’”
Lancha pilot: “Well, you’re on the wrong river, son.”
Me: Silence. “You mean, this isn’t the Rio Negro?”
Lancha pilot: “Sure isn’t. You’re on the Rio Uniní.”
Me: “And where exactly does the Uniní go?”
Lancha pilot: “Not Barcelos, that’s for damn sure. You’ll pass a few caborclo villages, and then you got a whole lot of jungle for about two hundred miles.”
Me: “Then what?”
Lancha Pilot: “Then nothing.”
Lancha Pilot: “You gotta go back to the main river to get to Barcelos. Back down this a ways, maybe an hour or two by paddle, you’ll come out into a big lake. Then you just follow one of those canals headed east, they’ll all take you to the main channel of the Rio Negro.”
Me: “Well, okay. Thanks for your help.”
Lancha Pilot: “Don’t mention it. Say, why in the hell are you paddling? Is your motor out of gas or something?”
Me: “No. I don’t have a motor.”
Lancha Pilot: “Somebody steal it?”
Me: “Nope. Just don’t have one.”
Lancha Pilot: “And so you’re gonna go all the way to Barcelos, upriver, by paddle?”
Lancha Pilot: “What’s wrong with you, son? You running from the cops or something?”
Me: “Nosir. I just like paddling, is all.”
Lancha Pilot: Shakes head. “Some people. Well, have a nice trip, crazy man.”
Me: “Thank you sir. I sure will.”
And off he motors, chuckling to himself.
Down the Uniní, with the current. Rain comes and goes; a drizzle here, a downpour there, and sun in between everything. Cut through the same igapó as yesterday, following my machete marks. No dolphins this time.
Back in the lake I take the first east canal, as instructed. Overcast, can’t see the sun. Can’t tell what time it is. It feels late, so I head into an igapó in vain search of land. Nothing, so deep water campsite in canopy tree igapó, canoe directly under the hammock. Cook some rice, get started on another book, The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger. Great book about the sea, which is much more of a cruel mistress than the jungle. The jungle punishes, but every moment of torture is followed by bounty and acute tropical splendor. Give and take. Tit for tat. In the sea, it’s just tit, and then you’re dead.
Cool, windless night. Halfway through The Perfect Storm. One pack of Ramen noodles goes to it’s grave. Catch up on writing. Howlers, in the distance. Spider eyes, glittering diamonds, reflect in the trees.
Day 13 – Vilanova – Rio Negro – 06.09.2013
Found a wayward canoe today in the main channel of the Rio Negro, two miles wide and how the fuck did I miss that? I’m hugging the edge of the igapó on the west side of a channel when I notice what looks to be the end of a burnt log protruding from the river in mild current, almost in the trees. Further inspection reveals it to be the prow of a small canoe, smaller than mine and painted black. Caulked with aroldite – fancy stuff.
I pass old, abandoned canoes often – but this one is not so old, and in fact is in good condition. I unsink it with a little difficulty, – practically sinking myself in the process – but then I have her floating and decks dry, if not covered in algae.
She’s about nine feet long, narrow, and painted black and grey. Useless for big water, since she sits low enough without any cargo or paddler, and even the smallest swells would quickly swamp her. This is a canoe specifically designed for hunting and fishing in the igapó; her small size and light weight makes her easy to maneuver amongst tight spaces in the trees without banging into branches and making noise that will spook game. And she’s painted black; all hunting canoes are painted black for camouflage, since hunting in the igapós and igarapés usually takes place in the dead of night.
On top of that she’s caulked with aroldite, which is far from cheap, and is made from good wood – itauba, same as my canoe. A canoe like this could fetch…5, maybe 600 reais in Barcelos. If I can get her there, she’s mine. Finders keepers; this canoe has been underwater for a few weeks at least. The owner, whoever he is, has certainty written her off for lost.
Two theories on how the canoe was lost:
1. She was poorly secured at some upriver location and broke free during a storm or heavy winds
2. She was part of one of the many illegal poaching expeditions which travel upriver from Manaus in search of game meat, which fetches phenomenal prices in the capitol.
Given the type of canoe and the way it is caulked, I reckon the more likely scenario is that the canoe was lost on a poaching expedition, since caborclos generally don’t have access to aroldite. Large boats tow many small canoes behind them for the actual hunt; perhaps this one came loose somehow, then drifted around until she flooded with rainwater, sank, and came to rest here on the edge of the igapó between a few sunken logs.
In any case, it doesn’t matter. I am now the owner of not just one canoe, but a fleet of canoes. I tie one end of a rope to her stern and the other to my bow and continue on upriver, triumphantly towing my prize along. Admiral Falterman, Commander of the 1st Rio Negro Fleet, ready for action. Deploy destroyer; aircraft carrier standing by for paca and monkeys. Shoot to kill.
Two hours towing new destroyer. I can feel the weight, but it’s only slightly heavier than normal. I could easily get used to this. 1600, pass a cove where I can see a small caborclo village, the first settlement I’ve seen since Airão Velho – if you can call that a settlement. Coffee, sugar, and oil surplus critical. Reprovision essential. Change heading, paddle for local village. Peaceful mission. Stand down, destroyer, stand down!
I dock, and take a walk around the village, called Vilanova, in search of the President, the man (or woman) you should always introduce yourself to when arriving to an unfamiliar caborclo town. Eventually I meet Peladão – overweight, dark skin, blue eyes, a shock of grey hair amongst the black. Late thirties, UFC T shirt, stubby fingers. Deeply religious, but still makes dirty jokes and swears. Unrecognizable tattoos on his forearms. Maybe a snake? Might have spent a little time in jail at one point – hence the religion. This is the President.
Friendly exchange, hands are shook and coffee is drunk. I weave my travel yarn and Peladão reacts elaborately. There is much slapping of knees and puta que parius. I am welcome to stay the night, and of course, invited to church.
It does cross my mind that my destroyer may have broken loose from this village, and so I feel the obligation to breach the subject with the President, least the owner spot it and call me a thief. Peladão agrees to accompany me to my fleet to see if he recognizes my discovery as belonging to someone in the village. Unfortunately for my fleet, destroyer number 1, the USS Paca Punisher, is immediately recognized.
“Yeah, yeah I know that boat! It belongs to my friend who works up at the rock quarry, Adnilson. Shit! That sucker musta disappeared a month ago! Where’d you find it?”
“Caught in some logs downriver aways,” I say forlornly. Admiral Falterman, stripped of rank and sent home in irons, dishonorable discharge for allowing savage Indians to capture a noble destroyer during the disastrous Battle of Vilanova.
“Oh man, will he be happy to get that back!” says the President. “Hey, I’m sure he’ll give you some kinda compensation for taking it all the way back here. How’d you manage that, by the way? Get someone to tow it for you?”
“No, I towed it myself.”
“You mean you paddled two canoes up this river?”
“Well, yeah. Just today though.”
“Damn dude!” The President slapped me on the back. “You’re fuckin’ nuts, man. I wouldn’t even paddle to my neighbor’s house across the igarape, and that’s like, 20 yards.”
“Well, you get used to it, I guess.”
“Not me man. No way. So, Adnilson works at the quarry upriver like, a kilometer. Since you like paddling so much why don’t you paddle his boat up there and bring it to him? He’ll give you a ride back on his motorboat. Boy, will he be surprised!”
“All right. Watch my stuff for me?”
“No problem, amigo! Go with God! I’ll have some dinner ready when you get back! Do you eat fish?”
“I haven’t got much of a choice, these days!” I say, putting out to sea for the first and last time in the USS Paca Punisher.
“Fish it is!”
Adnilson allows he’s happy to get his canoe back, but I wouldn’t call him ecstatic. I wait for him in the quarry office to get off work, and when he finally shows we go down to where I’ve docked his canoe. He gives a lukewarm, “Thanks.” Then nothing. I casually mention that I’m critically low on coffee, sugar, oil, and completely out of farinha. Barcelos is still far man. Real far. Almost as far as I towed your canoe up the river today. Isn’t it?
Adnilson’s friend gives me a lift back to Vilanova in his rabeta. In a plastic bag at my feet is 250 grams of coffee grounds, a kilo of sugar, one liter of vegetable oil, and a liter of farinha. Adnilson has gone; The USS Paca Punisher is where I left it, pushed up on the gravel bank of the rock quarry. He didn’t even tie her off to anything.
Who needs fleets, anyways.
Back in Vilanova, I accept an invitation to attend Bible Study at Peladão’s neighbor’s house, out of courtesy. I sit for an hour listening to endless hymns while swatting at clouds of little greenish moths swarming around both indoor and outdoor lights. Mind wanders. A battalion of termites is eating holes into a perfectly good ice chest stored up in the rafters. We watch a video of a preacher from São Paulo. I’ve never heard anyone use the word “paradise” so many times in a single sentence. The little moths swarm all over his image. He looks like the Mummy, vomiting scarabs. People keep getting up and brushing them off, but they just come back again.
Day 14 – Vilanova – Rio Negro – 07.09.2013
Laundry day in Vilanova. The President’s washing machine works overtime all morning. Meanwhile, I stand for four and a half hours in the nearby wooden church. The service goes around in circles. The preacher reads something. Please, turn your Bibles to page such and such, Luke something or the other. Read aloud. Debate. Children sing. Men sing. Women sing. More page turning. Read aloud. Debate. Boy plays a drum while men sing. Women sing. Children sing. Bible out. Pages rustle. Sing. Read. Rustle. Read. Sing. Rustle. Read. Sing.
Meanwhile, we’re still standing.
Potato salad hymns. Slow, thick. Decades-long. Same tune, different words. All molasses-slow. All just the same. No matter how much you stir that potato salad, it never gets any easier. More elbow grease. Work that salad.
Three hours into it. No pictures of Jesus anywhere. Lots of triangles around everything. And plastic flowers. Lots of plastic flowers. It feels like Hobby Lobby. No plastic grapes, though. I used to steal those from Hobby Lobby, one at a time. No reason.
Grapes. Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange. Topless women feeding him grapes and fanning him in Roman fantasy. Alex is supposed to be reading the Bible too. Instead…boobs. That topless lady’s got somethin’ up her sleeve. This is what church does to me.
The President noticed my stash of books, and asked me seriously, “Man, do you have The Book?”
“You mean the Bible?”
“No man, I mean the Biblia Sangrada. The Sacred Bible.”
Pause. “Um. I dunno. I have a Bible some missionaries gave me.”
“But is it the Sacred Bible?” Imploring.
“It just says ‘Bible,’ man.”
Shakes head. “No, no man, that’s not the one. You need the Sacred Bible!”
“Well, what’s wrong with the regular Bible?”
“What’s wrong?? Everything’s wrong, man! It’s all wrong!”
“And the Sacred Bible?”
“The word of the Lord. All right. One hundred per cent.”
“What about the Catholic Bible?”
“Blasphemy. Here, take my Sacred Bible. Read it. Learn it. Live it. This shit is the Word of Christ, man.”
And so now, I have two Bibles, one wrong and one right. Both stupid.
Clothes dry. Second night in Vilanova will be spent on the schoolhouse porch, like last night. I finish The Perfect Storm by candlelight, have another fish soup with the President and First Lady, and teach the First Children how to insult each other in English, who now call each other “faggot-ass bitch wads” with childish delight. The President approves, on the condition I teach him one the First Children and the First Lady don’t know.
Children: Pointing at their father. “Pai! Pai! Faggot-ass bitch wad! Faggot-ass bitch wad!”
First Lady: “Sim! Faggot-ass bitch wad!”
President: “Eu nao! Cock scarfing cum-slathered semen bucket! Hahahahahaha!”
I even translate them accurately. English insults are a roaring success, followed by Bible before bed for the faggot-ass bitch wads and the cock scarfing cum-slathered semen bucket.
Day 15 – Moura – Rio Negro – 08.09.2013
0900. Back on the river, fleetless. Vilanova fades to green. Skirt igapó all day. Uneventful morning.
1500. Lancha passes me, stops to chat, offers a tow. Decline, respectfully. Lancha continues on. More paddling.
1530. Storm brewing to the east.
1545. First wind begins.
1548. Wind howling at 30 plus knots from the east. Massive swells develop. Crosswind puts me at beam sea.
1549. Swells bigger than I’ve ever seen, quite a bit longer than my canoe, which is thirteen feet. Estimated 15-18 foot swells from starboard. Dangerous situation. Retreat to igapó, attempt to navigate through trees as swells, still eight plus feet even in the forest, thunder through.
1551. Reach open water on the other side of the igapó. Manage to avoid being smashed to pieces in the trees, somehow. Swells here and there, gentle, rolling. Wind blocked.
1552. Rain begins to fall. Paddle northwest along the open water, paralleling the main river.
1553. Rain torrential. White-out. Wind dies down somewhat.
1559. Follow the open water to a lake, which leads back to terra firme. Rain continues, wind levels out at ten or twelve knots.
1620, lake dead ends. Backtrack, probe around in the igapó for a passageway back to the main channel
1621. Rain stops. Wind negligible.
1631. Finally find a way back to main channel, just downriver from a small beach with a few canoes and assorted beachgoers, who are wetly finishing off the last of their Sunday beers
1634. Beachgoers flag me down. Twist my arm. Force me to drink beer with them.
1720. Beer all gone. Agree to meet beachgoers in Moura, the large village just ahead, for more.
1735. Arrival to Moura, the largest village I’ve seen so far. Complete with post office, grass landing strip, six bars, two grocery stores, and a brothel. Population: 400.
1740. Meet the President. Friend of the beachgoers. Villagers materialize out of the shadows and help me load my gear into the community center, where I will sleep, by order of the President.
1938. Fish soup
2142. Boobies in my face, right directly in my face
2200. No more whisky
2201. No more money
2205. Cachaça 51
0330. Awake desperately thirsty. Wander around town until I find a faucet that works. Am chased by a dog. Wonder where my shoes are. Remember I haven’t got any.
0350. Sleep of the dead.
Day 16 – Santa Helena – Rio Negro – 09.09.2013
Leave Moura, 0800. Head like soggy melon, mouth like the bottom of a birdcage. A few people linger around as I load up my canoe alone. Nobody to help at this hour on a Monday morning. Some ladies wash clothes down at the riverside. Didn’t I see her titties last night, right directly in my face?
Upriver. Sailing wind manifests at 1000, goes on for two hours, then stops. Sail up, move foreword, break sail, and back to paddling again. Paddle six solid hours, no breaks, lunch on the fly, crackers from the President of Moura and coffee made by the First Lady. Two swaths of rain. Caborclos wait in canoes on a point with bows and arrows, turtle fishing. Sandstone bluffs all around. A mighty wind blows at 1800 just as I hit a point of beach where, further back, there’s a farmhouse. I dock in a cove and race up the sandy bluff just as the downpour begins.
This is the home of one of my drinking buddies from last night – or at least that’s what he told me. Husband is apparently still sleeping in a gutter somewhere, but his wife receives me kindly. She tells me about an Indonesian she met last year who came down the river in a raft. Kindred spirits. We eat sautéed filhote catfish and I stare at a map of the Amazon for several hours. Wife sleeps, and later, so do I.
Day 17 – Carvoeiro – Mariuá – Rio Negro – 10.09.2013
Early start. House empty, wife gone somewhere. Light sailing wind as I put out into the Rio Negro. Sail twenty minutes, wind slacks off. Paddle around a point and hit extremely strong currents rushing through sandstone. Paddling impossible. Have to get out of the canoe and pull her upstream from the bank. Once I pass the point, the current slacks off. Back in the boat.
One hour later, more sailing wind. Raise sail, sail for three hours pass the mouth of the Rio Branco, which is in the state of Roraima and goes to Boa Vista. The whole east bank is actually Roraima, and I sail along the state line until the wind stops, and then I paddle along it.
After the mouth of the Rio Branco the Negro opens to igapó, vast and endless, and islands return. This is the beginning of the Mariua archipelago, one of the largest in the world. I’m shooting for Carvoeiro, next town up. By 1730, I still haven’t reached it, and after consulting a map I got from Peladao, President of Vilanova, I deduce that I must have passed it somehow. Am searching for land in the igapó – none to be had, of course – and I round a point, expecting another night of sleeping in the trees when all of a sudden Carvoeiro materializes out of nothing. It’s an organized little village. Three orderly, paved streets. One cathedral. A well-maintained plaza. Painted homes.
Off to find the President.
President Evandro is sixty-two, five foot two, mustached, and an avid smoker, and is accompanied by his friend Pedro Alberto, AKA “Pedrinho.” President Evandro squats on the curb of the paved street of his orderly domain and nods along as Pedrinho, five six, fifty-seven years old, non-smoker and clean shaven, tells stories about his thirty years as capitan of a river barge out of Manaus. He’s traveled all major shipping routes in the Amazon, as well as many minor ones. I ask him what the longest trip he ever did was.
“Fifty-five days.” Pedrinho sits on the curb next to President Evandro. “Manaus to Curzeiro do Sul, Acre, up and down the Rio Juruá.Thirty days there, twenty-five days back. The worst route there is.”
“I’m thinking about paddling up the Juruá,” I said.
“Son,” said Pedrinho, leaning towards me with a half-smile, “It’ll take you twenty years. One way.” The President nods. The church bells chime seven. The stars are out over Carvoeiro.
Another night in another community center. For what it’s worth, the one in Carvoeiro is the nicest one I’ve ever slept in. Two stories, running water, toilets, showers, loft with interesting old objects scattered about, all to myself. I make pasta with lots of tomatoes and garlic and read trash fiction, something by Patricia Cornwall, late into the night. The three paved streets are deserted except for cats pouncing at crickets crawling about in the perfectly trimmed grass around the cathedral. A little cherry of a town, placed ever so carefully in the middle of a big slice of jungle cheesecake.
Day 18 – Mariuá – Rio Negro – 11.09.2013
Boat Day. I seem to have found the main shipping channel of the Rio Negro, since I’ve been being overtaken by passenger boats, barges, lanchas great and small, and caborclo rabetas all day. The channel runs northwest (or southeast, depending on which way you’re going), and is flanked to the west by igapó and the east by long, thin islands, each miles long but no more than four or five hundred yards wide. After lunch (hard tack) I’m overtaken by the Genisus, a passenger boat which I know goes all the way to Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira, close to Colombia. By the time he reaches Barcelos, in a few hours time, he will be roughly halfway to his destination.
Mostly uneventful day. I pass what I believe to be the mouth of the Rio Caures to the west around the end of the afternoon, and keep well to the islands to avoid accidentally going up it, like I did on the Unini. Dusk brought a miraculous bit of sandy land about two inches above the water. Despite all the rain we have been getting, the river is undeniably going down. I can see, paddling along the islands, igapó water that was certainty five or more feet deep when I left Novo Airao is now down to mere inches. Soon, camping spots will no longer be a problem.
After setting up camp I set out with the zagaia in easy territory; shallow, clear water with a sandy bottom, zero bugs, plenty of fish. The nights catch is as follows: one big pacú, one four-pound peacock bass, one acará, and a two pound traira. Everything is breaded and fried. No more fish soup. Rice painstakingly prepared with just the right amount of seasoning. I even cook spaghetti.
Meal consumed in utter ecstasy. Frogs gurgle and screech. Crickets perform symphonies in the confines of hollow logs. Matrixa splash and bubble in the igapo as they close in on bait fish. The mãe da lua, the Amazon’s perpetually mournful night bird, perches on the end of a branch and sings it’s sad, tortured six descending notes: Pooooor me, all al-one…
The waxing crescent moon, recently back from purgatory, hovers silently over the voices of the Amazon.
Day 19 – Mariua – Rio Negro – 12.09.2013
I parallel a very slow barge for most of the morning. He is loaded with cement and other cargo, which is distributed across three barges, all of which are lashed together and powered by one ancient, tired-looking tugboat. He’s only going slightly faster than I am paddling. If there was a good sailing wind, I could have probably overtaken him – or at least kept up.
By noon the barge has increased his lead and a headwind has manifested. I’ve crossed to the other side of the channel, because a mess of islands has come into view to the northeast and I have no desire to get lost in them. Unfortunately, the headwind roars across the channel and sends swells directly towards me at perhaps a 30 degree angle. After twenty minutes I have no choice but to cross back to the sheltered east side.
Noon. Leftover fried fish in an igapó. Coffee. I can smell my destination; I’m getting close. The longer you travel, the more you can feel it in your bones when you’re getting close to the end.
I cross back to the other side as soon as the wind dies down, and immerse myself in western islands. Igapó is shallow, all shallow. I can see new growth and ferns coming up out of the water, and experience tells me that means six inches of water or less. Land is nearby. Somewhere.
Dusk. No ferns, no land. Back to deep igapó. Defeated, I choose a forest and paddle in, and by 1830, tarp and hammock are rigged. Rice is cooked, no fishing tonight. The canoe is secured to the hammock trees, tarps cover everything, and my sleeping body lies suspended above my trusty canoe as it bobs around in the meters-deep blackwater of the flooded jungle.
Day 20 – Mariua – Rio Negro – 13.09.2013
Early morning start. Hard tack and coffee prepared to fuel the day’s exertion. The day varies between paddling and sailing all morning, about two hour’s paddling for every two hours sailing. Wind indecisive, but when it’s there, irresistible. Things continue as such until around three when I broke out into another big channel and a boisterous tailwind hurried me along by sail until late afternoon.
Was passed by a boat that I recognized today, the boat Cindy and I stayed on in Novo Airao when we first paddled up from Manaus. That must have been a month or more ago. The owner had told us he was headed to Barcelos when I elaborated on my plans for the Rio Negro, and now, as fate would have it, we cross paths weeks and hundreds of miles later on down the line. He honks, waves, offers me another tow, and gives the thunbs up when I inevitbly refuse. Off he chugs, and after an hour the red and white outline is swallowed up behind an island.
Camp made in an igarapé. Pure luck brings me to yet another soggy campsite – similar to the swamp campsite at the mouth of the Union, yet far fewer mosquitoes. Fish with the zagaia, and, after much work, I manage to spear a mess of acará. Back at camp I fry, and I’m just about halfway through the first batch when there’s a pop, a sputter, and the last of my propane hisses out through the rusty mouth of my camp stove and dissipates into the forest.
I would complain, and say “This shit always happens right when I’m in the middle of cooking!” but after sitting in the dark for fifteen minutes fuming at my partially-fried fish, I realize that that’s pretty much the only way it’s ever going to happen, unless you have a habit of burning propane for no particular reason. All I can say is, good thing I’m within three or four days of Barcelos, and take inventory of edibles that don’t need cooking:
750 grams of farinha
Nearly a kilo of sugar
A really old piece of salted catfish jerky
Anyways, if all else fails, I can always eat ‘em raw.
I finish off my last cup of coffee for what could be a few days, roll a cigarette, and climb into bed.
Day 21 – Cabouris – Mariua – Rio Negro – 14.09.2013
Strong sailing wind all day – though not quite as strong as the one that broke my mast a few weeks back. Still, it was strong enough so that it kept me moving foreword at an acceptable speed, but not so strong that I had to fight with my every molecule to keep from being blown to Kingdom Come. Sky blue. Birds everywhere, parrots mostly. Puffy cumulus clouds hover around all over the place. I lie on my back, grip the paddle / rudder under one armpit and steer with one hand. Every ten minutes or so I look up to see if I’m still on the right heading. I usually am. Lunch: farinha and water mixed with sugar. Frosted Flakes.
I can see the village from a long way off. At first, it just looks like a lone tin roof, way off on distant terra firme. As I sail steadily closer, details begin to emerge. A high, clay bluff. The tin roof separates into many tiny ones. Then they divide into two groups. A dock, and steps going up the bluff. By 1700, I’ve arrived to Cabouris, the first mixed-nation Indian village on the west bank of the Rio Negro.
Vice-president Lucía is a Baré whose roots reach down to the headwaters of the Rio Uneuixí, deep in the jungles of the Amazonain municipality of Santa Isabel do Rio Negro. Fifty-three years old, five foot one, stocky but by no means overweight, her obsidian-black hair is tied into a bun and frames a round face with small, almost Asiatic eyes. Nails, short and unpainted, grace calloused fingers. A gold crucifix dangles from a minute chain, hanging down upon her sun-darkened breast. She sits before me in a wicker frame rocking chair and laughs. Husband Luíz, fifty-seven, five foot two, of Santa Isabel, squats in a corner, deeply absorbed with the innards of a five-dollar flashlight which, for some reason, has stopped working.
“Ah, well I suppose that is a good enough reason,” says Lucía, nodding. “But you see, many strangers who arrive here unannounced, unknown by anyone around, and so…unconventionally, are, in fact, fugitives of the law.”
“I may owe some back taxes,” I allow. The laugh tinkles out from the wicker chair again. It’s like a tiny Christmas bell.
“Well in any case, you have certainty made a friend here in Cabouris,” smiles Lucía. “And I’m sorry I insisted on seeing your passport. That was quite rude of me.”
“But completely understandable,” I assure the Vice-president from my patch of floorboard. “I’ve heard enough stories down here, and even if ten per cent of them are true, it does nicely to take precautions. People disappear, after all…”
“And do they!” The Baré from the Uneuixí shakes her head sadly. “Yet more often than not, it’s the jungle that takes them, not the murderer. Why, just last year, during the rain season, one of our young men disappeared in the igapó right across from the town, on that large island across the river.”
“Did he really?” I remember being lost in the swamp. The igapó in the rainy season is a sight worse.
“Oh, yes,” says Lucía, sitting up a bit in her chair. “You see, he and some of the other boys from the village went to fish with the zagaia one night. They motored across in somebody’s boat and towed their dugouts behind them. The fishing was meant to go on until one hour before dawn. The boys set out together, and after awhile began to disperse as they began catching fish. One young man to each canoe. After nearly all night fishing, the rest of the lads were ready to paddle back to the boat, but one said he would like to stay just fifteen minutes longer, and that he would catch up with the boat shortly.
“Well, the rest of the boys returned to the boat, climbed into their hammocks, and went to sleep. When dawn broke the other boy still had not arrived. They waited for several hours, and when he still did not appear they decided he must have paddled back across to the village. So, they returned home.
“After a few hours, however, it became obvious that the lad had not returned home, and was probably lost out in the igapó. All the men got their canoes together, and several boats motored across towing almost every small dugout in the village behind them. The men searched all day and into the night, but there was no sign of the lost boy. The search stretched on two, three, four days! but no trace of the lost lad was found by the searchers. On the fifth day, the search was called off.
“Weeks later, after the water had gone down a little, another boy was fishing in that same igapó, and he found a canoe stuck in the lower branches of a tree. It seemed as if it had at one point been flooded, sank, was caught in the branches of that tree, and was now visible thanks to the falling of the water levels. The canoe had a few rotted palm fronds in it, which had been cut with a machete, a rusted knife, and a few fish hooks.”
“The boy’s canoe?” I ask.
Lucia nods gravely. “It seems that after he found himself lost, he cut a few palm fronds to shelter from the rain. He probably laid down in his canoe, confident he would find his way out by morning. Unfortunately, he never did.”
“What could have happened to him?” I ask, transfixed with the boy’s story of doom in the jungle, a story which could easily become my own, one day.
“Bichos.” breathes Lucia softly. Literal translation: beasts. Meaning any number of animals.
“Anaconda?” I ask. “Big black caiman?”
She tilts her head a bit. “Perhaps, perhaps.” Coal black eyes gaze upon me from the shadows of candlelight. “But listen well, young explorer: In the rain season, when the forest floods, beasts of the deep river go into the jungle to hunt, and beasts of the deep jungle go down to the river to drink. Beasts no one has ever seen before. It’s a meeting of two worlds, and…you should be careful.”
Stories like this one are common to hear in the Amazon, and I know a lot of them are exaggerated. Local folk lore always is. I have no doubt the boy disappeared and was never heard from again. Perhaps he drowned, or maybe was even taken by a crocodile. Those are two risks every man and woman living along the riverside run, every day of their lives. Lucia’s stories of beasts of the deep river and deep jungle make for excellent campfire talk – and it’s true that large swaths of primary rainforest stand unexplored even today – but a man like me can’t afford to take stock in tales of beasts, unless of course he stares the creature in the face himself. Only time, and more exploring, can shed real light on that dark tale.
Day 22 – Pé do Segundo – Mariuá – Rio Negro – 15.09.2013
“Puranga ara Lucia! Maié taá indé resasá?” I ask Lucia in broken Nheegatu, or Lingua Geral, the common language of the tribes of the Rio Negro. I learned a little from a book I got in Manaus.
“Puranga té asasá, kuekatu.” says she, smiling a little from the wooden dock as I prepare to leave the village. “That’s a greeting, though. And you seem to be leaving, my young friend.”
“Well, I don’t know how to say goodbye.”
“Ariré. It means, later, or afterwards. Better than goodbye.”
“Fair enough.” I wave. “Ariré, Lucia!”
“Ariré, kurumi. Be careful, and go with God.”
The day slips by as I follow high bluffs all up the river. No more igapó. Terra firme dominates the west. Slowly, steadily, I work my way through the day, across the water.
Nightfall, and I am walking up old wooden steps up a shallow bluff to a homestead. A family of five stares, and a young man about my age smiles and stretches out his hand.
“Hi! I’m Samuel. Where’d you come from?”
“I’m telling you Patrick, you’ve gotta look for Marlon once you get to Barcelos,” says Samuel from across his kitchen table. “I’ve worked for him, my brother’s worked for him, hell, we’ve all worked for him! He’s a good man, he pays good wages, and he needs someone like you that can speak three languages.”
“Maybe,” I say, not wanting to commit to anything, even though I do need some money.
“You can work at one of his floating camps, like the one on the Aracá! My brother works there as a fishing guide. There’s lots of Americans coming down this time of year.”
“Well, yeah. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to see them.”
Samuel smiles knowingly. “Ah, yes! I know what you’re after! The real caborclo experience! Live on the riverside, catch fish for food not sport, ride out a storm in a tiny canoe! Am I right?”
“Hm. Well yeah, that’s pretty much it.”
“Ah, but you can learn so much more! My brother, and the guides at the floating camp, they know everything about the jungle! It would be a good learning experience for you!”
“There is always more to learn,” I admit.
“Exactly!” says Samuel, as if that settles it.
I sit later with Samuel in his living room as his elderly father watches a game show on SBC. He has a bunch of artificial lures spread out on the floor in front of him.
“Now, Patrick, if you’re gonna work with these sport fishermen, you should know which lures catch the biggest peacock bass! Now, what kind of lures do you have with you now?”
“Well, none. It’s like, 30 reais for one lure in Manaus.”
“Then how do you fish? Hooks and line?”
“Well, sometimes. But mostly, nets and the zagaia.”
“Ahh, a real caboquinho, aren’t you Patrick?” says Samuel with a comradely chuckle and a slap on the back. “Well, you need to have some lures too. Here, take this one…that’s a jerk bait, they really like that one…this one, it’s a midwater lure…and…a few jigs! That should start you off nicely!”
I took the lures, all told worth maybe sixty reais around here. “Wow Samuel, thanks, that’s really nice of you.”
“No problem, Patrick! I got about a hundred of ‘em – the gringos, they always forget stuff on the boats, you know?” Chuckle. Slap. “So what do ya say, you gonna call Marlon? I’ll vouch for you, man, you got experience – shit, you speak three languages! You must be really smart, huh?”
“Nope. Just got a lot of time on my hands.”
“Sure man, sure!” says Samuel, grinning and shaking his head.
I sleep in Samuel’s kitchen, a palm thatch hut separate from the house. Samuel lingers for awhile and tells me about Barcelos (“Ladies man, lots of nice ladies!”) and the Aracá River (“Fish, man, lots of big fish!”). Then he gifts me one of his old headlamps, since mine has long since died.
“Take it man, you gotta hit it to make it work sometimes.”
“I’ll remember that,” I say, clicking on the headlamp. Nothing happens.
“Wack it man, the connection’s bad or something.”
I wack it. Nothing happens.
“No man, like, really wack it, hard.”
I wack it hard, and the light flickers on. Samuel gives the thumbs-up. “There you go, caboquinho! Now you can go kill some fish with your zagaia, hahaha!”
“Hahaha, yeah this will make it easier.”
Samuel heads back into the house, and I’m left in silence, that much better-equipped.
Day 23 – Mariuá – Rio Negro – 16.09.2013
As I paddle on the home stretch along the high bluffs leading to Barcelos, hugging the bank, I see a large mass moving through the water right along the edge of land. Bait fish and larger fish alike are swimming frantically away from it in droves, but the mass has them nearly trapped against the mud. It’s coming close, and I grab the zagaia in case it’s some great, tasty fish, but soon I hear the characteristic sound of a blowhole and I see that it’s a large pink river dolphin – a wholly unremarkable creature to see in the Amazon, like seeing a seagull at the beach. Still – I’ve never seen a river dolphin behave like this one.
The dolphin continues to drive the fish along the edge of the bank, about twenty yards upriver from where I am. Alongside my canoe, going all the way to the bank about ten feet away, is a mass of sticks and big logs that the dolphin will never be able to get through. Still, he drives the fish my way, showing no signs of putting on the brakes.
At the very last minute, right before he hits the sticks, the dolphin stops suddenly. Right then, a good-sized apapá panics as it reaches the sticks and jumps high into the air, landing out on the bank near the water. The dolphin, as if expecting this all along, rolls itself up onto the mud like a great, ugly, pink appendix, grabs the apapá in it’s jaws, and rolls back into the river, pausing to bite the fish in half before splashing away back to the depths.
Beasts of the deep, indeed.
A man is ahead, setting out a trot line near the bank. I hail him, and ask how far to Barcelos. The consensus is still “very far,” though it is dusk and I can see the glow of the city lights reflecting on the night sky.
“T…..t…..tomorrow,” said the man, struggling with the word. “T…t…too f-far. Soon it’ll b…be n-night.”
“Well, are there any villages up ahead?”
He shakes his head.
I think for a minute. “Well, do you know of anywhere where I could camp for the night?”
Nods vigorously, points to a dark shape on the bluff up ahead. “There! M…m…m…m…my house!”
Vitor lives in Barcelos, as does his seventy-year-old father and mother, who are both with him now at the roça helping plant more mandioca. By the time I arrive it’s dark, and after one trip up the steep, handmade stairs leading up the bluff I quickly resolve to leave most of my gear in the canoe and take up only the bare essentials.
“The reason there ain’t so many fish as there was before,” says Raimundo, Vitor’s father, “is because there’s too damn many people, caring too damn much about a little bit of damn money.” He spits. “The commercial fisherman, they blame the gringos for coming in and catching them with poles, but we all know they’re mostly catch and release, ‘least that’s what they claim – but even if it was a lie, the real offender is the geleiro, the commercial boats. I seen one boat fish, for one week, and then head back to Manaus with five tons worth of fish – and a ton or more at least is all big peacock bass, twenty pounds or higher, I guarantee you.”
I sit on a big burlap sack full of farinha, sipping capí santo tea, as Raimundo swings around in his hammock and slathers the commercial fishing industry with hate.
“When the river’s dry, the water’s shallow. All the way out to the middle. Ain’t no place for any fish to hide from those big nets. Miles long, they are, and sixty feet high. They just scrape the bottom of the river; in goes the fish, out goes the net. Man profits. Nature starves.” He rolls over, and that’s all there is to that.
Day 24 – Barcelos, AM – 17.09.2013
Heat radiates off the streets of Barcelos, and after 24 days I’m walking on asphalt, smoking a real cigarette, and eating an ice cream cone. My things are stowed on an island across the way about 400 yards away from the main plaza on an island, where there’s a floating boat marina whose owner is a man by the name of Marlon.
Samuel would be proud.
One adventure ends, another begins. So it goes. So it always does.
The Rio Negro, Rio Branco, and the Mariua archipelago.