Continued from the post Hitchhiking in the Amazon: A westerly pilgrimage down the Trans-Amazonian Highway
As the Trans-Amazonian highway faded away behind the old truck, we rolled down what was for me a new road: the Cuiabá-Santarém highway, or the BR-158. I was, as usual, in the bed of the pickup as we bumped along, accompanied by a large piece of welding equipment that rocked alarmingly back and forth as we bottomed out at the end of each hill.
Many drivers drove fast in the Amazon on substandard dirt roads, but this fellow gave a new meaning to the phrase reckless driving. As the way narrowed to roughly the width of the 4-wheeler trails they had on our deer lease back in East Texas (for those who don’t know: that’s narrow as fuck), we continued to zoom along at about 60 kph. Now, keep in mind that this road is a two way, and that around every curve (and I assure you, there were plenty) there could be a semi barreling down in the opposite direction, destined to take out an old pickup and a gringo hitchhiker. Yet somehow the driver always managed to avoid what seemed to be certain death, squeaking by impossibly close to the trucks while taking out low-hanging tree branches whom were foolish enough to grow in the pathway.
The only thing that seemed to occasion slowing down for my driver was bridges, which he took at the comparatively snail-like pace of about 15kph – before he gunned it once more as soon as the front tires left the wood. This meant, of course, that the back tires hit the elevated end of the bridge going considerably faster, and usually bounced me a few feet into the air. And that huge, heavy piece of welding equipment? The ropes holding it to the cab seemed to scream in an agony that sounded like death throes after every jolt. I could just picture the headlines: “Gringo hitchhiker with his whole life ahead of him crushed by giant welding machinery in the middle of nowhere.” Awesome, I thought, gritting my teeth as we zoomed across another bridge, I flew eighteen inches into the air, and those ropes got just a little bit weaker…
The only good thing about this ride was that it would take me to Moraes de Alamieda, where I would proceed to change highways once more and enter the Amazon’s remote gold mining sector. We rode for about five hours – yes, five hours of insane driving and the constant fear of being smooshed. The last two hours were dark, and it rained hard while at the same time giving me front row seats of what was easily the most impressive lightning show I had ever seen (again, remember the hunk of conductive metal I was currently right next to…)
When we finally arrived to Moraes I practically fell out the back of the truck, giving the driver a half-hearted falló patrão, I guess, since I didn’t die after all, and wandering off in search of something to eat. It was around nine-thirty and most of the restaurants were closed, but I did find a couple of people lounging around on their porch who were happy to cook my half-bag of pasta for me. I devoured it in short notice, thanked my culinary benefactors, then found my way over to the local gas station, where I hung my hammock in the troca de oleo and went to sleep.
The next morning I awoke with a sore rear end and a craving for coffee. It was raining, like always – that steady, heavy drizzle that you know is liable to stick around for days, that gives everything a depressing grey tone and turns the streets into quicksand. The rear end, unfortunately, had no immediate cure that I could see, but at least the morning worker at the oil change shop had a thermos of coffee. He pointed me in the direction of the nearest grocery store and construction surplus centre.
I had decided to do my shopping in Moraes, since I didn’t know if the things I needed would be available in the creporição. My list included the following:
Leather gloves (I had left my old pair back at the fazenda in Amapú)
Large pot for boiling water
As much rice as I could carry
My first stop was the construction surplus store in search of leather gloves, and I found the perfect pair of welding gloves (irony?) that were thick, sturdy, and came up to my elbows. Perfect for full-on protection from the jungle, so I wouldn’t have to worry about petty things like thorns and venomous reptiles, and would be able to plow, worry-free, through the underbrush like the wild animal I strove to be. The only problem was, they were R$25. I talked the girl behind the counter down to R$20, but as she wasn’t the owner, I couldn’t get her to go any lower. Twenty reais, in my humble opinion, was far too much to pay for gloves, so I set off to the supermarket to buy my other necessaries, resolved to come back when the owner was there and get my gloves for twelve reais, or bust.
The grocery store supplied me with everything I needed, and it turned out the most rice I could shove into my pack was ten kilos. This, along with my additional surplus, cost me thirty-eight reis and left me with an absurdly heavy load – probably around seventy-five pounds, all told. More than half my weight. I remember thinking, this can’t be good for my back, as sank up to my ankles in mud and left footprints of a obese person along the side of the road.
That just left the gloves. I went inside and found the owner, setting them on the counter before her.
“Twenty reais,” she said.
I emptied out my pocket of the last of my money, which came out to thirteen reais and forty-five cents. “And,” I said, whipping out my Bag O Foreign Coins that I had scavenged from my coin collection Stateside, “fifty escudos from Portugal.”
She picked up the fifty escudos, smiled, and said, “Sorry, but I can only accept reais.”
I dug around some more. “I’ll throw in a bicentennial Silver Dollar. You don’t see one of those every day – not even in the US!”
She smiled again. “What do you need these gloves so badly for, anyways?”
I told her.
She examined the silver dollar. “Well, I suppose this is pretty neat. Take the gloves – and good luck with that raft!”
I smiled, thanked her, and walked out into the pouring rain, brand-new welding gloves slung over my shoulder. They had that velvety, new-leather smell to them, and were soft like a chinchilla. I turned west, my back aching with every step under the weight of my enormous, overloaded pack – bound for the snaking dirt path that led into the apparent green nothing of the Amazon rainforest – the rodoviária do ouro.
“Waterfalls? Oh yeah, the Crepori has got plenty of those,” said the gold miner to me from his perch on the spare tire. “And rapids. They’ll swallow a canoe in half a second or less, I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”
“Hm,” I said.
I had waited in the pouring rain for about half an hour with the two gold miners in Moraes, before a pickup stopped and we all piled in. I and my helmet bag had managed to stay relatively dry thanks to my tarp/raincoat, but my pack wasn’t so lucky. It sat before me in the damp, rusty bed of the truck, soaked and covered in mud.
The miners figured a raft on the Crepori was nothing short of suicide, and told me story after story of hellish river conditions for the duration of our trip together – which was about thirty minutes.
The rodoviária do ouro was in a deplorable state. Unlike the Trans-Amazonian Highway and the Cuiabá-Santarém Highway, which were currently being half-heartedly paved, this road was dirt and probably always would be. The pickup swerved through lakes of liquid that was too thin to be called mud and too thick to be called water. Wud, I suppose you would call it. Though my map called it the rodoviária do ouro, we passed a sign that said we were currently travelling on the PA-112, known colloquially as the trans-garampiense.
The rain continued to pour as we progressed through the wud, though it wasn’t so bad as before since the cab of the pickup blocked a considerable amount of the water. After about twenty kilometres, we arrived to a small town that the miners told me was called Jardim do Ouro – Garden of Gold.
Here in Jardim do Ouro our ride ended, and we were left by the driver to find our way across the Jamanxim River – a great massive thing blocking our path, swollen with rainy season overflow. The river had basically flooded the entire town – something that’s apparently completely normal in these parts. The people were prepared, it seemed – all the homes were high up on stilts, reminding me strongly of parts of Louisiana in the Atchafalaya Basin.
Down closer to the main river the water intruded into the street and people’s front yards, where a current carrying things like children’s toys and empty coke bottles formed eddies around signs and telephone poles. Elaborate walkways had been put up for people to get from house to store to house, consisting of five-gallon buckets weighted down with rocks and placed strategically in the eddies, connected by long planks. People sauntered lazily along the walkways, laughing and talking, apparently absolutely un-concerned about the fact they no longer lived along the river – they lived in it.
Dogs trotted along the walkways as well; they yelped and leapt into the river whenever people came by, preferring a swim to a kick in the ribs. Cats were more careful – you could see them scheming on porches, waiting for the perfect moment before scampering nimbly across the boards to the adjacent house, where there was somebody throwing out perfectly good fish bones. Children leapt joyfully off the walkways and into the river, where they would wait for the current to send them back to their front steps. Giggling, they ran back out along the planks to repeat the process, as men paddled their canoes by and tied them up to the kitchen sink. Even motorboats droned through from time to time, weaving between the telephone poles like skiers in the slaloms, their propellers on the ends of long poles which were pushed out of the water whenever it got too shallow.
The three or four buildings closest to the river were flooded past the roof, their weather vanes carving long V’s into the current; this reminded me of hurricanes, and I wondered how the homes weren’t damaged after six months a year in the river. A group of men sat at one of the bars, drinking beer and fishing out the windows with long bamboo poles. The rain fell harder than ever, pouring down off the tin roofs in great waterfalls and sending foamy white bubbles downstream, where they meandered around the walkways before crashing into a stilt and popping out of existence.
Water was everywhere – dripping, flowing, swirling, cascading off of anything and everything –the ground, the home, the church, the air – nothing was immune, and in Jardim do Ouro anything that dared declare itself dry was subjected to a leaky roof and sideways rain. This was a wet world. This was a water world.
I sat on the doorstep of somebody’s house, smoking my pipe as I decided what to do next. There was a ferry across the river that left in an hour’s time, I was told by a carpenter whose shop was ankle-deep in murky water filled with woodchips. On the other side of the river the road continued for another hundred kilometres to Mundico Coelho. I stared out over the Jamanxim; it was wide, smooth, and looked very deep. I thought about the miner’s warnings, about the rapids of the Crepori – and the waterfalls.
Now, I had figured that in the case of waterfalls, I would dock the raft a few hundred metres upstream and portage her overland down to the bottom. The only problem was, I had no nautical charts of the river – and therefore had no idea where the hazards actually were. What if something snuck up on me and I was unable to get out of the water in time? Over I go…
This was a troubling thought. My pipe went out as rouge rain drops zeroed in on the one thing I really needed to stay dry, and I tapped wet ashes out onto the doorstep and thought about how it must feel to drown at the bottom of a waterfall.
An hour later the ferry plowed off sideways into the strong current in the centre of the Jamanxim River, loaded with a handful of motorcycles and a semi sagging under the weight of thirty or forty tons of timber. I watched it go from one of the plank walkways; my pipe had gone out again.
I felt guilty giving up on the Crepori without actually going there – but the stories of the townspeople in Jardim do Ouro matched those of the miners: waterfalls, rapids, and apparently Satan himself kept a summer home there. I had deduced that it was pointless to travel to a river I knew was un-navigable, with the express intention of navigating it, on a home-built vessel with limited maneuverability, and with no maps or charts of the unpopulated wilderness where I was headed. There is a fine line between adventure and suicide; gamble, by all means – but at least make sure the odds are in your favour.
The Jamanxim was looking like a nice alternative, however. I knew from countless hours studying the blue lines on my map of Brazil that the Jamanxim flowed into the Tapajós about a hundred kilometres south of Itaituba, and I had already marked it as a backup in case the Crepori didn’t work out as I had hoped. I asked someone waiting on the ferry about waterfalls, and he told me that the Jamanxim was smooth like this all the way to the Tapajós. It didn’t take long before I was back on track and scanning the tree line for balsas. My hatchet sat in the side pocket of my bloated pack; I could almost hear it begging to be used. Time to get to work.
I spotted a grove of balsa trees behind a row of houses about 300 metres from the main river. They seemed to be in about five feet of water – but hell, I was already soaked to the bone, and a swim wouldn’t hurt anything. I located the house immediately in front of the grove, which was also a little store, and asked the owner dozing in his hammock if I could cut the trees.
“A jangada, eh?” said the owner, using what I would soon learn is the Brazilian word for “log raft.” “Well, I don’t own those trees, you’ll have to go out into the jungle over there – (he pointed out of town, back towards Moraes) if you want to cut trees.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “And one more question…I’ve got this bag of pasta, see…”
Twenty minutes later I finished my meal of rice, meat, and farinha, and had changed into my jungle gear in the bathroom. Monserrat, the owner, assured me my pack was safe with him whilst I went balsa hunting in the jungle. The rain kept coming down as I walked down the muddy road, headed for the dark green strip of forest on the horizon, hatchet in hand and machete bouncing merrily at my side.
As I got closer I spotted a cluster of telltale broad leaves sticking out the top of the jungle, ten or fifteen yards in. I veered off the dirt road, hacked through 100 metres of ten-foot razor grass and assorted vines, and entered the jungle. Here, at least, the razor grass stopped, but to get that fifteen yards to the balsa was no easy feat, with walls of vines that refused to yield to the machete blocking my path, twisting their way around my legs and ankles and tripping me up on every step.
Finally I made it to the tree; she was a monster. God, she was perfect, but how the hell was I supposed to get her out of the jungle, through 100 metres of razor grass, and 1 km back to the Jamanxim? I didn’t know, and in the end decided that getting the tree back to the river was impossible, and so continued through the jungle in search of a more manageable specimen.
I found another cluster of smaller balsas about twenty metres away in a small clearing that had been planted with pineapple. These trees were more than doable, and so after hacking off a thorny vine that was winding up the trunk, I chopped the tree down.
She was light and easy to manage, and I had gotten her out of the jungle and through the razor grass in just fifteen minutes, having used the path cut earlier by my machete to exit. Once I got back to the road I heaved the large end of the trunk onto my left shoulder and proceeded to drag the tree back into town.
Oh, the stares I got. As if I’m not already different enough, with white skin and blue eyes, here I was dragging a bloody tree through a flooded village in the middle of the Amazon in aviator boots, camo pants, and a boonie cap, with numerous cutting implements tucked into my hemp belt and an unlit tobacco pipe jutting from my mouth. As I passed every dog in the world descended upon me, barking like mad and snapping at my heels – probably confirming the villager’s suspicions that I was, indeed, the Antichrist.
I finally got the tree back to the port, where I tied it to the carpenter’s shop after securing permission from the carpenter. The current swished by and I could feel a couple of hundred eyes upon me, and whispers from the bars, the word extrangero and jangada both being used numerous times.
On my walk back to the jungle I deemed the other balsas in the clearing too small to be used for my timber raft, and so headed back to the road in search of other candidates. I followed another mud path that peeled off the road to the south, which came out in a cow pasture about 500 metres downstream from the port. I saw a balsa growing right next to the river, and asked a group of men lounging around nearby on motorcycles if it was all right if I cut it down.
“Why are you asking us?” one of them said. “It’s just a little tree. Cut it down, do whatever you want.”
Well all right, then. I cut it down and dragged it to the river about ten metres away. After a moment’s consideration, I decided to leave this tree here and head into the jungle on the other side of the pasture in search of more, with the intention of floating the trees I cut the half-kilometre back to the port at the end of the day.
The grass in the cow pasture was thigh-high and full of ticks, but when I got into the jungle I realized I had just hit the jackpot. Huge balsas grew everywhere, their trunks two feet around or more – the perfect size for my raft. I located the one closest to the edge of the jungle and began chopping.
This was by far the biggest tree I had cut down so far, and it took a good half hour to fall her with my little hatchet. After I had cut about three inches into the base of the trunk, one chop apparently hit some sort of tree-jugular, and tea-coloured water spurted from the crack like blood. A few chops later I heard a distinctive pop reverberate from the centre of the tree, followed by successive faster pops, before the tree groaned, leaned, and plunged into the jungle with a thunderous crash. But my work here was just getting started.
Being as this tree was very tall, her top branches had gotten caught in the branches of the surrounding trees – meaning the balsa didn’t fall all the way down. Five metres up the trunk where I wanted to cut was still two metres off the ground. I stood, scratching my head and pondering for a few moments, before deciding that the only solution to this unforeseen problem was to shimmy up the trunk and start cutting from there.
This was far more easily said than done, as a mess of thorny vines and other unpleasant vegetation clogged the first two metres of tree, which I had to hack away at with my machete while simultaneously clinging precariously to the trunk with my legs and swatting at huge clouds of mosquitoes whom, it seemed, took a particular liking to biting the very back of my neck and flying directly up my nose.
Despite these minor discomforts, I scooted my way up the trunk and began chopping awkwardly at the spot I had judged was roughly five metres from the base. After a few hundred swings, the trunk groaned and bent, and I sunk down one metre closer to the forest floor, whereupon I dismounted the tree and cut the last of it from a standing position.
Now that she was cut, I needed to drag her back to the river. Unlike the first two trees, which had been a breeze, this monster was a real workout. I tried heaving the tree onto my shoulder and dragging it behind me, but it was so heavy I crumpled under the weight like an empty coke can. I sufficed with holding it cradled in my arms, my fingers laced in leather gloves below it, and heaving with all my might until my energy ran out – which was usually no more than a metre or two of dragging.
As if being ridiculously heavy wasn’t enough, the tree often caught on vines and branches (usually just as I was in the apex of my hauling sprint, causing me to fall directly into the mud), and I would have to go back with my machete and chop away at the offending botanical barriers. The only direction she would go was straight ahead – for if I tried at any time to turn her with the small, muddy cow trail I was currently slipping her along, her sheer length would become caught on some tree or another and make it impossible to change direction. Hence, I went straight as an arrow – a lovely direction which took me through pleasant jungle features including, but not limited to, poison ivy, razor-like vines, foot-long thorns, huge nests of fire ants, and beehives.
After half an hour I finally emerged into the cow pasture, covered with sweat, scrapes, and fire ant bites. Just when I was looking forward to the cool rain out in the open, the clouds vaporized into nothing and the sun beat down upon me. Of course.
Here I took a brief rest from tree hauling and walked ahead to plot my route through the pasture. The distance overland directly back to where I had cut the other tree was roughly three times the distance to the nearest part of the Janamxim, which was a flooded swamp about 300 metres upstream from where I wanted to go. I decided to drag the balsa as far as the swamp, where I would float her around a small bend and to my growing stockpile downstream. Happy that I would at least get to go swimming, I walked back to my monster tree and prepared to continue my trunk-toiling.
The pasture was much easier, since it was free of vines. Each time I picked the trunk up I grunted loudly – an ugly, sweaty creature – and sprinted as fast as I could to various landmarks ahead that I had designated as being my rest points.
“Ok,” I said out loud to a cow nearby, who was dully observing my labours and pooping. “I’m going to get this tree as far as that old stump over there.” The cow did not respond in any way whatsoever, so I maneuvered the balsa into my arms and commenced sprinting, making what I’m sure were frightening noises as that tree just got heavier and heavier and that bloody stump just stayed right where it was, no thank you, I don’t want a tree nearby. And then I was suddenly there, and I dropped the tree, narrowly avoiding crushing my own feet before collapsing into a heap and breathing as if I was in labor, giving birth to a child the size of a fucking tree, or something.
This went on for fifteen minutes or so, with various other old stumps and bushes also having the dubious honor of being possibly the last thing I would see before I had an aneurysm and massive hernia simultaneously – but then I finally arrived to the swamp, where the tree caught stubbornly on the only vines in the entire area before slipping into the water and floating – and look, I can move the bastard with just one hand now!
Perhaps no man has ever leapt into a murky swamp in the Amazon with as much joy as I did then. I didn’t care if there were leeches and electric eels and mysterious, smooshy submerged obstacles – my tree was floating and I could move it with just one hand.
I followed the edge of the swamp with one arm slung over the tree, my aviator boots trodding cautiously along the soggy bottom of the black water. Generally, I was up to my neck in the mire, but sometimes I crossed a drop-off and I had to cling to the trunk and awkwardly doggy paddle my way along until I touched bottom again.
The key to navigating in the swamp, I soon learned, was to be close enough to shore where you could touch bottom, and far enough away so that you were out of the cross-hatching of plants and vines which grew around the edges. These vines, which were annoying enough since they wrapped their tendrils around ankles and legs as if they were consciously trying to impede you, were also important to avoid since they usually housed masses of floating fire ant nests whom had been flooded out by the rainy season thunderstorms, and whom took delight in invading my tree and non-submerged body parts in a painful biting bonsai.
But these, as I mentioned before, were only minor discomforts – now I was cool, and no longer risking death by sheer exhaustion. The swamp smelled fertile and full of life; each step I took was silent, and I glided through the water, feeling crocodile-like with only my head slipping noiselessly across the surface. I felt comfortable. I felt happy. I felt at home.
I rounded the corner of the little bend, and now I could see my stockpile of one tree. Five minutes later the monster was lain next to the smaller tree, and my work was done. I looked at my watch; it had been almost four hours since I had first started chopping down the big tree.
Two down. Six to go.
I went back to Monserrt’s house after that, being as it was nearly dark by that time. I was soaked and covered with mud and duckweed. Monserrat grinned toothily at me as I came up.
“Find some trees?”
“Found some trees,” I confirmed.
I changed out of my wet clothing and sat down on the doorstep to smoke my pipe; at least the construction was underway. I planned to bring some lengths of rope the next day, which, if used correctly, would help me to get the trees out of the jungle a bit less painfully. First, however, I needed to secure food and lodgings for myself in Jardim do Ouro. Monserrat seemed very nice, and I decided to offer him a trade.
“One old iPhone, chipless, in exchange for food and permission to hang my hammock on your porch while I’m here building my raft,” I said to Monserrat, handing him the phone. The iPhone was my grandfather’s old one, which he had given to me to use with WiFi, him having upgraded to whatever new ridiculous model Apple has out nowadays – but WiFi wasn’t easy to come by in these parts, and anyways, I had a laptop. The iPhone could be a valuable bargaining chip in a place where zero iPhones exist.
“Hm! Well I suppose so,” said Monserrat, taking the phone. “Want some dinner?”
“I’d love some,” I said, happy that at least I would have food to fuel the toil of the upcoming days in Jardim do Ouro.
The next morning I awoke to coffee and a pack of crackers, which I finished before changing back into my wet gear and heading back to the cow pasture, sure to remember to bring about twenty metres of rope with me this time.
I returned to the jungle and chose another balsa to cut down. This one was around the same size as the one from the day before – perhaps a tad smaller – but I had the method down and the process sped up considerably.
In order to prevent this tree from falling onto the others in the area, I looked around the forest and chose the sector with the least amount of sizable vegetation. I then cut a large notch in the side of the tree facing this area, and tied about ten metres of rope in a timber hitch as high up the trunk as I could reach.
After this I proceeded to chop away at the opposite side of the tree, keeping a close eye on the high branches so I would know when I had weakened the trunk sufficiently. After awhile I heard almost inaudible twisting sounds coming from the heart of the balsa, and I knew she was close to coming down. Tucking my hatchet back into my belt, I put my gloves on and wrapped the end of the rope around my hands, then went to stand about ten feet away from the trunk of my future raft. Pulling the cord taut, I braced my boot on a sapling, took a deep breath, and commenced heaving.
At first the tree hardly moved at all; just a centimeter towards me, and then back in the other direction. The goal here was to get her to fall towards me, where she would hopefully crash all the way down to the forest floor without becoming entangled in the high branches of other trees. If she fell in the other direction life would become very difficult for me, as there were a number of huge, ten-foot wide samaoma trees in the fall path of the balsa.
I heaved again; she moved again, very slightly – but this time I utilized the leftover momentum the tree had from my first tug and added it to another tug immediately afterward. This time she moved a little more, and I kept adding momentum to the swinging of the tree until she was rocking back and forth like there was a hurricane coming. Suddenly I heard a massive snap, and I braced both my boots on the surrounding saplings and pulled the tree towards me with all the strength I had.
There was a pause, and time seemed to stand still for a moment; every muscle in my body stood taught, veins popped out of my arms and neck, and my eyes were squinted shut. My teeth clenched painfully together, and my breath was held tightly in my lungs as I put every ounce of strength in my body towards pulling that rope. Suddenly there were two sharp cracks – one right after the other. The saplings I had been bracing against had snapped under the pressure of my boots, and I fell flat on my back onto the jungle floor.
I could see the top branches of the balsa above me silhouetted against the grey sky, swaying, as if in slow motion; then there was a thunderous bang followed by the distinctive grainy twisting sound of wood being bent under tremendous weight. I saw the branches start to lean towards me – directly towards me – and barely had time to roll out of the way as the tree slammed down into the spongy soil where I had lain just seconds before.
I stood up, brushing assorted ants and dirt off my face. The tree had flattened four or five saplings, and had fallen exactly where I had wanted it to go. The trunk was just a few inches above the forest floor. I dropped the rope, which was still wound tightly around my hands, and tried hard to slow my racing heart. Satisfying. Exhilarating.
After cutting the top off the balsa, I took my two sections of rope and tied each of them in a timber hitch around the end of the trunk, with each hitch opposite the other so that the two ropes came off opposing sides of the log. I wrapped a rope around each hand, with my back facing the tree, and ran a cord over each shoulder, creating a simple but effective harness for pulling. I leaned forward, so that my shoulders took the bulk of the pressure and my hands just held the rope in place; then – once again – I heaved.
At first I went nowhere; my boots slipped in the mud and I fell down for the fifteenth time in the past 24 hours. No traction. This was a problem, but not a very complex one; I simply cut a few lengths of sapling and anchored them into the mud, giving my boots at least something to grip into. After heaving again the tree moved, and I gained enough momentum so that when the saplings ran out my boots, now with the tree already moving, found traction somewhere on the muddy cow trail.
Getting the tree out of the jungle was much easier with the ropes, and with the help of my machete I even managed to turn a few times. Then we were in the cow pasture again, and I got the balsa into the swamp with only two stops to rest. Feeling very Apocalypse Now-ish, I floated the tree through the swamp with just my boonie cap poking out of the water, breathing through my nose and wondering how many leeches I would have to pick off my legs once I came back to shore (answer: zero. Was secretly a little bit disappointed).
I had the method down; all I was missing now were a few more trees.
During the next day I continued to cut balsas from the jungle and drag them back to my staging area. I had the method down, sure – but after three more trees I began having trouble finding suitable trees in the immediate jungle. I had emptied the first twenty or thirty yards of decent-sized balsa trees, and consequently was forced deeper into the forest, away from the cow trail, in search of more raftable candidates.
One of these trees I found after a long search through thick vines and underbrush. Perfect size, very straight, no offshoots. I cut her down, trying to get her to fall into what seemed to be the clearest sector of jungle. Unfortunately the tree was taller than I had figured, and caught as it fell on a medium-sized tree I hadn’t been able to see through the underbrush.
Fell is a very liberal verb to describe what this tree did. Leaned is probably more accurate; the trunk was still at an 80° angle. Frustrated, I tied a timber hitch around the base and tried to wrestle it down a little further, to no avail. The only solution, it seemed, was to cut down the other tree as well. Grumbling to myself, I cut my way to the base of the offending tree and began hacking at it as well. It was only a little smaller than the balsa, and had much harder wood. Getting it to fall took a good hour – and when it did, it caught on another tree further down! Argh! Would I have to clear-cut my way out of this damned jungle?
This other tree was considerably bigger than both of the previous ones, and I quickly decided that I would not go to the trouble of cutting that one down, too. Instead I returned to the balsa tree, which was now leaning at a 60° angle, or thereabouts. As I did with the first big balsa, I climbed up the trunk until I was at the place I wanted to start chopping, and did so. Being as I was at an awkward angle this was rather cumbersome, and I couldn’t swing the hatchet like I needed to. It was slow going, but eventually I made it through. The unfortunate part was that, unlike the other trunks I had cut (which slowly twisted apart, and never snapped) this one gave a crack and broke clean in two, after a particularly angry blow from my hatchet. Remember that I was on the trunk, and that it was around four metres above the ground…
The tree fell with me straddling it, clinging on for dear life like Dr. Strangelove riding the nuke out the bay doors of a B-52. I squinted my eyes shut and braced for impact, hoping my legs wouldn’t become trapped under the tree – when we stopped just before the ground. I looked behind me; a massive thorn bush had stopped the trees’ decent. I hopped off the trunk and gathered my rope.
I never thought I’d say it, but thank God for thorn bushes!
As I was arming the timber hitches, I heard the sound of a chainsaw coming from nearby. I immediately grew worried.
Earlier that day, I had just finished floating the fifth balsa to the staging area, and noticed that there were only three trees where there should have been four.
“Hey!” I said to one of the men lounging around nearby. “Where’d my other tree go?”
“You didn’t see anybody here?”
I clenched my teeth and looked around. I saw sawdust. It didn’t take a lot of figuring to figure out someone had cut up one of my balsas – and absconded with the pieces! Each tree – hours of work and sweat and mosquito bites – and now there’s a balsa thief wandering around with a chainsaw.
This was not welcome news.
Furious, I told the loiterer that these were my trees, and that it was a lot of work to bring them here from the jungle, and to not let anybody come sniffing around my goddamn balsa logs.
“Okay gringo, tranquilo, nobody is going to take your trees.”
I grumbled angrily under my breath and headed back in the direction of the jungle. “My trees,” I reminded him before disappearing back into the high pasture grass.
“Yeah, OK, your trees, I get it.” As I slid through the grass, I heard him mutter something under his breath that sounded like gringo doido – crazy gringo.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard that word.
I stood there a couple of hundred yards into the jungle, listening to the sound of a chainsaw and thinking about my missing balsa. All of a sudden I was sure that the balsa thief had returned, and was stealing more of my trees! Enraged, I threw down the rope and plowed through the jungle as fast as I could, hacking indiscriminately at all plants in my path with my dulling machete. I burst out of the forest and into the pasture, heading towards my staging area at a fast run through the waist high pasture grass, still hacking away at the occasional vine or branch that was imprudent enough to try and impede me. Soon I flew out of the grass and into the mud of the staging area, where I slid to a stop. I stood there in the mire, breathing heavily, covered from head to toe with mud and minor scrapes, clenching a machete in one hand and a hatchet in the other.
I saw nothing. The sound of the chainsaw continued; it was coming from the town. My balsas were all accounted for. No thieves, it seemed.
The loitering man was still there; he was fishing now. He gave me a look, shook his head, and this time I clearly heard the words gringo doido.
Okay, maybe I was doido. But these were my trees at stake here…
When I returned to the jungle, I realized that I had…erm…lost my tree. Yes, I had left the jungle so quickly before that I neglected to remember my landmarks and now, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find the spot where that perfect, straight balsa tree –and my rope – lay in wait. I found trails that led straight to all of the other trees I had cut – but the trail I had left to my most recent botanical conquest continued to elude me.
Before you accuse me of being completely without sense of direction, I must inform you that in the jungle, there is no direction. There are no points of reference. Everywhere you can only see green and vines, and trees that look the same as all the others. Every once and awhile you find something to use as a landmark: a weird, twisted stump, or a tree that grows at a perfect 45° angle, or an enormous beehive. You remember which side of that landmark you pass, and the next landmark after that one, and must be sure to cut a vine or some sort of plant every five feet or so, leaving a trail to follow later. But there is no north, south, east, or west. Even if you go into the jungle correctly oriented with east and west, after half an hour inside, what you think is west is probably anything but.
The problem is, you make little turns to avoid vines or thorns or fallen trees, and when you try to turn back to keep the straight line going you over-correct, or under-correct. Sometimes you turn without even realizing it. To walk a straight line in the jungle is an impossible task without a compass. After a fifteen or twenty minutes you’re always going in a completely different direction – and sometimes you end up popping out of the jungle in almost the exact same place you went in, having made a 360° circle despite the fact you were consciously trying for a straight line.
Notwithstanding, I was determined to find my tree. It had been a lot of work to get her down – and my rope! I didn’t want to lose that. So I hacked my way around in circles for about an hour, discovering old landmarks and coming across new, completely unfamiliar ones. Finally, I found the last landmark I remembered – a tree, growing out of a tree, growing out of another tree – and managed to locate the misplaced timber at last.
Happy, I picked up my rope – and promptly forgot which way the river was.
After reorienting myself, I began hauling the log out of the forest – but ran into yet another obstacle: the jungle was too thick! Back on the edge, there was always a few clear spaces where I could maneuver the tree around and eventually get it out. But here? Walls of vines and stands of saplings growing less than an inch apart! Just to get the tree two yards, I spent fifteen minutes cutting a pathway. And I had a couple hundred yards of this to go until I reached the edge of the jungle. This was going to take days!
Dejected, I sat on the trunk of the perfect balsa. Sighing, I undid the timber hitches, then stood up and followed my trail. I passed the tree growing out of a tree growing out of another tree, the random mossy boulder, the tree with the ridiculous roots, and the rotting log with a stick I hammered into it with my hatchet. Soon I was back on the cow path, and emerged at the edge of the jungle; the perfect balsa would never make it out of the forest. What a waste.
Good balsa trees continued to elude me for the rest of the day – except for two, which were pretty good, only when I chopped them down they refused to fall all the way – one of them fell all of one inch before becoming entangled in the branches of some massive nearby tree. No matter how much brush I cleared or saplings I hewed, or how hard I tried to shimmy up the barely leaning trunk for a high-altitude chop, I simply could not get any of them to fall all the way to the ground; consequently, I was forced to abandon them – though this was not without much reluctance.
At the end of the day I retired back to Monserrat’s house without having managed to successfully retrieve a single tree from the forest the entire afternoon. I now had a total of four trees.
Originally, I had planned to construct the raft with eight logs, but since the four I had cut so far were so massive, I figured that six would probably do the job equally well. Also, the first tree that I had cut I had deemed to be too small after further consideration, so I left it with the carpenter. Therefore, I needed two more before I could start lashing them together. As I sat on Monserrat’s porch eating my dinner, I wondered where the hell I was going to find two more good-sized balsas that I could actually get into the river.
Word spread fast around Jardim do Ouro of me and my rafting plans. As I sat in my chair people passed by, smiling and friendly now that they knew I was not the Antichrist after all, though all the dogs still hated me. They would ask questions (the people, not the dogs), usually all about the why of the whole project, to which I responded vaguely, since I really didn’t have a solid answer to that.
If was from these passerby that I learned of the Jamanxim River’s true nature.
“It’s called Ao Portão do Inferno,” said the fisherman seriously. “A waterfall, twenty metres high. You’re never getting around that. Nobody gets around that, not even with canoes.”
“But I thought the river was all smooth!” I protested.
“Who told you that?” said the fisherman, raising his eyebrows.
I shrugged. “Somebody at the port.”
He snorted. “That person knows nothing. I’ve been navigating this river for forty years – and I promise you that the Jamanxim is most certainly not flat. It’s a wild river with many waterfalls and rapids.” He sipped his juice and pointed at me. “This thing that you’re doing, it’s not adventure – it’s suicide. You’re on a raft, you have no motor; the first waterfall you come to will suck you right down.” He shrugged. “There’s nothing you can do about it, you’ve got no control. And I promise you, my friend,” he finished his juice and set the cup deliberately down on the windowsill, giving me a solemn look. “Once you go down…you’re not coming back up.”
“Hm,” I said.
The next day I went out and managed to find two more balsas to cut that actually fell down. Granted, I had to walk three or four kilometres upriver to find them – but at least those kilometres were mostly floated on the return trip. I had the trees ready for assembly by around 1500 hrs, and had them completely lashed together by nightfall. The only obstacle that surfaced during the day had been a shortage of rope, but this problem was solved by breaking into my reserve para-cord, of which I had a few hundred feet in my pack. The finished craft was about five metres long by one metre wide.
I stepped a foot on board; the raft did not sink. I then boarded the vessel and found that it floated about ½ inch above the water with my weight. Satisfied, I snapped a photo and retired for the day.
I dreamed of water
a roaring world of foam and froth and sheets upon sheets upon sheets of falling water – a wet world, a water world, and I can’t tell where I am or where the surface is, and I try to walk – I try to move, but there’s just too much water, and I feel desperately around me, my frantic, clammy hands searching for something – anything! – a point of reference, a solidity to grasp a hold of, to cling to, to save me from these crushing cascades of white but there’s nothing, just frothing liquid pressing down on everything, on everywhere, and the weight is too much so I fall to my knees – only suddenly there’s no ground, even, no up or down or left or right, just more water, and I’m swirling around, the violent arms pulling at every cell in my body, tearing mercilessly in every direction, slipping slender tendrils into my nose, my ears, my mouth, my throat – they grab my lungs and clench their fists, then a swish of white and froth, a roar that fills my ears and squeezes my eardrums with deliberate malice, and now there is no more pulling, just pressing pressing from every direction, crushing, squeezing every inch of my body so I can’t move anything, anywhere, anyhow, and the pressure is inside me, pressing from inside my chest and outside, too – and I try to scream but I can’t open my mouth and I can’t close it either, there’s just no moving of any kind anywhere anyhow – a flash of agony – the pressure is gone, the white water is gone, the frothing angry fingers are gone, the cruel roar stops abruptly, and there is only black and silence and nothi
ing, trying so hard to see outside as the rain falls from the porch and beats holes into the dirt where it lands – gaping holes, holes filled with black water that grow bigger and bigger, swallowing up the edges of the porch like whirlpools, and the rain’s falling harder now and the black whirlpools roar a hollow, grim roar with no bottom or end or beginning, and the house breaks apart, the ropes holding my hammock snapping and I careen int
o the other side of the river, but no matter how hard I paddle the land remains distant and my raft surges up and down the waves as the thunder blasts and water crashes over m
y eyes staring and seeing only blue and I can feel the cold wet pressing into the sockets I c
an’t move can’t breath I
woke up to the sounds of frogs and crickets in the bog surrounding Jardim do Ouro. The night was still and the stars peeped out from behind invisible black clouds. No wind; the stillness was absolute. I could almost see the hot, humid air part as I breathed, see it as it swirled around, like smoke, as my breath drifted out into the stillness before coming to a slow, drifting halt.
0900 hrs. My stomach was full of coffee and crackers, my feet wet inside my perpetually muddy aviator boots. In my hands I clenched a long pole, cut from the jungle. Beneath my feet was a long log raft with a few boards nailed to the middle, forming an improvised deck.
I floated slowly away from the staging area, poling the raft along in the sluggish side current of the Jamanxim. It was test run time, and the plan was to take her as far as the port of Jardim do Ouro, half a kilometre downstream.
As I walked out to the raft, the sky had been clear and sunny; however, as soon as I pushed off into the current, a strong wind manifested from nowhere, and dark, almost black clouds advanced upon the river from a blurry, miserable-looking horizon. I hadn’t been on the raft five minutes when the water came.
Impossibly hard rain, and wind howling like the apocalypse. I squinted through the water and tried to keep the raft in the side current and away from the swiftly flowing middle of the river. The rain was thick and fat, and I could see little further than five metres. The wind blew west – pushing me and the raft further and further out into the river. My speed was increasing. The trees were moving noticeably faster past the raft.
I poled with all my might, but suddenly the river was too deep and the pole didn’t touch the bottom, and I drifted downriver with almost no control of the vessel. There was a bend ahead, and on the other side lay the port. The current was taking me further and further from shore. I began to feel the tiny, sharp teeth of panic nibbling at my brain.
I passed an area with many large trees in the flooded river, and knew this was my last chance to get out of the current. Grasping in my teeth the rope I had used the night before to dock the raft in the staging area, I leapt into the river and swam with all my might towards the trees. I was fifty metres upstream, and still had ten metres to go to reach the trees. The current yanked at my arms and legs
violent arms pulling at every cell
and I swam with all my strength towards the east bank of the swirling
Jamanxim River. Five metres to go; the rope pulled taught. I was out of slack. I held the rope in my left hand as the trees approached, and reached as far as I could for one of the overhanging boughs with my free right hand.
There was a moment when time froze – a still, snapshot in my brain of my hand, reaching for the bough of the tree as the current whisks me by, so close, almost able to reach it – and then I can feel the bark in my hand and the memory continues in normal speed as I grab a hold and squeeze the tree as tightly as I can. The raft continued downstream, and I managed to quickly tie the other end of the docking rope to the bough of the tree before the full weight of the raft in the current weighed upon the opposing end.
Breathing heavily, I tried to figure out what to do next. I looked around me; I was, it seemed, entirely surrounded by river. On the other side of this small grove of flooded trees was a flooded house, up well past it’s eves in the river. Another tree protruded from the water on the east side of the house.
I didn’t want to lose the raft I had worked so hard on. I must save it, improve it. This could work. This would work. I climbed up onto the low bough of the tree, leaned against the trunk, and began towing the raft back towards the tree against the current. After five minutes or so I managed to wrestle her almost close enough to board – but boarding was not on the agenda.
I worked my way around the tree trunk to the opposite side, where it was a relatively straight shot to the flooded house and other tree. On this side of the tree was the less powerful side current; all I needed to do was get the raft into this current and I would be able to save her. This was managed with mostly brute force, and I ended up simply pulling the raft through the thin overhanging branches until the ones that impeded it broke.
Now we were in the side current; I jumped back into the river and towed the raft behind me as I swam for shore. We went about five metres before the current brought the raft to the flooded house, where it became wedged between the building and the tree. This, it seemed, was as far as we would go for the day.
I tied the raft to the tree, jumped back into the river, and swam with the current back to Jardim do Ouro, as the rain pounded down upon the brown waters of the river, and the thunder blasted from the sky and rocked the deepest corners of my soul.
I sat during lunch on Monserrat’s porch as the rain continued. I thought about the raft, the river, and the fisherman’s warnings.
Once you go down…you’re not coming back up.
But portage…I can portage…
Once you go down….
…I can get out of the river goddamnit, I can portage…
…you’re not coming back up.
I remembered the feeling of the current yanking at my heels
tearing mercilessly in every direction
and how I just barely managed to grab the bough of the tree…
…I can get out! I CAN FUCKING PORTAGE.
Once you go down…
…you’re not coming back up.
Three days later. Itaituba, Pará.
As I sit in the sunlight and write, I wonder if I’m going to see the logs float by Itaituba. I wonder if, after I unlashed the raft to save the rope and sent them solo down the Jamanxim, my balsa trees made it down all the waterfalls, the portão de inferno, and the 23 kilometres of the Maranhão Grande rapids on the Tapajós River. I wonder if they got caught up in low hanging branches, or if they were smashed to bits at the gates of hell. I suppose I’ll never know.
Monserrat wasn’t surprised when I told him I would dismantle the raft. “It’s a smart decision,” he had said, patting me on the back. Before I left he gave me back the iPhone. “I will never use it, anyhow,” he said, smiling.
I sloshed through the puddles of wud on the rodoviária do ouro in a gas truck as Jardim do Ouro vanished into the jungle mist. I had been there five days.
“So, what were you doing in that little town, anyways?” the friendly trucker asked me with a smile.
“Same thing everybody else is doing in creporição,” I said, running my fingers through my hair and watching the plastic Virgin Mary hanging off the windshield swing around in circles. “Chasing dreams.”
I smiled. “Sure.”
He nodded knowingly. “River didn’t live up to your expectations, did it?”
“You might say that.”
The trucker downshifted as we dipped into a pothole. “Well, don’t feel too bad. Panning ain’t an exact science. But you know, sometimes you just gotta trust in the Good Lord, and everything you need will come right when you need it most.”
“So where to?”
“The Tapajós River.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Not so much gold in the Tapajós.”
I nodded. “Yeah, well sometimes you’ve just got to trust your instincts, you know?”
He chuckled. “Hey amigo, if you never give up, you’ll eventually succeed.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
São Luis do Tapajós is 41 kilometres upriver from Itaituba, and is situated at the end of the Maranhão Grande rapids. As I left Itaituba after a week of busking and writing, I wondered what it was like. Flooded, like Jardim do Ouro? Were there balsa trees nearby? Who would host me, feed me, cook my rice? Would people help me, or would I do the work alone? Was the jungle close to the river?
I’m not a religious man, but as the trucker put it, sometimes you just gotta trust in the Good Lord to send help your way. Like panning for gold, life ain’t an exact science – but if you never give up, you’ll eventually succeed.
New town, new river, new raft. And that jungle air, it never smelled so sweet…