This is the journal that my Dad kept on his recent trip to visit me in Barcelos, Brazil, along the Rio Negro. I hope you will all enjoy it as much as I did. I like that he offers a slightly different perspective. I corrected his numerous spelling and grammar errors for clarity’s sake, but this is more or less the original version.
A bit of background on my Dad: he is 49 year old ex-Air Force pilot who today flies the left seat for Southwest Airlines. The rest of his personality will come out in the journal.
Brazilian Trip Nov 2013
Olá como vai você
13 Nov 2013
I will try and document as best I can the trip I have embarked on beginning this day. The trip is to see my son Patrick, who will play a major role in the narration of this trip’s contents. For the time being, Patrick has been working as a translator and guide for a charter fishing operation out of Barcelos, Brazil. He speaks fluent Portuguese, as well as Spanish and his native English, and has been for the better part of four years on his own wandering and exploring the world from the States down to Chile, and many parts in between. I am sure the journal of this trip will cover my thoughts and feelings about his wandering lifestyle so at this time I will not cover in detail his evolution and why I think he does what he does.
Cindy dropped me off at IAH early this morning with plenty of time to make her way back and be in class on time. I am currently in the IAH Airport waiting for a flight on American Airlines to MIA, then on to MAO from there and finally take Azul Air into Barcelos tomorrow morning. So far I have had no problems and seem to be able to ride on jump seat status all the way into Manaus. I checked two bags through to Manaus and can only hope they make it on stand bye status. The first bag contains four two piece rods in a rod case and the other is a large waterproof duffel bag, which contains an Alice pack stuffed with things Patrick and his friends in Barcelos need and cannot readily obtain. I have spent the past few weeks gathering these items which ran from a Pictionary game, to a pepper grinder, and from lead shot to Chapstick. The lead shot poses a problem in a few ways as any ammunition, whether assembled or in component stage, is illegal in Brazil, and lead is dense so the security machines will alarm on it as it cannot be seen through clearly.
I set a few hundred .20 gague plastic wads loose in the Alice pack, where they will hopefully cause no alarm, and took the lead shot in my carry on wrapped in a sock where I knew they would alarm. As expected, the TSA agent pulled my bags but bought my story of using the lead shot to melt down and use as fishing weights and lures. He was from Panama and often made lures to fish for the very thing we are angling for in Brazil, the legendary Peacock Bass. It did not hurt that I was in full uniform and in the crew bag checked line which allows crews to bring certain personal items that are not allowed in the general public’s bags. I always travel in full uniform when on stand bye status as it makes moving through the airport much easier as everyone recognizes the uniform.
This is only the beginning of a long full day and I am getting into my travel mode to handle it. I like to think I enter a self-imposed zen-like state where nothing upsets me and I let time and all the people and hustle associated with travel slip by gently and peacefully. I will need this attitude today and the Travel Zen is easy when you are rested but I must remember to keep it going when in 24 hours I will still not be in Barcelos! My flight from IAH leaves at 0750 and arrives in MIA at 11:15. Then I wait for 7 hours or so and leave MIA at 1720 and arrive in Manaus, Brazil at 2335. I then wait the rest of the night for a very early 0600 flight from MAO to Barcelos on Azul Air, finally arriving in Barcelos at 0700, a full 27 hours from when I woke up in my home in Tarkington,Texas!
I am currently sitting in first class aboard flight 1312 from IAH to MIA, next to all the beautiful people who are making money RIGHT NOW in their comfy seats. I brought scones and cookies from Starbucks for the crew as a uniform from another airline only goes so far when you are jump seating around the system. The uniform got me a nice conversation with the captain, a man my age and temperament, who commutes on our Southwest planes often and was happy to have me take a seat. The treat bribes got me the first class seat from the petite, curly haired flight attendant working that section. She, along with the captain, were very interested in my trip to Barcelos and my son’s travels. The flight attendant was less chatty after learning I left my wedding ring at home fearing it would wash away in the river – unlike my marriage. I will have to go through international TSA screening in MIA and only hope my lead weight story does not sink like a lead weight! If so, then they can have ten pounds of useless lead to use as they wish, and as long as my other things make it to Manaus I will be happy.
Patrick requested several books in addition to a long list of other supplies. He asked for The River of Doubt which chronicles Teddy Roosevelt’s exploration of said river in the Brazilian Amazon which, when he completed the descent, was named after him. He also asked for Roosevelt’s own journal of the trip entitled Into the Brazilian Wilderness, which I also brought for him. I read both books and they are interesting reading for anyone thinking about heading into this part of the world.
River of Doubt is a compilation of Teddy’s journal as well as his son Kermit’s and other members of the party. It is very interesting to see how the events chronicled in River of Doubt are told in Roosevelt’s journal. Often times, Roosevelt trivializes what in the Doubt book seemed like a life or death situation. I think this is a combination of a need to sell books in the case of the Doubt author and Roosevelt’s own macho, non-complaining, generally optimistic view of the world. I also think he may have not been coherent enough during the worst of his times on the trip such as when he had fever and malaria. Interesting reading anyways, with Teddy’s book covering the flora, geology, and animals of the area in great detail and Doubt written more entertainingly in the form of a historical novel.
Patrick requested I bring several items from the States with me to Barcelos. This list is not all inclusive, but covers the majority of the items:
2 mosquito headsets
Fishing weights, hooks
20+ Lures with top water prop type preferred
300yds 20 pd test braided line
300yds 30 pd test braided line
3 bait cast reels
1 spin cast reel
4 rods 2 piece travel type
2 headlamps 2AA battery type
Manual can opener
Chapstick (his lips hurt real bad!)
20 gauge wads
20 gauge shot
Waterproof flashlights 2
AAA,AA,D cell batteries.
River of Doubt by Candice Millard, Through the Brazilian Wilderness by Teddy Roosevelt, On the Road by Jack Keourac, and Fear and Loathing in America by Hunter S. Thompson
(The first two were requested and the last two I added after reading about them in my current bedside and bathroom side read Low Side of the Road, about the life of eccentric singer/songwriter/actor Tom Waites. )
Water proof camera
Extra memory cards for camera
2 pair camp pants
Shirts two long sleeve
Shirts two short sleeve
Goggle and snorkel
Solar recharge pad
Rope 400’1/8 “, 400’1/4”, 800′ para cord
Pictionary game. This and the pepper grinder and manual can opener were for Gerry who runs the Hostel in Barcelos.
2 bottles whiskey
Lightweight climbing / hiking shoes
All of these items I packed and I hope they arrive in Manaus. Many of them are for my use and Patrick repeatedly asked to pay for the items such as the recharger, poles, reels, shot, etc. I will leave much of it to him for his future travels bringing back only two rods, 2 reels, some clothing, and whatever else he may not need. I have not seen or spent anything on Patrick in close to two years, so it feels good to be able to help him out and visit him. David and Ellen have paid for the harmonica and we are giving him the camera for Christmas. The rest of the supplies will be bartered to get me a room and a fishing boat for Patrick and I to use for a week.
Patrick has been in Barcelos for a few months now and has been on fishing trips in the area as a translator aboard the big yachts. He has a route set up for us to catch some fish and spend a week sleeping in the jungle and working around the little canals in the marsh with a fishing boat powered by a Gator type motor. We will also tow his smaller boat and use it to get into the really skinny water. If we catch enough to eat I will be happy, and just seeing him and hanging out is my real goal for this trip.
I just got back from the duty free store, where I purchased a liter of Bushmills Irish Whiskey, as well as a liter of Johnny Walker red label for the inn-keeper Gerry. I also bought a tin of dark chocolate toffee for aircrew bribery while jump seating. Not much to do now but wait for my flight and exchange a little money for Brazilian Reals.
The long day continues as I arrive in Brazil at 2330 and start my wait for my 0600 flight to Barcelos. I was able to get another first class seat (with the chocolates leading the way), and it was good to have for the five-hour flight here. The flight was fine, I slept a little and watched the movie Planes – but even if trapped on a plane I would not watch again!
The Manaus Airport is small, about the size of Corpus Christie’s field in the states. The one thing it seems to be missing is the constant blaring of flight status and times, and they seem to rely on people using the monitors and showing up on time (What a concept!) I have set up shop near an all-night ice cream store in the terminal. One observation I have made is Brazilians seem to universally eat their ice cream scoops on cones using the tiny tester spoons instead of licking it with their tongues as we do back home.
I do not have to go to another airport to get on Azul Air, as I was told in the States, and only have to change to another terminal which is a short walk in this small airport. I have not slept and hope Patrick and his pals do not have a big morning planned as I may have to rest first thing upon arrival. Then again, the adrenalin rush from seeing him after all this time may be all I need to make it through the day.
I had little trouble clearing customs and I think they may have thought I was with the crew as American Airlines uniforms look such like SWA. Whatever the reason, it appears I am home free with the lead and was very thankful to see my large waterproof duffel bag as well as my rod case make it off the plane! I do not know how much I can take aboard the smaller plane into Barcelos but we will see when I check in at 0400. I have eaten my first meal in Brazil, a strange little dinner roll that was supposed to have cheese in the middle, as shown in the picture, but my cheese was masquerading as mostly air. I also ordered a Coke because I can say it and be understood and I don’t as yet trust the water supply.
The people here seem fit for the most part and shorter than in the States, as a general rule. I have yet to see the first wheel chair or Rascal – and that in itself is refreshing. Flights come and go all hours of the morning so I feel safe and never alone, and although I have not seen the first policeman I do not feel at all threatened. I am careful not to fall asleep and leave my stuff so I have tied it all together. Any thief that catches me napping and can haul all of this off at once is not a guy I want to mess with!
The airport has many pictures of Peacock Bass on the walls, and there were several other fisherman on the flight from MIA. I am coming to realize charter fishing and tourism are the big industries in this part of Brazil. I have a few minutes, then I go check in for my last leg into Barcelos.
I made it on the last leg to Barcelos, but not without difficulty due to the lead shot. I had to go through security one final time but Brazil does not have a crew access lane, and right away the shot caused me to be additionally screened. The Brazilian version of the TSA (actually an insult to the guy, as he was very professional and polite) asked me about the shot. Because of translation issues and despite lot of hand gesturing on my part, he had to call in his supervisor to make the call on the sock of shot in question. The supervisor also spoke zero English. I tried to tell him I was going to use the lead for weighting fishing lures, and I finally caught a break as he inspected my box of lures. One of my old top water lures had a defect on a hook attract point, which I told him was lead that I had put there to make the lure run true. It looked a hell of a lot like a slug of lead to me, and to this inspector too, and he allowed me to pass with my 10 lb sock of #7.5 bird shot at last.
Azul runs an ATR 72 into Barcelos from Manaus and it is a reliable workhorse of a plane. We lifted of runway10 in around 2500′, fully loaded, and made the flight to Barcelos in 75 minutes. On climb out from MAO, I noticed the city I could see was mostly slum type tin shacks, and I looked in vain for the usual upper-class houses up on the hill. Very quickly we were over the great Amazon River, and jungle suddenly spread as far as you could see on both sides of the river. The Rio Negro branched off of the Amazon soon into the flight, its black, tea-stained water easily seen as it mixed with the Amazon’s chocolate brown water. Barcelos appeared abruptly on the left bank of the Rio Negro, and was smaller in size and stature than I had imagined. We flew down the river and entered a left bank for runway 09, hugging the endless jungle all the way around, and touched down softly at 0715.
I had finally arrived to the Amazon jungle in the town of Barcelos, Brazil! I looked out the humidity-fogged window and tried in vain to see if Patrick was there. Finally, as I stepped off the stairs, I saw him waiting there on the sidewalk anxiously scanning the faces of the arriving passengers. We saw each other at the same time and had a great hug in disbelief that we were actually together in Barcelos! After a quick catch up, we briefly waited for my luggage – which was thankfully all there – and walked the short block to Gerry Mos’s Hostel next to the airport.
Gerry is from Holland and is one year older than I am. He was a banker in Luxomburg but after visiting Manaus, and then Barcelos in 2004, he and his fiancé decided to buy a place in Barcelos. His dream of marriage did not pan out but he did keep the house, and now runs a very cool and unique hostel there in Barcelos. Gerry had reserved me a room for my entire time but refused payment on the nights I would be fishing and camping with Patrick. He is a very cool and friendly guy and made his life’s money early and now lives and renovates his hostel. It seems to me he is not in this for the money but it is his dream and he enjoys the six months a year he spends there. The other six months he is back in Holland caring for his 94 year old father, of whom he speaks of fondly.
Upon arrival at Gerry’s, we began to unpack all the goodies Patrick had requested. It really did feel like Christmas as the supplies were laid out and commented on individually. Throughout the morning, Patrick and Gerry dissected each item, and both seemed pleased with what they found. Gerry scurried off with his pepper grinder, can opener and Pictionary game, while Patrick and I inventoried the remaining items and added or subtracted to his list of what we would need for our trip.
We went shopping in the small town of Barcelos for groceries, hammock and netting for me, and a new small stove for Patrick. The town is easily accessible by bike or walking, and according to Gerry there were not even any cars or cell phones when he first visited in 2004. Patrick has been here only two months, but most of the merchants seem to know him as he definitely stands out with his long blond hair, blue eyes and sideburns. The small children forego any semblance of politeness and stop their play to stare at us as we ride by on Gerry’s bikes.
All of the shops are family owned and we witnessed an impressive cat fight under the onion rack in the back of the grocery store! The language is all Portuguese and I noticed how much it sounds and feels like Italian when Patrick and the locals talk to each other. There is much hand gesturing and long, drawn out words to emphasize the language. At one of the small grocery stores, a very young girl, maybe early teens, was running the register. After ringing up our purchases surprised me and said “Thank you and come back soon,” which was the first English I heard anyone speak here! Patrick told her very well done and she is doing well, later explaining to me she was taking English lessons and liked to try out her phrases on him whenever he went to her families store.
I find it frustrating to learn any Portuguese, and tried to learn to say “thank you” first, as everyone we met was so helpful and polite that I felt I needed to at least be able to say that! It took me a day, but I finally got at least that phrase down but the rest of the time I just smile and nod like the village idiot!
I can tell the locals are fascinated by Patrick, and now that they have the chance to see his father they are no less intrigued by the whole situation. These families seem very tight-knit, with generations living with or near one another in town totally cut off from the rest of Brazil. The cars in town only go around the small town streets as there are no roads leading out of town. To have one of their children leave and go to the US to travel around on his own, as Patrick has done down here, is a complete mystery to them. They call him the crazy one and ask if I am upset with him, but seem even more confused when I say no I am actually proud as he is happy and living life on his terms.
He gets what he needs to survive and wants little more than he can carry on to his next adventure. Most of them seem to understand that I would rather have a happy, well-adjusted, grounded son who has chosen an admittedly unconventional path verses one who is “contributing to society,” but is bored and bitter. They ask if I worry and of course I do, but the more I see Patrick here in his natural setting the less I plan on worrying in the future.
After we finished gathering up supplies, we ate lunch at the resturaunt of another friend of Patricks and Gerry’s, Joyce and Alex. They were also very friendly and generous, and it felt as though we were at their house rather than their place of business. The same general line of questions about Patrick were asked, but they were traveling hippies before settling down in Barcelos so his lifestyle was not so strange to them.
After a wonderful meal we went back to Gerry´s hostel, and at last I rested for about an hour as the whole town shuts down for siesta during that time. The rest of the evening was spent eating another great meal made by Gerry, and a final inventory of our supplies was undertaken. We stayed up talking about our past and I am struck how relaxed and confident Patrick is here. He stays free at the hostel when he is in town in exchange for taking care of the chickens and quail as well as cleaning the pool and helping Gerry with the upkeep and renovation of the hostel. We leave very early tomorrow and have taken most of the supplies down to the dock and have also purchased 75 liters of fuel for the trip. All we have left to do is get some rest then walk the big packs down to the river in the morning and head out for our adventure in the Amazon!
Peixe grande (Big Fish)
We got off to an early start and headed down the Rio Negro, hoping to make the Rio Deméni for our first overnight stop. Patrick drives the large 21-foot canoe we rented from Gerry’s neighbor with ease, using a go devil type 6.5 HP motor known locally as a rabeta. We are also towing his boat which is a much smaller 13-foot canoe to use as our fishing and net setting boat during the day, and at night to set trot lines and hunt. We plan on using the rods and reels for sport-fishing and the catch and release of Peacock Bass. The nets will provide our daily food, and we will hopefully catch a few fish at night spearing and with line sets. In this way, we should be able to catch plenty of food to supplement the pasta and rice we brought along.
Our start was very inconspicuous with cold rain and wind following us to our first fuel stop for oil and gas for the outboard tank. The old couple that owned the floating house, bar, gas stop, and food store also knew Patrick – and it is the same man that owned the little outdoor shop in town where we bought my hammock and netting. Patrick ducked in to get the supplies while I waited out in the boat trying to keep us straight in the amazingly strong river current. After a few minutes, the old woman came shuffling outside under an antique unbrella and saw me standing in the rain (talking to myself) and asked Patrick “Why are you doing this to his father, do you not like him?!” The people here are having a hard time understanding Patrick´s way of life to start with, and I think my attitude and presence is not helping!
When Patrick explained that I wanted to go with him into the jungle and get rained on and try to experience in a small way what he does and why, they just shake their heads and mumble to themselves. Patrick says many of them are convinced he must have murdered someone in the States as that would be the only answer as to why he disappeared into the jungle. Now that I am here, they are even more confused but I have assured them he is not a fugitive!
We made a slow pace, only using about 30% power to conserve fuel – which is fine as to rush through these views would be sad. The jungle is so amazing that it can be mesmerizing to watch as it creeps by our boat. After only a few miles all signs of human life disappeared and the endless jungle took over every possible inch of space. Dolphins soon showed up near our boat, small gray ones that looked much like their ocean cousins, and larger pink varieties with bulbous misshapen heads like the Elephant Man. I pointed out each each dolphin to Patrick, and by his reaction I think they are quite common.
With continued up the Rio Negro, and after a few minutes the rains stopped and the rest of the trip was pleasant but hot. Our first campsite was along the main channel and Patrick set out one of his nets in the flooded forest behind the campsite, and another in the main channel. The flooded forest was only knee deep, and I wondered just how many fish would be in there, but Patrick assured me we would catch enough to eat. Sure enough, we soon had a traira in the forest net and a pacu in the river net. We added to these two more fish, a dogfish and another traira, which we crept up on in the flooded woods and speared with a Zagaia. The Zagaia is a fish spear that Patrick often uses to hunt in the flooded forest and is a very effective and reliable fish catching method.
We fried all the fish up and ate them on the bank. Overhead parrots and macaws jostled for roosting spots in the high trees and small red monkeys scurried in the distance. I swear it was the best fried fish I have ever had but Patrick said hunger is the best seasoning – and I told him he got that from his PáPá! We watched the sunset, and a large Jacaré (Caiman) cruised by in between the constant river dolphins breaching near the shore. Patrick decided to bring in his river net before dark, but it snagged on some submerged timber and before I knew it he was in the dark water diving under to free the net. The light was rapidly fading, and there was my son, diving underwater for minutes at a time, with a large Jacaré in the area. Just one of those things would have provided plenty of excuses for me not to go into that strong river current.
Patrick seemed oblivious to these dangers and it was very dark before he finally secured his net and returned to the campsite. When I asked him if he was concerned about swimming and diving at night he said without the net he may not survive, so there is no choice to make. His ability to take out emotion and maintain such an even keel in any situation is a consistent and new personality trait I have noticed in Patrick since I arrived in Barcelos. When I asked him about it he said getting upset takes energy, and there is nobody else to fix a problem out here, so action is more important than reaction. I have been telling him that very thing for years, and it took two years traveling mostly alone in the rivers and jungles of this immense wild place for him to make it his lifestyle.
We drank whiskey and smoked cigars to keep the constant bugs at bay and talked into the night. Soon after we drained our cups, we both headed to our hammocks and under our netting to sleep as the sounds of the night jungle surrounded our campsite.
Jacaré no banco d’areia (The croc on the sand bar)
We were up early, and saw the river had risen several inches overnight, nearly swamping our little campsite. I went fishing as Patrick took down the campsite, and managed to catch my first Piranha. Soon I got distracted by several small red monkeys that had been feeding in the trees last night, and now had moved down near the riverbank. I found that I could paddle quietly beneath them and got some good pictures and video of them cavorting and chattering in the treetops. After arriving back at the campsite, I told Patrick about my monkey encounter and asked if we could eat monkeys. He told me he has but not the little ones yet, only howlers. Patrick later told me Gerry has yet to see any wild monkeys, and he would be surprised to hear we saw them our second day on the river!
After a quick breakfast of leftover fried fish, we headed down the Rio Negro and into the Rio Deméni. This river is much shallower than the Rio Negro and we soon encountered huge bancos d’areias (sandbars) that nearly stretched the width of the river. We decided to stop on one large banco d’areia and wait out a storm that was brewing to the east, as well as set out another net for this evenings fish. The storm and the net were both fruitful, with the storm providing cold driving rain and lightning and the net producing many fish, including seven acara tinga, three black pacu, one vampire fish, and one large sardine. We were watched closely by another huge Jacaré that was sunning on the sandbar when we arrived. He slipped quickly into the water but Patrick had to chase him away from the net several times, and he was clearly irritated at us for taking over his banco d’ariea! We cleaned all the fish and made soup out of the pacu and a few acaras while salting the rest of the fish for use later.
Patrick has kept salted fish for days and with no ice available, it is the only way to preserve meat in the jungle. The soup was delicious and was made with onions, garlic, tomatoes, and served with onion pasta which we ate with homemade spoons, as we had forgotten real spoons and forks! I went for a run on the sand bar and saw a large frog/toad critter laying eggs in the sand and also jumped up some rosetted spoonbills and other loud shore birds. Patrick tried to sneak up on the Jacaré for pictures, and he said a passing family boat pointed out the Jacaré and wondered why the crazy guy was sneaking up on him and not the other way around!
We left the sandbar and headed up the Rio Deméni, but found ourselves soon stranded on several submerged sandbars. We took refuge in a small igarapé (canoe trail) which lead off the river and followed it to a clearing in the jungle that looked perfect for our next campsite. I made trot lines while Patrick set up camp. After setting out the lines, he went paca hunting and I tried spearfishing. He saw no paca (a large water rat that I am told is delicious but fortunately did not have to confirm), and I speared a small Araca which we used to freshen up the trot line baits. We met back up later, finished the leftover fish soup for dinner, and went to bed after watching the moonnrise over cigars and whiskey.
I went fishing in the morning and got several hits from Peacock Bass, hooking two and getting one right to the boat before he spit the lure. The baits and tackle I brought are too small and the fish are much too big and strong! My fishing was interrupted by a rhythmic splashing sound and I looked up to see a Jesus Christ Lizard running on top of the water as he quickly crossed the small creek and scurried up the opposite bank. I quietly paddled over to the bank and located this medium-sized dark lizard hiding in the vines of a small tree on the bank. He kept moving around the twisted vines, always keeping a good part of the vine between me and him, and at first I only saw little claws and the occasional head peek out from behind his hiding places. With a little patience, I managed to get some good pictures of this cool reptile. He soon got irritated with me, jumped off his little tree, and with amazing speed ran across the water and disappeared into the brush across the creek.
It seems I always find something awesome when I am supposed to be fishing, so Patrick was not surprised when I showed up empty handed once again. I excitedly told him about my lizard encounter but he informed me that those lizards were very common in the Amazon. He did allow that the first time he saw one he spent hours trying to catch it – only to see dozens more later that same day!
Patrick had broken down camp while I played Crocodile Hunter, and cooked Fritinhos, which are hardtack fried flour cakes that are perfect with coffee. While checking our lines, we found one of the baits had snagged in a deep hole near the bank. Patrick again dove down to unsnag the hook, with many crocs of various sizes hanging around, but he refused to leave it as hooks and line are like gold here. We checked our trot lines but caught nothing and will use smaller hooks next time. We fished the rest of the day down the endless igarapes and I caught two piranhas, a white one, and a much bigger black species that weighed around three pounds. We made lunch camp and fried the piranhas, even eating the eggs from the big one which when fried are really good! All of the fish we ate we cooked with the heads on, and the piranha in particular yielded a lot of meat in its head due to its powerful jaw muscles.
We also saw a strange bird with a long curved beak who could turn his head 360 degrees while hopping around and searching for bugs in the brush. It was wood-thrush sized, with an orange-brown body and a bill almost as long as itself, which he poked into every hole. I saw a toucan fly overhead with its huge bill pulling it down every time it stopped flapping, which causes it to dip and abruptly climb in a very distinctive flight pattern. I also saw macaws, both the blue/gold and red/green varieties, who flew very high with their long tails stretched behind them, landing only in the highest trees to roost. All the other water birds from back home are here, along with the ever-present river dolphins. Festive Parrots fly by in large flocks squawking constantly and there is always some sort of bird calling.
After we broke our lunch camp, we realized we had left the machete at the previous campsite and decided to go back and look for it. Luckily we found it, but got stuck on a huge log leaving out of the narrow channel. There were lots of big crocs here so we tried to balance on the log and not to get in the water, but still could not get the boats free. Finally, we got in the chest high water and, with my head on a swivel looking for crocs, we managed to get the boat free. We headed back down the igarape hoping it would meet up with the big river, and passed a boat with a family fishing for aquarium fish, which is a big business here. They use fish traps, and Barcelos is the biggest exporter of wild-caught tropical fish in the world. Their boat was stacked high with large styrofoam chests that kept their precious cargo alive until they could offload it in town.
We had planned to follow the igarape, as it paralleled the Deméni river, but things quickly went south for us as the little creek branched off several times, getting smaller and narrower with each turn. Soon we realized we were not going to be able to continue to the river. The sun was rapidly setting, and we were not sure where we were in relation to the main channel. We decided to make camp in the jungle, and as darkness was falling, finally located a small clearing off the narrow creek. Patrick beached the large canoe on the bank, and that went well, but we forgot about the smaller canoe tied behind us. With a huge boom it crashed into the back of our beached big boat like a medieval battering ram! It smashed into the long shaft of the motor with a crunching bang and hit the prop, breaking one blade on the shaft.
Luckily, Patrick had brought a spare motor and we hope it works OK in the morning. Again, he did not react at all to the misfortune but just shrugged it off and moved on. We made camp and had eaten so much fish late in the day, so we just smoked cigars and finished the last of the Bushmills for supper. We have had really great talks late into the nights, and I am amazed at his apparent peaceful attitude regardless of the situation. On several occasions, he has mentioned that every time the Amazon throws some misfortune his way there always seems to be something unexpectedly unique and amazing that happens soon afterward that makes all the strife worthwhile. Because of this he takes the challenges in stride, and only worries about what has happened now and deals with the present challenges with anticipation of something wonderful occurring soon.
It may have taken the Amazon for him to learn this, but it is a philosophy I try and live my life by and in the past tried to pass on to him. It is great to see him embrace such a healthy view point in life, and he seems to be ahead of me in accepting this philosophy out here in the bush. An example of this was when I asked several questions such as what we would do if the back up motor did not start in the morning, and did he think we could paddle out, and where were we, exactly? He just smiled and said he was not worried as none of that had happened yet, and these cigars are really good with this whiskey! Living in the present, embracing challenges with anticipation of better things, and learning to enjoy what you have right now has made Patrick a unique and happy person.
He wasn’t always this way, at all. He grew up a restless, active, questioning child who never seemed content in whatever situation he was in. He always wanted more: more action, adventure, travel, attention, anything to standout from the crowd. He butted heads with us as parents, his teachers, coaches, band directors, scout leaders, and anyone else who tried to put limits on him. Can you imagine being the scout leader for a young Patrick?!
Needless to say, no one, even Patrick himself, really knew where he fit in. He was attracted to unique situations and actions which gave him the attention he craved and caused him to stand out from the rest. After rough times in school, he was given mood-altering medication and was diagnosed with a mild form of bipolar disorder as an adolescent. We tried counseling, as well as medications, but the results were mixed and Patrick hated the way the medication dulled his personality. His raw intelligence was wasted in high school where he scraped by and barley graduated, but his mental issues soon proved too much for college or a steady job. His decision to take off hitchhiking with next to nothing was a shock to us, and we worried non-stop for the first few months he was gone.
Leaving the country for Mexico did not ease our concerns, but he adjusted and adapted, honing his survival skills as he went. His intelligence allowed him to pick up new languages easily, and his need for constant stimulation was provided by his travels. An engaging personality and quick wit allows him to adapt to many different cultures and lifestyles. If he gets bored of one place, new locales and people are only as far away as the next hitch, and he uses traveling as his bi polar medication. He will party when the opportunity offers itself, but is happy and non-threatening when under the influence so he seems to get along well wherever he travels.
I am often asked what are his plans for the future and I tell them, as Patrick tells me, the real plan is to have no plan. He goes where he wants when he wants, only staying in one place out of necessity and always planning the next adventure. We wonder how long he can sustain this life style but with Patrick wondering about the future is pointless. He will continue to do what makes him happy and lead what he admits is a narcissistic lifestyle. I think until he finds something or someone worth settling down for or with, his wanderings will continue unabated. All we can do is love him and support him and be content in the fact that he is happy and well-adjusted to this unconventional lifestyle. He has learned more over the past four plus years than he ever would in any college curriculum, and I am proud of him and what he has become.
I often fly with crew members who are the parents of young children and hear or read about Patrick, and are amazed that we can sleep at all at night. I then ask them what they want for their children as adults, and many reply all they wish is for their adult children is to be healthy and happy. I tell them this is an admirable goal but caution them to be prepared to back that statement up if your adult children’s path to happiness turns out to be an unconventional one.
I am at any given time proud, worried, angry, confused, and dismayed with Patrick as he travels around in his world. These feelings and challenges would be the same for me if he lived next door, and the distance actually buffers much of the worry. I hear of his close calls and real near-death experiences long after they have been resolved. I think the detachment and lack of involvement on a daily basis with his life has helped all who love him accept him and his chosen lifestyle. We have a choice and we choose to stay involved in his life and see where this amazing ride will end.
Fomezeiro (Hunger Net)
When I awoke the next morning Patrick had already removed the broken motor and mounted the older backup motor on the big canoe. While we were loading the boats and breaking down camp, we found a huge black wasp the size of a mouse climbing up the side of the little canoe. It appeared to have a broken wing and looked to be in a bad mood so we gave him and his sewing needle of a stinger a wide berth, and paddled out into the igarape to try and start the backup motor. After only one pull, we had more bad news as the flywheel would not rewind the pull cord on the motor and it just hung uselessly in the bottom of the boat. We tried to take off the flywheel cover and rewind the motor manually, but the old rusting screws holding the cover on would not give an inch. Patrick finally resorted to rewinding the cord one tooth at a time with a punch tool stuck in the small gaps of the flywheel cover, and each pull was followed by this five minute rewinding ritual. Throughout it all, Patrick remained calm and measured and after about ten pulls the old motor finally sputtered to life! I hinted that maybe we should start back a few days early as what would we do if the motor didn’t start during this afternoon or tomorrow morning, but Patrick would have none of it. He happily motored out to try and find our way back out to the river through the twisting narrow channel.
After a few wrong turns and a couple of anxious hours on my part, we finally found our way out to the main river. We motored upriver for a time on the Deméni, which had come up at least a foot in the past few days. All of the sandbars were submerged, and it now was as featureless and as wide as the Mississippi. After a few hours, we made camp for lunch on a sand bank which contained the remains of an old illegal logging camp.
My impression of the Amazon is that it seems a lot like the United States must have been back in the days of the westward expansion. There are rules, such as no one can own a gun, but most people in the interior have one for hunting. No wood can be harvested, but everyone clears and builds their houses from whatever they can find in the jungle. Instead of horses, the people here have boats of every size and use and all locals from young children to very old men and women are accomplished river people. Much like the old west, there is little land ownership outside of the towns, and no one bothers those who are sustenance hunting or fishing. Strangers such as Patrick are treated as oddities and with much interest, but little hostility. Many of these older natives also asked me, through Patrick, who he had killed back home as this was the only explanation for his endless, wandering, exiled way of life.
The abandoned camp made a good place for us to fish and cook our lunch. We took a swim in the river and it was filled with small fish that nipped at us as we washed ourselves and our clothes in the fast moving water. While piranha are common in all the waters here, they never bothered us and their ferocity seemed greatly exaggerated, I suspect in a large part due to Roosevelts own writings. We made soup out of the salted fish, which was amazingly still fresh after two days and I swear it tasted like crab meat and was delicious!
After using up the last of our fish, Patrick decided to take advantage of this spot and catch a few fish for later tonight. We set out the Fomezero net which, has about half inch wide fine netting and is used to catch small fish. All of the nets in the Amazon are named for the fish they are designed to catch, and the mesh size and weight both get larger as the targeted fish get bigger. Patrick uses three different nets, and they are very effective for providing fish without the time and effort of hook and line fishing. Many times during our trip, Patrick talked of effort verses reward when it comes to any action while out on his own in this environment. The nets are a good example of necessary effort producing very predictable reward.
Fome means hunger in Portuguese, as the smaller openings and finer netting in the fomezeiro net catches many fish and hopefully prevents the fisherman from ever going hungry. The disadvantage of this net is bigger fish tear through it’s light line so care must be taken to not leave the net out for long and use it sparingly. Patrick swam out into the river and set the length of the ten meter net into the current and, after using our leftover soup as chum, retrieved it after only a few minutes. True to its name, in that short time the fomezeiro net caught 7 Araca flamingo, a Sardinia, a silver Araca, and charuto. We cleaned all the fish and plan to have them fried when we find a camp site tonight.
After cleaning up we motored up river some more, but had a lot of trouble keeping to the main channel. The bancos d’arieas were now all flooded, and we got stranded on several of them because we coundn’t see them. Finally we found a small offshoot from the river. The little canoe trail opened up into a large quiet lake with a high sand bank perfect for our evening camp. I went fishing as Patrick setup camp, as he said my “help” only slows him down. He can setup everything so quickly and with no wasted motion, and I just carry things up to him then go fishing in the little canoe.
As usual, I fished a little and mostly explored into the flooded forest off one side of the lake. I saw a toucan with a long yellow bill who appeared to be asleep perched on a low branch as I paddled quietly underneath him. A large school of river dolphins followed me curiously, with some swimming right up to the boat and scaring me as they blow and splash away. The river dolphins are the only animals here that seem unafraid of us as most other inhabitants are skittish and give us a wide berth when able. I think it may have to do with the fact that the food chain is alive and well in this unspoiled jungle, and no life can afford not be cautious.
The bird life is very similar to back home but the kingfishers come in all sizes, from as small as a finch to as large as a crow. I am reminded of Patrick’s nets and it seems nature has also adapted the birds to specialize in catching certain sized fish. The flooded forest is a magical place with flocks of Festive Parrots chattering in the treetops and tiny bats clinging to the underside of the flooded timber as I glide by. This is where Patrick sleeps in the rainy season, when he can go for days and never see dry ground. He ties a cord for his hammock between two trees and then, mooring his canoe on the same trunks beneath him, scurries along the hammock like a spider and cooks in the canoe beneath him. This method allows travel and survival even during the height of the rainy season, since most of the rivers in the Amazon flood out of their banks for miles during the six -month rainy season, and paddling to get to dry land every night would definitely violate the effort verses reward system!
When I got back to camp, Patrick had setup the hammocks and was frying the fish we had caught earlier in the day with the Fomezeiro net. After our early dinner, we smoked a few cigars and relaxed a bit, waiting for the sun to go down. We planned on going spear fishing with the Zagaia and, as the moon has been full, we only had a few hours of fishing time after sunset before the moonrise.
The area around our sandbar made for excellent spearfishing. I missed a nice Acara and Patrick speared a smaller one and as I pulled his fish off the spear he spotted a huge sucker fish stuck upside down under a log. In my haste to pull the other fish off the spear so he could get the sucker fish I slashed my finger badly on the spear. Visions of infection and giant piranha launching themselves out of the water to feast on my bloody finger swirled in my head as I attempted to staunch the blood flow. Fortunately, the piranaha of Teddy’s book remained a myth, and after tying the wound shut with a bit of cloth we headed back to camp. Patrick did get the sucker fish, which is a delicacy here and looks like a giant version of his aquarium cousin.
I fried the fish for a late dinner tonight, and as we had tikadoed all the fish we ate them whole except for the backbone and very top of the head. To tikar fish is to make small, closely spaced cuts vertically down the entire length of the fish down to the backbone, which cuts all the small bones and allows them to be eaten easily. All small fish are cleaned this way in the Amazon, and possibly the natives get their calcium from eating these small bone bits. The sucker fish was excellent and tasted much like frog legs to me. After another meal of amazing fried fish, we had a few drams of scotch and fell into our hammocks to the sight and sound of a large approaching storm. The air was suddenly stifling hot and still when we tried to sleep, and Patrick said it means a lot of rain is headed our way tonight and tomorrow. His prediction was soon proven to be correct.
We slept in a huge lighting storm with pelting rain and wind. At times the entire area was lit up for seconds at a time by lightning, and the thunder seemed to never completely stop. Morning saw more rain and we read, rested and wrote, staying in our hammocks hoping for a break in the rain to explore the flooded forest. In between showers, we heard a far off roaring sound that reminded me of jets taxiing by on a runway miles away. Howler monkeys was Patrick’s answer, when I asked about the distant roar which sounded nothing like the hooting and chattering of the few monkeys I have seen. According to Patrick, the call of the Howler is the loudest sound created by any animal, and can be heard from miles around. The roars lasted for several minutes, and once were so close to Patricks campsite that he had to move to get any rest. We never saw these large black monkeys, but their rolling roar seemed to rise up out of the Amazon like mist nearly every morning.
The rain did not stop until early afternoon, and Patrick and I talked between our hammocks about everything and nothing. At one point in the morning storms, he stripped down naked and went to bail out the canoes, as they were nearly submerged and we did not want the spare motor to flood. I invoked my older father rank and cheered him on from the hammock as he bailed in the cold rain. When the rain finally stopped a few hours later, we ate crackers covered with thick gelatin goyabada with coffee. Patrick set out a large meshed long net across a cove next to our site, hoping for a few fish for dinner.
While he was gone, a faint rustling sound near the area where we had pitched last night’s fish bones caught my ear. I made my way quietly down to the waters edge and watched as a large lizard crunched his way through our discarded bones and bits of fish! He was dark gray, about three feet in length, and looked like a smaller version of the legendary Komodo Dragons. I watched him for several minutes, until he finished his snack and slowly plodded off with the unhurried pace of an undisturbed reptile. The wind and driving rain took away our good nights sleep, but gives back an encounter with a really cool reptile!
When Patrick got back I told him about the lizard, and he said it was a tegu. They are common here and are excellent eating. That afternoon, we both sat in the canoe and watched the net floats carefully for any sign of trapped fish. We quickly caught several large aracu flamingos and two acara tinga. The net must be monitored continuously as river dolphins alerted to fish caught in the net will rip huge holes in the mesh as they avail themselves of these easy meals.
I paddled Patrick leisurely about in the canoe while he pulled up the net. After awhile something big pulled an entire row of floats down as it got tangled in the mesh. This had to be a large peacock bass or maybe a small dolphin had temporarily gotten caught and was tearing its way out. We quickly paddled up to it and after a few minutes of maneuvering gently pulled up the section, and writhing in the bottom of the net was a juvenile Anaconda!! It was a beautiful thing and Patrick had only seen one anaconda before in the wild. Now we had one in our hands alive! We quickly untangled our prize and headed to camp for pictures and video. It was a healthy snake, about five feet long and very thick. We took many pictures, agreeing it was the high point of our trip so far. After pictures and close examination of this magnificent wild snake we let him go, and he shot like a brown bolt back into the river. What a sight!
We spent the rest of the afternoon charged up like kids and chatted excitedly as we cleaned and fried half the fish from the net and salted the rest for later. Thank god we had a camera with a charge for pictures of the snake, as we are having trouble with the solar charger and might lose all power soon. It would have been a shame to miss that once in a lifetime opportunity!
After dinner and before moonrise we went with the zagaia and spent a few hours wading through the flooded forest across the lake for fish. Luckily, I saw my first spotted stingray before I stepped on it. It was about the size of a steering wheel, but Patrick said their meat is tough and for emergency eating only, so we let it go and tried not to step on it on the way back. Later, we saw an electric eel which looked so cool but can be so deadly if disturbed. It was eerie and spooky walking at night and Patrick does this alone only wearing a pair of shorts with no shoes! The river dolphins blowing suddenly and loudly just past the trees makes me nervous as the sounds suddenly split the still night air. Their blow holes are all shaped differently and make sounds from loud groans to whistles and burps. These weird, sudden sounds are very unnerving deep in the jungle as you walk stealthily around in thigh deep water dodging stingrays and electric eels!
We split up and I stayed along the bank of the flooded woods as Patrick worked deeper into the jungle. He warned me again to watch for the eels and stingrays, which were surprisingly common, and to call him quickly if I saw any Pacu prowling the shoreline. In a few seconds he was swallowed up by the thick jungle, only his light occasionally peeking through the brush as he swept the shallow water for fish. It is very easy to lose your sense of direction out here at night with only the circle of your light for navigation. One night, Patrick was lost for most of the evening and only located his boat after several hours of tracking and backtracking in the dark. For this reason, I kept the bank near my side which made my return trip back to the boat an easy task. After an hour or so, we met back up with Patrick getting a Traira and another huge sucker fish (Bodo). It was the perfect end to an unforgettable day!
We woke up and I made coffee and deboned the rest of the fried fish. Patrick made fish pies with the deboned fish and fried them for our breakfast. They were filling and delicious, and after dishes and a bath in the river along with hanging our washed clothes out to dry we were ready for the day. As the clothes and other articles dried out from washing and more storms passed nearby, Patrick reloaded various .20 gague shells to experiment with their patterns. He almost bloodied his nose with the shells loaded with the real plastic .20 gauge wads I brought him from home. He was using shaved palm tree bark as wads, and the good seal the plastic wads provided in the shells made the amount of powder he was using excessively large. After a few trials, he got it right using only half the powder he used with the tree bark. Aside from a sore nose and cut hand from the early prototype shell’s recoil, the patterns looked good. Gotta love plastic wads and I hope you are listening Benjamin! Later, we plan to head into the flooded forest to explore, and might even shoot a parrot for dinner!
The Amazon, I have learned, gives and takes in equal doses of misery and joy. Soon after the shotgun tests, the skies cleared and the day turned bright and hot. We decided to make more fish soup with the salted fish from yesterday, and slowly but steadily we began to notice the arrival of tiny black bees the size of large gnats that would land on our necks, faces and hands. While at first just a nuisance as they did not sting, these bees increased in numbers until on the back of one hand I counted over fifty crawling around and three times that number flying around our heads. The worst part was when they flew into your eyes, where they instantly perished but left a burning, stinging carcass. If you tried to fish out the dead bee you were never successful in doing so and just managed to make the situation worse. Your only hope was to allow your eye to tear up enough to wash out the bee, which resulted in both of my eyes blurred with tears and sweat.
The bug dope we had helped some, but it was our sweat not blood they wanted, and we finally had to resort to wearing headnets which made preparing and ultimately eating our soup miserable. The bees seemed less near the water and after a rushed dinner we stripped down and fled to the water leaving only our hat covered heads exposed to their torture. I only hoped they had not made a deal with the Jacaré to lure us into his territory, as we were easy prey in the deep water splashing around swatting at bees!
Patrick said this was not as bad as many of the white water rivers he has paddled on where the bugs are much worse than here on the black water rivers. The Brazilians call any clear tannin-filtered river a black water river and the sediment filled rivers like the Amazon white water rivers. White water rivers have much more life in and around them but according to Patrick house an amazing variety of bugs all of which seem to sting, bite, and torture you day and night. The added life in the whitewater rivers are due to the sediment they posses. More sediment means more nutrients in the water, which draws the microscopic life that starts and sustains the food chain all the way up to the largest mammals. My brief experience with the bees is enough for me to not want to be part of the white water ecosystem! In Teddy’s book, he mentioned several times that the insects of the Amazon were the real roadblock to taming this land and I agree completely. We decided to flee the bees and explore the igapo that was beginning to fill up across the lake, where hopefully the bees would not follow.
We set out for the igapo with some haste, and upon leaving the bank noticed with relief the bees stayed behind. To attempt to describe this amazing flooded ecosystem is impossible and you truly have to see it to appreciate the life that exists in every available space. All living things here exist in two worlds, the flooded world and the dry world. We were between seasons, so both phases of jungle life were on display and the igapo was just beginning to fill up as seasonal rains began. The river rose at least a foot or two in the few days we were here, and covered many of the sand bars we explored on our way here on the Deméni. As the igapo filled up, we were able to paddle around its flooded, massive trees, sliding in between the branches and around the huge trunks of this ancient world. This is virgin jungle, undisturbed from the dawn of time, yet it’s vast array of vines and trees with thousand-pound bromiyila plants growing from the huge junctions of trunk and limbs look to be the work of some genius arborist.
Most trees of any size boast massive vines wrapped around their trunks which climb up until they finally reach sunlight, the prize of all plant life here. They then must send down their roots, which are long thin tendrils of vine that grow at at rate of inches per day to seek out water or soil and complete their cycle of life. These tendrils drape all the large trees and give them an air of importance and distinction as long time survivors in their world, supporting life that can only live on that tree in that part of the jungle.
Watching Patrick paddle around this world, skillfully maneuvering his canoe in and around places it would be hard to even walk had it been dry, it’s becoming easier to see why he loves it here. It’s as if all his life he has been training for the time when he would end up in this paradise. He always loved exploring and learning new things about people, places and the things that lived in the natural world. His childhood was the pursuit of more to see, more to do, travel here, and see this new thing. Growing up swimming, paddling, fishing, and hunting in the country combined with his inbred sense of adventure has served him well here. He seems to thrive in a place that gives so much beauty but also demands much sacrifice. This place is all that and more with every turn of our canoe revealing some new and fascinating sight.
We passed a giant fern and on one thin branch set precariously close to the water sat a perfectly constructed hummingbird nest no bigger than a walnut. The nest housed a single newborn chick that wiggled its pea sized head at us on a neck as thin as pencil lead. Another tree was hung with the largest nests in the jungle built by one of the smallest insects – termites. The nests cling to branches in great soiled mounds of immense weight stretching 30 and 40 feet along their host’s support structure, all built carefully above the inevitable waterline that all life here knows will come soon. From their tops, most trees here, while strange and unique, look much like trees all over the world – but its when their trunks reach the waterline they become something unique. Trees here need and anticipate the rising water, and the trunks below water spread out in huge fans of rippled wood with several trees sharing one of these massive bases that remain hidden underwater most of the time. These bases serve as survival anchors fanning out in huge trunks providing support for trees and reaching out to claim as much of the soil and water as possible. The floods bring the nutrients the soil here cannot, and the jungle floor is really only a mass of roots and dead leaves with the water providing the bulk of the food for this ecosystem.
Parrots, macaws, water birds both familiar and strange, and other birds of every size and shape squawk and cackle as they jostle for nest sights over our heads as the sun begins to set. As we paddled out of the Igapo a large Jacaré eased out with us and slowly began his night, hunting the banks for fish or Pacu. We watched another brilliant sun set as we drifted our way back to the campsite parrotless, but fish will be fine for dinner. The igapo is a true Amazonian treasure and it costs us the misery of the bees as our price to see it.
After our meal of parrotless fish stew, and NO BEES, we drank the last of our whiskey and smoked cigars under a clear Amazonian sky. I didn’t think I remembered much from my training about stars and constellations, which we used as navigation in the Air Force (in case a nuclear strike removed all of our means of navigation here on earth) but I knew by looking at this sky that things were very strange. The constellations were all in the wrong places in this hemisphere, and the Big Dipper was missing completely! Still, we could see the small white dots of satellites as they made their way over even this isolated place. The stars stretched all the way down to the branches of the trees making a dome of lights that we laid there and watched until the moon rose up and it’s light washed away our show for the night.
Another good day this place has given us, but tomorrow we move camp down to the mouth of the Deméni to put us closer to Barcelos for the trip back home.
We started the day with the work of taking the camp down, bailing out the boats, packing up and cleaning the gear for our travel down the Deméni. Several fishing boats from larger fishing vessels passed our campsite on the way to the smaller Igarape waterways which hopefully contained the large Peacock Bass their clients paid so dearly to catch. Our backup motor started up with the first pull which was great as the flywheel problem still exists and try’s even Patrick’s patience!
We carefully motored slowly down the Deméni as the sandbars are all submerged now with enough water to make them invisible but are not safe to cross without grounding the big boat. After a fewer close calls early on, we made the two-hour trip to the mouth of the Deméni without further incident, and were greeted by the sight of a large fishing camp yacht which was run by the very company Patrick had worked for earlier in the month! What luck as we were out of an essential item in our trip – booze – and had planned to barter or buy some with a fishing camp boat on the Rio Negro. All of the boat’s clients were out fishing, but many of the support crew recognized Patrick and it was a very happy homecoming with smiles and shouts of “Patreeek” from the crew.
They were very generous, allowing us to recharge our electronics, and offered us an ice chest of cold beer and an invitation to join them for their crew noon meal and siesta on the bank. They were a mixed bag of peoples, from Indian blooded to Barcelos natives all supporting the industry surrounding the Peacock Bass sport fishing boats. The support crew was on a much smaller river boat that carried the fuel and trash, and maintained the bigger yacht. The large boat stood three stories high housing the clients and towing the bass boats that took two clients and a guide fishing each day. The water had come up early this year, and allowed the big prized Peacock Bass to move back into the flooded Igapo. This made them less accessible to the the fishing boats and their clients who paid $6,000 a week to be catered to and catch big Bass.
Because of this, and because they were spoiled rich Brazilians, the clients were crabby and pouting for much of this trip. On the bank, the support boat crew was cooking a huge catfish head and cheeks asado-style which entails cooking the fish whole over an open fire on the bank. This particular catfish grows to several hundred pounds in the deep river holes, and has a mouth so wide it can swallow a child – although this one cooking was only 40 lbs or so. They crew seemed in great spirits like most of the river people we have met, and were taking the attitude of the clients in stride while hoping for good success from the morning fishing trips.
After a few very welcome cold beers, we had a meal of catfish head meat, rice, farinha, and a rich tomato-based fish stew. We ate on the support boat which is a small skiff modified with walls, a roof, toilet, and small kitchen for cooking the guides and support crew’s lunches. Upon their return, the guides reported poor fishing due the rapidly rising high water, with only a few small bass caught. The meal was a lively one just the same, with easy banter and teasing and much laughter from all involved including Patrick.
They seem to genuinely enjoy his company, and listened intently as he talked of our past few days on the river. The term doidão (crazy) was used many times when he showed them the pictures and video of our Anaconda catch. When we talked of catching a big black piranha, the old man who ran the support boat said jokingly “I caught a big black piranha once and I ended up marrying her!”
It was explained to me that piranha is also slang for a loose woman, and his admittedly big and very black wife laughed along with the joke but good naturally dumped him out of his hammock as she walked by. When she was out of sight back in the boat, the old man leaned over and said “Most black piranha make good eating, but I wouldn’t advise trying to eat that one!” The howls of laughter from all the men on the bank caused his wife to stick her head out of the boat and say “Don’t listen to that old fool, he spends too much time in his hammock in the sun – which is where he will sleep tonight!”
After lunch it was Siesta time, which really turned into a question and answer session as the crew finally had me there to ask about Patrick’s previous life, and try and answer the question why he is here and doing what he does. They told me nobody, not even the Indians, paddles everywhere like Patrick does, and they know no one who has solo paddled as much of the Amazon Basin as he has. They asked why did he not want to go home, and some still believe he is running from the law and it is still rumored he may have killed someone! I assured them this was not so but they still cannot understand how he left his family willingly to endure such hard times on the river when life in the States to them is so easy.
They certainly have the ability to do what he does, but none of them want to leave their families which are so important to their lives. We passed boats filled with children of all ages, and many housed several generations of families crowded happily together under a small roof rigged up over their long canoes. They seem to respect Patrick and even encourage him by offering advice and guidance on whatever new adventure he cooks up.
After the siesta, we met up with a man and his children and grandchildren who were headed back to their village, which is the first of four villages Patrick will pass on his next trip to the highest waterfalls in Brazil. They were waiting for fuel from Barcelos, and as we had some extra to spare we shared ours with them. They were very grateful. They dumped out every available container to siphon fuel into, even using pots at one point to take as much fuel as we could spare. I thought this was a good investment, as Patrick will need all the goodwill he can get on his next two-month trip to the falls from Barcelos. The man gave him some more advice on the trip and told Patrick exactly which house was his in the village, promising to help him on his journey any way he can.
The crew invited us to a BBQ on the sandbar that evening, so we tied our canoes to the support boat and followed the big yacht to the spot to help set up. Next to the sand bar the water was funneled into a narrow deep-running channel, and the guides told us a client the week before had caught a Peacock Bass there. Patrick and I tried it and had several hook ups, finally landed a nice Peacock late that afternoon! The fish are so strong and aggressive it is difficult to land one, and we were happy to get one in our hands at last.
We stayed with the crew in the background out of sight as the BBQ went on with the clients. When they all retired to the yacht, we swooped in and ate our fill of sausage and meat at last! That night we drank and talked with the crew late into the night, and I exchanged my Cajun Man Triathlon hat for a Peacock Bass hat with the crew boat pilot. He seemed proud of his new hat, and I am positive that is the first and only time a Cajun Man hat will make it that deeply into the Amazon! We slept out on the dunes under the stars and counted our good luck meeting up with a crew that knew Patrick, and were so kind and generous.
Winds and Waves
After a quick early morning coffee, the yacht and support boat left us to plan our return trip back to Barcelos. We spent time fishing the channel some more and I hooked up on a huge Peacock that snapped the guides off my rod and stripped the line so quickly and forcefully off my reel it popped the spool threader, so I was helpless as it thrashed around and eventually spit the lure. These fish are amazingly powerful, and Patrick managed to land another one which was smaller but still gave him all he could handle. The wind was blowing at least 20 knots, and the skies looked gray and ominous when, after a hour of fishing, we began to work our way back to Barcelos.
The return route requires several crossings of large open water, and the wind whipped up waves that broke over our larger boat and violently yanked and tugged at the line connected to our little canoe. It was kind of cold, and the wind combined with the occasional spray of water made the crossings very uncomfortable and our progress painfully slow. Patrick has become a good river reader and stayed near the bank out of the wind and navigated the seemingly endless sets of islands and cuts skillfully, and I must admit I was not sure at all where we were. I tried to imagine paddling this vast maze of rivers, canals, islands, and flooded timber alone for months at a time as Patrick does, and I honestly don’t know how he does it with no maps or help in sight.
The return trip took almost four hours, and I had to bail the canoe many times which kept my mind off of what to do if the motor quit or we got swamped by a big wave. Patrick took a longer route to keep us out of the wind which took us past several small isolated settlements and individual homes set on the side channels. I could easily see Patrick living this way, totally self contained with a few chickens, dogs, fruit trees and the always-present long steps leading down to the low water line and the small wooden canoes.
Gerry the hostel owner’s dog has had puppies and Patrick and I discussed him taking one and teaching it to be his traveling companion. I think this is a excellent idea, and at only 30 lbs at the most, the dog will provide companionship as well as security on his long trips. He does admit to being lonely on the river and road at times, and a dog is welcomed in the circles he travels in as it seemed every boat and home we passed has at least a few mutts hanging around. I saw only the garden variety small mutts that seem to be in every third world type situation I have been in, and my Great Danes would stand out and not make good canoe buddies at all!
At last we reached Barcelos, and picked up the remainder of Patrick’s gear to take to Gerry’s so he could take inventory before his next trip. He has only been here a few months, but seems to know so many people on the river and we were greeted warmly and had to tell all about our trip. The word doidão was used again often when the anaconda pictures were shared, and it is a surprise how many people that live on the river fear snakes so completely.
One group was cooking a turtle in its shell over a fire much like the catfish head, with the shell keeping the juices in to baste the meat. After Patrick headed into town to get a friend’s truck to haul all the gear to Gerry’s, we began the task of lugging all the supplies up the long stairs to the street. Finally we made it to Gerry’s around noon and quickly unloaded the gear, ordered meat for lunch and took a long Siesta in a real bed!
That night we ate spaghetti Gerry fixed and had Joyce and Alex from the resturaunt over. They are so kind, and Joyce was the first person Patrick met in Barcelos. Before the restaurant, they used to make jewelry which they sold as they traveled around Brazil, and I asked if the wife would show me some of her work so I could get a few souvenirs for home. It was agreed they would come to the Bar B Q Gerry was having tomorrow for his birthday and my last day here, and bring some of her work for me to see.
We talked and had many bottles of wine, and listened to the stick of music I had brought. Soon the sounds of John Prine, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristopherson, and other old classic rock artists drowned out the incessant Latin music that seems to constantly throb from this town. We talked of the trip and I remarked how much harder it was to survive out in the jungle, and it must be even harder alone. Patrick said the first week and the last week of any trip is the worst. The first week is chaotic due to settling into a routine, but once you got a daily rhythm going, regardless of the obstacles the remaining weeks are easier. The last week usually starts the anticipation of being back in civilization, and this anticipation becomes the goal and suddenly anything that detracts from that goal is very frustrating.
It is good to be back and I happily headed to my room that night above the stairs snug in my bed secured by the ever-present mosquito netting. As I tried to sleep that night, I recalled something else Patrick said when I asked him if he was ever scared on his travels all alone so deep in the jungle. He answered his biggest fear was not during the trip, but on his return from some long isolated adventure only to learn that some close family member has passed away months ago and he has missed the chance to mourn with the family. This thought kept my mind awake longer than my body wanted and for some reason made my first night back in a real bed a restless one.
Homesteads, Farms and Bar-B-Q
I awoke with the sun, which put me a few hours behind most residents here as they all seem to rise early regardless of the previous nights events. The ever-present Latino music begins to pulse and rise in volume in tune with the morning sunrise. We planned to head to a few local Roças (a small, family farm) and visit a few friends of Patrick and Gerry that normally worked there on the weekend. The Roças were just outside of town, and we headed there on bikes loaded down with two quail caged in a small cardboard box. Gerry planned on giving the quail to friends at one Roça in exchange for eggs and other chicks to be retrieved when he needs replacement quail for his flock. The box with the birds was balanced precariously on the handle bars of the bike I was riding and I soon realized giving them a smooth trip on this pot holed dirt road would be impossible. I resorted to concentrating on keeping the box upright and intact, which would at least assure their bodies, if not their souls, would arrive at the Roça in one piece!
The bike trip took only a half hour or so and the first Roça was a large place complete with managed fish ponds and large banana orchards. The shaken but still surprisingly lively quail were transferred to a large bird pen and seemed to quickly forget their brush with death. The Roça was managed by a live-in staff that over saw the many tiered fish ponds and orchards. The owners were heading out in their jeep when we arrived and after a brief introduction they nodded at the farm hand who was leaning against the bumper of their tired-looking vehicle. With a grunt, he began to push the jeep down the driveway of the Roça, and after a few yards and a little speed the clutch was popped and the apparently electrically challenged rig roared to life and sped off down the dusty drive. After a quick tour of the Roça given by a very proud working hand, we left and worked our way further down the rutted dirt road to another smaller family Roça located deeper in the jungle.
Sebastian was the owner of this Roça and it has been in his family for over 35 years. We met him and his wife and granddaughter after riding down a twisting jungle trail and leaving our bikes to hike further through the jungle. The path to his Roça ended across a small bridge that spanned the creek that defined one of the boundaries of Sebastian’s land. A sturdy two story home built on stilts to withstand the rainy season floods and a shed that housed a huge rounded metal pot were the main structures in the only clearing of this farm. Sebastian, his wife and at various times his children and grandchildren were the only workers here, and they grew bananas, sugar cane, mandioc, and other crops to supplement their income from jobs in town. Sebastian and his wife have the classic native Amazonian look; short powerfully built bodies with skin baked almost to black by the sun, and smiling eyes set in perpetually wrinkled faces. After the usual questions for me about Patrick and my assurances that he is not a wanted murderer in the States, the old couple offered us coffee and we sat and talked.
They have owned this small farm for many years and stay in the house on weekends while they work their small food plots spread out in the jungle. Sebastian and his wife proudly showed us the groves of banana trees intertwined in the jungle along with clearings filled with mandioc plants, whose roots are used to make farinha. The roots are harvested, then ground up and dried in the large flat pot that takes center stage in the small covered shed we had seen on arrival. The farinha is then ground again and sacked up to be sold in town along with sugar cane and whatever else is in season on their Roça.
Sebastian’s wife told of many years ago when most people worked their own Roça and spent their weekends with family tending to the crops. “Now the Brazilian government gives out a pension of sorts to all of the older people”, she said somewhat bitterly “it makes them lazy and sadly now most of the Roças are abandoned or the land sold”. The availability of alcohol has also caused many problems and the old couple lost four of their six children to alcohol poisoning and their loss is still etched on their wrinkled faces as they tell of what might have been.
Patrick and I hiked around the Roça and cut our way through some of the overgrown trails with a machete borrowed from Sebastian. The mandioc fields we saw looked amazingly like marijuana plots and it is easy to see how that could be grown here hidden in the deep jungle. After our hike, we cooled off in the stream and headed back across the rickety bridge for town.
“There,” said Sebastian as we neared the opposite bank, “is where we saw a Jaguar the first night we spent in our Roça!” The shaded, shallow tree lined creek looked like the perfect spot for a spotted cat to prowl along looking for prey. “But they are all gone from here now,” he said. “Most of the old things are gone. Tell Gerry you saw many monkeys when you were here! It will make him crazy to think he missed them again!” Sebastian added, laughing. Everyone, it seems, is in on the joke about Gerry living in the area as long as he has and still not seeing any monkeys.
We left the Roça and headed back into town to get what we needed for the farewell BBQ tomorrow. Gerry was supplying the meat for the meal, and after all the fish from the past week I was looking forward to some good beef. Patrick and I pedaled around town getting more beer, potatoes, and other last minute items that Gerry needed for his and my BBQ, but the beer I remember best! We stopped by the grocery store where the young cashier working on her English proudly debuted “How are you?” and “I am well” and again made me feel like a dim whit as my Portuguese is still slow in coming.
We arrived back at Gerry’s in time to have a siesta and take a dip in his pool before the party got into full swing. Gerry’s pool is source of pride for him and it is one of only two in the town of Barcelos. It really was relaxing to hang out in the cool water while Gerry played bartender and made tropical drinks out of fruit picked right from the trees overhanging the pool itself!
The party itself was a great time with friends and neighbors arriving throughout the night. The BBQ was cooked over a huge brick oven in large basket-type skewers that allowed the meat to be turned over slowly as it cooked. Gerry was proud of his large brick BBQ pit (“the biggest in Barcelos!”) which he had custom built to be accessible from both his and his neighbors porches to facilitate parties which his neighbors were always welcome to attend. Fresh fruit along with much wine, beer and more tropical drinks accompanied the meat and everyone seemed to have a great time, and the longer the party went on the less the language barrier seemed to matter!
Joyce and Alex were there and they, along with Patrick, showed us how they twist wire into intricate earrings, necklaces, and name plates that they sold when they worked on the streets. This was where they first met Patrick, and the wife still makes and sells some jewelry in the restaurant they now own. The husband is taking English lessons from Gerry in exchange for meals and is very excited to learn and use what he knows so far. Any English will bring in more customers to the restaurant especially from the affluent charter fishing clients who are all over town this time of year.
I am amazed how Patrick and this couple can bend simple wire using only pliers into such intricate patterns, and took advantage of their talents to buy a few handmade souvenirs for back home from them. As the night wore on, Gerry’s neighbor Pato, a short, squat, fast talking and always smiling local who owned the patio that Gerrys pit opened up to began to loosen up and tell me about some of the other neighbors nearby.
“See that house right up next to mine?” he asked as he gestured to a two story house right up against his own on the opposite side of the hostel. “Well that guy, he is lazy, so lazy that at night when he needs to piss he pisses out his window right onto my roof! I tell you, if I was a bad boy, like I was when I was young, I would have strangled him the first time he did it. But my wife she keeps me calm, and I ask him real nice, like please don’t piss on my roof – but I gotta wonder how many times a man’s gotta take that before he just goes ahead and feeds him his own piss and strangles the guy!”
Pato paused as if I should give him the actual number of times he should wait to strangle his neighbor with his own piss but just as quickly remembered something I had to see to prove what a bad boy he used to be. He soon emerged from his house with a grainy video of his time spent in the Brazilian Army, and explained that all men are conscripted in Brazil to serve at least one year in the army when they turn eighteen. He and his friend served a longer tour, with much of his time spent patrolling the small rivers and streams that border Brazil and Colombia.
The drug and arms smuggling trade is rampant in that area, and the impossible maze of jungle waterways makes it a perfect spot to bring contraband into Brazil. The video showed his Brazilian unit waiting to ambush a lone gunboat carrying four armed men, and many weapons including grenade launchers, AK 47s, and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), all in plain sight as the boat sped along a remote jungle river. The call to open fire was met with a hail of bullets towards the small boat with some rounds hitting the hull and the men inside, but most missing the boat altogether and wildly ricocheting into the jungle or sending geysers of water around the suddenly silent craft. After several minutes of solid gunfire sent more or less in the direction of the now drifting and sinking boat, one lucky round hit the motor and the entire craft began to burn.
Soon afterwards the call to cease fire was made and an eerie quiet fell over the scene until someone noticed a lucky smuggler slip from the boat and attempt to swim towards the opposite bank. The cry of “head, head, head!” was met with more erratic and constant gunfire, and amazingly one round did manage to hit the bobbing head as it came up for air, and it exploded in a pink mist. The aftermath of this raid was carefully filmed with all four bodies, the burned out hull of the boat, stacks of weapons and bricks of cocaine found in the hull of the boat, all laid out for the camera. A brutal reminder that not all things in the jungle are as peaceful as the people we met, and while most animal’s actions are predictable man’s are not always so.
I did mention to Pato that it seemed with the smuggler’s boat only yards away when the call to open fire was given many rounds could be seen hitting the water and jungle across the river far off the target, which was at point blank range. He blamed this on conscript training and young soldiers being placed in shooting situations too quickly after only rushed basic training. New recruit training consisted mostly of gun safety in order to keep them from hurting themselves or others around them, and not on marksmanship or tactical shooting. Patos also said some of the young soldiers really did not want to kill anyone in their sole year of service, so they would shoot without aiming during the raids. He did mention he worked with US forces a few times (I bet special forces) and they rarely missed, killing with few bullets and little noise or remorse. I am sure there is some sort of lesson to be taken from that, but having been a part of that very efficient military machine for many years its a thought I don’t want to dwell on for long.
The party went on long into the night, and as Pato and his friends were telling me about growing up together they suddenly stopped in mid sentence and all scrambled off the porch and out into dark night. Before I could stumble after them, they were back on the porch carrying a large papaya proudly over their heads. “Didn’t you hear it fall?!” they asked. “You have to get them as soon as you hear them fall in the city or someone else will pick them up!” They cut open the ripe green fruit and offered me huge chunks of the sweet yellow flesh, which we all ate with the last of our wine. I had to leave the still burning party early for bed, as my flight was leaving the next morning and I had to look and smell reasonably presentable for the flights home.
I awoke the next morning and the embers of the party (in the form of Patrick and Pato) were still on the porch next to the huge brick oven. Patos gave me his best military salute which I returned with a smile and Patrick and I made our way down the street to the airport for my flight back. I got on the jump seat into Manaus easily on Azul Air as the flight was only half full, and after a few hugs and promises to return soon I was suddenly back in my traveling world. I got one last glimpse of the red roof of Gerry’s hostel tucked up next to the runway as we climbed out over the Rio Negro and soon the little town of Barcelos was once again swallowed up by the jungle.
My trip back was very uneventful and I mostly slept as I waited out my flights in Manaus and Miami. I had only my normal travel gear so I was much less encumbered than on the flight from the States, having left with Patrick much of what I brought down. Security and customs were a breeze without pounds of lead shot and multiple bags to claim and explain and before I knew it I was back in the States. The whole trip seemed like some extended dream and I was glad I had written down at least an outline of each day to help create this journal of the trip.
I can’t really sum up what all I learned from my trip to Brazil and the Amazon. I know Patrick is happy and very well-adjusted to his life, and I worry less now about his ability to survive in the jungle alone. Accidents can happen anywhere, but the day to day skills needed to survive in that admittedly harsh environment he has learned well. He seems genuinely at peace in the jungle, and after this trip I am even more convinced he will never come home for any length of time. After living his life for a short time in the Amazon I can see why he does what he does and is enchanted by this amazing ecosystem. I am also more at peace with him and his unconventional life as he is happy and well adjusted which is ultimately what most parents want for their children.
The question I get most from people, including my family, is when will Patrick stop his travels and what is his plan for the future? I must say I don’t know the answers to these questions and honestly I doubt Patrick does either. This is not a young person back packing South America for the summer or trying to do “Europe on a dollar a day!”, but a real lifestyle he has embraced and has made his own. While it has not given him money or job security, it has given him an inner peace that I did not see when he was growing up here in the States. Whatever he ends up doing, I hope he will never compromise the balance he has found in his world and the joy of discovery he seeks in life. Love you son.