Light, misty rain settled over the riverside town of Barcelos on the morning of December 1st, 2013. Overcast skies greyed the horizon, and a moderate wind blustered in from the east over the waters of the Rio Negro, scooping out cat’s paws in the dark waters that would quickly grow into proper swells if given the space. I heaved the last of my gear off the paint-flecked cement staircase leading down to the river from the town above and deposited it into it’s proper place in my faithful canoe.
Ice chest (containing dry foods and salt, not ice) went forward, with backpack number one sitting flat on its Styrofoam lid. Compass, hatchet, shotgun shells, tobacco, coffee thermos, sunscreen, pliers, and other small things were stowed directly under the front bench on an old plank I had scavenged from in front of a demolished house the day before. Backpack number two, containing minimal clothing, my hammock, and two liters of gasoline sat perched atop the middle bench. Propane was stowed aft, but hugging the bench, with fishing nets, a “waterproof” duffel bag, mini-stove, coils of rope, and assorted tarps piled on top and around it. Another utility tarp, faded almost to white by the torrid equatorial sunshine, covered everything in anticipation of likely rain showers later in the day.
Within arms reach, shoved wherever I could find the space, were two fishing poles, two machetes, a fish spear, and my .20 gauge shotgun¹ (unloaded – I was still in town, after all). I stood on the stairs and surveyed my craft. Finding her load well-distributed, with all the corners tucked in just right, I rolled a cigarette and sat down on the edge of the floating dock at the foot of the stairs.
¹ No. It´s not registered.
I gazed over the waters to the northwest as I smoked. Across the channel sat an island, and on the other side of that another channel, another island, a larger channel, three more islands, a bay, and the mouth of the Rio Deméni. That was my destination – or at least, the beginning of it. My real goal for this long leg of my river adventures lay far to the north near the border with Venezuela, high atop an isolated, uninhabited plateau thrusting rebelliously up from the steamy forest lowlands of the Rio Aracá. The plateau is known locally as the Serra do Jauarí, and nationally as the Serra do Aracá. Internationally, it is largely unknown. An ancient survivor of erosion, and part of the network of the arcane tabletop tepuís which loom ominously over swaths of dark, semi-mountainous rainforest in large areas of southeastern Venezuela and northern Brazil, the Serra do Aracá has been known to the world of modern man for around forty years. It´s first explorers were gold panners, who flooded the borderlands between Brazil and Venezuela by the thousands in the 1960’s and 1970’s, attracted by promises of riches and land made by the military regime², which sought to colonize the vast, unpopulated rainforests that cover more than half of Brazil and exploit the multitude of natural resources which have lain hidden in the Amazon for millenia.
² 1964 – 1985
The panners sought out – and in many cases, found – the gold they craved in the plateaus, especially those close to Mount Roraima and Boa Vista. From the latter the military regime constructed a poorly built, muddy road – little more than a wide trail – known then and now as the BR-210, which took travelers west from Boa Vista straight into the heart of the tepuís. Despite the condition of the road and isolated country to which it led, the BR-210 quickly became a transit artery for prospectors, patrãos, hopeful panners, and desperate outlaws. Poor men looking to get rich, and rich men looking to get richer – the kind of crowd gold always seems to attract.
Along with gold, they also found the Yanomami.
The Yanomami are a tribe of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer Indians which, at the time, had enjoyed very little to no contact with the outside world. Conflict inevitably arose between these generally peaceful natives and their new, quick tempered neighbors who tore holes in the earth, slashing and burning everything in their path in the name of Gold – a conflict which flares up occasionally even today. The garimpeiros³ eventually seeped back out of the area after the initial onset of gold fever in the 60´s and 70s´s, and by the late 1980’s few remained as the new Brazilian government took steps to cordon off the area of the tepuís as Indian Territory, under the jurisdiction of the FUNAI4 and the Yanomami themselves, of course. Today most of the plateaus which are in Brazil are part of the vast Yanomami Reserve, which stretches along the majority of the Brazil-Venezuela border, and encompasses a territory roughly the size of Germany.
That´s not to say that gold prospecting has stopped completely; many isolated, clandestine camps operate in the wilderness far from the relatively indifferent eyes of Brasília, and the Yanomami population – once a numerous tribe with up to 20,000 members at the end of the 1950´s – has suffered greatly from disease and migration out of native lands to the cities and towns of the surrounding areas along the Rios Negro and Branco, such as São Gabriel, Santa Isabel, Barcelos, and Boa Vista. Today garimpeiros work illegally in many areas that form a part of the Yanomami Reserve, and do so largely unmolested, for the Yanomami that survive today no longer migrate and are concentrated to a few areas along a few rivers of the Reserve, with the majority of the remaining territory existing as an unpopulated wilderness.
That was where I was heading.
³ Portuguese for mineral prospector, usually illegal, and usually gold but also other valuable minerals
4 Fundação Nacional da Indigina, the National Indigenous Foundation, originally the SPI (Serviço de Proteção ao Índio). Branch of the Brazilian Federal Government responsible for the integration of indigenous peoples into society and management of Indian territories
The Serra do Aracá sits partially in Yanomami territory and partially on Brazilian federal lands. All of the Serra which is on federal property was made into a state park, Parque Estadual da Serra do Aracá about twenty years ago, with access restricted to all except persons who have been authorized by the state government of Amazonas in Manaus. This was an attempt to put an end to illegal mineral camps – which by the 1990´s were digging out tantalite, as well as the occasional nugget of gold – that had sprung up in a few places in the headwaters of the Rio Jauarí and atop the plateau. The effort by the government to staunch the influx of prospectors was largely a failure, since the region´s isolation, difficult access, and the limited resources of the government in Manaus made it impossible for much control to be exerted over who goes in and out of the area.
In the early 2000´s tantalite prospectors built an improvised, clandestine airstrip atop the plateau, where small anphibious planes would land, load up with tantalite, take off, then land again on the Rio Aracá thirty or forty miles away, where they would unload their cargo into a waiting boat and then fly back for more. Prospectors thrived – since before the airstrip the heavy tantalite had to be carried on the backs of the men down the plateau into the lowlands on a steep, trecherous trail, then loaded into canoes and taken slowly down the narrow Rio Jauarí to the larger boats waiting on the Aracá.
However, this prosperous era for the tantalite men was short-lived. The Brazilian Federal Police soon noticed that something didn’t look quite right on the latest satellite photos of the Serra, and it didn’t take them long to figure out that people were landing planes up there. The airstrip was promptly bombed by Polícia Federal helicopters in 2003. Undeterred, the tantalite men built another one, which was also bombed less than a month after it´s completion in around 2005. Since then no other airstrips have been built, with the exception of one right on the edge of the plateau, which has never been used as pilots believe it to be too trecherous. Despite these setbacks the tantalite men and even the very occasional gold prospector can still be found in rainforest camps hidden among the foot of the plateau, back to lugging their cargo down into the jungle on foot.
The Serra do Aracá sits at an altitude of around 1000 to 1400 meters above sea level, and is largely flat on top, with the exception of a few rolling peaks near the back which make up the highest elevations. One of them, Pico Tulu-Tuloi II, is one of the 206 ultra-prominent peaks in South America, with an elevation of 1,690 meters and a relative isolation of nearly 200 km. Vegetation is vastly different than in the surrounding tropical lowlands, which is choked by dense forest, and atop the Serra short, squatty trees abound, and many species of orcid flowers and lichens which are found nowhere else in the world grow in abundance on the plateaus of the tepuís. Several small streams of cold, crystelline water flow from natural underground springs around the middle of the Serra, and meander along through the scrub before reaching the edge of the plateau, which in some places is a sheer cliff of 1,000 feet or more. Here they fall in majestic waterfalls into the Amazon lowlands, all of them flowing first into the Rio Jauarí, then the Aracá, the Deméni, the Negro and finally the Amazon River itself near Manaus.
For decades after the Serra do Aracá was known to the Brazilians, these waterfalls remained known only to the prospectors who worked atop the plateau and a handful of piaçabeiros5, the tough native caborclo men who sweat in the lowlands around the Rio Aracá and occasionally the Jauarí harvesting piaçaba fiber, a material cut from a species of jungle palm found in the Rio Negro basin that is used to make things like brooms and baskets. Only in the early 2000´s were the waterfalls officially visited by the Brazilian government, and their height measured and recorded. Turns out, one of the waterfalls, known simply as a cachoeira do Preto to locals, is the highest free fall waterfall in Brazil, soaring off the Serra do Aracá and plunging for 353 meters into the Igarapé Preto, shrouding the jungle in a veil of eternal mist. Since then, a handful of outsiders have visited El Dourado – the official name given to the waterfall – though always for a fee of five to ten thousand dollars, and then usually by helicopter from Barcelos.
I was going to get there in my canoe. I wasn´t going to pay thousands of dollars, but I was going to pay in time and energy. By fluvial methods, along the rivers Negro, Deméni, Aracá, and Jauarí, the distance to the mouth of the Igarapé Preto is 220 miles, one way. From there it´s another 30 miles up the Preto to the spot where it is no longer navigable. Two days on foot on a rough trail blazed by the tantalite men in the 1990´s brings you to the top of the waterfall. I estimated the entire trip from Barcelos, by paddle out and back across five hundred miles of wilderness, would take fifty to sixty days.
I stamped out my cigarette on the floating dock, climbed into my canoe, and put out into the Rio Negro. So began Day 1.
The river was rising and had been doing so for several weeks, something I found interesting since in the rest of the Amazon the rains generally don´t begin in ernest until around December 5th. The Negro, especially in front of Barcelos, is island choked and full of small canals and lakes. Thanks to the rising river I was able to take a shortcut across the six-mile wide river by way of a furo known as Kubá. It´s a small creek that cuts across the island directly in front of Barcelos, which lops a good five miles off the route that goes around the point upriver. From the mouth of the Kubá on the other side of the island I crossed a small channel, then went between two small islands on the other side and came out into a wide, unruly stretch of river. Directly to the east lies five or six kilometers of open water, downriver, and upriver there are a collection of long, narrow islands on the other side of a channel about 800 meters wide. The wind that had started early that morning had by now matured to a proper guster, and large, ornery swells rolled upriver and crested over themselves in midstream.
I was, at the time, loaded with more cargo than I had ever before carried in my canoe as a lone paddler. 60 days worth of dry foods, along with fishing and survival gear, weighs quite a lot. Much of the extra weight came from my plus-sized bottle of propane, which weighs 45 pounds when full to the brim. Before I had always carried the 7 kg bottle, which doesn´t weigh more than 25 lbs fully loaded, but after running out of propane in the igapó on the way to Barcelos I was determined not to let that happen again – so I bought the monster.
My boat sat considerably lower in the water than she normally did, and she didn´t quite roll with the swells the way she usually could. Despite a favorable wind from downriver I was hesitant at first to raise sail, as the water was very rough and the risk of being swamped was considerable – but after about fifteen minutes I decided I was comfortable enough to risk it, though I would be hugging the shore like a young possum clinging to his momma´s back.
Weight distribution was not perfect; too much cargo in the front. The bow shovel-nosed its way into the trough of every big wave, and occasionally I took on water, though it was nothing serious. After an hour or so the wind had calmed down just a bit, and I had arrived past the downriver point of the first island, which blocked the biggest swells. I crossed the channel, made it to the other side, and sailed on to the end of the islands. I reached open water again by around 1600. The wind stopped, and I went back to paddling.
To arrive to the northern terra firme6 of the Rio Negro one more crossing needed to be undertaken across the main channel of the Negro, known to the locals on the Acará and Démeni as a bahía, or the bay. The fear and trepidation that seeps into their tone of voice when talking about the bahía makes you think it was the Pacific Ocean. Really, it´s a wide channel, about one and a half kilometers, that can sometimes get kind of nasty during storms or high winds. It was the end of the day, and the water was calm by then, but I was still not brazen or stupid enough to cross on a night with no moon. So I made camp near a beach – the same beach that Dad and I had spent the night on with the fishing yacht Tayaçú about nine days before while on our motorized canoe fishing trip along the Rio Deméni.
6 High jungle that never floods; dry land
I fished a bit with a midwater jerk bait in a narrow channel of water between the beach and the forested island, where I had caught a few good peacock bass before with Dad. On that day, however, I caught nothing. Fortunatly I had leftovers from dinner the night before in Barcelos, and I made camp in the forest across from the beach and ate that.
Being there at that campsite where I had spent time with Dad sure made me miss him a lot. It had been several years since I had seen my old man, and after he came to the Amazon and then travelled back home, I missed him more than ever. Or maybe it just took seeing him again for me to realize how much I had always missed him. The constant quoting of obscure movies, the landslides of inside jokes, and hearing all of his stories from when he was an Air Force pilot – many of which I had never heard before, which I assume is because the majority of them are inappropriate for young ears.
We had slept on the beach that night, after an evening of free meat and beer from the folks on the Tayaçú. It had been kind of a rough night, as Dad had put it. Sleeping in the sand is no fun, and I´ll never understand why people romanticize camping on the beach so much. The hammock is superior in every way; on the beach the ground is hard, nights are chilly, and sand gets into every orifice. I´ll take a few mosquitoes in the jungle over that any day – especially since I have a mosquito netting.
The night was calm, dark, and starry. I sat in my new beach chair that I had bought for 30 reais in Barcelos (which later turned out to be one of the better things I have ever invested in), and relaxed. Weeks of paddling lay in store for me, miles of river and jungle sat between me and my goal. I had a long way to go, to be sure – but unlike the Bandit, I had plenty of time to get there.
II. Up the Deméni
The Rio Deméni is sourced close to Venezuela, and as the crow flies its headwaters aren´t more than fifteen or twenty miles from the El Dourado waterfall. Unlike the majority of the rivers which flow into the Rio Negro (with the notable exception of the Rio Branco, its largest tributary) the Deméni is a murky stream, known locally as água branca, or white water. The term white water is used in contrast to the term água preta (blackwater), which is used to describe the tea-colored waters of tannin-soaked rivers like the Negro, Uniní, Aracá, Padauirí, and so on. Though further up the Deméni is most certainly murky, at its mouth on the Rio Negro the color difference is hardly noticeable, and there is no dramatic meeting of the waters like at the mouth of the Negro where it flows into the Solimões to form the Amazon River. This, I believe, is because the junction with the blackwater Rio Aracá is only twenty or so miles upriver from where the Deméni meets the Negro, therefore the murkiness is cleared up considerably thanks to the addition of the Aracá water.
While the water was questionably murky this far down, the jungle on land was undoubtably the type of jungle that is usually found along the banks of whitewater rivers in the Amazon: tall, slender baoba trees with their broad, five-tongued leaves and fragrant white flowers, walls of tiririca, or razor grass, and tight groves of the dreaded jauarí palm, the King of the Spines. Each trunk is covered with literally tens of thousands of sharp, sturdy black spines which are oftentimes three or four inches long, and thicker than even the most hefty hospital syringe needle. The bases of the palm fronds are covered with smaller, if not sharper and more concentrated spines, which is perhaps the most miserable characteristic of the jauarí since the tree regularly sheds old fronds; windy days send them crashing down into the jungle below to create a wretched carpet of thorns that always manage to somehow find their way into your foot – even when you´re wearing shoes. The spines are so tough that they take years to rot away, and remain long after the actual palm frond has disintegrated, buried in sand or mud on the riverside and sticking in your feet or toes when you least expect it. And boy, are they a bitch to remove – even with tweezers.
After crossing the Pacific Ocean that morning and encountering no monsoons en route, I swung north and entered the Rio Deméni at around ten. The current was moderate, but nowhere near as strong as the Rio Negro. I paddled up for a few hours, remembering this and that spot where I fished with Dad, and kept close to the bank.
Another thing that the Deméni seemed to have an abundance of was howler monkeys. Unlike the black howler monkeys I was more used to seeing along the Amazon and other rivers, the howlers on the Deméni are black and red, the lower half being black, and the chest, head, and shoulders a shining reddish-orange, like a fox. Also different from the black howlers, these primates seemed to spend more time on or near the riverside, making them easy to spot. I found the black howler monkeys tended to stay further back into the forest, and I rarely saw them, though I always heard them. Perhaps, though, that is because this was a drier season and they were merely seeking out water. Now that I think about it, I did see black howlers a few times on the Amazon River when it was very dry, but never when it was flooded.
I saw a few tribes of howlers, which noticed me way off and didn´t allow me to get any closer than about sixty yards before they evaporated into the trees. Around 1500 or so I stopped for a snack and a shit, and I heard the sound of seed pods falling onto the forest floor and things rustling around in the trees. I finished my coffee, grabbed my shotgun and loaded a shell, then crept as quietly as possible back into the jungle to investigate.
About twenty yards back I spotted the tribe. They were low down, amongst some old fallen trees which were sitting in a few inches of stagnant water. Six or seven howlers, all told. I managed to get as close as thirty yards without them noticing me, but I couldn´t get any nearer without making a lot of noise due to heavy underbrush and razor grass. Thirty yards isn´t an impossible shot, even for a shotgun, so I shouldered the weapon, cocked back the hammer, and took aim at the lowest of the monkeys, which was squatted in the crook of the old dead tree about ten feet off the ground. I exhaled, and fired. As soon as the report sounded the other members of the tribe grunted and scurried around in the branches in agitation, but they didn´t flee. The one I had fired at hunched over a bit as if hit, and one of his buddies came over and sniffed him briefly before climbing higher up into the tree. But he didn´t fall. Not knowing what else to do, I chambered another shell and shot again.
That time they all fled, including the one I had been shooting at, who scurried away completely unscathed – for I had missed both shots. No monkey meat would be eaten that night.
Throughout the rest of the day I took several more potshots at howler monkeys from the canoe, all of them at thirty plus yards. I missed them all, and made a mental note to do some test shots at thirty to forty yards the next day to check out the spread and figure out where I was lobbing all that shot, since it sure as hell wasn´t at monkeys.
At nightfall I paddled into an igarapé7 where I had camped with Dad on night two of our fishing trip. The water was up some, but not drastically so, and our original campsite was mostly dry, although admittedly a bit soggy in a few spots.
7 Small, watered entrance into jungle, sometimes going back ten feet and sometimes ten miles
At the mouth of the igarapé I spotted the first band of ariranhas, or giant otters, that I had ever seen in the Amazon. From afar I took them to be capyberas, slithering around in the mud and the shallows, but they were much more slender and made curious, high pitched whistles and shrieks that sounded almost birdlike. There were eight or ten in all, and as I came closer the otters noticed me; all bodies went into the water and fell into formation with the apparent intention of not escape, but confrontation! They periscoped and displayed their distinctive white throat marks, snorting loudly and aggressively and panting as I came closer.
The otters showed no sign of fear, neither of me nor of my canoe. In fact, they seemed to be absolutely confident that they would be able to send me packing! As I came closer the otters also advanced, bobbing and snorting and gaping their whiskery mouths at me. They were really quite big; one, which I took to be to alpha male, was easily four or five feet long and thick as a semi truck tire. He formed the spearhead of the otter assault. They reeked of old fish, and their oily coats shone in the sunset. After a moment, I realized that the otters were working their way to the mouth of the igarapé where I was headed, with the obvious intention of forming a otter roadblock and cutting me off! Now, I wasn´t about to be intimidated by a bunch of smelly otters, and I paddled confidently forward towards the igarapé and my campsite. The otters held their ground. I advanced; they held fast. I was playing chicken with otters, for crissake!
Finally, at the last moment, the creatures broke ranks – but slowly. I was less than five feet from them when half of the otters parted one way, while the other half went the other. The big one, the alpha male, stayed right where he was, and glared at me as I passed by, with less than three feet of space between us. He really looked pissed! I half expected him to try and take a bite out of my paddle, but he let me pass, then disappeared underwater with the rest of the band. I chuckled to myself. What a bunch of cheeky fuckers!
I reached my spot and began setting up camp, thinking that that was the last I’d see of them. I was just hanging my tarp when I heard the distinctive snorts once again, right next to where my canoe was moored. Alpha male was back for Round Two, with his minions bobbing around behind him, staring at me with murderous intent.
“What do you want, anyways?” I said out loud. “I have no fish, go catch them yourselves.”
Snorrt. Snorrrt. Snorrrrrrrt. Pant pant.
.I ignored them, and went about my business. When I turned back around the alpha male was waddling around on dry land, sniffing suspiciously at my backpack! Out of the water he looked so awkward and silly I laughed out loud.
The otters eventually left, but it wasn’t with the air of someone who has been defeated. If they could have talked, I’m sure they would have shouted, “That’s right. Stay there!” before slipping back into the igarapé. Funny fellows, those otters.
After finishing camp chores I set out in the canoe to explore a bit as night fell. The igarapé, which had been dry just twenty or thirty feet further back from camp when I was there with Dad, now led deep into the forest, presumably to a lake since there was a slight current flowing through the igapó there. Relatively clear jungle stood on the left side, and as it was a moonless night I decided to go out for a hunt later on to see if I could get a paca – since I had still caught no fish on lines, and I wasn´t about to set out a net with that band of otters lurking around. Thunder rumbled to the east, and I paddled back to camp double-time, hunkered down under my tarp, and wrote in my journal as the storm rolled over and raised hell in the igarapé.
It was 02Dec, my brother David´s 21st birthday. I hoped he was celebrating with at least a beer. I shouted “Happy Birthday, David!” from under my tarp in the adhesive darkness, and the sound of driving rain ate up my words. I reclined in my beach chair, smoked with my right hand and played an imaginary piano with my left. Parabéns, little brother!
The rain stopped after an hour. Hunting after the rain is difficult business, since drops of water are constantly plopping off the leaves and splattering onto the forest floor below, making it quite hard to make out the sound of a critter walking around. I followed the igarapé far back, and as I had predicted, it opened up into a lake. I saw no paca nor any other animal, though I heard something moving around back in the jungle once or twice.
About four hundred yards into the lake I spotted a four or five foot long jacaré-tinga, the spectacaled caiman, posed on the lake shore with his head up, throat undulating gently as his eyes reflected bright orange in the light of my flashlight. I am a great lover of reptiles – snakes and crocodilians in particular – but I am also a great lover of their tasty meat. A man´s got to fill his belly somehow, and mine was sure starting to rumble by then. I paddled quite close, perhaps fifteen feet, and shot the croc square between the eyes. Death was instant. I climbed ashore, hauled the fellow into my canoe, and paddled back to camp.
The spectacaled caiman, for those who don´t know, is easily the most common species of caiman in the Amazon Basin, with a wild population estimated to be in the millions. Together with the smooth-fronted caiman they make up a large majority of the alligatoriods people see on the rivers. They are generally small, not reaching more than six feet – though their cousins, the jacaré-açú or black caiman, are capable of topping eighteen feet. The black caiman was hunted almost to extinction in the 1950´s for its hide, but since then it has made an impressive comeback – though it is still far from abundant in most areas. In the meantime the spectacled caiman has taken over much of the black caiman´s old habitat, thriving in the absence of it´s larger, stronger black counterpart. So really, it could be argued that shooting the occasional spectacled caiman for meat not only does no harm to the wild caiman population in the Amazon, but in fact helps the threatened black caiman by freeing up habitat space.
I spent a solid hour and a half skinning the caiman, which can be long, tedious work with no extra hands around to help out. The hide is very tough and reluctant to peel from the meat. I had to sharpen and resharpen my knife three times before the job was done. By the time I had him skinned, quartered, and salted, it must have been well past midnight – though I had no watch, so I can´t say for sure. I selected the choicest bits to cook fresh – some pieces of the tail, and a backstrap – and sauteéd them with onions and garlic in the pressure cooker. Served over rice, it was a meal of kings. Tender, well-seasoned, with a creamy broth and plenty of farinha. My stomach rejoyced.
Morningtide. I paddled back out to the Deméni, canoe covered with salted caiman meat drying in the sun. No signs of cheeky otters; presumably they were off intimidating some poor caborclo fisherman. Uneventful day, very hot with a light wind at my back blowing the fragrant, slightly sweet smell of drying meat around me.
By early afternoon I had paddled up past the lake where Dad and I had spent three days fishing and camping, and where I had snagged a small anaconda in one of my monofiliment nets, much to Dad’s utter amazement. This was as far as I had been up on the Deméni, and from now on I was in unknown territory. I paddled up one more long stretch, where the current was quite strong, and made camp across from a small island on the west bank of the river in some low but dry jungle.
As night fell I took a short walk around the area behind camp and discovered a large igapó with mostly calf-deep water, which started about a hundred yards behind camp and went back presumably forever. Pleased, I decided to head out later that night with the zagaia and spear a few traira for dinner while the moon was still dark. I had plenty of caiman meat, but it was now dry and would not spoil for as long as I could keep it that way. Anyways, I was three days into my trip and I hadn´t eaten a single fish. That needed to change.
After a bit of writing in my journal I donned boots – a lesson learned the hard way – slung my shotgun over my shoulder and grabbed the zagaia, headlamp, MagLite, compass, and a few extra .20 gauge shells. I remembered after walking perhaps thirty yards to take a reading on the compass in case I got turned around; north would take me back to camp – or at least the river.
I waded around for an hour or two, and missed two or three traira. The going was a bit ugly. There were lots of sticks on the bottom that were impossible to avoid, and when I trod upon them they snapped and scared away the fish. After awhile I gave up on the igapó and decided to head back to camp and see if I could spear something along the riverbank. I took out my compass, which pointed north and to camp – interestingly enough, the exact opposite direction I had reckoned it to be.
I waded for twenty minutes. Thirty minutes. I was beginning to get worried until I came across some land, and I relaxed, thinking that I must be nearly there now. I crossed the land, always following that compass needle in the light of my headlamp and keeping a sharp eye out for venomous snakes. Then, to my suprise and dismay, the land gave out to more igapó. Figuring once I had started out doing something, I may as well finish it, I kept on heading north.
Heading north, or any direction in a straight line while in the jungle is one of those things that is vastly harder to do than it sounds – especially while in two to three feet of very dark water on a moonless night. Fallen trees were everywhere, sometimes masses of them where one goliath gave up the ghost and crashed to the earth, taking many of his neighbors with him. From time to time my foot would sink into a pitfall made by old rotting branches and into the muddy, cavernous space below where unknown creatures possibly lurked. At times the water would get deeper, around mid-chest, and stay that way for ten or twenty yards. I am not easily spooked, but I do not deny that while wading though those deep stretches I was painfully aware that there was likely no better place in all of the Amazon for a massive anaconda to lie in wait for bumbling, lost spearfishermen. Of course, there was nothing I could do but carry on – and hope that any apex predators in the immediate vicinity had eaten a large, satisfying lunch. I saw a lot of nice traira, but at that point I had lost all interest in fishing and didn´t even glance twice at them.
After two or three hours I came to a stretch of open water, but it was immediately obvious that it was not the river. I reckoned it was one of those small lakes that sometimes form out in the jungle when the river floods very high. I could see the ember-orange eyes of a spectacaled caiman out near the middle. If he could get in there, it must be connected to the river or at least lead very close to it. If I were to continue to head north, a crossing would be necessary, and I estimated that it was about a hundred yards to the other side. There was just no way I was doing that. Anyways, my shotgun would get wet. At least I had that, anyways, though what would have been more useful was the machete. I knew exactly where it was, too – stuck in the ground next to my ice chest…back at camp, which could be in one of six or eight different directions.
After a moment´s figuring, I decided to change bearings. I reasoned that since I was camped on the west bank of the Deméni, east would eventually take me back to the river. Maybe not directly back, because I knew it made a pretty big turn out there somewhere, but I would eventually reach it. I proceeded to erase all thoughts of north, south, and especially, west, from my brain, focusing instead on east.
East, east, east, east. East is all I know. It’s the only word I know. Thou shalt walk east. Thou shalt not walk south, excepting that thou shalt then proceed to east. West is right out. East. Walk east. I thought you said weast. What kinda compass you readin‘ there, boy?
The going was progressively worse. Barriers, such as fallen trees and razor grass, were constant. I had to keep my eyes glued to the compass as I navigated around them, for if I looked away even one moment, when I looked back down east was somehow directly behind me. This compass is faulty! I thought. But I knew it wasn’t. What was faulty was the idiot lost in the jungle who took his bearings thirty yards from camp after he had already gotten turned around.
Hours passed. I can’t say how many, but it was certainly well into the wee hours by the time my body began to scream for a pause. I denied it, and trundled on. But after awhile longer, I realized that blundering around in the dark was going to get me nowhere – or more accuratly, further into the middle of it. I may as well find a place to curl up and get some shut eye. At the first sign of light I would continue with my sojourn of east east east east.
I found a big fallen tree – finally, something easy – and crawled up to the highest point above the ground to a spot that was somewhat flat but still light-years from comfortable. I lay down, curled up into the fetal position and, using my shotgun as a pillow, slept sporadically for the next four hours. Mosquitoes bit my bare, cut and bruised legs and buzzed in my ears.
I dreamed. I always dream when I’m sleeping while out lost – or at least, I did the two other times in my life that I had to do that. It’s always the same dream: I’m asleep, but I don’t realize it, and I dream I’m laying awake in the miserable spot I’ve lost myself in. Suddenly, trees open up and I can see a path in front of me, and at the end of it is exactly the spot I’m trying to get to, just right there, not so far away after all. After that I sleep soundly, because I’ve seen that I’m so close to the end and I stop worrying.
Of course, once I wake up properly and realize it was just a dream…happy feeling’s gone. I go back to worrying that this is the spot where I will leave my bones. I realized while lying on that tree that it was a Wednesday, and I thought, what a boring fucking day to die. I decided that I would at least try to hold out for a more interesting day, like Friday, or Saturday. The sun rose, to the east, and colorful small birds twittered blithely and flitted around in the tree branches, utterly indifferent to my plight. I quietly hated them. Cheery little motherfuckers.
I climbed stiffly down from my tree bed. Down to business. East.
In the daylight my situation seemed less gloomy. I was able to navigate mostly out of the swampy areas and by about seven thirty east kept me on mostly dry ground, with a few small soggy spots here and there. The jungle was more open here, with marginally less razor grass and in some spots the going was almost easy. But around nine-ish, I came to another lake, or igarapé, for all I knew. There was no current, but that by no means meant that it didn´t lead to the river. I followed it southeast for about fifty yards, but the underbrush and razor grass was much too thick. The lake, or igarapé, was narrow, only about fifteen yards to the other side, but it was deep, certainly over my head. On the other side, the jungle to the east was more or less open. It didn´t take long for me to decide to just swim the bastard and keep going east.
I reckon I was not thinking too clearly at the time, because I jumped in with my boots on, holding my shotgun, bag of shells, flashlight, and zagaia out of the water with one hand while attempting to tread water with just one arm and booted feet. Naturally, I managed to do so for all of about ten seconds – enough for me to reach the middle of the igarapé – before my muscles cramped up and I sank like a stone.
I am an excellent swimmer. But my muscles were exhausted and I had the use of only one arm to keep myself afloat. Booted feet are next to useless for treading water; you might be better off tying cinder blocks to your ankles. This was a fact I recalled just as I was sinking to the bottom of the igarapé. Shotgun and everything were already wet anyways, so I hugged the gear to my body and used my one free hand to rip off my boots, one at a time. Once my feet were free of their cinder blocks, I scissor kicked and went straight to the surface. My boots floated up nearby. Thank goodness rubber is buoyant. I side-stroked to the opposite side, gasping and feeling stupid to the nth degree.
Everything was wet, but it could be dried. I had gun grease back at camp for the shotgun, if I ever got there. Of course, the wet .20 gague shells were worthless, and they would have to be cleaned out and reloaded with fresh powder and new primers. Then I realized I was missing something: my headlamp. I had forgotten to take it off my head and when I went under, and it had slipped off in the confusion. Luckily, the MagLite was still accounted for and functional, though I didn´t want to even vaguely wonder about the possibility of passing another night out there. Focus on the now. Chin up. East, boy! Go east!
I dragged my carcass east for another five hours. I began to see dry creek beds, which went straight to razor grass and huge tree pitfalls. Still, I reckoned they were a good sign. And then, around midafternoon, I heard the most lovely sound in the world: the put-put-putter of a 10 or 15 HP diesel motor accompinied by snatches of bad forró music. It was coming from due east, not a degree to the north nor a degree to the south. I bellowed joyfully, and shouted Hey, hey, I´m lost! but of course they couldn´t hear me over their motor and bad forró. Still, it didn´t matter; this was indisputable proof that I was headed toward the river, and not further into the maw of the jungle to perish on a Saturday. I was almost jolly.
Another ten minutes east brought me to very, very bad razor grass – but I no longer felt anything as the blades sliced into my skin. Literally, I didn´t feel it because my ankles and shins were absolutely numb (I would sure feel it later, though). I was close. I crashed through the cursed foliage with reckless abandon, and then quite suddenly, I popped out on a high bank about five feet above the Rio Deméni. It appeared so suddenly that I very nearly fell in.
Ah, never did a river look so nice! I looked up and down, but there was no sign of the boat. I examined the opposite bank, thought for a moment, and concluded that I must be some distance upriver from camp, since I didn’t recognize anything.The sun was midway to the horizon. It must have been about 3 pm. No time to lose. I set off downriver, following the bank. I anticipated about an hour’s walk, and not a difficult one at that.
Once again, I was catostrophically disillusioned.
Walking along the banks of the Deméni was, if possible, even more miserable than walking in the jungle back from it. The banks were crowded with razor grass, pitfalls, and the hateful jauarí palms. Every type of plant was abrasive and even run-of-the-mill sticks caused searing pain whenever they dragged across raw areas of skin ravaged by razor grass. I walked for two more hours, and still I did not arrive to camp, nor could I even see the island I was camped across from. I heard a boat coming upriver, and searched desperatly for an open spot so I could flag it down. I found one, and as the boat came put puttering around the corner I waved my arms and shouted “Help!” They were too far to understand, though, and all they saw was a half-crazed, long-haired, armed man with blood on his ankles and shins standing amongst the razor grass, waving his arms and shouting madly. They cruised on upriver and didn’t make eye contact.
More walking. Many small creeks entered the Deméni, and I forded all of them. Some were quite deep. My shotgun was wet though several times over. I leaned on my zagaia as I walked, using it as a cane, and hoped feverishly that camp would appear around the next patch of razor grass. Dusk was falling, and still I did not arrive. I rounded a corner, forded a creek, and was suddenly confronted by the worst tangle of razor grass and jauarí palms that I had seen as of yet.
It was then that I decided that I would walk no further. My legs were literally trembling with exhaustion and every step was agony on my raw, bleeding ankles. I walked to the edge of the river. Slowly, deliberatly, I set down my shotgun, zagaia, flashlight, and wet shells on the bank. I slipped off my boots, and without further ado, lept into the Rio Deméni as night fell over the Amazon.
I swam the breast stroke, slowly and steadily, down the river. The water was deep, and I passed mostly sunken logs, feeling very much like a topwater lure. After five minutes, I came to the island. Another fifteen minutes and suddenly I could see my canoe, moored to some tree roots, exactly as I had left her roughly twenty-four hours before. I could kiss her, and I did, shamelessly and passionatly. I´d never loved a mess of old wood and paint so much.
Camp was exactly as I had left it. I sat down in my beach chair, and fell almost immediately asleep. I woke up half an hour later, feeling more energized. I fried some caiman meat and drank instant juice from my rice pot. I rolled a cigarette and smoked….God! Tobacco never tasted half as good as it did then – nor will it ever again, I reckon. It was a rough camp carved out of the jauarí palms, but after the previous night it felt like kingly accomodations. I slept hard and had no dreams. For the time being, I wasn’t going anywhere, and I slumbered through the night unbothered by worries of dying on a Thursday.
III. The Villages
The Rios Deméni and Aracá have been the site of villages which the caborclos call home since before the gold rush of the 1960´s. In the 70´s and 80´s the number of villages peaked, with eight different communities standing along the Aracá and lower Deméni between the Rio Negro and the beginning of what is now the Yanomami Reserve.
However, at the end of the 1990´s and early 2000´s, the region experienced moderate population shift from the riverside villages to Barcelos – the county seat – and other nearby cities like Santa Isabel and Manaus. Today only four of the original villages remain inhabited: Bacabau, on the lower Deméni; Romão, on the Aracá just upriver from its mouth; Elisbão, a few turns upriver from Romão; and Bacuquara, the furthest up of the villages, which sits just downriver from the mouth of the Rio Mararí and takes two days by motorized canoe to reach from Elisbão. The rest of the original eight comunities, mostly between Elisbão and Bacuquara, lie in ruins, the once well-kept homes and churches rotting away as the jungle reclaims lost territory. The names of the ghost villages are now used to refer to a certain lake or bend in the river, close to where the village once stood. Lago da Boa Vista. Volta do Kuquí. Igarapé da Sauadaua.
The caborclos who live in these villages generally work planting mandioc for the production of farinha and harvesting piaçaba in the headwaters of the Aracá, Curundurí, Padauirí, and other area rivers. More recently, many have begun working in the tourism industry as guides for the ever-increasing number of fishing tourists – mostly southern Brazilian, American, and Japanese – who arrive in droves to Barcelos and the Rio Negro every dry season in search of monster peacock bass. Many of the caborclos have also worked in the Serra do Aracá and other tepuís in the region (such as the Serra do Curundurí and the Serra do Majaí) as tantalite porters, sustanance hunters, or guides for researchers, scientists, and representitives of the State and Federal governments who need to visit the area.
I arrived to the first village, Bacabau, at the end of Day 6. Thanks to the curious twists and turns of fate, I already had a contact in Bacabau. I had met Sr. Gilberto a few weeks before while on the fishing trip with Dad. We were limping down the Deméni on our backup motor (we´d broken the prop on the main motor a few days previous up a long, narrow igarapé somewhere between the east bank of the Deméni and a whole lot of nothing), and when we came out on the Rio Negro we saw the Tayaçú fishing yacht anchored nearby. The owner of the Tayaçú, Marlon, had employed me briefly as a translator in Barcelos a few months prior, and her crew included a few of my casual friends.
We stopped, of course, and as is customary in the Amazon, us river-weary travellers were invited to stay the night for Bar B Q and as much free beer as we could drink. Naturally we accepted, and as we lay in our hammocks on the riverbank that afternoon, nurshing upteenth beers and gnawing meat off the roasted head of a giant pirarára catfish one of the tourists had caught, we chatted amiably with the crew of the support boat and a few caborclos, who had moored their canoes nearby and drifted in to squat around the fire and poke solmnly at the coals.
Gilberto was one of the caborclos, and he drank no beer, smiled often (showing that, unlike the majority of caborclo men over thirty, he still had all of his teeth), and was both a capital storyteller and interested listener. I learned that he was waiting for somebody to pass that could sell him some gasoline so that he could return to his village, as he had given the last of his to his sister-in-law so that she could travel to Tapéra, a village near the mouth of the Rio Padauirí between Barcelos and Santa Isabel. I translated for Dad, and since we were heading back to Barcelos already and had plenty of extra gasoline, we decided to help out Sr. Gilberto. All told, we gave him nearly 50 liters of fuel, which was quickly siphoned into empty bottles, cans, deep bowels, and anything that wouldn´t leak. After that he smiled even wider, and told me to stop by anytime.
It was nearly dark when I paddled up to Bacabau, and there were only two canoes docked along the high bank that formed the front of the community. At the first canoe was a young woman washing clothes in the river, and a man about my age fishing for aracú with a hand line.
“Evening,” I said, waving.
“Boa tarde, mano,” responded the man with a smile. “Paddleing up, huh? Só na manja, né?”
“Yeah, why rush?” I agreed. “Hey, can you tell me where Sr. Gilberto lives?”
“Sure. It’s right up the stairs by that other canoe over there. Only, he’s not in.”
“Aw, damn. Is there anybody else over there?”
“Just the Pastor and his wife.”
“Nobody else here?”
“Nope, just us. Most everybody went downriver to Barcelos for the holidays.”
“Ah, I see. Well, I reckon I’ll go talk to the Pastor, then.”
“Hm, but he’s still out in the roça8 now. He´ll be back once it gets dark, though. But the Pastora is down there fishing by the canoe, you see her? She’s real nice, you can talk with her until the Pastor gets back.”
“Great, I’ll do that. Thanks for the info, man.”
“Nada amigão. Hey, where are you going like that, anyways?”
“Up to the Rio Jauarí.”
His eyes bulged. “Porra! That might take you a whole week!” And he clearly considered a week on the river to be eons of time. So thinks the new generation of caborclos – the generation of the rabeta canoe motor.
8 Cleared jungle where caborclos plant mandioc, pineapple, and various other crops
I met the Pastora, as the pastor´s wife is coloqially known in the Amazonian interior. She sat on the prow of a large, closed-off canoe powered by an old 10 horsepower Toyama diesel motor, which sat encased in a wooden box aft. The Pastora was in her mid-forties, and wore her greying dark hair long, but tied up into a messy bun. In the place of shorts – generally the preferred legwear for both men and women in the interior – she wore a well-used, humble polyester floral print skirt that came down to her mid calves, two sure signs of a practicing evangalist. She was the pastor´s wife, after all.
“Yes, yes, Sr. Gilbeto told me you would be coming,” said the Pastora, baiting a hook with a fresh gob of wet farinha and slinging it far our into the current with a practiced flick of the wrist. “He told me, ‘Pastora, there is a man who gave me gasoline. He will be coming here in five days. If I am still not here, please take care of him.’ Here we are, six days later, and here you are, nearly on schedule! We will take care of you, of course. Did you leave Barcelos late?”
“No, but I lost a day of travel because I was…lost.”
“You were lost on the river?”
“No ma’am, in the forest. I was gigging traira in an igapó downriver a ways and got a little turned around. Spent twenty-four hours out there. Had to sleep on a fallen tree.”
I proudly showed her my battle scars from the razor grass, and told her how I had swam down the river to get back to camp. She was horrified, naturally.
“Meu Deus do céu, Sr. Patrick! You swam down the Deméni?! You know there are many very big caimans in this river!”
“Oh, yes ma’am. I’ve seen ’em. But I’ll take caimans over razor grass any day.”
“My goodness, Sr. Patrick! Jesus must be watching over you.”
“I certainly hope so, Dona Pastora.”
“Oh, he is, you can be sure.” She jerked the line tight, and a small flamengo aracú came flapping out of the river. The Pastora grabbed it deftly, popped the hook out of it’s mouth, and tossed it into a small pile of other aracús in the canoe, where it gave a few futile flops and was still. She sighed. “Only small ones. Yesterday the Pastor hooked four fat ones right in this very spot.”
“Ah, I almost forgot!” I said, reaching into my canoe for a pan under the seat. “I have three salted acarás I caught on a beach last night. Would you like to add them to dinner?”
“Acarás? Well, certainly. You know there are some people around here who don’t eat this kind of fish.”
“Really? Why not? It’s tasty as any other fish.”
The Pastora waved her hand dismissively as she dumped my acarás into a pan of water and washed them. “Ah, prejudice. All they want is peacock bass and pacú and irapuka turtles. They are spoiled! Here, and especially further upriver, there are many fat, tasty fish, graças a Deus.”
In fact, I would later learn that some of the caborclos on the Aracá are so spoiled by their abundance of meaty fish – fish which would fetch respectable prices at markets in any Brazilian town – that they turn their noses up at catches which I have seen caborclos in the rest of the Amazon fill their canoes to the brim with, like for example the barracuda dogfish, the pirandirá, the charuto, and the sardinha. Like the wine snob who will drink only the best French burgandys, the caborclos of the Rio Aracá are fish snobs who dine upon only the most delicious of the freshwater catches.
“Did you catch a lot of rain downriver?” asked the Pastora as she scaled an aracú.
“Oh, a bit, but not too much. Some very sunny days. I was a little surprised, since the river is rising and it should be raining to beat the devil, shouldn’t it?”
“Ah, but this is just a little rise. In a few days the water levels will start going down again.”
“Really? In the middle of December?”
“Oh yes, that’s the way the rains work up here. The river dries from July to November, and then in mid-November it comes up a meter or so, and in early December it starts drying with a vengance. It won’t start filling up again until February – sometimes even early March!”
“Interesting! So the real dry season is just starting?”
“The driest time of year here is December and January. The water goes way down. There are beaches everywhere.”
This was news to me, and I found it amazing how every different region of the Amazon has its own rainy/dry season quirks. For example, in the lowlands along the south banks of the Amazon River, from Santarém to the Madiera and extending all the way south almost to Mato Grosso, the rainy season starts like clockwork on December 1st . From then on the rivers ruthlessy flood until about May 25th and then it´s like someone hit the off switch. The rain stops and the rivers go down until December 1st, and the cycle begins again.
The Rio Madeira and her tributaries as far as Bolivia are in their own little world. The rains begin in October and the river floods until March – but once you leave the Madiera and head to a nearby river, say for example the Canumã or the Abacaxís, the rains are back on the central valley schedule, even though the distance as the crow flies from the Madiera to the Canumã is not more than ten or fifteen miles. When I was paddling up the Canumã last May, the waters were just about at their highest levels, and everything along the banks was underwater. Nothing but igapó, as far as the eye could see. Then I travelled through a twenty-odd mile furo that cuts through the forest upriver from the Canumã proper along the Rio Acarí, which spits you out into the churning, silty Madiera near the mouth of the Aripuanã. All of a sudden the water levels were way down, since by then the Madiera had been drying for two months.
And now, on the Rio Negro and her tributaries, we have a whole new system: a mini rainy season between November and December, then two or three more months of drought while the rest of the Amazon is busy being slowly submerged. Pastora told me that the Rio Negro also experiences this mini-wet season – but that there the dought only lasts until about mid-January. On the northern tributaries, especially far up near the headwaters where I was going, the dry season lasts until March. I´ve heard that there are some parts of the Amazon in Pará and Amapá, closer to the Atlantic, that are completely reversed: the rainy season is July to January and the dry season is February to June. Belém, just on the other side of the river, has no rainy or dry season, and it recieves the same amount of rainfall year-round. I wonder what sort of things influence these peculiar, distinct regional monsoon seasons. The Andes and the Atlantic are probably both major players.
The Pastor showed up from the roça on schedual, sweaty and reeking of diesel fuel. He decended the rickity wooden stairs going down the steep riverbank that are a common denominator in villages in the Amazon, and after his evening dip in the river – something as essential to the caborclo man as lunch or coffee – we sat on the stairs and talked about the Yanomami as the Pastora hacked fins off aracú.
“They always pass by here on their way up to the reserve,” said the Pastor. “A boatfull headed up just a few days ago. They stopped, like they sometimes do. They wanted a machete, and I gave them one.”
“You gave them mine,” corrected the Pastora. “And how am I supposed to work out in the roça now, eh? They’re always are stopping here, asking for things. Why do you always give them what they ask for? The government gives them money. They can buy their own machetes.”
“The Bible says we should always help people in need.”
“They aren’t in need. They’ll just sell the machete to piaçabeiros. Before they started getting handouts they were in need. They asked, and we gave because they had no money. Now they have money, but they still want us to give.”
“They don’t understand our way of doing things yet.”
The subject of the Yanomami, a tribe which in many ways still lives very much apart from the outside world, is a bit of a sore one for the caborclos who live in the region of the Rio Negro. Many – if not the majority – don’t trust the Indians, and the feeling seems to be mutual. The caborclos say they are thieves, who are lazy and do no work since they receive considerable government pensions. I can’t say what the Yanomami think of the caborclos, since every time I tried to talk with one in Barcelos I got nothing but stares or very short answers which did not invite more conversation, but I reckon they aren’t exactly chummy with their downriver neighbors.
A piaçabeiro in Barcelos told me a story about his experiences on the Yanomami Reserve on the Rio Aracá, upriver from the Jenipapo Rapids and the FUNAI outpost:
I had been invited, as a friend, to visit the reserve by some Indians I had met here in Barcelos. The agreement was that I, my boat, and four of my fellow piaçabeiros would be allowed by the Yanomami to work in the igarapés of the Reserve harvesting piaçaba for six months. In return, we would leave ten bales of piaçaba behind for the Indians once we were ready to return to Barcelos. FUNAI would have no say in the matter, assuming the Yanomami chief of that village declared us invited guests, which he had already informally done.
We traveled up the Aracá, and once we arrived to the FUNAI outpost the Indians stood up for us and we were allowed to pass. We motored far upriver, nearly to the headwaters, and cut piaçaba in several igarapés for five months. We cut a lot of piaçaba – neary thirty tons – and once our boat was full, we headed back down to the village. We left behind ten bales, as was agreed upon, and went to pass the FUNAI outpost and return to Barcelos. But FUNAI wouldn’t let us pass, declaring that, since we had been working illegally on indiginous lands to harvest the piaçaba (we were invited as guests, not workers) the load would be seized. We protested, and told them about our agreement with the village Indians. FUNAI dutifully motored over there and interrogated them.
To our surprise and outrage, the Indians claimed to know nothing about any such agreement. They just sat silently and shook their heads. The piaçaba was seized, and given to the village.
That seemed pretty underhanded to me, but the Pastor assured me that not all of the Yanomami were like that. The ones that live high up the Deméni were apparently model citizens, with fair village politics and their own semi-modern schools. Most of them even wore clothes, even while at home. Pastor had met a Yanomami who was a teacher up on the Deméni, and the Indian had claimed to have “more than one thousand diligent pupils.” Pastor believed most of them to be crientes, or “believers,” followers of evangelism, which seemed to go a long way towards redeeming the Yanomami in his book.
I was given free reign of the house up on dry land, for the Pastor and his wife preferred to sling their hammocks in their canoe. “It’s just too much hassel to keep lugging things up and down those stairs,” explained the Pastor. We sat on the porch of the house and ate the fish Pastora had fried by light of a weak flourescant bulb (Pastor had turned on his generator for half an hour so I could charge my lantern and camera, despite my protests that it was not that important). We examined my maps, and the pair pointed out more or less where they reckoned the upriver communities to be (they knew the way by river, but like many caborclos they had trouble placing them on a map, as they had seen very few, especially of the area near Bacuquara). I appreciated the help, since of course the villages were not marked, and I had no real way of knowing exactly where they were. Later, their predicitons turned out to be spot-on.
After my hosts went down to the river to sleep, I wrote for awhile by light of a diesel lantern, which attracted red wasps that buzzed around and got tangled in my hair. One stung me right on the nipple. I killed as many as I could, and large, multicolored ants materialized from holes in the dirt floor and chewed the corpses apart, making loud crunching noises, before secreting them away into the holes. Blue plastic 55 gallon drums full of water stood all around, and frogs burped inside, making tinny echos as I scribbled and swore at the wasps.
The Rio Aracá is in many ways much nicer than the Deméni, and as soon as I entered the mouth and left behind the former after a windy morning of paddling on Day 7, I noticed the riverbanks cleared up, and there was a welcome absence of jauarí palms and razor grass. Instead, the margin generally consisted of high banks forested by medium-sized, small leaved trees on the outsides of the bends in the river; the insides were graced by sweeping, Carribean-white beaches fringed by low scrub bushes, light-as-a-feather white molongó trees, and tall, thin spineless palms that bore a red, scaly-looking fruit. It took one day for me to reach Romão, where I was well-received. Villagers fed me tapir soup and regaled me with stories of the Serra, most of them centering around the fact that the Serra is both a) cold, and b) far away from Romão. People entertained themselves by predicting just how long it would take me to get there. Serious guesses ranged from one month to three months, though some comedians predicted eight or nine years. One young fellow offered to take me there in his motorized canoe, and I had to explain that actually, I enjoy paddling.
I sat on a small bench made from three short planks in a half-finished house, part of a circle of six or seven others. In the middle of the ring was a big pot of tapir soup and a bowel of farinha. Everyone slurped and hunched over their bowels while simotaniously holding flashlights in the crooks of their necks as Dona Lorinet, the lady of the house, talked about the piaçabal, or piaçaba grounds, where she worked as a cook for many years. Eventually the conversation returned to the nearby Serras; Lorinet had been up in both the Aracá and the Majaí.
“Lots of people from the piaçabal had spent some time up in the Serra – and I even went a few times to cook for them. They are strange places, and life is hard up there. It’s very beautiful, of course, but I was always happy to come back down. We never spent too much time up there, thank goodness. But there are some garimpeiros that know the Serras very well. Have you ever heard of Tatunca Nara?”
“Sure have,” I said. “And not good things, either.”
“Well then you heard the truth. Tatunca is a pilantra, a crook. But there are few people who know the Serra better than he does.”
Tatunca Nara, aka Hans Gunther Hauck, is a German in his early seventies who has spent the majority of his life in the region of the Rio Negro. His history is spotty; the German Police report that he disappeared from Germany in the early sixties due to “economic difficulties,” though most people in Barcelos belive he killed someone in Europe long ago and then fled to Brazil to escape prosecution. Upon arriving to the Amazon, probably sometime in the late sixties, he is rumored to have jumped headfirst into the gold rush that first brought garimpeiros to the tepuís. He ended up getting to know the area very well. By the 1970’s he had gained attention in Europe as being the sole source of information of a lost city which he called Akakor, where he claimed pyramids stood below the jungle…in the Serra do Aracá.
Lured by the thrill of discovery, tourists began seeking out Tatunca and asking about Akakor – so he became a jungle guide. Unfortunatly, several of the hopeful explorers who contracted him to take them to the lost city ended up going missing under suspicious circumstances. In 1984 a skull was found by tourists in the jungle around the Rio Aracá, which was identified as belonging to Herbert Wanner, a Swiss man who went missing while on an expedition with Tatunca in 1983. German correspondant Karl Brugger met Tatunca in the early seventies, who told him the history of Akakor. In 1976 Brugger published a book titled The Chronicle of Akakor, and eight years later he was shot by an unknown assailent in Rio de Janeiro, an unsolved murder which the German Police believe Tatunca was behind.
The man somehow managed to get himself Indian paperwork, and his passport apparently reads “Tatunca Nara, Indian.” In 1990 a pair of Germans, adventurer Reudieger Nehberg and filmmaker Wolfgang Brog tricked Tatunca into taking them on an expedition, whereupon his story apparently “began to unravel.” The end result was an hour-long documentary called Das Geheimnis des Tatunca, The Mysteries of Tatunca. Most of the locals believe he has secret, unmarked trails in the Serra which lead to hidden gold deposits. Ás trilhas do Tatunca, they call them.
What the real story is on Tatunca is known only by Tatunca himself. He still lives in Barcelos today, and in fact he passed me in his rabeta canoe as he motored up the Rio Deméni, destination…exactly the same as mine.
“He came upriver just a few days ago, travelling to the Serra as well,” said Dona Lorinet. “He always goes up via the Igarapé Preto, that’s where you’re planning to go up, isn’t it?You’re armed, I assume?”
“Well, stay that way! And watch out – he’s a sly devil!”
Dona Lorinet wasn’t the first one to warn me about Tatunca. On the Deméni, shortly after he passed me going upriver, I was hailed from across the way by a caborclo canoe heading down. Turns out, they were a few aquaintences from Barcelos who were on their way home after a hunting trip near Bacuquara. We exchanged plesantries, and they asked me if I knew who that was in the canoe that had just gone up.
“I dunno, some caborclo, I guess.”
“No, no!” said the pilot. “That was Tatunca Nara! You stay away from him!”
“Why, what’s wrong with him?”
They told me how Tatunca once tried to steal a girl from their boat at a fishing camp years ago. He arrived at night in his motor launch, which the pilot described as “a very nice craft, because he is rich in Barcelos, on account of the gold.” Tatunca claimed that he was a “chief” and that he was the girl’s father. She must come with him. The girl was afraid and started crying, and the men woke up and came out of their hammocks to see what was the matter. Tatunca quickly motored off, but moored a short distance away. After consoling the girl, who was twelve or thirteen years old, the fishermen became very angry and decided to confront Tatunca. They grabbed their shotguns and paddled over to where he was moored. Before they could get too close, however, the German gunned the motor, snapped his moorings, and took off down the river.
“He’s very smart, see,” said the pilot. “He only moors with thin cord, so that he can snap it off at any time without having to get out of the boat, which he had enclosed in bulletproof glass. Many people want to kill that man, especially around here. But so far, no one has managed it. Did you see what he had in his canoe when he passed just now?”
“No, he was kind of far away.”
“Rifles, .44 caliber. One on each seat of the canoe. Cuidado com Tatunca, Patrick!”
After spending the night on a boat down by my canoe in Romão, I kindled a small fire on a flat area of the riverbank and cooked an early breakfast as the sun rose. The villagers gave me directions to a furo which would cut off the next wide turn of the Rio Aracá. It was a narrow channel of sand and shallow water which nonetheless flowed with considerable force against me. It let out in the middle of an estirão, or straightaway, upriver from the belly of the bend. Just two more curves and the village of Elisbão, population four families, came into view on the high western banks at the end of another, shorter straightaway.
Shortly before arriving I was overtaken from downriver by a canoe shaded under a palm-thatched roof. Dico, the pilot, and his family were friends of the Pastor, who had told the group about me and my trip when they stopped for a rest in Bacabau. Dico lived in Bacuquara, and were at the time on their way back home after a spell in Barcelos. Travel time by motorized canoe to Bacuquara from the county seat can be anywhere from three to five days, moving up only by day, and resting at night. “But we’re never in a hurry,” said Dico as I clung to the stern and scooped water out of my hull. The wind was blowing hard; waves pounded our canoes, and I had to make a real effort every now and again to keep us from crashing into each other as we drifted. “We stop here and there on the beaches. Fish a little. Sleep a little. Out here, there’s no reason to be in a rush.” He offered me a tow to Bacuquara, which I politely turned down – though I did accept his invitation to stay with him in his village whenever I got there, and upon request gave him four empty .20 gauge shells that I wasn’t using at the time.
The villagers in Elisbão knew me by sight from Barcelos, since whenever I lived on the island across from the city I usually paddled several times a day back and forth across the channel and past areas where many caborclos would moor their canoes and boats. Zeca, the oldest son of Sr. Nazaré and Dona Angelique, was two months older than me. As I paddled up he was squatted next to his father on the small dock anchored in the clay riverbank, hacking apart irapuka turtles with a small machete as Pelé, his young son, joyfully launched his naked body into the river. Pelé´s slightly older cousins sat in the mud and played with a plastic toy boat in next to Dona Angelique, who washed dishes nearby and swatted at the children whenever they got too rowdy.
Zeca had just gotten back from turtle fishing near the mouth of the Rio Curundurí some forty or fifty miles upriver, and in the family canoe were twenty or thirty irapukas, each about the size of a large dinner plate – though both larger and smaller specimens were mixed in. Despite what looked to me like a veritable feast of aquatic reptiles, Zeca complained that it was very few, and that they were only just worth the gasoline he had spent to putter five or six hours upriver to his turtle spot. We all bathed in the river before heading up the stairs to the village squeaky-clean, followed by five or six half-starved dogs and a fat, indolent black cat. While Dona Angelique started a fire over in the farinha shack, I and the rest of the village sat on the wooden steps of Nazaré´s house. A canoe appeared on the horizon, sparking general interest, and everybody engaged in the popular caborclo game known as Who is Coming Up the River.
“Ah, that’s Sr. Adnilson,” said Nazaré, gazing at the tiny downstream dot.
“Is not,” said Zeca. “Sr. Adnilson has the blue tarp in the back, not the front. That’s Neginho from Romão.”
“No, no, Neginho has that motor that goes ‘pop pop poppop pop pop poppop pop pop.’ This motor is more like ‘poppop pop poppop pop poppop pop.’ ”
“I dunno Nazaré,” joined in Temporal, an uncle. “It looks to me like Zezinho. See those two small canoes he’s towing? Zezinho always tows two canoes, one for hunting and one for fishing.”
“Lots of people tow two canoes,” shot back Zeca. “That doesn’t mean it’s Zezinho.”
“Well, it could be Zezinho.”
“It could be anybody, Uncle.”
“I think it’s Zezinho.”
“I think it’s Sr. Adnilson,” repeated Nazaré.
“Gotta be Neguinho,” said Zeca.
“Who are all those people in the front?” wondered Temporal.
“Nephews,” said Zeca. “Neguinho’s got lots of nephews.”
“So does Zezinho,” said Temporal.
“And Sr. Adnilson,” added Nazaré. “He’s got grandchildren, too.”
The canoe continued upriver, all eyes upon it. One of the dogs tried to steal a bone that a rooster was pecking at. The rooster kicked it hard in the ears, and the hound scurried off, yelping as if he had been hewen in two.
The canoe was still a ways off. “He’s going awful slow, isn’t he?” said Zeca.
Temporal grunted. “Saving gas; Zezinho always fishes far.”
“It’s not Zezinho. I know Zezinho’s canoe when I see it.”
“You wouldn’t know a titty from a watermelon.”
“Aw, screw you, Uncle.”
“See? He doesn’t deny it.”
Finally after ten or fiffteen minutes of good-natured jabbing, the canoe came close enough to be recognized. It was Sr. Adnilson.
“I told you,” said Nazaré triumphantly. “ ‘Poppop pop poppop pop poppop pop!’ ”
The gas generator sputtered to life by the time it was dark, and most of us sat on the floor around an old TV as the nightly telenovela, Amor á Vida, sent multicolored lights dancing around the chainsawn planks of the open wooden house. Out in the interior where there´s no electricity, in order to watch the telenovelas that are so popular with the overwhelming majority of lower to middle-class Brazilians, a gasoline generator must of course be started. This burns anywhere from ½ to 1 ½ liters of fuel per hour, depending on the wattage output of the motor. The telenovela runs from 8:00 PM to 9:10 PM, every night from Monday to Saturday; so, since the current price of gasoline in Barcelos is about 3 reais per liter, a good number of caborclo villages not only on the Aracá, but in the majority of the entire Amazon Basin (and probably any place in Brazil without reliable electricity) spend something like 20 reais per week, 80 reais per month, and 960 reais per year to watch a telenovela that usually revolves around fictional, upper class Brazilians in Rio or São Paulo, with the most common themes being love, hate, treachery, murder, infidelity, gold digging, jewelry, and DNA tests.
I can understand why the telenovelas are so popular in the interior. It can be a good release, something for the men and woman who sweat and languish under the sun every day to look forward to as they eat their meals and relax. Even I find myself enjoying the damned program now and then when I’m out there – and that’s kind of embarassing for me to admit, but there it is. It’s still far from being even in the same class as the written word, and even pulp fiction is more filling than seventy minutes of excruciating — yet undeniably addictive — televised drama. When it comes on, I pay attention like any good caborclo.
Irapuka filled with farinha and roasted over hot coals sat cooling in a large plastic bowel on the floor, and everybody gathered round and snagged a few bits as Rafael was arrested for seducing the mentally handicapped Linda – only Linda was just autistic and not so handicapped after all, and she was all about his smooches in the plaza. As Rafael sat in jail proclaiming his innocence, Leila bashed Natasha over the head with a candlestick in the latter’s mansion bedroom, then set the house on fire with Natasha lying unconcious inside, escaping with presumably billions of dollars worth of tiaras and other silly jewlry. Meanwhile, Aline continued poisoning Dr. Ceaser’s whiskey, which had already made him blind and would eventually kill him, leaving Aline free to inherit all his riches and run off with Nino, the brawny, kniving artist anagonist who causes trouble nationwide, every evening from 8 to 9:10. Turtle shells accumulated in piles around each spectator, and as Natasha lay unconcious in the burning mansion the screen went black, and the evening’s episode ended on that cliffhanger.
“When will we find out if she died?” asked Boi the neighbor, who had been watching from a window.
“Not ’til Monday,” said Dona Angelique.
“Ah, she’ll be long dead by then,” guffawed Boi.
“She won’t die,” snapped Angelique. “Leila didn’t throw gasoline on her body, just in the room. Thales will rescure her, he still loves her.”
“After the way she treated him?” joined in Marinelly, Zeca’s wife. “She told him she was just seducing him for his riches and that mansion house.”
“But Tales is a romantic, he still loves her. He’ll be back.”
“Are the faggots still fighting over that baby?” asked Boi as he came in and grabbed a piece of turtle.
“One of them tried to steal it and smuggle it to Argentina last night,” confirmed Zeca.
“Argentina,” snickered Boi from behind a mouthful of farinha and reptile fat.
The generator coughed, sputtered, and died, and the TV screen – along with the rest of the village – went dark. Within ten minutes, all hammocks were occupied and Elisbão slept in the dim lights of guttering flames from the all-night diesel lanterns, as nightjars swooped and fluttered around in the yard and the dogs moaned in the dirt and scratched their fleas.
IV. Sunny Days that Never End
The river was much too twisty for sailing. I paddled up a majestic estirão at nine in the morning with a glorious tailwind egging me on as the sun rose cheerily to my left. I raised sail and sailed for twelve minutes until I got to the end of the straightaway; then the river curved sharply and the wind was in my face. So I lowerd sail, spit in my hands, and went back to paddling. Two hours later, I was tricked again, same story: sail briefly, then am forced to turn into dead spots or headwinds minutes later. Lower sail. Mutter darkly.
Repeat that cycle four or five times, and you get the drift of how Day 9 went. After that I didn´t bother raising sail anymore, even in the blusteriest of tailwinds, for the Rio Aracá meandered along through the jungle like a lost man, passing literally all points of the compass. During the course of one day I could paddle north, south, southwest, east, southeast, northwest, west, and north by northwest, in that order. By the time night fell I hardly knew which way was up, much less which way was north.
When compared to the majority of the rivers I had paddled until then, the Rio Aracá was a narrow stream with a light current that was almost negligable at times. Then again, even the mighty Mississippi seems narrow when compared to titanic rivers like the Amazon, the Negro, the Tapajós, and the Madiera, all of which I have paddled on. The Aracá was generally about seventy or eighty feet wide during that time of year, with some spots on the inside of sweeping bends that narrowed to as little as thirty feet, and others in the grand straightaways that opened up to a hundred feet or more. As a rule, the water was very shallow, and more often than not I would scratch the sandy bottom with the tip of my paddle as I ploughed along up the river. Still, there were some quite deep spots, which were always on the outsides of the bends along the steep banks, and occasionally along the estirãos. There I caught meaty cajú piranhas the size of frisbees on midwater spooks and occasinally, jerk baits – though the spooks seemed to be much preferred by my toothy future meals.
The days were mostly windy and sunny, and I often went three or four days between rain showers. Those low clouds that did occasionally sully the baby blue sky rarely dropped rain, and when they did it was light, short-lived, and highly concentrated. I once saw a rain cloud – singular – blowing on across the sky ahead of me with a curtian of grey smudge marks trailing down from it into the jungle. At first I thought it would pass over me, as we seemed to be on an inevitable collision course – but at the last minute it veered to the left, dumping a considerable amount of rain on the other side of the river while leaving my side, less than forty feet away, sunny as hell and drier than a Baptist county on a Wednesday night.
Though I was still less than two weeks into my voyage, I had already begun to lose a few things, most of them minor like a toothbrush (I had an extra) or a small bag of aracú hooks. But one night I discovered that I had lost something a bit more essential: the rubber O ring that kept my pressure cooker sealed while it was on the fire. It doesn´t look like much, but it´s critical for the cooker to work, since without it the steam hisses out the unsealed edges and your food is cooked as if it were in any ordinary pan.
I noticed the missing ring one night when I was preparing beans and caiman meat for a dish I had lovingly dubbed “Croc ‘n’ Beans” while camped up a dead-end igarapé near the abandoned village of Boa Vista. After tearing my canoe apart and finding the piece truly lost, I was forced to improvise, least I be reduced to cooking beans in an ordinary pot and having to wait four or five hours for my supper to be ready. I tried bits of plastic bags, which held a seal until the pressure got to something relatively significant, whereupon they ballooned out the edges of the pan, popped sharply, and emitted loud, grating, high-pitched whistels that went on until I took the pan off the fire. I tried using more plastic bags, which only resulted in more noise. I sat in my beach chair and pondered the problem for a bit before I hit on a possible winner. I had lost a rubber seal. Plastic did not work as a substitute. What did I have that is rubber?
Well, I had a roll of condoms.
Due to the region’s conspicuous lack of eligable females and human beings in general, I figured the odds of me getting laid in the immideate future were slim to none. So I broke into my stash of rubbers, cutting each one in half without unrolling it so that I had a piece of ragged latex about three inches long, which I super-glued to the inside of the pressure cooker’s lid. After doing this with five or six condoms, I had what could perhaps pass for a sealable lid. Following a few tests, and a few more condoms perishing without ever seeing the inside of a vagina, I had sealage. The little knob on top of the pressure cooker danced around in the darkness as steam rocketed out of it, and my Croc ‘n’ Beans was blasted with 500 lbs per square inch of boiling pressure and a hint of lube. Condom wrappers littered my campsite. It looked like I had just had myself a wild night – but in reality, I was just cooking beans.
After a week or so on the river I usually slide into a routine that helps the long days and nights mesh together more smoothly. After I reach that point the torrid afternoons on the river become a lot more tolerable; the canoe feels lighter, the fish are easier to catch, and meals are cooked faster, better, and more efficently. The trip starts to become really enjoyable. However, there are some days where everything seems to be working against you. Nothing turns out like you wanted it to; things break or sink to the bottom of the river, or jab your hands and fingers and leave tiny, bothersome wounds that fester for days – and everything that can sting you, does. You go to sleep thinking well, thank God that’s over with.
Day 11 was one of those days.
The night before I had cooked some salted mutum, or junglefowl, that Zeca had shot and shared with me before I left Elisbão. I made plenty so as to have leftovers for lunch the next day, and indeed I looked foreward to it, since mutum is a delicious game bird when cooked in soup. Only I left the leftovers on top of my stove as I slept, and during the night some creature – probably a possum – crept stealthily into camp, somehow knocked the pot off the stove without waking me up, and devoured its contents. By the time I woke up, even the bones were gone. Then, the wind started early and kept blowing the flame out on my propane stove, and it took a whole hour just to boil water for coffee.
I had no lunch, and paddled through a particularly hot day with few stops except to fish a handful of times – and of course I caught nothing. By four or four thirty I was tired, crabby, and had a slight headache. I stopped on a wide beach, but found no good hammock spots, so I crossed to the other side, which was mostly shallow igapó with a few small, low islands of sand mixed in. I bulldozed my way in to one of them, unloaded everything onto dry land, and paddled back across to the beach with my sack of nets to go fishing. I set out three nets, all in relatively shallow water off points of sand, then lay down on my back on the beach as the light bled out of the sky, and waited with a scowl for the nets to trap me some dinner.
Suddenly I heard short, loud vocalizations coming from the terra firme jungle ten or twenty feet up a forested bluff across the way, near the mouth of a lake. Two short pkat pkat‘s, followed by a long, crecendoing priiiiiw, the latter sounding almost like the squeal of a barnyard pig. It was the call of the jacumí, a forest-dwelling bird about the size of a small chicken that can be found forging on the rainforest floor in most areas of the Amazon Basin. It´s cousin, the jacú, is similar to a guan, and about the size of a small turkey. After the mutum, the jacú is the most commonly eaten wild bird in the Amazon, and the jacumí is also eaten, though less commonly since their smaller stature and tendancy to flee on foot into thick brush at the slightest hint of danger makes them much more difficult to hunt.
Not one to pass up the chance for fresh meat, I paddled quietly across to the mouth of the lake, following the sound of the jacumí´s noisy vocalizations. Based on the sounds, there were several – at least three. Two sounded about twenty yards back, while a third pkatted somewhere close to the river directly above me on the high bank. I tied off to some roots and crept slowly up. The ground was soft and mossy with few dry leaves, so I was able to advance very stealthily and made little noise. When I got to the top I froze; the jacumí was still hidden in some underbrush, but he was very close; his pkats were practically earsplitting. Then there was a rustle, and all at once he popped out next to a giant fern ten or fifteen feet away, oblivious to my presence.
It was a close shot, and there was no way I could miss. But it was one of those days, and miss is exactly what I did. I paddled back to my nets, scowling again, and checked to see if I had any fish. Normally, three nets would have caught at least two or three nice ones after a whole hour in low water – but since it was one of those days, all the nets were empty. I left them in the water as darkness fell, and paddled back across to where I had left my gear to set up camp. There, I discovered that all bags, the ice chest, tarps, pots and pans – basically everything I had thrown up onto the beach – had become infested with venomous fire ants.
Being from the American South, I am no stranger to fire ants. They had already invaded the Gulf Coast by way of fruit shipments from Brazil decades before I was born, and as a child who enjoyed running around my backyard barefoot and turning over rocks and old logs, by the time I left Texas in 2009 I had been bitten enough times to knock down a horse. Still, that by no means suggests that I in any way enjoy encounters with fire ants – unless it´s to throw a dead bird in the nest so I can come back the next day and remove a perfectly intact skeleton, devoid of even the tiniest scrap of meat. Fire ants in your campsite is not good.
It had actually been quite awhile since I had came across bad fire ants in the Amazon, not since the Paraná do Uariá at the beginning of last year (though on the Paraná I accumulated enough fire ant experiences to last me several lifetimes). Generally, they will not bother you too much so long as you don´t upset the nest. However, once the rains begin and the rivers rise, the ants get flooded out, and to survive they band together – tens of thousands of them – to form a living raft made entirely out of ants, with eggs, larvae, and dead bodies on the bottom to provide extra flotation. This ant raft will drift around, sometimes for weeks, until it bumps in to a tree or something resembling land that they can colonize and build a new nest upon (on the Paraná during the high season, my canoe was colonized during the night on several occasions).
The problem is, when the waters are high the ants usually end up landing on very small patches of land, and in areas with a lot of fire ants several rafts will oftentimes come to rest on one small island. With nowhere else to go the ants have no choice but to stay on the island – and until the waters go back down, food becomes very scarce, and the fire ants consume everything they find even remotely edible – including one another. On the Paraná, we came across abandoned houses on stilts that sat in the middle of flooded cattle fields. These houses were literally crawling with fire ants who had been flooded out of the field and then drifted to the house. There were so many you couldn’t see the walls or parts of the floor, and if you let even the tiniest drop of vegetable oil or one single grain of rice fall to the floor, it was covered with ants within seconds.
Here on this sandy island in the Rio Aracá, it seemed an ant raft had drifted ashore after being flooded out by the mini rainy season. And they were hungry. All the sugar in my ice chest had holes eaten in the plastic bags and fire ants were mixed in with the sweet crystels. They were in my clothes, my hammock, in clusters of thousands on my stove, even in the pages of my journal. By light of flashlight I began Ant Control, which basically consists of me getting bitten almost nonstop for about ten or fifteen minutes as I shake ants out of my possessions and swear colorfully.
After removing most of the loathsome creatures, I hung my tarp and hammock, stacked most of my gear back in the canoe where the ants couldn´t get at it, and left a plate with about a centimeter of oil in it near where the highest concentration of ants was, both as bait to keep them away from where my hammock and stove sat, and as a trap, since they tend to fall into deep oil by the thousands, where they inevitably drown.
I paddled back across to the beach to check my nets, which by now had been in the water for several hours, and to my dismay took out nothing but a small sardinha no bigger than my hand. I cleaned the miniscule fish right then and there, took him and my nets back to camp, and cooked spaghetti with a red sauce I made from some coloral and the sardinha. Fire ants bit my feet the whole time, and just as I fired up the stove it started pouring down raining, and wind swooped in and made the flame sputter, nearly putting it out on various occasions until the weather passed half an hour later. As I went to sleep that night, I scratched the ant bites on my ankles and thought, well, thank God that´s over with.
For every hard day, a good day follows it. Day 12 was neither too hot nor too rainy. I made the mouth of the Rio Curundurí by midday, where I sat on a small beach and ate leftover spaghetti, watching as a large canoe loaded with piaçabeiros came out from the mouth loaded with piaçaba. They didn´t stop, but one of them looked at me, and I heard him say to the another in a loud voice, so as to be heard over the motor, “É aquele gringo que anda só.” It’s that gringo who travels alone. So I was. How they knew me, I couldn’t say – but Barcelos is a small town and word travels fast.
I camped that night far back in a lake one giant bend up from the Curundurí. There were no ideal campsites but I found a game trail leading out of some elephant grass that was on flat ground. No ideal hammock trees, but some flimsy palms did the trick. I cleared the area with the machete, and after I had taken care of the elephant grass the spot was actually quite cozy and with few mosquitos. There was a lot of flattened grass around and I recokned the spot must be a bedding area for wild hogs or tapir. I threw a few lures for awhile with no success, then set out two nets, which provided me with three mandubé catfish and a big sardinha about a foot long. I sautéed the mandubés and ate them with rice. A bold waxing gibbous moon illuminated everything. There were no ants.
My Dad once said that it semeed like in the Amazon, you´re constantly trading one annoynce for another. In the place of the fire ants were termites, something I discovered the next morning. Mostly they just got into the ice chest, which they oftentimes do since for some reason they have a deep love for eating styrofoam. I much prefer them to ants, since they don´t touch the food, but they are still annoying, especially when they get into backpacks and eat holes in my clothes. On the morning of day 13 I found the ice chest riddled with no less than four termite tunnels, one going up each side. I demolished them and drowned the termites in the lake, watching as minnows tore them apart like miniature tiger sharks.
There´s a Saturday Night Live skit that I´m reminded of whenever I think about how the rest of the morning went. It´s called “Bad Idea Jeans.” Basically, people put on Bad Idea Jeans and then proceed to get bad ideas, like having unprotected sex with hookers in west Africa, because “what could it hurt?” Bad Idea Jeans.
There was a current coming through a small gap in the trees, and acording to the map, the lake had camped on was on the inside of a big bend in the river. Logically, the current must have been coming from the other side of the bend. I had heard a boat motor while I was making breakfast and it sounded very close. There were a couple of vines blocking the way, but I could cut them. Shortcut, here I come.
Bad Idea Jeans.
I poled my way into the forest, wacking away at a few vines and some small trees. After about 30 yards it started to get a little tight but again the keen blade of my machete cleared the way and I blazed on. After fifty yards I was completely surrounded by elephant grass and small molongó trees. I no longer paddled, and to move myself forward I had to grab ahold of trees and underbrush ahead and pull myself over the grass and low, half-submerged bushes. Not ideal canoing territory – but no worries, it would clear up. Onward!
Bad Idea Jeans.
The spines began, a few jauarí palms and other unplesant relatives. I chopped them up and lodged spines into the sides of my fingers. Shoving, swearing, fuck this and goddamned spines you miserable sons of bitches, and finally I came out into a proper igapó, elephant grass in the rearview mirror. The igapó was thick, mostly fat black molongó trees, but what looked like a trail went back in the general direction I believed the river to be. Followed it; didn’t last long. Hacked, shoved, left bits of green paint on protuding black molongó branches from scraping my poor canoe across them. Once I bumped into an old rotten tree, which showered me and my canoe with thousands of very upset termites. Did you know that they bite when disturbed in such a way? Their pointy little heads drill into you like awls. By now I was at least 150 yards back, but I must have been close by then. I came this far. Branch blocking my way? Slash, hack, hew. No turning back.
Bad Idea Jeans.
Razor grass, a wall of it. Twenty minutes of hacking, and it just gets worse. I can’t see ten feet further back. A lot of spiders, all of a sudden. No opening anywhere. Bushwacking halted. Defeated, the explorer reluctantly heads back the way he came. It was hard to turn around; had to do a good portion of the return trip in reverse until I could find a relatively open spot to bring my bow around. It took half an hour to follow the trail I had made back out, and it was only a little easier that time around. Sweat bees swarmed and my sail kept getting knocked into the water by branches. I made it back to that morning’s camp by eleven or so, and paddled out the lake to the river, leaving the Bad Idea Jeans behind to rot on the lakeshore.
I met with the Tayaçú fishing yacht again immideatly after leaving the lake. As the sleek, white vessel motored downriver the aluminun lancha it was towing broke off and vroomed over to me. My two friends, Elton and Sebastian, brought me leftover pancakes, cornbread, and three cold soft drinks, shaking their heads in disbelif as they eyed my canoe and sunburned face.
“Thirteen days?” said Elton as he rolled a cigarette.
“That’s almost two weeks,” remarked Sebastian, master of the obvious.
“I’m just getting started, man,” I said in between huge, greedy gulps of ice cold guaraná soda. God, did it taste good. “The Rio Jauarí is still a long ways from here. Did you guys go up that far?”
Elton shook his head. “Nah, just to the Serrinha. River is starting to dry, there’s a lot of rocks and low spots. The Tayaçú can’t get through, no way. Hey, why’s you’re canoe all covered in sticks and stuff?”
“Ah, I tried to cut through the igapó back behind that lake over there.”
“Didn’t work, huh?”
“Not one of my better ideas.”
The duo motored off to the Tayaçú, leaving me to myself. I drank all three sodas within five minutes, one after the other, before they started to get hot. Terns cawed irritably at me from the beach as I paddled by, and the Rio Aracá was mine again.
One morning I was awoken just after dawn at my campsite in some low trees along the main river, which I had figured the night before to be just about right on the equator. The sound of an approaching aluminum lancha had shaken me from sleep; they cruised by from upriver, then stopped and steered in my direction. I hurridly rolled out of my hammock and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes; it’s not every day you get visitors at your jungle camp. On the equator.
The men wanted some sugar for their coffee. I rummaged around in my ice chest, found some with dead fire ants mixed in, gave it to them. They were tantalite men, and had come from the Rio Jauarí.
“How’s the river up there?” I asked, squatting on some roots as one of the men spooned sugar out the plastic bag and into their coffee.
“Dry man, really dry. It took us two days in this lancha to get down from João Carreca’s camp way up in the headwaters. You heard of it?”
“It’s way up there. You go up the Jauarí until you can’t go up anymore. It might actually be in Venezuela, technically.”
“Close to the Serra, eh?”
“Man, you are surrounded by mountains. Lots of trees fallen over the river, though, this time of year. A real pain in the ass for us to get back down to the Aracá.”
The sugar man finished sweetening the coffee, and gave the bag back to me. “Thanks,” he said.
“No problem. You fellas have a nice trip back to Barcelos.”
“Ok. Be careful up there, after João Carreca comes down around Christmas you’ll be all alone on that river until late January. This time of year, nobody goes up there.”
On December 15th, my mother’s birthday, I arrived to the last caborclo village of the Rio Aracá. It was nearly dark when I arrived, with a bold, nearly full waxing gibbous moon hovering over the village in the darkening sky. Popping sounds and enthusiastic shouts echoed across the river from the community as the villagers wrapped up an evening game of soccer. I moored to a floating dock and climbed the stairs up the steep, white clay riverbank. Right at the top I was received by ten or fifteen eager, smiling faces.
“Wow, that was fast!” said one. “We saw you coming around that bend way down there, and less than half an hour later, here you are!”
“He’s used to paddling,” said another. “He paddled here all the way from the USA.”
“Actually, it was just from Pará,” I corrected.
“Oh, you speak Portuguese! That’s great! We thought you couldn’t speak Portuguese.”
“Who told you that? How do you know I’m American, by the way?”
“Oh, Dico said something, and everybody in Barcelos. The gringo cabeludo, they call you. We saw you paddling in Barcelos, too, didn’t we Samuel?”
“We saw you paddling in Barcelos,” confirmed Samuel.
“Man, you paddle everywhere! Why don’t you buy a motor, wouldn’t that be easier?”
“Easier, yes,” I admitted. “But less fun.”
“He’s an aventureiro,” said a short, brawny man in his late thirties. “He’s not in a hurry.”
“I’m not in a hurry either, but I still won’t even paddle from here to the other side of the river!”
“You young fellows,” interrupted a toothless old man. “When I was young we paddled all the time. I paddled to Barcelos, to the rapids at the Yanomami, to the Serra, and to go fishing. There weren’t any motors. Motors have made you lazy.”
“Motors have made us fast!” said the young buck, cradeling the soccer ball.
“Motors are easy,” said the brawny man. “Paddling is dead, mostly. It’s nice to see someone with so much dedication, though.”
We all went back down to the river, where the sweaty, excited young men lept into the river and the women washed dishes in preparation for supper. I loaded my gear into a large, completely closed off canoe, which belonged to José Alberto, the brawny man.
“Nice shotgun!” said Louro, the enthusiastic eighteen-year-old son of José Alberto and brother of Samuel. “Brand new, eh?”
“Nah, I just painted it,” I replied, handing it over to the eager Louro for inspection.
“It’s important to have a shotgun in the Serra,” said José Alberto. “There are many jaguars and venomous snakes there.”
“And tapir!” said Samuel from under the floating dock.” “Dad killed five up there last year, didn’t you Dad?”
“I killed two. Dico shot the other three.”
“They’re huge up there, Patrick!” said Louro, handing me my gun back. “Dico says he once saw one that was 1,000 kilos.”
“My brother likes to tell stories,” said José Alberto. “Anta don’t get bigger than 500 kilos. But 500 kilos is still a very large beast.”
“Where is Dico, anyways?” I asked, stowing the last of my gear.
“Ah, he went downriver to Limão Lake to fish irapuka turtles.”
“Really? I didn’t see or hear any boats these past three days.”
“He paddled. He doesn’t have any gas left.”
“Ah, so paddling isn’t dead after all!” I said triumphantly.
“Paddling remains dead only as long as we have gasoline,” admitted Jose Alberto. “And as soon as that runs out, we’ve got to resort to the tried and true old methods.”
I nodded. “It’s not like there’s any gas stations around here.”
“Sometimes we can buy it from the Yanomami when they are heading upriver, or the FUNAI lancha, or even piaçabeiros. But generally, gas is gold up here. We don’t even have an electric generator.”
“So no telenovelas, huh?”
“No telenovelas,” confirmed José Alberto.
Later that evening we sat outside José Alberto’s house feasting on peacock bass soup and farinha so fresh it was still warm from the oven. Despite no electricity, no one held flashlights in the crooks of their necks while they ate. The moon illuminated everything, it’s pale, silvery light washing softly over the quaint village of three families. Instead of finding out whether or not Natasha perished in the flames at her mansion house, we sat around the handmade table long after the soup had run out, talking about water levels in the river.
“The water is coming down,” said José Alberto. “It’s gone down two hands in the past week.”
“The fishing is getting better,” said Samuel.
“My son loves to fish,” said José Alberto. “He fishes all day. He never gets tired of fishing.”
“I caught twelve today,” said Samuel proudly. He was a skinny boy who didn’t look like he was more than eight or nine years old, but José Alberto told me later he was thirteen.
“What kind of fish?” I asked.
“Peacock bass, of course. Look, this is my bait.” He procured a roll of fishing line wrapped around a stick, to the end of which was tied an old, battle-scarred red and white midwater spook.
“He tosses that all day, when the river is dry,” said Louro. “I can’t fish like that. My arms get tired. I’d rather catch pacú with a cane pole.”
I was impressed that the lad could toss a spook all day long on a handline, without even the simple aid of a rod and reel. He must have been a master at untangling fishing line.
“I have two fishing poles with reels,” I said. “And a bunch of baits. Maybe I’ll take the day off tomorrow and we can go fishing with poles.”
“Okay!” said Samuel happily.
“He loves to fish,” said José Alberto.
I slept in the farinha shack that evening. The morning was announced by the trills and cackles of parrots and jacumí from the nearby roças, and I took breakfast at the long table with the family.
“We have a radio here,” said José Alberto as he refilled my coffee cup.
“Ah, well that’s good, at least you can listen to music,” I replied.
“No, not that kind of radio. Radio fonia, talking radio. We can talk to people in Barcelos, in Santa Isabel, in São Gabriel. Sometimes we even pick up transmissions from far off places in Acre and Mato Grosso.”
“Wow, that’s cool!” I said. To me, radio transmissions across the wilderness screamed Old Fasioned Adventurer. I must send one. “Hey, do you think I could send a message to a friend of mine in Barcelos, so he can in turn get in contact with my family?”
“Oh yes, ceartinly. ASIBA9 works from seven to eight in the morning, then twelve to one in the afternoon, then six to seven in the evening.” He looked at his watch. “It’s seven o’clock now. Shall we go and try?”
9 Asociação Indígina de Barcelos. The radio is manned and payed for by the city government to provide communication for citizens living in the interior. In the Amazon, most municipalities provide such a service.
We walked across the community to the far end, where a small shack with a solar panel on top sat amongst some wild sugar cane. The real radio shack. Jose Alberto clicked on the battery, then ginned up the radio, which required him to pump a lever several times and then hit a button. There was a loud POP and the radio hummed to life. Strange whirrs and twitters came out the speaker, which soon took the shape of words.
“ASIBA, Bacuquara, chamando,” said Jose Alberto into the mic. “ASIBA, Bacuquara, chamando.” There was no answer but the far off chatter of someone talking in Spanish. “Venezuelans,” he said, then tried hailing ASIBA again. He gave it a few more attempts, but there was no answer from Barcelos. He shrugged. “Maybe they haven’t turned on the radio yet.”
“I can wait.”
So we waited. We listened as Rosilet from Roçada, along the upper Rio Uneuixí, talked with Santa Isabel about her sick daughter and asked when the floating hospital would pass by her village again.
They said they would be back at the beginning of this month, but still nothing, said Rosilet.
Affirmative Roçada, they were supposed to be back on the Uneuixí on 10 December, over.
Well, they’re still not here. She’s getting very bad, she won’t even get out of bed anymore and she only drinks water. Over.
Copy that Roçada, and there’s no way you can take her here to Santa Isabel?
We have no gas, my husband is coming back to the village with more next week, but we can’t leave until then.
Understood. I’ll try to get ahold of the floating hospital and see where they are. They should be en route, over.
Okay. Thank you, Rubinho.
No problem, Dona Rosilet.
Messages flew across the radio waves, from all corners of the Rio Negro basin. Mothers inquired as to when their sons would be returning home to the village, gossip was exchanged, announcements were made, such as “all professors who are planning on attending the area meeting in Bom Jesus on the Padauirí should be informed that the dates have been changed, from Wednesday to Friday.” Occasionally José Alberto would hail an aquaintence he heard in some village or another, and say things like, “Is it raining over there? Here it’s dry as a bone, verão forte, there’s beaches popping up all over the place.”
Finally, ASIBA signed on at ten minutes past eight. “ASIBA, Bacuquara, chamando,” hailed José Alberto.
Bacuquara, ASIBA, how are you, José Alberto?
“Very fine Chiquinho, thanks. How’s the weather out there, over?”
“Really? Here it’s dry as a bone, verão forte, there’s beaches popping up all over the place.”
Lucky dog. The Aracá is a beautiful river, over.
“Positivo, ASIBA, it sure is. Look, I have a lad here who would like to send a message to a friend in Barcelos.”
Copy that, what’s the message and who’s it for, over.
Jose Alberto looked at me. “Um, it’s for Gerard. He lives in the red house across from the airport,” I said.
“Message for Gerard, who lives in the red house across from the airport,” repeated José Alberto into the mic.
Copy that. What’s the message?
José Alberto handed me the mic. “Ah, ok ASIBA the message is as follows… ummm…’arrived safely to Bacuquara…fifteen days on the river…everything going as planned. Fishing good, river lovely…lots of wind but nothing I can’t handle…ETA to Serra 28 December. Send love to my mom, yesterday was her birthday, and my brother, 02 Dec was his birthday.’ End of message. Do you copy?”
Positivo, Bacuquara. We’ll pass on the message, over.
“Thanks a lot, ASIBA, I appreciate it.”
Don’t mention it. Hey, are you that gringo that paddled here from Germany?
“From Pará, actually. Over.”
Copy that, from Pará. I saw you paddling in Barcelos.
“Yeah, seems like a lot of people did.”
You kind of stand out, over.
“Yeah, I reckon I do. Over.”
Well, I’ll pass on the message. Boa viagem, gringo cabeludo!
“Thanks, ASIBA.” I handed the mic back to José Alberto. “Bacuquara, signing off,” he said, and shut off the radio.
“Over there, by that log, there’s a big one that always hangs out underneath,” said Samuel. “I’ve been trying to catch him for weeks, but he’s pretty smart.”
I cast a popper over by the log and twitched it along across the surface of the water. It made a satisfying bewoop sound, which amused Samuel.
“What do fish think that thing is?” he laughed, casting one of my spooks on the other end of the log and reeling it steadily in. After a few disasters, he’d gotten the hang of the spinner reel, and now he was casting it better than I could.
“Maybe a frog,” I said, still bewooping the popper back to the canoe. Suddenly there was a violent splash and the lure dissapered under the surface, and the drag on my reel screamed as a fish pulled it out.
“It’s the big one!” cried Samuel.
“He must like frogs,” I said, reeling. I let the fish play out some drag, then worked him steadily in. As my quarry got closer and closer to the canoe he started coming up to the surface, and a few spectacular leaps and backflips revealed the fish to be a paca peacock bass, maybe six or seven pounds. I almost had him to the canoe when the fish rocketed out of the water, shaking it’s head furiously and throwing the popper high into the air. The bass plopped back into the water and dissapered.
“Awwww!” said Samuel. “That was the big one for sure.”
“Ah, you’ll catch him eventually,” I said, reeling in the slack line.
“That’s a cool frog bait,” he said.
I cut it off the end of my line. “You can have it,” I said. “I hardly use it, anyways.”
“Okay!” said Samuel gleefully, taking it and quickly switching out the spook for his new prize. I tied a topwater jerk bait on my line, one of the only big baits that Dad had brought when he came down here. We fished for awhile in the white molongós, and I caught three small butterfly peacocks, each maybe two pounds, and Samuel caught two more and a traira. Then we paddled to the current along the front of Bacuquara and floated down the river, casting spooks into the deep water along the high banks. We each caught two fat cajú piranhas and Samuel hooked some long, silvery creature that got off before he could land it. Neither of us had any idea what that was.
We fished for several more hours, all the way to a lake downriver aways, where Samuel landed a nice paca peacock that was probably five pounds. I caught two traira. Then it started to rain, so we paddled back to the village, which took about an hour as we had floated downriver quite a ways.
When we got back Samuel excitedly ran up the stairs to show one of his sisters his new “frog bait,” and the women grabbed the fish out of my canoe and began cleaning them very quickly and efficently. José Alberto was up in the farinha shack, stirring wet, freshly shredded mandioc around on a large metal pan situated above a clay oven, making farinha.
“Samuel likes the frog bait,” he said, stirring.
“He likes to fish,” I said.
We sat around the family table that evening, with more fish soup and more fresh farinha, the latter which Jose Alberto scooped out of a massive 55 gallon drum that was filled almost to the brim.
“There were some Japanese guys here last year, in Marlon’s boat,” said the caborclo, closing the drum with a large, flat board. “They asked us why we make so much farinha. I told him it takes my family less than a month to eat this whole bucket’s worth.” He sat down, smiling. “They didn’t believe me.”
“I believe you,” I said, watching Louro not spoon, but dump farinha over his soup until you could no longer see the food and it just looked like a plate of moist, crushed mandioc. Meanwhile, Samuel did the same, the popper sitting next to his plate. I helped myself as well; in town, farinha is an expensive commodity, going usually for five or six reais per liter, though I’ve seen it in Manaus for twelve.
“You don’t sell it?” I asked, stirring.
“We used to, but not so much anymore. We have other jobs in town we sometimes work at, and of course we receive money from Bolsa Familia for the children.”
Bolsa Familia is a program run by the Brazilian Federal Government, basically a handout to the lower-class population in Brazil that can probably be accuratly described as welfare. Families whose gross monthly income is below a certain amount automatically qualify, reciving a monthly stiphend based on a) how much (or rather, how little) money they claim to earn, and b) the number of times they have managed to procreate – and as a rule, the caborclo man is poor and quite good at procreating. Bolsa Familia has been around for about ten years, and since it took effect millions of Brazilians, especially in the north and the northeast, began reciving monthly checks from Auntie Dilma (previously Uncle Lula, the program’s founder). In fact, such a large percentage of Brazilians qualified for Bolsa Familia that there are several towns in the northeast where more than 98% of the population no longer works at paying jobs, surviving entirely off the government checks.
The beginning of the Bolsa Familia is blamed by many Amazonians for the sharp increase in the price of farinha. A few years ago it was three reais or less per liter, but now you’d be hard pressed to find it for less than five in any county seat. An old fisherman on the Rio Madiera once explained the now-obvious situation to me:
“Before Bolsa Familia, the caborclo family had to work hard for all of their money. And what is the traditional job of the caborclo? Plant a roça, make farinha, and sell it in the county seat. Oh, he still plants his roça and makes his farinha. But he eats it all up. He doesn’t need to sell it anymore – and when nobody sells farinha, the supply no longer can meet the demand and so, prices soar.”
Of course, I remembered the caborclo’s complaints that the Yanomami are lazy and don’t work since they receive government checks merely for being Indians, and the rather hypocritical mindset it revealed didn’t slip by me unnoticed. While it’s true not all caborclos receive checks, and all Yanomami do, I don’t reckon the caborclo has a lot of room to criticize the Indians for accepting government handouts. Really, in the Amazon, heading into town to receber their government checks is as much a part of life as turtle fishing and watching the telenovela.
The caborclo has always been a poor man, ever since the beginning. And today, he is still a poor man. He still saves broken flashlights so he can scavenge the parts and fix some other one, dives to the bottom of the river to save one fish hook, and carefully rations out tobacco, smoking even the powdery remains at the bottom of the pouch. The caborclo is far from lazy, and with few exceptions he is the most honest, hardworking man I have ever met. So why should the Yanomami be any different?
A sack of oranges, three Rayovac AA batteries, about five pounds of charcoal, and eight liters of farinha sat on the long handmade table in front of José Alberto´s house.
“Wow,” I said.
“You’ll need it,” said Jose Alberto.
“Even the batteries?”
“You said yours were shit.”
“They are shit. Panasonic doesn’t even last one night.”
“Then take these, they might end up lasting two.”
I sighed. “Thanks, José Alberto.”
He grinned and patted me on the back. “No problem, gringo cabeludo. When you come back I want a hundred kilos of tapir meat, ok?”
“I’m not shooting tapirs. I don’t even have enough salt.”
“Ah, but you can get more, from Inalda!”
“Right, Inalda. How far did you say it was?”
“About ten hours upriver from here, by rabeta.”
“Right. And you’re sure she’s going to be there?”
“I haven’t seen her coming down yet.”
I climbed into my canoe and sat on the old pants and shirts that I used to cushion my ass from the hard wood of the bench. Another day, another fifteen or twenty kilometers closer. I gave José Alberto a salute.
“See you later my friend! Thanks for the hospitality.”
“Falou, Patrick! And watch out for snakes and stuff.”
“Trust me — I always do.”
And with that, I left the last village. Samuel was still fishing nearby – with the popper, of course.