Continued from this post.
VI. The Upper Aracá
Past the mouth of the Rio Mararí, the Aracá became much narrower. José Alberto had said that this had been the last trip the Tayaçú would take into the upper Aracá until the rains started back up again, though I couldn’t imagine how she had made it up even this far. There were beaches around literally every bend, and their shallows sometimes stretched almost to the other side of the river, leaving only a narrow channel of navigable water about twenty or thirty feet wide – and even that was sometimes log-choked. The shallows of the beaches could be bothersome, since even in my canoe, which drafts something like five inches, I would sometimes misjudge the depth of the water and run aground, then have to get out and drag her to deeper waters.
The good thing about the shallows was the sheer abundance of fish and other creatures I was able to see. When passing by low areas that were in dead water, perhaps around the downriver point of a beach or at the mouth of a lagoon, small, colorful fish would flit around in the sun-warmed, sandy-bottomed shallows, and when my paddle dipped in nearby they spooked dramatically, and whole schools of them lept from the water in unison, and the river roiled with fish for a second or two.
It wasn´t just little fish, either; long, powerful açú peacock bass, some easily topping fifteen pounds, lurked near submerged logs in less than eight inches of water, and predatory groups of aruanã – a long, scaly, dragon-like fish known for its ability to leap five or six feet out of the water to catch insects, small frogs, and even birds – darted around and swallowed up whole schools of minnows in synchronized attacks10. Stingrays, both spotted and sandy-colored, floated around or sat partially buried on the bottom with only the eyes showing. Some specimens were no larger than a poker chip, though the average size seemed to be about two feet across . However, the further upriver I got, the bigger and more numerous were the stingrays. One gargantuan specimen I saw was easily five feet across with a barb the size of a coloring pencil. It sat in water so shallow that its back heaved and protruded out of the water whenever it took a particularly deep breath.
10The aruanã is also known for its ability to shoot water out of its mouth as much as three meters into the air, knocking down insects and other prey from overhanging branches
Schools of many different subspecies of acará danced around in the current, while the barracuda dogfish hunted anything that moved in the extreme shallows and beach inlets. Jacaréranas, small, semi-aquatic monitor lizards with tails nearly identical to that of a crocodilian, nabbed small fish and any insect unfortunate enough to fall into the shady waters they frequented. These were easily distinguished from the similar looking nine-lined racer skinks by the way they moved. The skinks scurried; the jacaréranas slithered.
One morning I rounded a bend and noticed a large black blob in the shallows of the downriver end of the beach just ahead. I couldn´t imagine what it was, and paddled curiously over to investigate. As I drew closer, I saw with some excitement that it was a particularly large rounded river turtle, known to the caborclos as cabeçudo, or big-headed, due to it´s thick, leathery head and neck. They generally are about a foot and a half long and one foot wide, though this one was about two and a half feet long and two feet wide. The turtle tried to swim away as I came closer, but the water was no more than a few feet deep and I was between him and the open river. The only place he had to run was the wide, open beach, and since cabeçudos are slow, awkward swimmers I captured him before he even made it there. The rounded turtles are strong and avid biters, with a jaw strength that could be compared to the alligator snapping turtle of the southern United States. Fortunately they lack the preposterously long neck that makes alligator snappers able to bite a person holding it by its shell, so long as I kept my fingers clear of his head there wasn´t much that he could do.
I rummaged around in the bottom of my canoe and cleared a space. After some difficulty, due to the turtle violently struggling and scratching my hands with its long claws, I managed to shove him in there, then stacked some bags and other items on top of him so he couldn´t move around too much. That evening, using some of the charcoal from José Alberto, I built a fire on a beach and then dug a nice hole in the sand and filled it with hot coals. I hacked open the cabeçudo, gutted it, washed it out, filled it with farinha, and roasted it over the coals for about forty-five minutes as I read Candice Millard’s River of Doubt. The food was beyond delicious (though I wish I could say the same for the literary fodder). In fact, the turtle had a lot more meat than I had figured. Alive, it probably weighed fifteen pounds, and at least six or seven pounds of it was edible meat. It took me two entire days of eating, and eating well – turtle for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, each time eating until I literally couldn´t hold any more – until I had finished the whole thing. I even made a farofinha11 out of the liver, which in itself was probably enough to make a meal when mixed with all that farinha.
11 Mixture of farinha cooked together with any type or meat, but usually organs
Even if I hadn´t caught the turtle, there was little chance I would have starved on this stretch of the Rio Aracá. True to Pastora´s stories, large, fat fish were abundant and easy to catch. My most common catches were butterfly peacock bass, with a few paca peacocks mixed in, cajú piranha, and aruanã. I used a variety of baits, though the ones that seemed to catch the largest fish were the giant Wood Chopper prop baits – though sometimes I would hook a butterfly peacock on one that was scarcely larger than the bait itself.
The most reliable baits were midwater spooks and jerk baits, which were invaribly a hit with aruanã, the big piranhas, and the butterfly peacock bass. On one topwater jerk bait (one of the two or three that Dad had left behind) I hooked two butterflies at the same time, though I only landed one. After one hit it and got hooked on the back hook, another came torpedoing in from somewhere and tried to steal the bait right out of the first fish’s mouth, and in the process managed to hook himself on the middle hook.
The big açús, however, would not touch jerk baits, and especially not the spooks. Once I saw a açú that must have been twenty pounds in some shallows while paddling past yet another beach, and I ran a spook literally right by his head several times, with no result – in fact, he seemed to be a bit scared of it. I changed baits to a Wood Chopper, cast it almost right on top of him, and I hadn´t even started reeling in when he hit it with such explosive force that it flew four or five feet into the air. I didn´t hook him, though, since he had only smacked it with his tail, and after that he vanished into deeper water – but later I had good results with larger peacock bass and aruanã using big prop baits. Like my Dad always says, the bigger the bait, the bigger the fish.
I soon rediscovered that fishing with lures, a rod, and a reel is an addictive thing. Before this trip, I had no such equipment, and I fished primarily with nets and the zagaia. Fishing with nets is more like trapping fish; you set out a net in what looks to be a good stretch of water, and then wait for fish to get tangled in it. Sometimes you can tow it around for awhile to see if you can catch more, but in general, net fishing is a sit-and-wait kind of deal. On the plus side, it gives you plenty of time to take care of camp chores and other necessary things while at the same time fishing. Usually, if I put a net out at 5, spend an hour setting up camp and cleaning my canoe, by the time I check the net at 6 there’s enough fish in it for me to start making dinner. The down side is that the net oftentimes gets tangled on underwater logs when you put it out in unfamiliar waters – and I’m almost always in unfamiliar waters – and you have to dive down to untangle it unless you want to cause dolphin-level destruction to your net. Which is really no problem, but I admit it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing at night.
Fishing with the zagaia is more interactive, and more fun. You have to stalk the fish, being very quiet and sneaky, and at the moment you decide to strike it might turn out that you are faster than the fish, in which case you are then a successful fisherman. But more often than not, the fish turns out to be faster than you, and you are still a fisherman, only a more hungry one.
Fishing artificials with rods and reels is not always the most fun way to fish, since you can cast 500 times or all bloody day and not get even the slightest hint of a hit – but its addictive because you know that while reeling in any one of those 500 casts you may feel the sudden jerk of an aruanã pulverizing your midwater spook or the spectacular splash and the subsequent whinnying of the drag on your reel as a big peacock bass murders your topwater lure. And reeling them in! That is adrenaline. Especially with fish like peacock bass and aruanã, the fight can be long, hard on your lure and perhaps your reel, and highly exciting. The fish fling themselves to impressive heights above the water, turning backflips and doing their damnedest to shake your lure out of their mouth – and meanwhile you´re doing your damnedest to keep them from taking the bait into some underwater sticks and knocking it out. The fish flops and splashes around, and goes under the canoe so you have to keep spinning around like a fucking rocket top to keep yourself on the same side as he is. You keep adjusting your drag so he doesn´t break the line and piss off with your favorite spook, while at the same time trying to keep one hand on the pole so he doesn’t jerk it out of your grip and piss off with the whole setup – and finally the fish is tiring, and you have him right up close to the canoe, you can practically touch him – but even then he still sometimes manages to shake your lure at the last minute, leaving you with slack line and a pounding heart, fishless but not mad at all, because that was as fucking fun as fishing gets.
Thanks to my new addiction, I perhaps did not make as much progress per day on the upper Aracá as I could have. Every time I passed the mouth of a lake, or indeed any spot where I heard the splashes of peacock bass feeding, I rarely was able to avoid the temptation to paddle just a little ways in and make just a few casts. If after a few casts my lures drew no attention, I usually stowed my rod and paddled on. But oftentimes I would get a few hits, but no hookups, and then I would be, ahem, hooked, and it’s possible I would spend an entire hour casting around there trying to get that fish to bite again. And every time I saw a big açú or paca in the shallows, naturally I would cast a prop bait at him over and over and over again until he got tired of hearing the splashes and swam to a different area. And I would follow him, and cast a different prop bait at him over and over and over again until he finally got fed up with the whole situation and vanished into deeper water where I couldn’t see him anymore.
Of course, sometimes he actually hit the lure, and when he did it was worth the two hours I spent chasing him around the edge of the beach. While doing this I would often push the canoe up onto the sandbar and fish on foot, and sometimes I would be so distracted that I would forget to keep an eye on my boat. Once, she slipped loose and drifted into the middle of the river, and I didn’t notice until she was a few hundred yards downriver, tangled in some sticks on the other side. I had to swim across, of course, and paddle back to the beach. Blame fishing.
Generally, I did not catch and release, though I caught more than enough for myself to eat. I was thinking ahead to the time I would spend atop the plateau, where I would perhaps be able to hunt, though with no guarantees of killing anything. As my Dad would say, “That’s why they call it hunting, and not shooting.” In any case, I would certainly not be able to fish up there. I needed a food stockpile, so whatever I did not immediately consume I salted and dried in the consistent sun, then added it to my Bag ‘o’ Salted Meat, which by day 21 weighed a good fifteen pounds, filled with headless butterfly peacock bass, a few aruanã, and the remains of the caiman meat I shot on the Deméni. The heads I did not salt, as they tend to not preserve so well, so I usually made a fish head soup during the night and sipped on the broth the next day between meals, sucking out any residual meat from the heads, jawbones, and gills before most cigarette breaks.
During the days after I left Bacuquara the moon was so full and bright that one evening I decided to paddle by night. That day I had spent quite a long time in a small lagoon fishing (catching nothing but getting enough hits to make me stay there for hours) and as night fell I realized that I had probably made less than five miles throughout the course of the entire day. I was just going to camp in the lagoon, but then I spotted the spectacular moonrise to the southeast and decided that I would continue paddling until I felt like I had actually advanced a significant distance.
Paddling by light of the moon is one of the most lovely experiences one can have in a lifetime, in my opinion. First off, it’s much cooler and agreeable; you don’t have to keep slathering sunscreen all over yourself every half hour, and the winds which rake the Aracá on a regular basis during the daytime bed down during the night. The water is still and the pale glow of the moon washes over everything, making the river look like quicksilver and the jungle look like ghost trees. I paddled for hours, until the moon was well past its zeinth. When I got tired, I stopped at a reasonable-looking beach, fried a cajú piranha I had caught that afternoon along with a small traira I had speared with the zagaia just as I was pulling up to the beach, ate, then pitched my one man bivvy tent on the beach and slept. By now you know I don’t like tents, especially on the beach, but there were no trees for hammocks around, just small, breakable white molongós, and I was tired enough so that I didn’t care about the hard ground or the sand. I slept through the night.
Of course, the river wasn’t always benevolent. The wind was sometimes so brutal that it was faster to get out and push the canoe through the shallows than was to try and paddle against the wind. And the shallows presented their own dangers…
Sometime during the late afternoon on Day 18, I arrived to a narrow beach where in the middle had formed a sort of a natural cove surrounded by sand, dense molongó trees, and run-of-the-mill river scrub. In this cove I saw a band of seven capybera wallowing in the sun-warmed water towards the back. I immediately docked the canoe about seventy yards downriver and began stalking closer, shotgun in hand. Unfortunately there was very little cover on the beach, and the capybera noticed me before I got any closer than fifty yards. They began moving slowly out into deeper water, rounded the point of the beach, and after that I saw them no more. Again, it’s called hunting, not shooting, so I shrugged and went back to the canoe, figuring I would paddle another hour or so before calling it a day.
After rounding the point of the beach, the water became deeper and the current was suddenly strong. The bank to my left was high, perhaps a meter. I was about to cross to the other side where there were more shallows and less current, when I spied the band of capybera in the bushes along the high bank, not twenty feet away from me. They were absolutely still, obviously adhering to the instinct that said “if you don’t move, he can’t see you.” I stopped paddling, reached slowly for my shotgun, cocked it, and aimed at the smallest of the three or four heads that were in view. I fired just as the current was starting to push me backwards.
The cabybera jerked as fifteen balls of 00 buck shot tore through its strange, square head, and the others skittered away into the bushes as it fell, blood spurting from the wounds in impressive streams. It was a good shot, and the creature was dead before it hit the ground. I stowed my gun and paddled over to the bank to collect what would surely turn out to be two weeks worth of food in the Serra – if not more – when suddenly, the giant rodent began to jerk violently as the its nerves suddenly realized that there were no more commands coming in from the brain. It twitched so forcefully that the dead legs propelled the capybera right into the river off the high bank, and the water roiled with bubbles and blood as the current grabbed the writhing corpse and began carrying it off downriver. I fumbled desperately for the zagaia so I could spear it before it sank too far, but by the time I had it ready the dead capybera had sank deeper than I could reach.
Of course, all was not lost. Generally, depending on the animal and its diet, shot game which sinks to the bottom can take between half an hour and three hours to float back to the surface. They say that even in a river with a reasonable current, an animal which sinks will not roll downriver once it hits the bottom, and will only start to move with the water once it floats back to the surface. Why, I cannot say, but it has generally been proven to be true. I paddled back to the beach, pushed my canoe up onto the sand, and began the waiting game.
I smoked, wrote a little in my journal, smoked some more, lay down in the sand, built a sand castle, cleaned and oiled my shotgun, reloaded three shells, watched a pair of giant jabirú storks cruise by at altitude, peeled dead skin off my sunburned hands, and smoked. Still the capybera did not float. I paddled a ways downriver, and found nothing. I returned to the beach, and it was still rodent-free. By the time night began to fall, I was starting to give up the beast for lost. What a pity! The first capybera I ever shot, and I wouldn’t even have the satisfaction of eating it. Then I saw what looked to be a dark, perhaps furry shape in the water about fifteen feet out from the beach in the shallows. I waded out to it with the zagaia – but it turned out to just be an old log.
Dejected, I turned and waded back to shore in the fading light. The thought crossed my mind: I had better watch my step, since this is a great time to step on a stingray. A mere seconds later, just as I was almost out of the water, I felt a sharp jab in between my big toe and that long, awkward-looking one. There was a slight splash as a dark, disk-shaped blob flitted away into the deep water. It was only about the size of a tea plate, but it was most definitely a stingray, and it had most definitely just stung the piss out of my left foot.
At first, it didn’t hurt so badly. It felt rather like I had jabbed my foot into a sharp stick or rock. But I could feel something deep inside there brewing away, and I knew it wasn’t a sharp stick. I climbed back into my canoe and sat, examining my wound. After a minute, the pain was significant. After three minutes, it was bad. After five, it was absolutely excruciating. My foot throbbed and began to swell up visibly. It felt as if a something red hot and alive was burrowing deep inside my foot, clawing at blood vessels and gnashing at nerve endings with razor-sharp, venomous teeth. I could focus on nothing else, and nothing eased the pain – not rubbing my foot, not laying on my back and holding it in the air, and not breathing heavily and shouting FUCK FUCKING STINGRAY FUCK SHIT ASSHOLE FUCKING GODDAMNED PUSSY TAMPON ASSLICKER STINGRAY FUCK as loud as I possibly could. Well, that last one helped a little, actually.
A few years ago I used to mess around with this doctor from Buenos Aires, and one of her specialties was treating wounds inflicted by venomous fauna, principally scorpions, snakes, and river stingrays. In Santarém she would hardly go in the river unless it was daytime and she could clearly see the bottom; I had always figured she was just being a dramatic girl. Now, I could see why she was so cautious. That was one painful motherfucking sting.
“And the venom is not the greatest risk posed by the stingray’s barb,” she told me, sitting naked on my raincoat, which was spread out on the Tapajós beach as I stalked her from the shallows like a crocodile. “It’s the infection. Stingray barbs are full of all kinds of nasty bacteria, and when you add that to muddy river water, it can breed a dangerous infection. Once I saw a foot that was so infected that they had to cut part of it off! There was all this yellowish pus leaking out from under the toenails…”
I stopped stalking. “Can we talk about something else?”
Years later, whenever I thought of stingrays or their barbs, that’s the moment that always stood out in my mind – along with those nice porteña boobies, which comforted me to some degree in this moment of hardship. There I was, days if not weeks from the nearest hospital on a river where I saw roughly one boat every three days. What if my sting got infected? I supposed I would have to amputate my own leg like on 127 hours, only I was luckier than him since I had a hatchet, a machete, and some sharp filet knives. Also my foot wasn’t stuck under a two ton boulder, and I had access to plentiful water and lots of food stores. So yeah – I had that going for me.
The moon rose and dusted everything in a heavy dew, including me. I tried to clean a few fish I had caught earlier that day, but the pain was still too intense. Only after a full hour of laying curled up in the fetal position on the front bench of my canoe and moaning obscenities did the pain finally slack off enough so that I could clean my fish. I lay inert for another fifteen minutes or so after finishing, then resigned myself to the all-of-a-sudden excruciating task of unloading my bottle of propane, cutting a few sticks to prop up the mini stove, and cooking and seasoning a fish soup. I hopped around on one foot everywhere, using my paddle as a crutch – not just because of the throbbing, searing pain between my two toes, but because I refused to get the sting wet or sandy for fear of infection. I cleaned it up as best I could with alcohol, neosporin, and band aids, and wrapped the entire foot in a sock which I had had for years but only found use for just then. The whole appendage was swollen up, and my toes looked like fleshy red marshmallows. It looked bad.
I sat miserably in my beach chair as I waited for my soup to boil. The moon was high in the sky. It was probably around nine or ten. I had been stung three or four hours previous, and it was still hurting like mad. Finally my soup was ready, and just as I began eating it the pain in my foot faltered and suddenly, stopped almost completely. It was literally, one moment in searing pain, and the next the old left foot just felt a little stiff. I couldn’t believe it. I was actually able to enjoy my soup, and even forgot about the sting for a few seconds every now and then.
After dinner I pitched my tent (too tired and invalid to wander around seeking out trees), wrote quickly, and passed out. The next morning my foot felt fine, though it was still a little swollen. After two days it was back to normal, and no infection resulted. Thankfully, I only ever had to use my machete to hack the fins off fish, not my leg off of me. I never found the capybera, either.
The whole stingray debacle, and the lurking possibility of many other disasters in that wilderness, stayed on my mind for days as I slowly advanced up the Rio Aracá and hence even further from help and hospitals. I sat one night in my beach chair perhaps ten kilometers upriver from the mouth of the Rio Cutuí, staring as I always did at the tapestry of stars that kissed their reflections on the river as I fried two fat peacock bass and chain smoked.
I know, and have always known, that I run the risk of dying at any given moment whilst on these lengthy, solo expeditions to the isolated forests and rivers I have come to love so much. Sure, I run the risk of dying every day no matter where I decide to spend my time here on Earth – but here in the Amazon, undertaking these latest adventures admittedly carries a risk that may be somewhat greater than if I lived in the suburbs of some large city and worked at Starbucks. It’s something I’ve come to terms with long ago. I even find myself craving it. Don’t misinterpret; I have no death wish. I simply enjoy the thrill of isolation the wilderness brings, and along with it the danger. Had I been born a slightly different type of person I believe I could have done well as a Wall Street stockbroker, or high-stakes poker player, or a criminal.
Here in the Amazon the greatest threats to my well-being while in isolated areas are mainly a) large, open wounds that become infected and/or incapacitate me and affect my ability to keep moving and acquire food, and b) bites or stings from dangerous fauna, especially venomous snakes. Really, if I were to accidentally trod upon a bushmaster or a jararáca one night while out fishing with the zagaia, I would be in serious trouble. To reach the nearest hospital would take a minimum of a week, and that’s assuming I would eventually be able to flag someone down while paddling and hitch a ride back to town. Oftentimes I went days without seeing people, and as I got closer and closer to the tepuís I saw fewer and fewer canoes. Paddling, it’s doubtful I would be able to make it back to Barcelos before I succumbed to the venom. Granted, I could survive the ordeal without treatment – but I could just as easily not survive it.
The stingray’s barb, though far from fatal, made me think a lot about my own mortality as my mind floated away into those swinging galaxies in the star-scattered equatorial sky. My death would change nothing; I would simply cease to be. All my stories, my thoughts, my ideas and experiences – hell, anything that I ever was or would be, or could have been or might have been – this self, this identity that I have worked so hard to construct within me during my brief window of existence, would flicker out and vanish like so many dying sparks drifting to the ground from the bonfire of life on Earth. Because…this is all there is, isn’t it? We only have one lifetime, after all.
And yet…despite preaching that line since my adolescence, I don’t think I ever really believed it. This can’t be all there is. Our bodies may be finite, but I feel like our souls are a far cry from disposable. Yes, I said it – I believe we have souls, for lack of a better word to describe the…sentience of human beings. Now, I am by no means admitting that I am now a “faithful Christian” or anything remotely deserving of such a label. I still have many issues with the church and organized religion in general. I still believe that Christianity has been used primarily to exert control over the masses by church-states and wily governments for thousands of years. I still have to consciously stop myself from rolling my eyes whenever somebody starts off a sentence with “But the Bible says…” Nevertheless…I do believe in a higher power, in someone or something that’s above us and our world. God, for lack of any better name, because what am I supposed to call it, Steve?
No, I reckon there’s a lot more to it all than just this – because if there wasn’t, then what a fucking depressing existence we all lead! There’s no point to it! Whether or not you spend your life doing good or doing evil makes no difference. Sure, maybe I’m wrong; maybe that’s exactly how the universe works, but hey…so what? How sad and lonely does one feel living with such a mindset! I’ve felt it; those long, solitary days and nights on the river give you too much damn time to think about who you are…what am I really doing here? What’s the point, dammit? What’s the point of anything, of everything?
The outspoken atheist who crows loudly against the existence of souls and higher powers does so from the comforts of civilization, surrounded by friends who reassure him every day that yes, our existence is pointless, and once we die we will rot in the ground and that’s it, dude. But their days are predictable and they trust little to luck or chance. They wake up each morning in their familiar bedrooms, and they need not wonder if this day is, in fact, their last.
I, on the other hand, trust myself daily to luck and to chance. Any number of catastrophes could befall me at any given moment. I could be bitten by a snake or drown in whirlpools or dragged to the river’s dark depths by undertows or a caiman. Or my appendix could rupture, and I would die slowly as I bled out internally and desperately tried to paddle three hundred miles down the river to the nearest hospital, which is likely not equipped with the faculties to save me, anyways. I could be murdered by drug traffickers for ten reais and some nice fishing gear, or get seriously lost in the jungle one day and never find my way back out. I could break my back falling off something and lie paralyzed on the ground until I died of exposure or something came along and ate me – et cetra, et ectra et cetra! Sure, you could get hit by a bus crossing the street in the heart of civilization. But even if you break both legs, both arms, and your back you could still make it. Someone will bring you to a hospital soon enough. In the wilderness, if even one tiny thing goes wrong it may very well lead to your demise – and there’s really nothing you can do about it, short of not going into the wilderness anymore, which for me is a non-option. Living this kind of lifestyle….well, you almost have to believe that something is watching out for you, otherwise things start to seem very sinister and insurmountable, and you start to go a little ga ga.
That’s another thing – you’ve got to believe that not only is there more to existence than just this one life, but also that something out there is keeping a friendly eye on you. Atheists, you can scoff all you want, but again: it doesn’t even matter whether or not it’s true! If you just believe it then you’ll find yourself worrying a lot less. And if you´re wrong? Well, you’ll rot in the ground when you die, and that’s it. Just like you thought. Of course, you won’t be able to brag, because rotting corpses can’t brag, it turns out. Death is as natural as life – but you may as well believe in something happening after it, that there’s something to look forward to. Not heaven; I hate the idea of heaven, some ethereal paradise. Maybe another life, in another world, where you can use the lessons you learned during this life to better your next one – I really don’t know, because I’m just me and I’m not much, in the grand scheme of things. But I do know that if you don’t have faith that there is some sort of continuity beyond this one world affected by what you’re doing, who you are, and the decisions you make today, it’s hard to derive any satisfaction at all out of life. If you believe that after your body is dead you simply cease to exist – death becomes a terrifying possibility indeed.
After the above revelation from my beach chair, I felt a lot better. It was a simple revelation, but a very important one. I slept more soundly after it, and enjoyed the stars even more. And if I ever get shot or poisoned or break my leg in the wilderness and starve to death or am hit by a fucking taxi in Manaus, I’ll be excited to find out what’s next. Maybe I’ll wake up lying on the floor of some padded room with a hippy-looking relaxed dude (we’ll call him Jesus, for lack of a better name) sitting on a stool nearby and looking down on me with an amused smile. And I’ll sit up and rub my temples, squinting, and say Jesus Christ, what happened? and he’ll give me a knowing look and say Ok…now what did we learn? And so long as I wasn’t a complete, utter scumbag while alive, so long as I did my best to live the life of an honest man, and always tried do what I figured was the right thing – well, I’ll be taken care of after that. How? Where will I go? What will I do? I don’t know, asshole. I’ve never fucking died. But when I do, I’ll be happy to follow that grinning hippie out of the padded room and find out – because after all, “death is but the next great adventure.”¹² And so long as there’s no shortage of adventures, I don’t much give a damn where I end up.
¹² J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, stolen by Albus Dumbledore aka J.K. Rowling – but I don’t blame her, it’s one of the better quotes I’ve ever read.
After six days on the upper Aracá, I had traveled about seventy miles along some of the most beautiful stretches of river I had ever seen in the Amazon. Occasionally, at the end of long straightaways, the Serra do Aracá would suddenly appear boldly on the horizon, its majestic white cliffs streaked by lines of grey granite dominating the scene and towering over the forest and the broad beaches of the winding river. Then I would round a bend and the jungle would swallow it up again, and I wouldn´t see it for several days until I came to another straightaway that was at the proper angle. But every time it loomed larger. Authoritarian. It glared, daring me to come closer. Naturally, I was happy to accept the challenge.
In total I was passed by two boats. The first was right after I had left Bacuquara, a piaçabeiro boat headed upriver, presumably to the piaçaba grounds somewhere high up the Aracá. The second was headed downriver, and I crossed paths with it five days later after I had already passed the mouth of the Rio Ituí and was approaching the Serrinha, a collection of large stones jutting from the middle of the river that block the way during the dry season for all vessels that draft more than a foot or two. This boat, or more accurately, floatilla, was the Yanomami.
One small boat puttered along down the river, with two or three large canoes filled with bales of piaçaba lashed to each side and four or five more being towed from behind. On the roof sat fifteen or sixteen children, all of them nude. The men stood solemnly around inside the boat, while the shirtless women hung on anywhere they could, washing dishes from the backs of the canoes, sitting or squatting on the bales of piaçaba, or just standing around wherever there was space. Their eyes were as slanted as any Asians, and their faces were rounder than the caborclos.
The river was quite narrow, and we were obliged to pass within ten or fifteen feet of one another. Not wanting to seem surly, I waved and smiled at them. At first, there was no response. Then some children waved back, giggling. I waved again. Then the women smiled and waved, and I waved again, and then suddenly everybody was waving and chattering away in Yanomami, beaming at me and at one another, and waving over, and over, and over again. We continued interacting in this fashion until the Indians vanished around the bend downriver, and we could no longer see each other.
And so went my first encounter with the Yanomami. Ah, how times have changed since the early days of white exploration in the Amazon! The days of Rondón and Teles Pires, when encountering Indians coming down the river struck fear into the hearts of the men, and many early explorers fell riddled with poison-tipped arrows into the churning waters. Now, the Indians head into town once a month to collect their government checks, and you wave at them. Sometimes they will sell you gasoline. They will always sell you piaçaba. And if they do shoot you, they´ll probably use a shotgun.
On the evening of Day 21 I arrived to a pousada¹³ built up on a lightly wooded beach perhaps seven or eight miles downriver from the mouth of the Rio Jauarí. This was the “Pousada da Dona Inalda,” as José Alberto had called it. The owner was, obviously, Dona Inalda, a local woman from Barcelos who worked in piaçaba – mostly buying from the independent piaçabeiros who worked on the Jauarí, as well as employing a few of workers her own. She also sold products to anyone who cared to buy – and in a place like that, where goods are scarce, most everybody cares to. I had been hoping to run into Inalda somewhere along the way – hopefully before reaching the Serra – to stock up on coffee, sugar, salt, oil, tobacco, and flour. Though I was not extremely low on anything (except for flour, which I had only one kilo left out of the five that I had bought in Barcelos) I wanted to ensure that I my supplies were solid and that I could, if needed, spend up to three weeks on and around the Serra. Especially, though, I wanted more salt so that if I was lucky enough to kill a deer or a wild hog, I would have enough salt to preserve the meat. At the time, my salt stores were not more than three or four kilos, and I wanted to bulk that up to seven or eight.
¹³ A small inn
The pousada itself was built to cater to tourists – specifically, fishing tourists, since its location upriver from the semi-rapids at the Serrinha made it impossible for any of the large fishing yachts to get up that far in the dry season, which is the best time of year to fish. However, I would later learn that, despite the fact that the place had been ready to receive guests for more than a year, not one single paying customer had ever spent the night there.
“Too expensive,” said Fernando, Inalda’s caretaker, oftentimes the only person that could be found at the pousada for months at a time. “Inalda’s cheap. She won’t buy aluminum lanchas, she thinks the tourists will fish from motorized canoes. Motorized canoes.” He spat. “She charges four thousand dollars a week per person and expects them to fish from motorized canoes.”
We sat in the darkness on one of the six or seven decent-sized boats docked on the beach in front of the pousada, belonging not only to Inalda but to various piaçabeiros and tantalite men. These boats would stay here until the rains, as they could no longer get down past the Serrinha with the water levels as low as they were. The one we were aboard was painted green and was about twenty meters from bow to prow. Inalda was, Fernando informed me, not in.
“She’s gone up the Jauarí and is camped at the mouth of the Igarapé Preto,” he said, dragging heavily on his cigarette. “She’s trying to unload the last of her cachaça on the piaçabeiros that are still there. They´ll take Christmas off, and will prowl around the Jauarí until they find Inalda and trade piaçaba for booze until she either runs out or they pass out. She’ll probably stay there until the 25th – you’ll be able to find her.”
“And after Christmas?” I asked.
“Nobody up there. Maybe João Carreca will stay up past Christmas. He still hasn’t come down. Other than that, nobody.”
“What about Tatunca?” I asked.
“Ah, he came down weeks ago. Motored by heading up one day, and then two days later he was already coming back down. Can’t imagine what he was up to.”
This was news to me. I had been keeping a sharp eye out for Tatunca Nara heading downriver, but had seen nothing. In fact, upriver from Elisbão I had crossed paths with only six boats, all heading downriver except for the piaçabeiros. But Tatunca had somehow managed to slip by, probably while I was up in Bacuquara. This was good news, I decided, since I didn’t have to deal with a possibly homicidal armed neo-Nazi14 loose in the jungle where I was supposed to be spending the next several weeks alone.
14 You can´t prove that, Rusty.
“What does he do up there, anyways?” I asked, probing.
“Gold. Tatunca knows where the gold is. Ás trilhas do Tatunca.”
We sat in silence for awhile. Fernando had a domesticated jacú, which was territorial and unhappy with my presence. It stood a few feet in front of me and glared, occasionally advancing a few feet and making low, threatening hurrrs before Fernando threw something at it, whereupon it would retreat, glare, and advance again a few minutes later. I cooked a soup out of a large aruanã I had caught in a whirlpool in the middle of the Serrinha, and Fernando cranked up a small gasoline pump and pumped water out of the boat for exactly three minutes.
“You’ve got to do it three times a day,” he said over the noise of the motor. “Whoever Inalda got to seal this boat didn’t know shit about caulking. It’s leaking like a cheap diaper. And I’ve got to use one liter of gasoline every week, just to run this pump and keep this damned boat from sinking. Gas is gold out here, you know.”
“So I’ve heard.”
The pump gurgled and vomited water into the river, and the jacú hurrrr´d and stalked circles around my beach chair. Then Fernando shut the pump off and gave the jacú a kick, sending it flapping and hurring away along the beach. We went to sleep shortly afterwards. Fernando snored, I wrote, and the jacú returned to roost on top of the boat. It was a moonless night; the Milky Way glowed in the star-strewn heavens as I slept soundly through my last night on the Rio Aracá.
VII. The Rio Jauarí
Oh, lovely, lovely wilderness! How you make me feel alive!
The Jauarí was narrow, log-choked, and the current was very strong. I wove between sticks and sandbars as flocks of dozens of blue and gold macaws swooped overhead and cackled irritably. A steep bank was the common denominator on the Jauarí, though the bends, like on the Aracá, were beaches. I was happy to discover that despite the name, there were very few jauarí palms. Though it varied at times, the river was generally about forty feet wide.
For the entire trip since Barcelos the caborclos sang the name Jauarí and always reminded me that it was one of the most fauna-rich rivers in this part of Amazonas. As usual, they were absolutly right. I saw capybera and tapir tracks on nearly every beach, and even a few jaguar prints. Motum junglefowl cooed low, soft notes from the deep underbrush on the insides of many of the bends. And the fish! The good fishing on the upper Aracá paled in comparison to the Jauarí at low water. Aruanã were probably the most common fish, and packs of them could easily be made out in the shallows. I sight-fished with spooks, and after a few casts right into the middle of the horde, one always took the bait and ended up drying in the sun on top of my tarp fifteen minutes later, still twitching as I chipped away at the miles and the Serra do Aracá loomed closer and closer.
I passed my first night on the Rio Jauarí close to the mouth, as I had spent nearly a full day taking care of the last bit of the Aracá from Fernando up. The beach was very wide, much wider than the river, and was more gravel than sand. A stagnant, shallow lake stood on the other side, which is surely part of the river when the water is high. Small butterfly peacock bass drove schools of minnows into a small cove before plowing through the middle of them and sending fish flying into the air, always beaching a few. Dinner: fried aruanã, pasta, and bliss.
On my second day on the Jauarí, and my 23rd day since leaving Barcelos, I hooked the biggest peacock bass of the trip so far, a sleek, fat paca as long as my arm and close to fifteen pounds. He hit a spook which I had been tossing into a deep pool where I had seen some piranhas flitting around, and at first I thought I had hooked a log, since he didn´t struggle at first and was just a heavy, motionless weight. But as soon as I got him to the surface, he came immediately to life and front flipped almost directly into my canoe. The splash he made actually got me pretty wet. Admired him – what a beautiful fish! – then reluctantly chopped his head off, salted him, and set him out in the sun. Serra food, nice and meaty. I had plenty of fresh aruanã, and the head alone filled me up for the night as I sat in my dark campsite up in the forest of a high bank. I cooked it in a soup along with a few small piranhas and half an aruanã.
I saved the piranhas and aruanã for the next morning´s breakfast and lunch, and had to awake several times throughout the night to chase away a possum that was hanging around and leering at my soup pot. I was half-tempted to shoot it – they say they are good eating if you skin them out – but I already had so much fish that I didn’t reckon it was necessary. Besides, I’ve shot plenty of possums back in Texas whenever they get into the dog food or steal eggs from the henhouse, so for me it’s not that much of a novelty, anyways. Not like a capybera…damn that current!
One afternoon I rounded a bend and heard the wacking sound of an axe biting into wood echoing off the banks from upriver. As I drew closer I saw two men standing waist deep in the middle of the river. One was swinging an axe, chopping away at a big tree that had fallen across the stream. The other stood nearby and observed his fellow working with solemn detachment. Two more stood on the beach and swatted at sweat bees. An enormous canoe loaded with so much piaçaba that it looked in danger of sinking floated on the upriver side of the fallen tree, along with a second, smaller canoe, which also held as much piaçaba as was physically possible.
“Last week,” said one of the piaçabeiros standing on the beach as he dunked his Atlanta Falcons baseball cap into the river and slopped it back onto his head, where it dripped and did nothing to deter the sweat bees.
“Yeah, it wasn’t here when we came up on the tenth,” said another, spitting.
“Lots of wind,” said the one standing in the water. Everyone nodded, except for the chopper, who chopped.
“Na batalha!” I observed as I beached my canoe. All heads turned my way.
“Yep. Tree fell over the river,” said Atlanta Falcons.
“Got to chop it up,” said Wader.
I whistled. “That’s a big canoe.”
“It’s a lot of piaçaba,” said Spitter.
“Were you working in the Armadillo Igarapé?” I asked.
“Nope. Just on the Jauarí. Who told you there were people working up the Armadillo?”
Everyone nodded knowingly, and said “Ah, Fernando.” Then we went back to watching Chopper chop.
“Where’d you come from, anyways?” asked Atlanta Falcons after awhile.
Chopped stopped chopping, looked at me for a second, then went back to work.
“That’s a long ways to paddle,” remarked Spitter. “How long did it take you?”
“I’m tired,” said Chopper, handing the axe to Wader. “Take over.”
“Pussy,” said Atlanta Falcons. “This guy paddled for twenty-three days. You can’t even chop a tree for ten minutes.”
“Fuck you. You chop, then.”
“I already chopped that limb over there.”
“Then chop this one or shut your goddamn mouth.”
“He’s angry because Inalda forgot his tampons,” explained Spitter.
“Assholes,” muttered Chopper, squatting and rolling a cigarette.
“Ah, you guys know Inalda?” I asked, rolling one of my own.
Chopper grunted affirmative. “We work for her.”
“Is she still camped at the mouth of the Preto?”
“Is it still pretty far?”
“You think I can make it there today?”
Atlanta Falcons dunked his hat in the river, Wader chopped, Spitter spit, and Chopper traced lines in the sand with his scabby, horrifying big toe. Then the sound of a rabeta motor crecendoed in from upriver, and another small canoe came sliding around the bend.
“João Careca,” said Spitter.
“Porra! Who stopped holding up the tree?” said the shiny-bald tantalite man as he beached his canoe next to the mammoth and stepped out onto the sand.
“Lots of wind,” said Atlanta Falcons.
“It’s far, very far,” said João Careca of his mineral camp in the headwaters of the Jauarí. “It took us two days to get here from there – with the motor. And the river is low. Hard going.”
“You have to chop any trees?” I asked.
“Nope. I chainsawed them.” He pointed to his canoe, where a chainsaw sat nestled amongst ice chests and burlap sacks.
“Hey, can we use that?” asked Wader, who was still chopping.
“No more gas,” said João Careca.
“Gas is gold,” I remarked.
“We have a little,” said Atlanta Falcons.
“It’s gas plus oil,” said João Careca, shaking his head. “You can’t put normal gasoline in it, it’ll burn the motor out.”
“Not if you just use it for a few seconds!” protested Atlanta Falcons.
“I’m not letting you destroy my R$2000 chainsaw to save five minutes of work. You’re almost through, anyways.”
Wader mumbled darkly, and went back to chopping. A few minutes later, the limb gave way and the river was more or less clear.
“See? Almost through,” said João Careca. “Why don’t you fellows have your own chainsaw, anyways? You should never come to a place like this without a chainsaw.”
“Inalda’s too cheap to buy one,” said Chopper.
“She says axes still work,” added Atlanta Falcons.
“Well, so does paddling but you don’t see me doing it,” said João Careca.
“I like paddling,” I interrupted.
“Ah, but you’re a gringo. Gringos always do crazy things.”
“But at least you have a chainsaw, don’t you?”
“An axe, then.”
João Careca stared. “And you said you’re going up the Preto?”
“With no chainsaw.”
“And no axe.”
He gave me a look that said are you sure about that?
“I have two machetes, though,” I said quickly, a little nervous now.
“Machetes,” he repeated. “You ever chopped down a tree with a machete?”
“Me neither. Know why?”
“Because it sucks?”
“Because it fucking sucks.” He looked over at my canoe. “Ah, but she’s small. You could probably just push her around on the beach.”
“Exactly,” I agreed. “That’s what I was thinking just now.”
“She can’t be that heavy,” said João Careca, shrugging.
“Nah. Not that heavy…”
It turned out that chopping the tree was not the end of the work for the piaçabeiros. The water was still too shallow for their titanic canoe, and the sandbar had to be dug out to make a place for the boat to pass. At first we scooped sand and moved it around with our paddles, but then Atlanta Falcons had a better idea.
“Get the rabeta,” he said, and Chopper came back a minute later with the canoe motor in his arms. Atlanta Falcons cradled it and yanked the flywheel. The motor hummed to life, the small propeller churning up water and sand as Chopper gripped the long shaft and forced it into the bottom, sending a cloud of silty water drifting across the river.
“Much faster,” observed João Careca.
“Good thing we have some gas,” said Spitter.
“Are you sure that’s good for the motor?” I asked.
“It’ll be fine,” said Wader. The engine whirred and sputtered, then died.
“Too much force,” said João Careca. “Com carinho, gently.”
“Like stroking a lady,” said Spitter.
“Or in your case, a dick,” tittered Chopper.
“I’m not the one gripping a long shaft,” Spitter shot back, and Chopper gave him the finger before Atlanta Falcons started the motor up again.
Eventually, after another ten or fifteen minutes of blasting away part of the sandbar with the canoe motor’s prop, the water was deep enough for the giant piaçaba canoe to pass – though we still had to do a lot of pushing to get it over a part of the tree that was sunken a few feet under the water. The piaçabeiros headed downriver at last, followed by João Careca. Before he left, I wrote a quick note on a piece of paper.
23 DEC 2013
Greetings from the Rio Jauarí. Piaçabeiros cutting up tree blocking river, sending word to you w/ Sr. João. Don’t know if you got my radio message of 17DEC. Everything going as planned, no major problems. Stepped on a stingray but have recovered. Fishing excellent, river beautiful. ETA to Serra and waterfall 27DEC. Save a Cuban cigar for me.
“Gerard, he lives in the red house next to the airport,” I said, folding it.
“That little street?”
“Yeah. There’s only four houses on it.”
He nodded. “I know it. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it gets there.”
“Thanks. Oh, and he might be in Venezuela by the time you get there. If there’s no one home, give it to Pato, his neighbor.”
“Pato,” repeated João Careca. “Ok.” He took the note, got into his canoe, started up his rabeta, and headed off downriver, waving.
“Boa viagem!” he shouted.
“Pra você também!” I bellowed back. Then I was alone again on the Rio Jauarí.
Christmas Eve. I paddled up the river slowly but steadily around the frequent, twisting bends of the river. There were just as many stingrays here as there were on the Aracá, though they weren´t quite as massive, it seemed. I often passed deep pools in deadwater at the back of an eddy or a beach, and no matter what lure I threw in there, something eventually took it. Barracuda dogfish, usually no bigger than half a pound, attacked with admirable aggression anything I dragged past their noses. Those that did not attack deliberately followed the lure all the way back to the beach. When I cast it out again, the same fish followed it back – over, and over, and over again.
There were many sandbars that would sometimes divide into two islands in the middle of the river, with the current rushing through shallow channels between them. Here paddling became impossible, and I was forced to get out and tow the canoe behind me on the mooring line as the hard gravel left little pitted holes of dead skin on the soles of my feet. Thankfully the stingrays couldn’t bury themselves in the rough gravel, and the ones I did see were easy to spot, their jaguar-like splotches standing out sharply against the yellow bottom. Once I saw a big surubín catfish, but the zagaia was too far away and buried under some things. Still, I grabbed my paddle and wacked him across the head as hard as I could, hoping to stun him. Didn’t work – I reckon it just woke him up. ‘Twas a big fish; a baseball bat might have done the trick, though.
The rise in elevation – which, according to my research in Barcelos was about 25 meters from the mouth of the Jauari to the base of the falls – seemed very apparent, and probably explained the rushing current. The river seemed to slope upward ahead of me, and whenever I looked behind me it was like looking down a ramp. I reckoned I was gaining something like half a meter of altitude for each kilometer paddled. No rapids, of course, but had the Jauari been a rocky river instead of a sandy one, they would have certainly abounded.
Around midday I was stopped at one of the deep pools fishing when I heard the sound of another rabeta coming downriver. I cast once, twice, and hooked a small butterfly peacock bass on the third cast just as a large canoe – the same large canoe from the day before – came into view, loaded with people, boxes, and more piaçaba.
“Didn’t you head downriver yesterday?” I asked, unhooking my fish as Chopper shut off the motor and the canoe hit the beach, lurching to a stop.
“Yep. We headed back up last night. Had to get the boss lady,” said Chopper, thumbing at a middle aged woman sitting in the back of the canoe wearing a massive straw hat.
“Wow. I did not even hear you pass by. I was out. This possum was hanging around my soup last night, kept me up for awhile.”
“Where did you camp? We looked for your canoe, didn’t see it.”
“I docked up a little creek and camped on the high bank.”
“Ah…” nodded Chopper sagely.
“See? It’s just like he said. That canoe is from Pará,” said a heavy, mustached man, examining the bow of my boat.
“It’s a fat canoe,” said Chopper. “I told them it was a fat canoe.”
“Stable. She’s stable,” I corrected. “How did you know she was from Pará?” I asked Fat Mustache.
“I’m from Pará. I know these canoes.”
“Ah, really? What part of Pará?”
“Right across from Nhamundá?”
“That’s the one. You been there?”
“Nope. But I’ve been to Parintins, on the other side of the river. And Jurutí.”
“Porra. All in this canoe?”
“That’s a lot of paddling.”
“It’s a lot of paddling,” I agreed.
“So you’re the aventureiro on the Jauarí,” said the boss lady, stepping out the canoe. “We heard about you.”
“I heard about you, too, Dona Inalda. I met Fernando.”
“Fernando,” repeated Inalda, nodding. “Yes, everyone meets him.”
“I stayed the night on your green boat. I hope you don’t mind. There’s a fierce jacú, too.”
She laughed. “That bird hates everybody except Fernando.”
“You should give it corn. Then it’ll stop.”
“I’ll remember that.” I squatted on the beach and began cleaning my fish.
“Fried?” asked Inalda.
“Yep. Last night was soup. Gotta change things up.”
“Excellent fishing. Really incredible.”
“Yes, here is the best spot. That’s why I built the pousada nearby.”
“No clients, though, huh?”
“Unfortunately, no,” said Inalda, sitting on the edge of the big canoe. “We need contacts.”
“Mmmm,” I nodded, yanking the gills out of the bass. “So, I was wondering, do you still have anything to sell me?”
Inalda nodded slowly. “A few things. Depends on what you need. There’s no more cachaça, I’ve sold it all.”
“Do you have salt?”
“Just a little.”
“No, no vegetables.”
“All right,” I said, standing up. “Then give me…let me see…six kilos of salt…three packets of tobacco and three of rolling papers…three liters of vegetable oil…three kilos of sugar…and whatever coffee you have.”
“Your fish is escaping,” said Chopper, pointing at my dying peacock bass, which was weakly flopping towards the river. I stepped on it and looked at Inalda. “Can you sell me those things?”
“Certainly. Zé, see if you can find a bag for the young man.” Fat Mustache, aka Zé, rummaged around in the canoe.
“How much?” I asked.
Inalda thought for a moment. “Forty-three reais.”
“All right. Let me just get my money.” I rummaged around in my backpack and found a 100 real bill. Inalda shook her head.
“Hmmm…” I had feared as much.
“You don’t want to buy more things?” asked Zé.
“Don’t need more things.”
“Well, no change.”
We stood for a moment. “Ah! I have an idea,” I started. “Does Fernando have change?”
Inalda thought for a moment. “I think so, yes.”
“Well, okay, then I’ll give you 100 now, and you tell Fernando to give me 57 reais when I’m on my way back down.”
She nodded. “That could work.”
“Ok, good. Here you go.” I gave her the money. “Don’t forget to tell Fernando, all right?”
“Don’t worry, I’ll tell him.” said Inalda, stuffing the note into her bra.
“Time to go,” said Zé.
“See you later!” said Chopper.
“Bye,” I said.
“Happy trails,” said Inalda.
And off they went. As for the question of my 57 reais, there was no doubt in my mind that I would get it in due time. Things in the wilderness work because of trust – and no matter how cheap Inalda may have been, even she wouldn’t violate that rule.
Christmas Eve dinner was fried peacock bass and cajú piranha served over piping hot rice. In the place of egg nog I had river water from the rather cold (in comparison to the Aracá) Rio Jauarí – which was almost as good, though it was missing a splash of whiskey. As I cleared out a space amongst the palms for my hammock, I sang loud Chirstmas carols, preforated by each hack of the machete:
“We wack you a merry wackmas, we wack you a merry wackmas, we wack you a merry wackmas and a wacky New wack!”
Ah, the Christmas spirit was alive even on the Rio Jauarí – all alone now since even João Careca had gone back to Barcelos for the holidays. I’ve never been a fan of Christmas carols but that night I sang them as loud as I could as I gnawed meat off fish bones and had my mind blown all over again by the stars.
I knew exactly what was going on back home that night; seafood gumbo is on the menu as my brother David pounds out the last dramatic chords of a classical piano piece that has more notes than the paper it’s printed on has atoms. Shortly afterward, everyone heads over to the Christmas tree and averts their eyes from all the horrifically ugly tree ornaments that I and my siblings made throughout the course of our respective childhoods – the most spine-tingling being “The Gingerbread Man,” (c.a. 1999), a decaying, brown, man-shaped blurb with a very bad picture of my wide-eyed sister glued over the face. All they did was cut her face out. No head. Just her face. It’s just way too big for that moldy brown body. Like, a 2:1 ratio. One of our family Christmas traditions is screaming with genuine terror whenever we accidently look at it. My sister always took great delight in forcing it into peoples faces – a tradition which I was sure she was upholding that evening.
Despite the abject horror “The Gingerbread Man” strikes into the heart of every Falterman, none of us has ever had the gall to throw it away. One time the head fell off, and we carefully glued it back on with the air of someone defusing a bomb while trying desperately not to make eye contact – because it’s part of the tree. Just like the 1996 ornament “Red Globe with Multicolored Feathers and Glitter,” which as its name suggests is a red globe with multicolored feathers and glitter glued in random places around it so that it looks like its creater (me) just coated it in glue and rolled it around in every pile of sparkly and/or flamboyant decoration he could find (which is exactly what I did at that Cub Scout meeting). And who could possibly throw away the Jumping Jack nutcracker (with the pullstring coming out of his ass), the “Sticking His Tongue Out Boy,” the “Wacka Wacka Alligator,” the little diamond shaped mirrors from somewhere, the weird stiff snowflake, and the same blue-clad angel that has graced the top of our tree since 1985? And don’t forget the tree itself, which is rumored to be older than my parent’s marriage.
Without a doubt the background music is Elvis Presly, singing “Blue Christmas.” On repeat: Hu-ha hu-hah hu-huh hu-blueeee…(U-a-i-a-u)…h-Christmas…(U-a-i-a-u)…h-without youuuuu…(U-a-i-a-u). My Dad is surreptitiously spiking his egg nog, but it’s not that surreptitions since my Mom is doing it, too. There’s a fire going in the fireplace, and every time more wood is needed Dad loudly sings “Put another log on the fire! Cook me some bacon and some beans! Then won’t you come and tell me honey…come tell me why you’re leavin’ me…”
The dogs are on the couch, and the people are on the dogs…or on the floor. Family gifts are opened (Santa gifts come Christmas morning, of course), and Mom takes photos of everybody with the gifts, oftentimes while the recipient makes an obviously exaggerated surprised/thrilled face and points sardonically at the gift. Under the tree sits a wooden train which is still inside its box; on the box is a strip of silver duct tape, upon which is poorly written in Sharpie: ONLY PATRICK CAN SET ME UP, EVER. MOM SAID.
This stemmed from the 2000 argument between me, my brother, and my sister over who was allowed to perform the sacred act of removing the train from the box, placing the carved wooden animals into the cars, closing the gates, and then joining the cars together before rolling it under the tree for decoration (or more accurately, rolling it in endless loops around ourselves so that the wheels squeaked obnoxiously). Apparently my arguments were so convincing that it was agreed that the hallowed task be entrusted to me, forever. Mom said. According to family sources and true to the duct tape, the train was not set up during any of the four Christmases which I have missed since 2009. During the one Christmas I did make in 2011, I was forced to set up the train, when all I really wanted to do was drink whiskey.
So this Christmas the train is certainly in its box under the tree, next to a wooden ladder painted like a candy cane that’s missing most of its rungs – since, like the staggering majority of our Christmas decorations, it’s from the Cold War era. Meanwhile Elvis warps into “Blue Christmas” for the 17th time in 45 minutes, the dogs stretch luxuriously on the couch while the people sit on the floor drinking progressively stronger egg nog, the fire burns through another log (“Put another log on the fire…!”) and “The Gingerbread Man” continues to startle the unwary. So goes another Falterman Christmas in the backwoods of Tarkington, Texas.
That night, sitting in my beach chair on a mixture of grass and sand under a sky so star-strewn that they appeared to be erupting from some sort of cosmic volcano, I missed the hell out of it. One thing was the same, though. “Blue Christmas” was firmly stuck in my head – because once you hum that first line, the tune is doomed to stick in your brain like a jauarí spine for exactly 360 days…just in time for the holiday season to start up again, and for my Dad to pop that CD into the retro stereo he bought in 1992 when it wasn’t retro, and for the whole wretched cycle to begin again. Hu-ha hu-hah hu-huh huh-blueeeee… The song looped ruthlessly in my head as I lay in my hammock amongst the spiny palms (not jauarí palms – a different, less bastardly variety). Shorts damp. Hammock sandy. .20 gauge within arms reach, just in case. Blue Christmas, indeed.
After three days and nights on the Rio Jauarí, the run-down hut with a tattered palm-thatched roof which marked the mouth of the Igarapé Preto came into view around a bend. It was literally two bends and five minutes further up the river from the previous night’s campsite, and the day before I had paddled for two hours after starting to see signs of other people’s campsites, hoping the hut would come around the next corner. Finally I stopped at the cusp of darkness and camped at the mouth of an ice cold, black creek full of multicolored minnows. I felt the hut was close; I even marked the campsite on the map as being two or three bends downriver from the mouth of the Preto. But when it’s time to stop, it’s time to stop.
I cooked a soup out of a truly massive aruanã that was easily three feet long – I had hooked the beast with a jerk bait in a pool that afternoon, and what a fight! – along with a clutch of about fifty orange eggs found in its belly, each one the size of a marble with blood vessels snaking flower-shaped patterns around the pulsating, living globes. Aruanã soup is expected, commonplace. But the eggs made it a Christmas dinner.
The hut was littered with empty cachaça bottles and footprints in the sand. A few piaçabeiros had stayed in the area, it seemed – likely far up the Jauarí near the Igarapé da Anta – but my own sentence of solitude was sealed as I steered off the slightly silty Jauarí and nosed my canoe into the jet black waters of the Igarapé Preto. The narrow entrance, less than ten feet wide, was hung over with vines and ariel roots, forming an eerie, mysterious tunnel leading into the heart of the rainforest and the tepuí which towered over the sea of steaming green. Here, the real adventure began.
VIII. The River of Trees
The Preto was little more than a glorified creek. Never more than fifteen or twenty feet wide, the low waters of the Amazon summer left sandbars blocking the vast majority of the stream around most bends. Oftentimes the only way around was a channel of water two or three feet deep and less than three feet wide on the outside of the bend – which was almost always blocked by trees and sticks. The machete was used almost constantly, and I spent just as much time in the water forcing my canoe through spaces that it was not built to be forced through as I did in the canoe paddling. The dark water – chilly now, practically refrigerated – ruffled the hairs on my legs, and my eyes made stingrays out of patches of leaves.
I saw signs of recent human activity on the river in the form of freshly-cut green branches and machete marks on the trunks of a few fallen trees. Two, three weeks old, at the oldest. Tatunca Nara, without a doubt – the only person rumored to frequent this creek during the high dry season. At times the going was tough, like whenever the narrow channel around the sandbar was so completely blocked that I had to drag the canoe across the one or two inches of water that remained on the sand. Instead of swearing, I just remembered that Tatunca Nara was seventy-three years old, and if an old man like him could do it than a strapping lad of twenty-three like myself should have no difficulty – or at least, not complain. Besides, who was I to complain to?
Despite the obstacales, the first day on the Igarapé Preto was not by any means a very strenuous day – or at least, no more strenuous than my average day on the river. I was able to slip around the large majority of the fallen trees, oftentimes following a hole hacked by Tatunca Nara, and those I couldn’t subvert I bulldozed my way through by brute force alone. I reckoned Tatunca had been here when the river was a few inches higher, because some of the spots where I could see he had passed were through less than two inches of water. I never had to unload anything from the canoe for a proper portage, though I did have to shift some things around once to get under a particularly low-slung tree trunk. The current, like on the Jauarí, was very strong – something I found surprising since the creek was so small. It was like paddling up the fastest channel of a large river, and since the Preto was so narrow there was no place to go to circumvent the barrage of water coming from upstream.
I wondered if there were any fish in this chilly little creek, other than the big-eyed minnows that seemed to be everywhere, so I stopped at a bend and cast a jerk bait into the middle of some current to find out. Almost immediately I had a hit, and my question was answered as I reeled in a swarthy little paca peacock bass that was maybe two pounds. As I got further upriver schools of butterfly peacocks made the water roil as they devoured the big-eyed minnows in the pools on the insides of the bends. The frenzy sometimes lasted for up to twenty seconds, with terrified bait fish flying characteristically in all directions. I caught a fat butterfly off one of these, also on the first cast. I reckoned the fish there weren’t too accustomed to artificial lures – though they were fast learners, and after the first fish caught off one of those feeding frenzies nothing would hit the lure again in that spot, not even if I changed it to a spook or a jig.
After lunch on the first day (more aruanã egg soup) a heavy rain fell for about two hours, which I reckoned was a good thing, because on a stream that small even just two hours of rain could bump the water levels up a crucial few inches and submerge some of the trees I knew were fallen in my path ahead. However, I would need a lot more than a few inches to pass what caused me to make a forced camp at about five in the afternoon later that day.
The beast had fallen on the inside of a bend, and nowhere along its behemoth trunk – which was thick as one of the concrete pillars that hold up highway overpasses – could I see any clear way around. Nor did the tangle of upper branches and boughs offer any sort of clear passage. The only possible way around I could see was through the recently-slashed branches – Tatunca-slashed – that lay across the beach. Portage Number One. But it was already five p.m., and that sounded like a good job for tomorrow.
After a bit of searching I found a few trees growing almost horizontally out over the beach on the steep bank to hang my hammock on. All other possible candidates were too far back in the thick, pitted jungle high above the bank. Too much work to clear, and to climb. Nearly dark. Must conserve energy. As I clamped my flashlight between my teeth and slashed away at low ferns and a few thorny creations growing on the bank, I noticed a pattern in the leaf litter on the bank right near my face that wasn’t quite like the rest of the leaves. I stopped and backed away quickly just as the jararáca coiled its neck and the lower thirty percent of its body slid around in the leaves in preparation for an agitated strike.
The jararáca, or fer-de-lance, is a small nocturnal pit viper about the size of an American copperhead that frequents dark, moist leaf litter on the floor of tropical rainforests from Mexico to Argentina. Its bite, while not as dangerous as the tropical rattlesnake or bushmaster, is quite dangerous, and fatalities have been recorded. Like all pit vipers, the jararáca produces hemotoxic, or cardiotoxic, venom which attacks the victam’s circulatory system. The bite of the jararáca is notorious for causing the bitten to sometimes bleed from strange orafices, such as ears, eyes, gums, and, strangely, hair follicles (though that last one might need some verification). Despite the unpleasant characteristics of this venom, less than one percent of bites are fatal.
I had just come very close to being bitten somewhere on my face by the upset little viper, and less than one percent fatality rate does not mean that being bitten in the face would have been anything remotely resembling a pleasant affair. Much worse than the stingray, which had been fucking miserable. My heart pounded at the close call. I wouldn’t kill the snake, of course – I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, eat it, and there’s no point in killing something just because it possesses a natural venom which it uses to defend itself and hunt. Also, the jungle is full of snakes like that one, and killing it so that my campsite is “safe” would be like smashing one cockroach to take care of the bug problem in your outdoor kitchen. So I got a few sticks and picked it up, then tossed it to the other side of the stream, where it slithered away into the underbrush and molested me no more.
I fried fish and plowed my way through Teddy Roosevelt’s account of his River of Doubt expedition, Through the Brazilian Wilderness (where he mentions the jararáca often and with great, gaudy revulsion), occasionally looking up and glowering at the limbs of the fallen tree in front of me as little black ants, hitchhikers from the previous morning’s campsite, crawled around in my clothes and occasionally bit in most sensitive places like armpits, the inside of my bellybutton, and my scrotum.
The next morning I hauled all gear across the beach and to the other side of the tree in eleven trips – something which ended up taking longer than manhandeling my empty canoe over the upper boughs of the fallen tree. With no cargo she really isn’t all that heavy, though a considerable amount of elbow grease was still required. All told, the portage took about an hour.
Of course, that was nothing compared to what the rest of the day had in store for me.
Around every bend lay something to slow me down, be it a broad, impenetrable sandbar or a wall of sticks and logs with water rushing through in two or three spots, where the force of the current was intensely concentrated, and pushing my loaded canoe against it was like running against the wind during a hurricane on Jupiter. The average depth of the water was about two feet, and I spent vastly more time knee-deep in the river and shoving than I did paddling. In fact, I probably paddled less than two hours that day despite spending dawn to dusk hard at work tackling that river of trees. Including the one in the morning, I had to portage gear five times and wrestle the empty canoe over trees which blocked the river so utterly that I reckoned not even Tatunca Nara had gotten around them, since I stopped seeing the fresh machete marks and had to start cutting my own portage trails.
It is possible, however, that Tatunca took to the jungle, as they say he is apt to do. But if that’s really the case, I have to tip my hat to the homicidal old German, because that was some difficult terrain up there on the high bank. Once I spotted a spider monkey in the stratospheric branches of some pillar-like tree, and clamored up to the forest with my shotgun to see if I could get a decent shot. Of course the monkey vanished before my noisy ass got halfway up the bank, but once I had already climbed up there I felt obliged to at least walk around a bit to see if I could spook the monkey out again.
Unlike the terra firme forest I was used to, this was far from flat. Pits and holes were everywhere and it was nearly impossible to walk around without leaping and jumping across these miniature chasms. Occasionally I found a dry creek bed and followed it for a ways, but soon it too became full of holes. This was advanced primary rainforest, and it probably had looked like this for a million years. It was hell to walk in. Once, I came across a grove of small trees that were all covered with a muddy slime, for reasons completely unknown to me. No other tree in the area had the slime; just that group of forty or fifty. So if Tatunca Nara, at seventy-three, could find his way alone though this terrain from here to the base of the falls, he has my firm respect – no matter how many tourists he may or may not have greased.
The further I battled my way up the Preto, the less fish there were – and the more wildlife. Nothing would touch my lures, except the big-eyed minnows would nibble jovially at them – but the blue and gold macaws were so numerous they seemed to blot out the sun. They weren’t shy, either. I shot one sitting on a branch not thirty feet away with five or six of his fellows. I never realized how big they were – his head was the size of my fist, and much bigger if you added the thick, curved beak. He would easily make a meal that evening. The only fauna that was lacking on the Igarapé Preto that was more or less abundant on the Aracá were the giant otters, who, after my first encounter with them on the Rio Deméni, threatened me loudly no less than seventeen times, and as far upriver as the middle Jauarí.
Towards the end of the second day on the river of trees, and the 27th day since leaving Barcelos, I was in the water (as usual), forcing my canoe over a half submerged log (also as usual), in the middle of a cluster of five or six other submerged logs (again, as usual). Some the logs were behind me and had already been vanquished, and others lay gloating ahead, promising more shoving and swearing for the immediate future.
Suddenly I heard the sound of something moving around in the underbrush up on the high bank directly to my left. At first I thought it to be a monkey, but I quickly realized that the only primate that could make that much noise just moving around was a mountain gorilla. I saw a dark, black shape, and a few broad leaves were torn from their stems by what looked to be a long snout. Then the was a crash, and the creature, whatever it was, lumbered loudly back into the jungle. I was interested, but was also chest deep in the river and still had three logs to conquer before it got dark. I shrugged, and continued toiling.
I passed the log, and was working on the next one when there was a crash from about twenty yards upriver as something bulldozed its way through the brush on its way down the high bank. The beast, jet black and easily five hundred pounds, came to a stop on a small beach just ahead. My eyes bulged, and I whispered “Anta!”
Tapirs really are as big as a small cow, though they can only be compared to cows in regards to their size, for they don’t really resemble any other living creature. Their noses are like short elephant trunks, and they undulate constantly as if endowed with a mind of their own. The end of the trunk resembles the snout of a pig. The feet are divided into three thick, clawed toes that might remind one of rhino feet. The rest of the body is round, powerfully muscled, and covered with short, coarse black hair. Like some sort of Greek monster, the tapir seems like a mixture of several beasts. It is quite a sight to behold, and the whole creature should probably have died off with wooly mammoths and saber toothed tigers a hundred thousand years ago.
The tapir gazed upon me placidly for a moment or two, nose wagging up and down. I was in the water, and there was no way I could reach my shotgun in time before he spooked. Anyways, I wouldn’t shoot the beast; that was just too much meat. And too much work. Think about how long it would take one man to skin, quarter, and salt a tapir on a narrow beach of that little creek, in that jungle! It could take five or six hours. I had enough salt, but just barely – eight kilos is the minimum for salting an entire tapir. But even after doing so, where in the hell was I supposed to find space for four hundred pounds of meat? That’s more weight than an extra person – hell, that’s two people – and I was riding low in the water as it was.
So I stayed in the water and watched. The tapir sniffed around on the bank and vacuumed up a few more broad leaves, his teeth making loud popping sounds like a wild hog makes when he’s angry or feels threatened. Then he stuck that runty little trunk up in the air and stretched his entire body, just like a dog waking up from a nap, all the way down to the bottoms of his legs. Then, without further ado, he lept joyfully into the river like some sort of mutant hippo. His head immediately disappeared underwater. Presumably he walked on the bottom as if it were dry land, and I only saw his square, bulky head pop up again about fifty yards further upriver, a good two or three minutes after he had gone underwater. Then he rounded the bend and I saw him no more.
I tried hard, but I couldn’t wipe the vapid, star-struck grin off my face for an hour or more.
I sat that evening munching on sauteed macaw and spaghetti while sitting in my beach chair by a small sandbar a bend or two upriver from where the tapir had come blitzkreiging down the bank, adoring the jungle and the river and the night sounds – the whole setup. I set out two fine-meshed gill nets, just out of curiosity to see whether I would catch anything at all – though I suspected there would be nothing. By now the Igarapé Preto was as cold as a mountain stream, and the tropical fishes I had been eating for the past twenty-seven days would surely not be able to survive such temperatures. Still, the cold water didn’t seem to bother the three-foot smooth-fronted caiman who sat with stoic indifference on the bank across the way. I could have easily shot him – but my belly was full of colorful macaw and seasoned pasta, and I was too tired to spend two hours yanking that leathery hide off the meat. Besides, I like caimans. I was glad to let him live.
Colorful beetles and moths kamakazied recklessly into my lantern and got stuck to my pasta. A million types of frogs sang, far from in unison but completely in harmony. Whenever I turned my light off the forest floor glowed an almost radioactive green with the writhing bodies of glow worms, and the cool night air teemed with luminous fireflies. Bats fluttered around and swooped mere inches from my face as they ate the colorful moths and beetles and, thankfully, the mosquitoes – which actually weren’t so numerous. Fragrant red and white blossoms fluttered down into the creek from the trees above, something I never saw happen during the day, not even in the strongest of winds. The smooth-fronted caiman sat across the stream, grinning that crocodile smile as a nearby cricket began to chirp so loudly that it actually hurt my ears – and then my endorphins spiked, as if I had just hit a joint of powerful chronic, and this felt like the place I was made for.
A lot of times I find it hard to imagine that the rest of the world goes on existing while I’m in the Amazon. It’s so much its own world, this jungle – and how could it possibly be that on this same planet, in this same atmosphere, at this very moment there is loud music playing at a low-lit bar somewhere, where people are drinking, laughing, flirting? Or the stoplights cranking through their cycles at a big city intersection, and the noise of the horns and the traffic? Or a marathon race? Or an office meeting? Or civilization? How can that exist while this continues to?
On those dark, fragrant nights in the jungle the Amazon feels a world apart. It feels like my world. My river, my ribbon of blue-black water and brilliant beach snaking through an endless horizon of unbroken green.
From my journal:
Day 28. Trees. Oh God, the trees. My feet and hands are covered in cuts and scrapes that swell and fester and there’s nothing I can do about it, of course. I can’t see anything, not the Serra, not the sky, just the trees and the banks and the blocked river ahead. Where am I? How many more logs, trees, fucking roadblocks!! It’s as if the river, the jungle, the Serra – they all want me to stay away…! Every obstacale is twenty minutes of labor. I can’t hardly move my arms any more. My canoe gains twenty pounds for each hundred yards advanced. I can’t do this for much longer I am only ONE MAN
I put my pen down as I sat on a log and finished the last of the leftover macaw. Each day, the going was progressively more torturous. Day three on the Preto had been the hardest day so far, with seven portages, one so massive that it took three hours. There were two trees fallen right next to each other across the same stretch of river, and there was no beach – only mud. First I had to portage my gear, wading through the mud and depositing it on a rotting log some ways upstream. Then the canoe – that was the hard part. There was something like two feet of space between each massive limb, and together the two trees had six big boughs for me to cross over. The water was deep, too deep for me to touch, and I couldn’t use the bottom to push off of. Instead, I had to stand on the limbs and haul the canoe legnthwise over each trunk – and sometimes it careened haphazardly and fell the wrong way. Once it almost crushed my ankle against the tree, and had I not moved in time it would have surely been shattered by my heavy canoe.
And that portage – all of the portages, actually – were very hard on the canoe. I noticed the keel had gotten knocked loose, alarmingly loose, and a large leak had sprung back on the stern below the water line. So now, on top of constant portages and shoving, I also had to scoop water out of the canoe every two hours. By lunch, I was wasted. I wanted to lie on that log and sleep, then somehow wake up at the base of the waterfall – which I knew couldn’t be far now.
Ah, but the journey must go on, and I reluctantly finished my macaw and had a smoke before sitting heavily down in my canoe and grabbing the paddle – purely symbolic, because there was another fallen tree about four feet in front of me that stuck five inches out of the water.
This was going to be a hard one. Instead of beach, or even mud, there was nothing but a high bank on either side of the trunk. The water was very deep, at least eight or nine feet, and the river was narrow as hell which meant the current howled along under the tree even faster than usual. Just paddling that four feet up to it took some effort.
What I should have done was take out the heaviest bags and put them on one of the far sides of the tree, and then try to push it over. But after seven lengthy portages, I was not thinking straight.
First, I stood on the tree and grabbed the bow of my canoe. Summoning what little strength I had left, I forced it up onto the tree as far as it could go. Then I jumped into the river and swam down to the stern. Grabbing ahold of vines that were hanging down the bank, I pulled the stern so that the canoe was almost legnthwise with the log, except for the bow, which was resting on top of it. Then I got back atop the log.
The heavy lifting began.
Empty, I reckon my canoe weighs somewhere between three and four hundred pounds. With all my gear and provisions, she easily tops eight hundred. That, for anyone interested, is about six times my body weight. Still, all I had to do was lift her a few inches, get the stern over the log, and then toss it into the river on the other side. After that, I would just kick the bow over, and pronto.
I grabbed the stern and heaved. I heaved. Oh, I heaved. The blood vessels must have stood out on my neck like a topographical map of rivers from below. I was using all of my strength. And finally she budged, and I managed to get the stern resting on the tree. The entire canoe was now completely out of the water, balanced legnthwise on the trunk. Now all I needed to do was get the keel over. The keel is about three inches deep, so that meant I needed to lift the canoe three inches and move it about a foot to the other side of the tree. I took a moment to compose myself, inhaled deeply, then grabbed the back of my canoe and gave it everything I had.
Up, went the canoe…up, up, and yes, that’s just high enough. Over! Over! Hurry, before you lose the strength! I moved her across the log three…four…five inches…but halfway through, my exhausted muscles gave out, and the keel came crashing down to rest on the middle of the log.
The keel is just one inch wide. Imagine a three-foot wide canoe weighing eight hundred pounds sitting on something just one inch wide. It’s got to go somewhere, either to the left or to the right – because it sure as hell isn’t balancing there. In this case, left or right, it didn’t matter. Either way, disaster was imminent – and things were about the get very wet.
She went left, and before I had a chance to react the canoe had tumped over sideways, to the upriver side of the log. She rapidly filled with water and sank – but all I could think was, the food! Save the food!
Much of the food, gladly, was in the styrofoam ice chest…and styrofoam, thank God, floats like nobody’s business. I grabbed the ice chest and shoved it onto a narrow, muddy strip of bank just upriver from the log. Then I realized, everything else is in the water. For the next twenty minutes, the only words that came out of my mouth were variations of fuck.
I grabbed everything that was floating, and rescued a backpack that was rapidly sinking. Soaked, everything, and what had I lost? What was on the bottom of the river? Time – and a lot of hard work – would tell.
The current, as I said before, was very strong. As soon as the canoe hit the water the current pinned it sideways against the log – so she had not technically sank, just dumped all of her cargo into the river to sink. But at least I still had the canoe. And my paddle? Ah – it floated up in those sticks aways downriver. How nice – I had lost my reserve on the Jauarí. After I had hauled everything that had floated or gotten pinned inside the canoe by the current onto that miserable foot-wide strip of mud at the bottom of the bank, I sat, rolled a cigarette (what a good idea, keeping tobacco in a watertight jar), and tried to figure out what was missing.
The first, and most obvious, was my shotgun. Heavy, metal, it had gone straight to the bottom – along with my machetes, knives, silverware, and all of my pots and pans. Gas stove, saved. Propane, saved, because it was more than half empty and it floated. Camera, sank. Most of my clothes were missing, as they had been drying on the tarp at the time of the disaster. My bag of nasty trash floated, of course. But all was not lost…eight feet is not so deep. I grabbed my snorkel and mask out of a wet backpack, removed my shirt, took a deep breath, and dove.
The current tried to whisk me away, but I grabbed ahold of a root and followed it as far down as I could go. The snorkel mask was useless, of course, as the blackness was absolute after three feet. I felt around…something metal! I grabbed it, then kicked off the root and rocketed to the surface.
Ah! My beach chair! Somehow, that cheered me up in a way that a simple beach chair shouldn’t have, and I could have cried. At least I could sit, then. I tossed the beach chair onto the pile of wet baggage, then dove again.
Follow the root…follow the root. I wanted to reach the actual bottom, but this seemed impossible. There was a false bottom of tree roots and sticks. The real bottom was below these. I felt around, but the roots were extensive. I reached my arm through the roots, but still I could not feel the bottom, and I admit to having a few reservations and a suspicion that I might find something under there that I wasn’t looking for. Still, I probed. Metal. Grabbed it, then to the surface.
My frying pan! Seeing something so simple and commonplace had never made me feel so good. I would dive again, and again, and again, until I had it all back.
Down I went. To the roots. And back up. And down again. In total, I dove ninety-eight times, and recovered, in addition to beach chair and frying pan, two pots, a spoon, a fork, a bag of salted caiman meat, one plate, a cup, a sack of D batteries, my MagLite, a kitchen knife, T-shirt, wet shotgun shells, half of a salted peacock bass, and twelve yards of weighted fishing line. Alas, no matter how hard I tried, I could not find my shotgun, my machetes, my camera, the majority of my clothing, and the rest of my thirty pounds of salted fish. I dove downriver, but it was hard to reach the bottom and the current would slam me into underwater trees. Still I dove! But nothing. It was nearly dark when I reluctantly gave up the search.
Here was the situation: I was alone in the wilderness, on a river that would certainly not have other travelers for the next four or five months. I had no weapon. My food stores had washed away, with the exception of about three kios of rice, a kilo of pasta, a kilo of beans, eight kilos of salt, half a kilo of coffee, three liters of vegetable oil, maybe a kilo of caiman meat, and three kilos of sugar. My health was good, though I had been suffering from mild dysentery which had plagued me on and off for the past two weeks. There were no fish on this river – the night before my net had snagged nothing except for a small, slimy catfish about three inches long with exactly the same coloration a dead leaf, and about as tasty. The river was rapidly drying, and would likely continue to do so until as late as March. The date was 28 December. I had passed the log, and I was very close to the waterfall. I could smell it. Should I soldier on, weaponless, without so much as a machete to cut a path, and with food stores so low? Or after twenty-eight long days, would I give up and head back to Barcelos?
Many factors weighed in on the decision I ended up making – but the most weighty one was the water levels. If the water was this low and the river this log choked in December, how would it be in mid-January, the date I planned on going back down it? All locals agreed the rivers here dry until mid-February at the earliest – but most added that they usually don’t start rising for good until March. If I continued upriver, it was possible I would be stuck at the foot of the falls until the river rose…three months later.
That brought to mind the low food stores, all of the salted fish I had carefully preserved during the last month to feed myself in the Serra. The existing dry foods I had could sustain me, maybe even for three months – but it would be miserable rations. Starvation diet. And the icing on the cake: no shotgun. Monkeys and paca and wild boar could run rampant right in front of me and I would be powerless to kill them for meat. No matter what angle I looked at the situation, it looked bad. Continuing upriver, while physically possible, would be next to suicide. I could arrive. But I would, in all probability, not be able to return – unless of course I walked through the jungle Tatunca-style back to the Jauarí, swam across, and waited until some tantalite man or piaçabeiro passed by and rescued me. But then I would lose my canoe – and that sealed the deal.
After twenty-eight long days of paddling, days both glorious and torturous, I was heading back downriver without ever reaching the Serra.
I could hear the falls. They hissed. They laughed. Dammit, I was so close. I curled up on the hard, sandy floor of my tent where I had pitched it on a beach a bit downriver from the Disaster Log (hammock wet and nasty) and questioned my decision to give up. I hated that phrase, giving up – and before I had gotten my canoe back over the Log I had already made a firm promise to myself that this would not be my last attempt to reach the El Dourado waterfall and the Serra do Aracá. I would return – and not return “some day” – I would return as soon as physically possible. As soon as the waters rose for good. April, maybe. Or May. All other plans I had for the next five or six months were put on hold for “Serra do Aracá: Round Two.” Whatever happened, one thing was for sure: I would face the River of Trees once more, and the tepuí would be climbed – in due time.
After that firm resolution, I felt the same calm, peaceful feeling I had felt on the Aracá when I realized that I believed in a life after this one. Perhaps I had been bested this time – and what could I say, the river had been more than worthy adversary, even as bastardly as it had shown itself to be during the previous few days. But I would be back just as surely as the rains would be back to fill up the Igarapé Preto, burying all the logs and trees under tons of rushing water. And up I would paddle, unhindered, to one of the most untamed, isolated corners of Brazil and South America.
But next time, I would bring an ax. For God’s sake, at least an ax.
Day 29 was a day of déja-vú, and all of the portages and obsticals I had worked so hard to get past during the previous two days I was forced to do all over again, in reverse. But at least this time, I knew what was coming. Going downriver was also a huge advantage, as I could build up speed while coming up to a known problem area, and oftentimes I could blast through or over it without having to get out of the canoe, or even stop paddling. Still, all the major portages I had to do over again, literally step-by-step. The favorable current seemed to help little during those occasions; sometimes it would even become a disadvantage, as it would grab the keel and swing the stern one way or another and pin the canoe sideways against the tree, and I would have to wrestle it back into position again and try to get a significant part of the boat over the log before the current started turning it sideways again. But apart from that, going down was leaps and bounds easier than going up.
By the end of the day, after eleven portages and twelve long hours of undoing two days worth of some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, I reached the first big tree that had forced a camp on Day 26. I spent the last hours of daylight getting over it, and then the bulk of my work was done. I hung my hammock between the same two trees growing horizontally out from the high bank (no jararácas, or at least none visible), and fried caiman meat before stripping down naked (no dry clothing) and falling into a deep, dreamless sleep in my still-damp hammock.
The next day was cake – utter cake. I think I only had to get out and push five or six times, and there were no portages. Tatunca Nara’s machete marks returned. I caught an aruanã on a spook. And then, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, I popped out of that tunnel of trees and was back on the Rio Jauarí.
I beached my canoe on the other side of the river where the old hut was, turned around, and gazed in the direction of the Preto with pursed lips. The mouth was hardly even visible; you would have missed it if you didn’t know it was there. Then I relaxed, and a half-smile formed on the corner of my mouth. Then I flipped the River of Trees the bird, resolutely, and with both hands. In the words of the Terminator…
“I’ll be back!”
The last installment, Chapters 9-11 will be available here only after mid-March, 2014, since I’ll be paddling on the Rio Jufarís from 02 March to 16 March