9. Na baixada
The hut on the Jauarí provided a safe haven and a spot to rest for my tired body. I arrived around midday on Day 30, and as soon as I had finished flipping the Igarapé Preto the bird I unloaded the canoe in its soggy entirety and began the extensive, methodical process of unpacking everything and setting it out in the sun to dry. I spread out a tarp on the beach and lay upon it batteries, flashlights, my lantern, and any other loose objects. I hung all clothing and bedsheets up in the trees where they flapped loudly in the wind, streamers of mildew. I set up the kitchen in the hut, along with my rescued beach chair. Chores taken care of, I went fishing.
Lures caught nothing, to my frustration – but it’s a good thing I know how to catch fish in more than one way. I set out three nets; three acará-tingas and three fat pacú met their doom in the tangly mesh. They made a thick, brothy soup, which I ate in the dark with some of the last of my farinha as a light rain fell for two or three hours.
I declared Day 31 a Day of Rest – the second one I had taken since leaving Barcelos. I sat in the hut for the majority of the day swatting at the occasional pium fly and finishing Roosevelt’s book. Since leaving Barcelos I had read both Candice Millard´s River of Doubt and Roosevelt’s own account of the expedition in Through the Brazilian Wilderness. It was interesting to read these stories of an expedition in the Amazon which took place exactly one hundred years before the expedition I was on at the time. The books were a source of many long, pensive hours on the river, after the fact.
First off, like my Dad mentioned, I reckon that both Millard and Roosevelt sensationalized different aspects of the journey. In Millard’s case, she obviously has an affinity for the dramatic, and spends the entire book reminding the reader about what a dangerous, dreadful voyage the members of the River of Doubt expedition were undertaking. Its pages are littered with words like “harrowing,” “deadly,” and “peril.” Sentences like “…rhythmic eddies in the water betrayed the passage of anacondas, which can grow to be up to five hundred pounds…” made it hard for me to enjoy the book because I was scoffing so often that my throat was really starting to become raw. As if every ripple contained an anaconda! As if you see anacondas all the time, like they were flies or parrots! I’ve only seen two in as many years. And don’t play that card, “Well, that was a hundred years ago.” The majority of the Amazon outside cities and towns has changed little over the past century. Candice Millard watched too many Indiana Jones movies. I reckon “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was looping in her head as she typed snippets like “In the rain forest, it seemed as if every living thing…was ready to attack.” Cue Harrison Ford, whipping away the anacondas and shooting crocodiles between their eyes. Ho-hum.
Don’t get me wrong, it was certainly a long and trying expedition. But Millard made it seem like they were starving all the time, while Roosevelt wrote that they always had something to eat, and that on several occasions Lieutenant Lyra had caught “dozens of fish.” According to River of Doubt, the expedition survived on nothing but hearts of palm, meager rations of the wrong kind, and only mentions three fish ever being caught: two pacú and a big pirarára.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, did seem to glaze over a lot of the unpleasant aspects of the voyage. For example, he hardly mentions the fact that his leg was so festering and infected that he considered taking his own life, and dedicated one short sentence to the matter: “I had a touch of the fever.”Millard penned chapters to the health problems the expedition faced, while Roosevelt merely writes, “None of us were in really buoyant health…” Right.
That being said, Millard was undoubtedly a much better writer than Roosevelt. The Colonel’s book drifts all over the place. He seems to get distracted easily and often, and sometimes spends pages talking about something utterly irrelevant. He repeats himself often and incessantly; for example, I knew that the gauchos in Mato Grosso wore no shoes and had spurs on their bare feet, because Roosevelt reminded me of the fact about forty times between pages 25 and 61. He constantly noted the color of every person’s skin, and their blood heritage. He wasn’t even very creative about it, either; every dark-skinned person who was not black was referred to as “dusky.” For example, “…the dusky ranch hand and his dusky wife.” Is that the only synonym he knew for “dark?” What about tawny? Swarthy? Opaque? Even caramel would have been okay. Jesus.
One thing that Millard and Roosevelt both did in their respective books was hugely overplay the lurking danger of the piranhas. Roosevelt especially. It’s probably because of Roosevelt’s book that the majority of the outside world thinks that if you go swimming in the Amazon, piranhas will instantly remove all the flesh from your bones like a school of ravenous razorblades. I swim in the river every day, as do all of the caborclos and many species of forest animals. I can affirm that I’ve never even been nibbled at – though I won’t deny that a nip here and there is not impossible. Still, the only times I’ve ever been bitten by piranhas were when I was removing them from my fishing nets, or else while cleaning them. Of course Roosevelt cites many stories told to him by locals and Col. Rondón – but in my experience with the Brazilians, most, if not all of these tales are exaggerated to some degree.
The caborclos are well-versed in the art of spinning yarns, and I’ve heard some obvious stretchers presented as absolute, swear-to-God fact. In particular I remember the old man who swore his deadly bushmaster snakebite was cured because he drank battery acid – a home remedy which would certainly do him more harm than the snakebite itself. The same man also claimed that you should use the milky sap that comes out of toads whenever you bother them (which, by the way, is a type of venom) as an ointment for wounds that won’t heal. How he managed to reach such an advanced age, I cannot say.
There was also the fellow who claimed his friend died and then came miraculously back to life twenty-four hours later, full of stories of the “tour” of heaven he took with Saint Peter (complete with little details; for example Saint Peter had a giant book, something like three feet tall, in which was written everything you had ever done in your life. Good things were written in gold, and evil things were written in black. Unsurprisingly, Nossa Senhora da Aparecida also played a starring role).
The only one of the piranha stories Roosevelt tells that I can safely believe is the following, told to Roosevelt by Colonel Rondón:
“The party were without food and very hungry. On reaching a stream they dynamited it, and waded in the seize the fish as they floated on the surface. One man, Lieutenant Pyrineus, having his hands full, tried to hold one fish by putting its head into his mouth. It was a piranha and seemingly stunned, but in a moment it recovered and bit a big section out of his tongue. Such a hemorrhage followed that his life was saved with the utmost difficulty.”
Well…yeah. Putting a piranha’s head into your mouth, even if you think it’s dead, is not one of the brightest things you could do. Granted, the man was desperate and starving, and likely was not thinking clearly at the time. I always smash their heads in as soon as I get them off the hook or out of the net, and even then I’m very careful to keep my fingers clear of that mouth. They can still bite – and yes, it hurts like hell and bleeds a lot. But it’s also worth nothing that blood in the water does not “incite [the piranhas] to madness,” as Roosevelt believed. Rather than the ravenous monsters that T.R. makes them out to be, piranhas are simply predatory fish that feed mostly on smaller fish. They are also opportunistic scavengers, and if they find something that looks edible floating around they might take a few snaps at it to see if it’s any good, in the same way that a perch or a minnow will nibble at drifting specks and then spit them back out if they turn out not to be tasty. Granted, tiger sharks have been known to nibble curiously at surfers, which often results in the loss of a limb, along with considerable amounts of blood. But I digress…
Piranhas are generally schooling fish, but that does not mean that they will coordinate and ruthlessly tear apart any bleeding thing that falls into the water. Again, they might take a few chunks out; many times I have removed fish from my nets that were missing fins, sections of their backs, or their bellies. Sometimes, only the head survived. But the only time I could ever picture a school of piranhas attacking and systematically destroying a human or animal with the ferocity that Roosevelt so often describes would be if the fish were in some sort of pool that has been closed off from the river, and where they have been starving and cannibalizing the weakest of their numbers for some time. In such a situation, hunger could possibly incite a feeding frenzy. But the fish in the main river have plenty of food, and they much prefer to attack small fish than rip the meat off the bones of a large animal. For example, if you fish piranhas with bits of chopped up fish you will catch more than if you use a piece of animal meat – though the animal meat will also catch plenty. Rather than blood, by the way, they seem to be more attracted to greasy fat. Roosevelt was a bit chubby…
I also noticed, with considerable disgust and eye-rolling, that Millard couldn’t help but feed the stupid urban legend that the candirú parasitic catfish can swim up your urine stream when you’re pissing in the water and lodge itself inside your urethra. While it is technically possible (though astronomically unlikely) that the candirú could manage to lodge itself into a man’s urethra if you were pissing while submerged in the river, the notion that the fish can leap from the water and slide itself into your prick before you can react is absolutely ludicrous. A former editor for National Geographic should know better.
On the whole I enjoyed Roosevelt’s book more than River of Doubt. Despite his flaws, the Colonel was a boyish, light-hearted man, an eternal optimist with an honorable outlook on life. He was an enthusiastic amateur naturalist, and the obvious fascination and respect he held for the natural world, and the awe it inspired within him daily, is admirable and endearing. Indeed, I learned many new things by reading his book.
One thing I found particularly amusing about Roosevelt’s book was the obvious seething hatred he harbored for a certain Henry Savage Landor, who wrote this scathing review of the ex-president’s voyage shortly after the latter had returned to the United States:
“It seems to me that he only copied the principal incidents of my voyage. I see that he has had even the very same sickness as I experienced, and, what is more extraordinary, in the very same leg as I had trouble with. These things happen very often to big explorers who carefully read the books of some of the humble travellers who preceded them. I do not want to make any comment as to so-called scientific work of Col. Roosevelt, but as far as I am concerned he makes me laugh very heartily, and I believe those who have any common sense will laugh just as much as I.”
The enraged Roosevelt wrote the following rebuttal in his book:
“It would be well if a geographical society would investigate the formal and official charges made by Colonel Rondon, an officer and gentleman of highest repute, against Mr. Savage Landor […] He states that Mr. Landor did not perform, and did not even attempt to perform, the work he had contracted to do in exploration for the Brazilian Government […]
In a letter to me under date of May 1, 1914 – a letter that has been published in full in France – Colonel Rondon goes at length into the question of what territory Mr. Landor had traversed. Colonel Rondon states that – excepting on one occasion, when Mr. Landor, wandering off a beaten trail, immediately got lost and shortly returned to his starting-point without making any discoveries – he kept to old, well-travelled routes. One sentence of the Colonal’s letter reads to me as follows: ‘I can guarantee you that Mr. Landor did not cross a hand’s breadth of land that had not been explored, the greater part of it many centuries ago’ […] Lieutenants Pyrineus and Mello, mentioned in this body of work, informed me that they accompanied Mr. Landor on most of his overland trip before he embarked on the Arinos, and that he simply followed the highroad, or else the telegraph line, and furthermore Colonal Rondon states that the Indians whom Mr. Landor encountered and photographed were those educated at the missions.”
It’s worth nothing that Roosevelt himself also followed the telegraph line through the chapadão, and the Indians he actually physically met were ones that had already been more or less pacified by Rondón’s previous expeditions into the area – and many of them had also been educated at the missions. But his real argument stems from the fact that his expedition ultimately took a completely unknown route along a river that they, Roosevelt mentions several times and with ruddy, expansionist enthusiasm, “put on the map!”
Here is an excerpt from Roosevelt on the topic of his perceived differences between a traveler and an explorer:
“The original explorer, and to only a lesser degree the hardworking field naturalist and big-game hunter […] have to face countless risks, hardships, and difficulties […] The early explorers and adventurers make fairly well-beaten trails; but it is incumbent on them neither to boast of their own experiences nor to misjudge the efforts of the pioneers because, thanks to these very efforts, their own lines fall into pleasant places. The ordinary traveller, who never goes off the beaten route and who on this beaten route is carried by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package. He does nothing; others do all the work, show all the forethought, take all the risk – and are entitled to all the credit […]
If this kind of traveller is a writer than he can of course do admirable work, work of the highest value; but the value comes because he is a writer and an observer, not because of any particular credit that attaches to him as a traveller […] When a man travels across Arizona in a Pullman car, we do not think of him as having performed a feat bearing even the most remote resemblance to the feats of the first explorers of those waterless wastes; whatever admiration we feel in connection with his trip is reserved for the traffic-superintendant, engineer, fireman, and brakeman […]
But to excavate ruins that have already long been known, to visit out-of-the-way towns that date from colonial days, to traverse old, even if uncomfortable, routes of travel, or to ascend or descend highway rivers like the Amazon, the Paraguay, and the lower Orinoco – all of these exploits are well-worth performing, but they in no sense represent exploration or adventure, and they do not entitle the performer, no matter how well he writes or how much of real value he contributes to human knowledge, to compare himself in anyway with the real wilderness wanderer, or to critisise the latter. Such a performance entails no hardship or difficulty worth heeding. Its value depends purely on observation, not on action. The man does little; he merely records what he sees. He is only the man of the beaten routes. The true wilderness wanderer, on the other contrary, must be a man of action as well as of observation. He must have the heart and the body to do and endure, no less than the eye to see and the brain to record.
Let me make it clear that I am not depreciating the excellent work of so many men who have not gone off the beaten trails. I merely wish to make it plain that this excellent work must not be put in the class with that of the wilderness explorer. It is excellent work, nevertheless, and has its place, just as the work of the true explorer has its place.”
Okay, Teddy. But why the long rant? Oh, that’s right…
“Both stand in sharp contrast with the actions of those alleged explorers, among whom Mr. Savage Landor stands in unpleasant prominence.”
In all seriousness I agree with the majority of what Roosevelt says. A real explorer cuts his own trails and is constantly in the unknown. Later in the book Roosevelt talks about how the decent of an unknown river is exponentially more fraught with danger than even a slightly-known one, since around every bend lies a new possibility of unpredictable, sudden danger and/or death – and the fact that one must either portage around serious unexplored rapids or risk searching for a safe channel when there may be none makes the first pioneers vastly more at-risk than those that came later.
That being said, I disagree that being a traveler who comes to an area after it has already been explored is not an adventurer. Perhaps he isn’t if, as Roosevelt puts it, “others carry him along the way.” But just because the Rio Aracá and the Jauarí are known to the world and have occasional travelers, does not mean that paddling up and down them for months at a time, alone, while living off the fruits of the river, is not an adventurous feat. The Colonel’s definition of a real wilderness explorer requires travel through an area that is utterly unknown; but today, satellites have mapped every inch of our planet’s surface, and nothing is unknown to the extent that it was in 1914. But of course, just because it has been photographed doesn’t mean that somebody has actually been there. I admit that I am not the explorer Roosevelt so highly praises. The routes I travel, and have traveled, are sometimes remote – often uninhabited – but someone has always been there before me. All rivers in the Amazon have been explored by somebody – if not officially, than you can be sure that at some point a few caborclos have gone up it in search of good fishing or hunting.
Where could I go if I wanted to become a real Roosevelt Explorer? Well, I suppose I could walk across the Amazon from west to east, without following rivers. Surely I would traverse unknown territory somewhere along the way. Or I could lead a dog sled across the entirety of northern Siberia. But apart from huge undertakings like these, few expeditions realized these days can be called true feats of exploration, at least in the Roosevelt sense, merely because the wealth of information available today, to everyone, removes many unknowns which menaced the early twentieth century explorers.
I try hard to make my trips as authentic as possible. For example, instead of motoring to where I want to go, I paddle. Instead of taking advantage of lightweight, modern canoes that are available today, I utilize the heavy, wooden native type, because they are both more stable and give my voyages a more rustic, genuine feel – and also because I honestly don’t have two thousand dollars to drop on a plastic boat from Norway (though I sure wished I had a boat that weighed 44 lbs while I was on the Preto). Instead of paddling downriver, like the staggering majority of canoe expeditions today, I try to go principally upriver like the explorers of old, because upriver usually meant – and means – that you are heading deeper into the wilderness, to the river’s savage source. Instead of lugging canned foods around, I fish and live off the land like the early explorers were forced to do – and though I do exploit modern fishing techniques, I reckon early explorers had better guns than my rusty old .20 gauge. Many times I wished I had a lever-action Winchester .44, the cowboy rifles Roosevelt mentioned some of the camaradas carried. I could have drilled those howler monkeys on the Deméni with a gun like that.
Instead of carrying a GPS to get me where I am trying to go – which I could easily do if, again, I had the cash to drop on one – I rely on a rough map, my compass, my sense of direction, and vague instructions given to me by any locals I may have met along the way. I have no SAT phone safety net, only the knowledge that if something goes wrong, it is up to me and me alone to save my own life and extract myself from danger. And finally, what I reckon to be the greatest virtue of my expeditions, I organize and fund them entirely on my own – and by that I mean I have no sponsors, and I will never be obliged to write something like “I use Dagger Paddles, omg they are so light” (Momma said it was just a little white lie, it wouldn’t hurt nobody).
I do all the work, show all the forethought, and take all the risks. In addition to the expedition commander, I am the porter, the navigator, the paddler, the quartermaster, the fisherman, the hunter, the camp-builder, the cook, and the dishwasher. I have – I must have – the heart and body to do and endure, and I think I can say with reasonable certainty that I also possess the eye to see and the brain to record. So, despite exhibiting all of these characteristics that Roosevelt states are adherent to the “true wilderness wanderer,” am I disqualified from that lofty class merely because there are no unexplored rivers left in the Amazon, and no matter where I go, I’m inevitably following in the footsteps of another?
I reckon that’s not for me to decide. Anyways, no matter what Roosevelt says, it’s always an adventure – and aye, that’s good enough for me.
But what is an explorer? In the general sense of the word, an explorer is someone who seeks out the unknown, in order to make it known. But that definition does not specify to whom that particular unknown is obscured – and to whom the explorer will be making it known. The River of Doubt was unknown to Roosevelt, and indeed, the whole of the civilized world. But it was far from unknown to the Indians who lived along its banks. Positively they knew it better than any place. But at the time of his decent Roosevelt himself did not know what lay ahead of him – and so, his expedition became one of exploration.
So if I paddle up a river that, for me, is unknown (apart from its general course, which is something that, thanks to Google Earth, will always be known to me) does that disqualify me from the category of “explorer?” Just because somebody else knows what lies on the banks of that particular stream doesn’t mean I know. The Internet offers little to no information in any language on the majority of the smaller rivers in the Amazon; sure, I can ask locals, and am constantly doing so. Oftentimes the information is vague, unhelpful, or just plain wrong – but sometimes they can give me valuable reports. Still, the river remains largely unknown to me until I paddle it, and I am surprised every day by some new thing.
Really, it all comes down to one question: for whom, or what, are you exploring? Roosevelt’s expedition explored to enlighten the civilized world. I, on the other hand, explore to enlighten myself. Due to the fact that Colonel Roosevelt made his expeditions a century before I began making mine, certain things will be easier for me due to the modern age I live in. I know where the river goes, there is little to no risk of Indian attack, I have available to me antibiotics and more advanced health clinics, and as a general rule, more people live along the rivers in 2014 than did in 1914. But I still think I can be called something of an explorer – by a different definition than the 1914 explorer, of course – but a breed of one just the same. Had I lived a century earlier, I would have certainly done everything I could to become a part of history’s most harrowing voyages. Alas, I was born in 1990.
Speaking of harrowing voyages, Colonel Rondón was the undisputed king of such endeavors in the Amazon. Born in Mato Grosso in 1865, Colonel Cândido Rondón da Silva headed the Strategic Telegraph Commission of the early twentieth century, which was an effort by the Brazilian government to a) learn exactly what lay within the vast swaths of rainforest that covered more than fifty percent of their national territory and b) build a telegraph line there and establish settlements which could communicate with the rest of Brazil and, by default, the world. Rondón spent a quarter of a century blazing trails across the chapadão and the southern fringes of the Amazon Basin, and his expeditions, as Candice Millard put it, “were at best long, exhausting, lonely treks through unfamiliar territory, and at worst terrifying forced marches that subjected the soldiers to disease, starvation, and relentless Indian attacks.”
His most infamous expedition took place in 1909. On May 5th, the anniversary of the discovery of Brazil, Rondón set out from Taipirapoan, Mato Grosso. He reached the Rio Madeira on December 25th of that year, having spent 237 days traversing over six hundred miles of wilderness. By the end of August the food stores of the hundreds-strong expedition force had run out – down to the salt – and the rapidly dwindling number of men were forced to live off exclusively what they could cull from the land for the next four months. Once, a deer was killed, and the men ate “literally every part of it.” By the time the party reached the Madeira in December, the survivors were exhausted and racked by fever, with hosts of bot fly larva festering in their skin. Those who were not completely naked were clothed in little better than rags, and all, including Rondón, teetered on the edge of starvation.
That is exploration – by any definition you care to apply.
The smell of drying fish filled the air, pungent and greasy. My net had snagged two hefty mandubé catfish as I read, as well as another mess of pacú. I dug deep into my plastic bags and extracted a small lump of weed, which I had dried out the previous afternoon. I had been saving it for the top of the waterfall, but alas! it was not to be. Anyways, I needed to celebrate New Year’s Eve somehow.
The next morning I loaded up and struck off downriver, clothes and gear dry, with a pot full of salted pacú and some half-fried catfish, leaving 2013 and the Igarapé Preto to brood in the past.
After twenty-seven days of paddling against the current, heading downriver gave me the impression of moving at a positively blinding rate of speed. It felt like I was cheating, somehow. To top it all off, I made the breakthrough discovery that actually, I could paddle my canoe from my beach chair. I sat a bit higher above the water, and if I wouldn’t have had such a long paddle it may not have worked – but as it was my paddle was exactly the right length. As I sat and paddled, nearly three feet above the water and zooming down the Jauarí at warp speed, I felt as if I were on a luxury cruise of some kind. My ass stopped being sore, and every once and awhile I would lean back and revel in the fact that yes – I had lumbar support.
The miles sloughed off with the casual indifference of a lizard shedding its skin. My mind wandered to all places. For two or three hours, I entertained a drawn out, detailed fantasy of what I would do if, for some strange reason, I encountered Miley Cyrus stranded on the banks of the Rio Jauarí (her plane crashed, or something). I would give her a ride, of course; but I would make her paddle with my backup plank, which I had just recovered from the campsite where I had left it the week before. She would complain all the time, her being a spoiled celebrity who probably has the endurance of grape jelly. As I ate my too-salty fried mandubé catfish, I imagined starving her for long enough so that she would eat it like it was a hundred-dollar steak. The fantasy had several alternate endings; sometimes, the experience turned her into a decent human being by the time we got back to Barcelos. Sometimes, she remained a spoiled brat and filed harassment charges against me, since I made her paddle. Other times, I just pushed her into the river and made sure she didn’t come back up. These are the kinds things that sometimes run through my sun-baked brain on those long, solitary afternoons on the river.
Meanwhile in the real world, I was advancing leaps and bounds down the Jauarí. By the end of the day I was back on the Aracá, advancing in ten hours what had taken me three and a half days to do going upriver. I had noticed on the Jauarí that the water level had risen about an inch during my two-day permanence in the hut at the mouth of the Preto. However, as I neared the mouth I saw that the water was a full eight or ten inches lower than it had been when I first came up on December 22nd. The Aracá, too, was considerably lower. Rivers, and their habits of rising and falling, are strange, unpredictable things in this part of the Amazon. The water can be rising in one spot and falling at another at any given moment, for reasons unbeknownst to me. There had been no rain since the several hour’s drizzle during my first night at the hut, but the afternoons had been cloudy and perhaps some small rain fell near the headwaters of the Jauarí, which, it’s worth noting, has a different source than the Igarapé Preto.
In fact, the rivers were drying faster than ever, and I realized that flipping my canoe on the Disaster Log and being forced to return was perhaps one of the luckiest things that had ever happened to me. Had I made it past that log, it’s quite possible I would have made it all the way to the waterfall – and after all the work it took to get up there, I would have taken my sweet time until finally deciding to head downriver. It’s possible – no, probable – that by that time, going downriver would have been an impossible feat. Hell, even another week may have been sufficient for the water to go down enough to effectively maroon me up there. I do not think I would’ve died – but I would’ve had a really disagreeable time, that much was certain.
The Aracá, despite being one of the smaller rivers I have ever paddled, seemed huge after two weeks on the Jauarí and the Preto. Those sweeping bends, and the beaches! God, they seemed to have doubled in size in just ten days! If I thought the channels between the beach shallows and the banks were narrow before, now they were so small that the biggest vessel that could safely pass many areas was probably a large piaçaba canoe. Any kind of proper boat would run aground in a heartbeat.
I spent night 32 at an unoccupied piaçaba camp on the Aracá just downriver from the mouth of the Jauarí. The spot is used to store bales of piaçaba, which languish in the sun for weeks at a time as the piaçabeiros motor multiple loads down in their cargo canoes from the distant piaçabals. Larger canoes, or small boats, pick up the piaçaba from the camp once the entire load has been transferred to the larger river. The whole lot is then hauled to Barcelos in flotillas similar to the one in which I had seen the Yanomami traveling. The reason the river folk in this section of the Amazon use these flotillas is directly related to the vast sandbars and fickle water levels during certain times of year on the Rio Aracá. When presented with a particularly tight squeeze, the fleet breaks up into individual canoes, which navigate the tricky canal one at a time. Had the entire load been transferred into one large boat, it’s likely the craft would suffer constant groundings on shallow beaches, if it would even be able to descend at all – though I reckon that during the flood season, all manner of large piaçaba boats motor up and down the Aracá with their fibrous cargo.
No piaçaba languished in the sun that afternoon as I paddled up to the camp, only empty cachaça bottles and a few tampons which were, for some reason, nailed to a tree (Inalda? Chopper?) I cooked another characteristic pacú soup from the fish I had salted the previous evening, and ate with great gusto as termites busily destroyed the remainder of an old canoe which lay rotting nearby.
My dysentery had been getting progressively worse for two days, after several glorious evenings of solid, cylindrical shits on the Preto and Jauarí – shits which I had been so proud of that I gazed upon them momentarily and with a distinct feeling of accomplishment before burying them in the sand. But starting with the evening after the Disaster Log, I resumed defecating my soup in precisely the same physical form in which I had consumed it. Initially, when the watery stools first began affecting me just before arriving to Bacuquara, I assumed it to be just another case of giardia, and took the necessary medications. After three days I was back to the smooth, easy shits – but only for one or two days, after which the runs would return with a vengeance, and seemingly, with a mission to make up for lost time. So I took more giardia meds, and shat normally for a few days before relapsing back into what I began mentally referring to as my dysentery (though I can’t say for sure if that’s really what it was).
By Day 32 I was out of the medicine I had brought for giardia, and in a last-ditch effort to quell the geysers spewing from my backside at regular, albeit unpredictable intervals, I took a few pills I had bought at the pharmacy in Barcelos. I didn’t know much about these pills, and relied on the pharmacist in Barcelos knowing her shit – pun intended. I waltzed into the pharmacy just before closing time, lugging with me a grocery sack full of brand new empty shotgun shells and a few snaky coils of nylon rope.
“Boa tarde! I need some medicine for the shits,” I said tactfully to the wrinkled, husky dame manning the pharmacy counter, setting my sack down on the scratched glass display case.
“The shits,” she repeated, unfazed. “Well, what kind of shits?”
“The explosive kind,” I said, mimicking a fire hose with which I drenched the apothecary in torrents of imaginary waste.
She nodded knowingly and began rummaging around behind the counter. “I have something here…let’s see…ah, yes.” She procured a packet of four small white pills, which had obviously been cut from a greater packet of hundreds. “For all types of shits,” she confirmed, nodding. I shut off my fecund fire hose and examined the pills.
“How do I take them?” I asked, trying in vain to mentally pronounce the eighteen-letter name of the active ingredient.
“Orally,” she said flatly.
“No, I mean how often?Once every six hours, eight hours…?”
“Take two, and as soon as you have a movement, take another. Take the last one six hours later.”
“Ah, okay,” I said, nodding. “Just the four of them?”
“Trust me,” she gave a throaty chuckle. “Four is all you’ll need.”
“Great. How much?”
I rummaged around in my pockets and withdrew a messy wad of old bills. “Okay, give me…” I counted out the remainder of my cash. “Eleven!”
“Eleven will stop you up like a cork, lad.”
“It’s for just in case.”
A martyred sigh. “Thirty-three reais, then.” I gave her the money and retreated back to the steamy streets of Barcelos. The pharmacist locked the door behind me.
More than a month later I sat in my beach chair on the Rio Aracá and squinted at the pills under the dim light of my flashlight. Still couldn’t pronounce that name. Too many Z’s and Y’s. Right; two pills, then. I popped a duo out of the foil and gulped them down with lukewarm coffee and a mild grimace. Stop me up like a cork…we shall see.
I lay in my hammock later that evening, writing in my journal about Travels with Miley Cyrus – don’t judge me – when very suddenly, I became acutely aware that I needed to have a movement. Right now. I hastily threw my journal onto the ground, rolled out of my hammock with the agility and grace of a sack of turnips, and hobbled down to the riverside with a certain stiff-leggedness that is only accomplished by one who is desperately trying not to spectacularly shit a hole through his only pair of shorts.
I made it – but it was a close call. Poor beach; it had looked so picturesque before. I took another pill and went to sleep.
Now that I was, as they say in the Amazon, na baixada, or headed downriver, I no longer needed to follow the strict flour ration I had imposed upon myself after learning that I couldn‘t buy any more from Inalda. I was now down to less than three quarters of a kilo, but since I would certainly to be able to squeeze something out of Fernando (Inalda owed me 57 reais, remember) or at least somebody in Bacuquara, I spared plenty of the precious white powder making sweet pancakes the next morning at the piaçaba camp. After coffee, I took the fourth pill and paddled off downriver.
The distance to Fernando was not a great one; perhaps eight miles, if that. But on that day the wind was so powerful that I didn’t arrive to the pousada until around three in the afternoon. The wind howled around the beaches and sent sand flying into my eyes, reminding me strongly of the four days I once spent walking across the Lençóis Maranhenses in their sandy entirety. Once I saw a massive capybera, the size of a sheep and utterly alone. I instinctively reached for my shotgun, then remembered that it was rusting away at the bottom of the Igarapé Preto. The capybera seemed unafraid, and I was able to paddle quite close. It walked around on the beach for awhile, and every so often would give a mighty leap and throw itself into the sand and wallow around, like a dog scratching its back on an asphalt road.
I battled my way to the pousada, fighting a wind so strong that it took me fifteen minutes to paddle the last hundred yards downriver. Upon finally arriving I moored next to Fernando‘s little canoe and walked up to the pousada. The man was nowhere to be found; the wind howled across the deserted patio and knocked empty salt shakers and napkinless napkin holders to the floor, and I shouted Fernando, cadê você, but there was no response. I went down to the green boat, where a small bottle of hot sauce lay broken on the floor, apparently another casualty of the wind. Then the sound of a diesel rabeta motor coughing to life rolled in from across the river; I looked and saw Fernando, shirtless and with the ever-present cigarette jutting out from between his lips, puttering along in my direction. Plumes of exhaust smoke billowed out of the engine and streaked across the Rio Aracá in the wind, a pastel line of white that was quickly dashed away to nothing on the high bank.
“Where’s the gold?” he shouted as he came closer.
“In my secret cave,” I yelled back.
“Porra, and you didn’t even bring one little nugget for Fernando?” said the cabroclo as he shut off the motor and moored his canoe to the boat. He climbed up, and shook my hand roughly. “Welcome back, meuirmão.Tell me some stories about the Serra.”
“…so then, I figured I was pretty much screwed,” I reeled, happy to have somebody to talk to after ten days of exclusively my own company. “Reluctantly, I turned around. Na baixada, so much easier.”
“Man! I can’t believe you left your shotgun there!” said Fernando, refilling his coffee and scratching his short legs.
“I looked all over for it! I hated to leave it behind, but what was I supposed to do?”
Fernando nodded. “Yeah, it sucks diving by yourself. You need two or three people, all diving down there at the same time. They’ll eventually find it. Once, I lost my shotgun and a bunch of other things, in that lake where I told you I sometimes go fishing. There was a big storm. Lots of wind. I got swamped. Dove all day after the storm passed, and I was able to find just about everything, ‘cept for the shotgun. So I marked the spot, then got some piaçabeiros to go out there and help me. We found it, eventually. Did you mark the spot where you turned over?”
“Yeah, I tied a plastic bag up in a tree nearby.”
“Oh, good. If I ever get around to it I’ll take this diesel rabeta up there, see if I can find your gun.”
“Whatever you find down there, you can keep,” I said. “Except for my camera, I’d like that back if by some small chance you find it. As for the shotgun, I’ll buy another one.” I gulped down the last of my ultra-sweet coffee. “But shit man, the Preto is really low. You’re gonna have a hell of a time getting up to that spot. Especially if you take that big canoe there.” I nodded to the boat with the rabeta perched on the stern.
“Ah, but I’ll tow my little canoe from behind. I’ll leave this one at the hut on the Jauarí.”
I nodded. “Good idea. Bring an axe, though.”
“Oh, yeah, you gotta have an axe. I could’ve told you that.”
“Yeah, I wish you would have! Wouldn’t have made much difference, though, in the long run.”
“Nope. It’s just a bad time of year to travel around there.”
“That’s what I’ve realized. But I’ll be back. I was thinking, would August and September be good months? Would the water be higher?”
Fernando pursed his lips and wobbled his hand around vaguely. “Mais o menos. It’s starting to dry again in August. Better: April and May.”
“Too soon. I would like to try and bring my sister along next time. She wants to come in August.”
“August is better than December or January. But it’ll be dry.”
“Hmm. What about June and July?”
“Better. You’ll still need an axe, though. You always need an axe up there.”
“Don’t worry, it’s on my shopping list.”
I relaxed in my beach chair and rested my elbows on the worn planks of the table. “Where’s that jacú?” I asked suddenly. I had been on the boat for an hour by then, and had yet to be hurred at.
Fernando shrugged. “Hell if I know. Haven’t seen it in three days. Probably out in the jungle, fucking.”
“Or something ate it.”
“Nah. It’s pretty smart. It does this every once in a while, vanishes for a few days, then comes back hungrier than ever. Just fucking around. Birds gotta get laid, too.”
I laughed. “What about you, Fernando? No ladies hidden away in the pousada?”
“Nah, I got my lady right here.” He procured a small plastic bottle of the cheapest liquor there is, which is called “Felina” and features on its label a topless woman posing with slightly parted lips next to a roaring jaguar. “Lady Felina, that’s all Fernando needs out here.” He procured two cups and set them on the table, then filled each one halfway with the toxic stuff. The lonely caborclo raised his glass.
“To Lady Felina,” I said, raising my glass.
“Seven reais,” slurred Fernando two hours later. “Seven reais for a bottle of Felina. That’s how much Inalda charges me.”
“How much is it in Barcelos?”
“And…” he stopped, seemingly losing his train of thought for a moment. “And…and everything! She charges me for everything! The only things I get for free are coffee, sugar, and farinha.”
“Well, how much does she pay you?” I asked.
Fernando leaned in close, as if he were about to tell me a dark secret. “Patrick…she don’t pay me a fuckin‘ cent.”
I stared. “Nothing?”
I scoffed. “Then what the hell are you doing here?”
Fernando sighed deeply. “I’m supposed to get a cut of what Inalda makes from the tourists. Only – ”
“ – there are no tourists,” I finished.
He pointed at me several times, as if he were counting the number of Patricks dancing around his eyeballs. “Ex-actly.”
“So let me see if I’ve got this right.” I set my empty glass down on the table, where Fernando shakily refilled it. “You built this pousada, by yourself, and now you spend months at a time completely alone, taking care of the place and making sure it doesn’t fall in on itself – and you’re paid in coffee, sugar, and farinha?”
Fernando scowled. “When she came downriver last week, I asked her if she could give me a few cans of sardines – you know, so I don’t have to be fishing every goddamn day. Know what she said? ‘I’ll sell you some, Fernando, no problem. Eight reais per can.’ Eight reais per can!”
“That’s shitty, man.”
“I was pissed, but I didn’t let it show. But if there’s no tourists by then end of this year, I’m done. Just, done. I’ll stay in Barcelos. Then she’ll really be screwed; with no one to take care of this place, it’ll just rot away. The piaçabeiros will steal all the good wood. She needs me.”
Exploitation of labor at its finest. Inalda was a piece of garbage. Still, she had been decent enough to tell Fernando about the 57 reais she owed me. He paid it out to me in wet bills shortly after I arrived. At least she was good for that much.
We sat in the dark as the generator rumbled away in the back of the green boat. Amor á Vida was on again, but I had missed too many episodes as of late and had no idea what was going on.
“Thanks for the gas,” said Fernando, sucking meat off the bones of a cabeçudo turtle he had cooked as Felix, the gay villain, flounced around on the screen selling hot dogs from a van on the streets of Rio. How he had been reduced to that, I didn’t know; last I had checked he was the president of the hospital.
I waved a greasy hand dismissively as I chewed the tough reptile meat. “Ah, I won’t be needing it anyways. It was for starting campfires up in the Serra. I’ve got plenty of propane.”
“It’s nice to watch TV for a bit. Inalda only gives me fifteen liters of gasoline per month, and it’s mostly for the water pump.”
The telenovela lumbered on, and we were silent until, two hours later, the motor sputtered and died, my two liters of gasoline gone. Fernando was already asleep, and soon, so was I.
Fernando fished downriver the next morning, and towed me for about fifteen minutes with the diesel rabeta until he got to the mouth of the small lake where he planned to spend the day.
“Good luck, Patrick. See you in Barcelos. For the festival.”
“You can count on it,” I agreed.
We parted ways as Fernando slipped into his little canoe and vanished into the molongós. I pointed my bow downriver and poled away, the sound of light waves smacking against the canoe my departure soundtrack.
Unlike the Jauarí, going down the Aracá seemed almost as slow as going up it. If it wasn’t the wind, it was the conspicuous lack of current. The river was still drying, and seemed to flow at glacier pace through the jungle. The only times there were significant currents to help me along were on the outsides of the big bends along the high bank, which was the only time I even felt like I had a favorable current. Still, I managed to advance all the way down to Day 19’s campsite in one day, the same place were I had decided that I believed in an afterlife, after all.
There was a paraná on the other side of the river, which was a sort of a canal that came back out onto the Aracá some ways downstream – but by this time it was nearly dry. On Day 19 there had been plenty of water visible at the mouth, but by Day 34 the entrance was almost dry. I only just managed to get my canoe in there to set out a net across the narrow channel. It was very shallow, and I had to push the boat across about twenty yards of three-inch water over a sandbar in order to gain access. I returned shortly afterwards to my gear on the beach across the river, set up camp, cooked a pot of rice, and wrote in my journal for awhile. After an hour or two I reckoned I had at least a few dinner fish in the net, so I crossed back, plowed my way across the sandbar, and checked it out.
Nothing. To boot, the net was snagged on a series of sunken trees. I was too tired (or lazy) to dive and untangle it, and decided to just leave the net out overnight and take care of the problem in the morning. No dolphins there, that was for sure. Fortunately I had brought the zagaia, and I paddled around the edges of the paraná with the MagLite for about an hour until I had speared a few acarás and a small aruanã for supper. A small butterfly peacock bass also jumped right into my canoe, spooked by the light.
The next morning I reluctantly dove six or eight feet underwater down to what seemed like a city of trees, where I spent about an hour freeing my net, anchoring myself to the bottom of the paraná with one foot hooked under the trunk of the submerged log. During the night a nice surubín catfish had gotten snagged, but unfortunately the piranhas had gotten to him early on, and there was very little meat left. In its ravenous enthusiasm one of the piranhas had also become trapped in the net, and it was very much alive. It’s a good thing piranhas make low grunting noises when in distress, otherwise I might not have realized it was in there and accidentally jammed my finger into its mouth as I worked at the net. I managed to get the fish out without being bitten, with my eyes closed and completely submerged in the river, just by following the sound of its grunts. I was proud of myself, but as soon as I had it freed it escaped. There’s no holding on to a fish in the water.
I lost a prop bait. I had been floating around in some ultra-shallow water on Day 35, tempting traira and aruanã with my big yellow Wood Chopper, when suddenly there was a spectacular, violent pwoosh of a splash that surprised me so much I nearly fell out of my beach chair. I set the hook, and as my drag gave a desperate scream I quickly deduced there was something lage and angry on the other end of the line. I couldn’t tell what it was because it never surfaced, but it dragged me around the cove for ten minutes before knocking the bait out on some underwater sticks. Heart pounding, I did my damndest to hook whatever it was again, until I managed to lay the bait about forty feet up in the branches of some massive riverside tree. No matter how much I yanked, that sucker was not coming down unless the tree also came down. My days of falling five-foot thick trees with a small hatchet are over, and with a considerable amount of grumbling I cut the line and left the bait hanging there in the tree, where it would likely remain until the end of time – or until some caborclo with a chainsaw noticed it.
The moon was waxing up again, after six or seven inky black nights. I sat in a campsite somewhere between where I camped on days 17 and 18, watching that fingernail moon slide slowly down to the horizon, the celestial archer’s bent bow, the stars his targets, or his misses. There’s two twinkling stars that always rise to the east in the equatorial sky. They twinkle red, white, and blue until they get to about fifty or sixty degrees. Every night I wondered what they were, and why they twinkled so. I was almost out of farinha. By the next day, it would be gone. Traira splashed in the shallows. I could see some big ones with the MagLite. Hulking, brown turds. Tubes of meat and leeches, slithering around on the rotting leafy bottom of the drying river. I slung my hammock in the forest, without the tarp. Not a cloud in the sky. Stars as clear as Hubble Telescope photos.
I sang a lot. I don’t know the words to very many songs, but the ones I did know I really wore out. I wondered if there was someone lost in the jungle nearby, like the time I had been lost on the Deméni. What would I have done had I heard, instead of the sound of a diesel motor, someone belting out “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time…’til touchdown brings me ’round again to find…I’m not the man they think I am at home…!” I would’ve assumed that it finally happened; I had gone completely insane. Rocket man! Rocket man! Rocket man! You’re in the jungle, baby! You’re gonna die!
Fed fishing addiction with the helpless joy of a heroin junkie who has no intention of ever going clean. Wake up, cook flatbread or pancakes. Fish. There goes twenty minutes. Paddle twenty-five minutes. That looks like a good spot. Fish. Catch a big traira, full of eggs. Clean it, salt it. Forty-five minutes later, paddle for an hour. Look at that cove! Fish for half an hour. Paddle awhile. Getting hot. Float downriver along a high bank, tossing spooks for the piranhas. Catch a few, only to throw them right back because I already have five pounds of traira meat. Pointless fishing. Fishing for the sake of fishing. I’m becoming an old man at twenty-three. What can I say, if he asks what’s new? Nothin’ what’s with you. Nothin’ much to do.
Early afternoon, Day 36. Reached a lake where I had spent hours fishing once, just before I night-paddled. Twenty days later, the lake was practically dry. All of the white molongós were on land. I could see the swirls and mini-wakes of big fish moving around. Prop bait – my last one – tied on to eighty pound test. Cast. Take it. You know you want it. It’s so loud and intrusive, that propeller. Kill it. Defend your territory.
He’s diving down, but it’s too shallow for him to go far. The fish banks left, headed for a patch of water bushes. I rear back, trying to keep him away from it, but he’s too strong. I can hear the hooks rattling underwater as they bang into the branches. The bush dances as if alive. The line goes slack. The bush is still.
Further into the lake. That cove – see the ripples? Cast at the ripples. Ripples frightened away. Prop bait chugging merrily across the surface unmolested. Further back. Sunken log. Wham! Aruanã glissades out of the water in graceful loops as he tries to shake the lure, like a long ribbon tied to the end of a dancer’s twirling baton. Spectacular leaps, like he’s putting on a show. Resist the urge to applaud, and reel madly. Almost have him in, then he turns a fluid double backflip and shakes the lure. Line tangled up in the treble hooks – trouble hooks, Dad calls them. Some days, they catch everything but fish.
End of the lake. Tiny, stagnant inlet surrounded by dry molongós. Rip the prop bait through it, shattering the film of water scum that has formed on the surface. Third cast, and something massive nails it. Bright green fish, black vertical bars. Blood red eyes. The açu peacock bass. He shakes the lure, and has bent one of the hooks. Fix it with my pliers, paddle to the back of the inlet, and fish from dry land. One, two, three casts. Four casts. Something hits, with a snarl. I can hear my wooden bait screaming with terror. Loosen my drag. Let him run; there’s nowhere to go this time. I’ve got nothing but patience. Work the fish for ten minutes. No sign of exhaustion on either end of the line. The bass tears out drag, then stops for a second or two, and I reel the line back in. He rips it back out. I reel it back in. I can do this all day; I’ve got nowhere to be.
Fifteen minutes. Both ends of the line are tiring, but only one end has trouble hooks lodged in his tongue. Struggles weakening. Less drag, more reeling. Fifteen feet. Ten feet, and closing. Five feet. One last futile flop, and the fish is mine.
It was easily the biggest fish of the trip, and one of the biggest I had ever caught. This açu peacock bass was more than a meter long, and easily topped twenty pounds. His head was roughly the same size as my own. I lay the fish down on the bench of my canoe, and it spanned more than the width of my boat. The fins hung over the sides as he gasped his last breaths. It was such a beautiful fish that I considered throwing it back – but unhooking him had taken ten or fifteen minutes, as he had been badly hooked in the back of the gills and deep into the gut. Mortal wounds. He was doomed from the moment he hit the bait. The blood red eyes, each the size of a jumbo marble, stared up at me from the canoe, and I felt sorry for them. But there was nothing to be done except stow him in the back of the canoe under my pots and mini-stove, break down my fishing pole, and paddle back to the river.
I paddled double-time downriver for the next three hours. I was nearly to Bacuquara, and I wanted to arrive before the women began cleaning fish for dinnertime so that I could add this monster to the community pot. The fish was so massive that it would have taken me a week to eat it all, but if I shared it with José Alberto and his large family it would last less than two meals. Fresh fish is in all ways superior to salted, and a fish as beautiful as the one I had just caught deserved be enjoyed fresh.
I slipped past the mouth of the Rio Mararí at around 1530, and docked in Bacuquara half an hour later. José Alberto’s boat was nowhere to be found –in fact, I could see no canoes moored to any of the floating docks. Where was everyone? I climbed the stairs and looked around. Smoke billowed out from under the roof of the house next door to José Alberto. Dona Terezinha, five feet tall and in her late fifties, came out followed by her two teenaged sons.
“José Alberto has gone to Manaus,” she informed me as we stood on the packed dirt of the village under some açaí palms. “He left just before Christmas. He probably won’t be back until the end of the month.”
“Okay. Are you the only family here?”
“No. Dico is here, but he’s gone fishing downriver. It’s Sunday, he likes to spend the day on the beach with his family and roast turtles in the afternoon. He won’t be back until late tonight.”
“Got it.” I rubbed the back of my neck. “Well, anyways, I have a big fish in my canoe. I was going to give it to José Alberto, but since he’s not here I’ll give it to you.”
“Okay. What is it, a catfish?”
“Oh, good. Do you want it fried, or in soup?”
“Both. There’s a lot of meat.”
I went down to the canoe and hauled the fish up the stairs, then gave it to Dona Terezinha. She grabbed it by the gills and took it down to her floating dock, knife in hand. The fish’s tail dragged on the ground as she walked, both because it was so long and because Dona Terezinha was so short. I followed her down, along with her two sons, and squatted on the bank as she expertly transformed my catch from a fish into slabs of pink, tasty-looking meat.
“Have you ever seen a flor do tucunaré?” asked Dona Terezinha as she ripped out the swim bladder.
“No. Never heard of it.” A flor do tucunaré translates to “the flower of the peacock bass.”
“Look.” She turned the swim bladder inside out and spread it open with her fingers. An intricate maze of blood vessels snaked around the transparent membrane which lined the inside of the bladder. “See, it looks just like flowers. You know, the Christmas flowers.”
I squinted at the vessels. Indeed, they formed starry red patterns that looked exactly like a bushel of poinsettias. Really, it was quite beautiful.
“I’ll be damned,” I said. “Those are Christmas flowers, all right.”
“All peacock bass have it,” she said, tossing the poinsettia blood into the river, where minnows descended upon it savagely. “The Yanomami eat it. They think it gives them luck.”
“Have you ever eaten it?”
She wrinkled her nose, shaking her head. “I’ve got nine children. I don’t need any more ‘luck.’”
We sat in her house on land as the light dwindled slowly away. Dona Terezinha methodically cooked the entire fish; she made two pots of soup, and spent several hours frying over a clay stove filled with charcoal. By the time she was finished it was well past sundown, and the four of us descended upon the food. The meat was light and springy. I had two bowels of soup and as many fried pieces as I could hold. The others seemed to enjoy it as much as I did. Soon all bellies were full, but there was still a lot of food left over.
“You should take some fried bits with you tomorrow,” said Dona Terezinha, picking her teeth with a lemon spine as the diesel lantern guttered, its black smoke coiling up to the roof of the home.
“I was just thinking that,” I said. “It’s a lot of meat.”
She smiled. “We’ll finish it by tomorrow evening. Dico will surely stop by. He should be back soon.”
“You sure he hasn’t gotten back already? It’s dark, he may have slipped by.”
Dona Terezinha shook her head. “No, Dico makes a lot of noise coming in. Shouting, laughing, banging into things. You can hear him from across the village.”
I went to bed in the farinha shack shortly afterward. Rats scurried around in the palm fronds, their scratching a duet to the sound of pencil on paper. Around midnight I heard the sound of loud voices coming from the riverside, and Dico clomped up the stairs with a sack full of turtles. Dona Terezinha was right; he made a lot of noise.
“You lost your shotgun?” said Dico incredulously the next morning as we stood at the top of the village stairs.
“Sorry to say, I did.”
“Did you mark the place where you flipped?”
“Of course. There’s a blue plastic bag in the tree there.”
Dico nodded knowingly. “Okay, okay. You know what? There’s a boatload of Yanomami heading upriver today or tomorrow. If I can get them to sell me twenty liters of gas, I’m going up there to dive for your shotgun.”
“Well, Fernando said he was going, too.”
Dico waved a dismissive hand. “Bah, Fernando never has any gas. I’ll find your shotgun. I’m the best diver on the Aracá. When I was a kid I would dive for cabeçudo turtles. I would catch twenty in a day. I can hold my breath for four minutes.”
“Wow. Well, like I told Fernando, if you find the shotgun, it’s yours. It’ll probably be rusted away to nothing, anyways. But if you find the camera, send it to me in Barcelos. Red house in front of the airport.”
“Got it. Hey, aren’t you going to stay the day here?”
“Nope. Gotta keep on the move.”
“Ah, but you just got here!”
“I’ve been here since yesterday afternoon.”
“Really?I didn’t see your canoe docked there when I came in last night. Of course, I was tired. I paddled a lot yesterday.”
“Where’d you go fishing?”
“Damn. That’s a ways to paddle for a day trip.”
“Yeah. I need more gas. Anyways, not much else to do on a Sunday.”
“Catch a bunch?”
Dico flopped his hand vaguely around, in the same way that Fernendo did. “Mais o menos. Filled our bellies, at least.”
“That’s all that matters, eh?”
“Eh. We had fun. It’s nice to be together as a family.” Dico set the car battery he had been carrying on the ground, and sat on it.
“What’s the battery for?” I asked.
“Ah, I borrowed it from the radio shack. For the spotlight.”
Ever since figuring out that car batteries can be hooked up to rudimentary spotlights, and that spotlights can illuminate fish five or six feet underwater, the caborclo has abandoned zagaia fishing with an ordinary flashlight.
“Just a few acarás. I didn’t really try too hard, though. We had enough turtles.”
“Graças a Deus.”
“Graças a Deus,” agreed Dico.
I left Bacuquara at around nine in the morning, with a potful of fried fish stowed beneath my beach chair, still warm since Dona Terezinha spent half an hour that morning heating it up over the clay stove.
True to Dico’s prediction, an hour later I heard the sound of a boat motor working its way up from downriver. The Yanomami flotilla rounded a bend; I knew they were the same Indians I had seen several weeks before, since as soon as they saw me everyone grinned widely and began waving. Wave, wave, wave; now our missions reversed, them headed upriver, to isolation, and me na baixada, headed into town after a long purgatory in the wilderness. I hoped they would sell Dico some gas.
Fringes of Civilization
A distant beach, far on the horizon, sports something blue. Man-blue, not nature-blue. I stared at it uncomprehendingly for the entire half hour it took me to reach it. It was a tarp, strung up between two large sticks driven into the beach, and staked down to form a pitched roof which flapped rhythmically in the light afternoon breeze. Beneath it sat about fifty liters of gasoline, a few cases of bottled water, and a pile of charred turtle shells. No sign of people – but I knew they couldn’t be far.
The sportfishing industry in Barcelos is the municipality’s biggest money-maker. The dry rivers in January and February restrict extravagant fishing yachts like the Tayaçú to the Rio Negro and the mouths of her tributaries – but enterprising caborclos looking to make a few extra bucks are quick to offer the slightly more adventurous anglers a chance to fish ultra-low rivers far away from the hordes of tourists restricted by sandbars to the heavily-fished deep water areas. It’s as simple as loading up a few aluminum lanchas with a week’s worth of food, motoring upriver for a day and a half, and selecting a beach to make camp on – easy for the caborclo, and almost guaranteed satisfaction for the client as the fishing is invariably leaps and bounds better than on the Negro.
A day and a half after leaving Bacuquara, I came across that first sportfishing camp on the Rio Aracá. An hour later I could hear the distant roar of an outboard motor zipping across a nearby lake. Based on the looks of the camp, there were probably about four fishermen and two caborclo guides. They probably fished in two groups, from two small lanchas, with one guide to each boat. The wilderness code of conduct I mentioned before, with regards to Inalda, was also in effect here; The guides had left several hundred reais worth of gasoline languishing on the beach, unguarded. Granted, I may have been the only person that passed the campsite that day – but the fact that they simply left it there supports my theory that it is impossible to operate in the hinterlands without a certain level of trust for your fellow wilderness travelers. Now, I admit that had they left cases of beer instead of cases of water, a few cans – or cases – would have probably gone missing had a caborclo canoe spotted them. But beer is not essential to the owner’s successful return to Barcelos, while gasoline certainly is. The caborclo code of conduct: steal if you must – but steal only non-essentials.
I fished plenty, but as I got further downriver I caught less peacock bass and more traira. I think the traira warrants further discussion here, due to its strange, violent habits and stubborn belligerence, and the fact that they are one of the most common fish I catch in the Rio Negro basin.
The traira, known colloquially in English as the wolf-fish, can grow as large as three feet and weigh twenty-five pounds – but their average size is about a foot and half, with a weight of about six or seven pounds. Unlike most river fish, which have more of a disk-shaped body, traira are tubular with a flat belly, more eel-shaped than fish-shaped. This specially-evolved body structure enables them to swim and hunt in murky, extremely shallow water in stopped lagoons and flooded jungle, which is their preferred habitat. Instead of the five long stabilizer fins that are found on most fish such as the peacock bass and piranha, the traira sports nine stabilizers that are short and wide, enabling it to swim and navigate with great precision in water that is shallower than the fish itself. In fact, a traira can easily swim and hunt in an inch of water, despite being two or three inches tall themselves. Their flat bellies and rounded backs make it almost impossible for the wolf-fish to become trapped on its side, which is the reason other disk-shaped fish need to be in water that is at least as deep as they are tall if they hope to swim in the way they were designed to. The traira’s unique body structure allows it to practically swim on land – and indeed if you leave a live one on the beach it will writhe and slither its way back to the water if you do not keep an eye on it.
Traira are predators and scavengers. The wolf-fish is a very good English name for it. They sport a mouthful of very sharp, loose, yellowed teeth which almost always have mold and algae growing on them. They bear a striking resemblance to crocodile teeth, even the shape of the mouth is vaguely crocodilian. At any given time half of the teeth are so loose that one can easily pull them out. Just underneath are one, sometimes two or three others scrambling to fill the empty space, they themselves already moldy despite never having been used. The mouth is capable of opening to a width of almost twice the radius of the body, and the traira commonly prey on fish that are practically the same size as they are, if not bigger.
The pipe-like bodies of the traira are covered with dark brown scales about the size of a dime, which are tougher than human fingernails and coated with a film of slippery slime, the latter which makes the fish almost impossible to hold on to, dead or alive – but especially alive. Many wolf-fish are covered with a multitude of small, disk-shaped leeches about the size of a pencil eraser. These leeches seem to infest exclusively traira and occasionally, barracuda dogfish, as I have yet to see them on any other type of fish, or on my own body.
These unpleasant-looking fish feed on anything unfortunate enough to be able to fit into their mouths. Their primary diet is smaller fish such as juvenile acará, aracú, peacock bass, and all types of minnows and sardines. They will also eat anything dead or dying found in the immediate vicinity, and oftentimes they are worse than piranhas when it comes to taking chunks out of fish who have died in the net. Fish ravaged by traira are easily distinguished from fish attacked by a piranha; the piranha leave clean, neat bite marks, as if the flesh was scooped out with a keen razor blade. Traira maul like a tiger, tearing meat raggedly off bones and leaving long ribbons of laniated flesh hanging from the wounds of their victims. They have also been known to eat frogs and tadpoles, water beetles, small birds that have fallen into the water, grasshoppers, dragonfly larva, turtle hatchlings, snails, water lizards such as the jacarerana, snakes – in short, there are few things that the traira will not eat.
They generally hunt by sight, both by day and by night. I often wonder when they find time to rest, as they seem to be feeding around the clock. Like many aquatic predators, movement on the surface of the water is what most excites them. When choosing a lure for traira fishing, it’s important to remember that no matter what lure you use, the traira will probably go after it. This makes them most commonly caught fish in very shallow lagoons during the Amazonian dry season. It doesn’t matter whether you use a spook, a prop bait, a jerk bait, a popper, or a jig. If it’s shiny, has the vague appearance of something the traira has eaten before, makes some sort of noise while moving through the water, and generally gives a loose impression of being alive, any wolf-fish that notice the lure will immediately try to eat it. For example, I have this strange lure called the “Buzz Plug.” It looks vaguely like a frog, and is green with black spots. On the front there is a huge propeller that turns slowly through the water, making loud, rhythmic thunkthunkthunk sounds as you reel it in. This lure was so popular with traira that oftentimes they would hit it immediately after it landed in the water, before I even had a chance to start reeling in. However, traira were the only kind of fish I ever caught with that lure.
Unlike peacock bass, traira do not hit lures hard. Oftentimes, it’s nothing but a faint, barely perceptible plunk. They will allow themselves to be dragged along through the water even if they are not actually hooked, and will keep the lure clamped stubbornly in their mouths until the very last minute. When they do happen to be hooked, they let themselves be reeled in with wholehearted indifference, putting up zero struggle even if you are reeling so fast that the fish is practically skiing across the surface. Then, just as you are pulling the fish out of the water and are about to grab ahold of it, they explode with a sudden, raging violence that is unequaled by any other fish in the Amazon. Oftentimes I have to let out some slack, allow them to swim away and calm down for a moment or two, then reel them back in and try to get a good grip on the gills before the spasms started all over again. Unhooking them is problematic, as they are often hooked in the back of their toothy mouths, and sometimes the only way to remove your lure without having flesh torn off of your fingers is by first smashing the traira’s head in with a hatchet or something heavy, and then reaching your hand into that dead, gaping maw. Even then, it makes me nervous.
People think piranhas are the fiercest fish in the Amazon, but in reality they are nothing more than sunfish with big teeth. The traira are the real devils of the rivers, with a mouthful of sharp, bacteria-ridden chompers, slimy, leech-infested bodies, insatiable and non-discriminatory appetites, and to top it all off, a piss-poor attitude and impetuous temperament. They are butt-ugly, bulky, disproportionate carnivores with absolutely nothing graceful about them. They are the coyotes of the river, the kings of the dark Amazon underworld, and all the notoriety heaped upon the piranhas rightfully belongs to the traira.
Despite all this, they are good eating. Their meat is undeniably the toughest, chewiest meat out of any fish in the Amazon, and perhaps the world. It has a strong, pungent taste that is not unpleasant, and is equally tasty fried or in a soup. Its head has more meat than a piranha head, though the body is very very bony, and it take a lot of practice to be able to eat a traira quickly without choking on one of those little spines that seem almost invisible. It is tastier than acará-tingas, and less tasty than pacú or peacock bass. But it’s reliable. No matter where you are in the Rio Negro basin, or what time of year it is, you can almost always count on catching a few traira if you really want to. If you have no lures, they are happy to be caught on set lines and trot lines baited with bits of cut-up sardines or just fish guts. They are easy prey for the spearfisherman as they frequent extremely shallow water, and for the same reason they are easy to net. For me, the traira is a staple; it’s not the tastiest fish in the Amazon, but it’s the one I know I’ll almost always have, at least here in the Rio Negro. Whitewater rivers are another story – a sardine, apapá, and red-bellied piranha story.
On Day 39, 3pm, I lost my last prop bait. It was just a small cove, but it looked so cozy and tempting that I had to stop and give it a few casts. The acu peacock bass that hit the lure on the fourth or fifth cast was perhaps the grandfather of the one I had caught previously near Bacuquara. Cue drag, adrenaline. Reeling, reeling, reeling, and then suddenly, a diminutive pop. 80lb test, destroyed like it was sewing machine thread. I spent half an hour paddling around the cove, hoping the bait would float back up. No luck. With no prop baits left, I decided to start testing out the wide array of strange, googly-eyed baits left behind by Dad as I advanced leisurely back down the Rio Aracá. The results were mixed, with only one real conclusion reached: traira will eat anything.
I reached a second sportfishing beach camp later that afternoon. Same scheme as the first one, with the blue-hued plastic tarp flapping in the wind, though at this camp there were also three or four large dome tents. The clients were still out fishing, but the solitary cook, Angilique, was holding down the fort as I paddled to within view. I beached my canoe nearby, and we had a friendly chat as a light rain misted down upon us and our patient boats. I left resupplied with a much-needed kilo of flour (neither Fernando nor the folks at Bacuquara had any to speak of, and I had been breaking my fast with tasty boiled pupunhas, a palm fruit, which were gifted to me by Dico, for three days by then), as well as four onions, some tomatoes, three carrots, limes, and a mess of turnips — not to mention two cold beers, which to my lukewarm river water-accustomed palate tasted like the frozen piss of Zeus. I ate the carrots raw as I paddled away. Carbonated alcohol and vitamin C — two things that my body had by then been craving for some time. Dear, dear Angelique. I owe her so much.
After passing this camp, I immediately began finding signs of others. During the next two days, between there and the mouth of the Rio Curundurí, I saw signs of three other camps — one of which housed a lone dog sitting stony-faced on the blackened sand, guarding nothing but footprints, a smouldering campfire, and a sad pile of macaw feathers. Once again, the people were nowhere to be found. The next day, I would find them.
“Do you see many lions out here?” asked Mr. Clean. His real name was Frank, but his resemblance to Mr. Clean was frightening. Shiny bald, bleached white eyebrows. A small gold earring in his left ear. I wondered if he was aware that his face is a familiar sight to despondent toilet scrubbers across North America.
“Jaguars, Frank. Here they’re called jaguars,” said Twin Number One.
“Right, right. Jaguars,” nodded Mr. Clean, folding his arms and sending shivers down the spines of three million bathtub rings.
“Not too many,” I said from the cushioned chair in the restaurant on the second floor of the floating luxury barge. “They are actually pretty shy.”
“So you’re not afraid of being eaten, then?”
I shrugged. “Not really.”
The floating camp, called Safari Headwaters III, belonged to my old employer and friend Marlon — the same owner of the Tayaçú yachts, as well as two other floating camps on the rivers Caurés and Cuniní. This particular camp was the most extravagant of the three, hosting four air conditioned rooms, hot electric showers, a gourmet restaurant, and a shaded patio on the roof. The entire barge was powered by a 300 horsepower outboard motor, clamped onto the wide, flat stern like an afterthought. As fate would have it, by the time I glided past on Day 40, Safari Headwaters III was filled with American clients, whom gave me a myriad of incredulous looks as I docked my canoe next to the support boat as the swooping bats of the Amazon dusk filled the air with their silent wings.
“What I thought was hilarious was your lawn chair,” said Twin Number Two. “A lawn chair in a dugout! Ha! I mean, how often do you see that?“
“What I really want to know,” added Mr. Clean, “is what you do when you want to get laid?”
I grinned. “I head back to town.”
For the next thirty minutes I sat, barefoot and probably reeking, amongst the freshly showered Californians. They were all nice enough fellows, and provided a welcome break from the monotony and solitude of the river. We made obligatory fishing small talk. I stared at their sleek, expensive-looking rods and reels, each of which was probably worth more than everything I owned put together. I told them some stories about the Igarapé Preto and stingrays, and they told me stories about their sons and daughters brazenly growing massive amounts of weed in their Pacific Northwest backyards.
“I was at my daughters’ house last summer, up in Oregon,” said Mr. Clean, polishing off his caipirínha. “Walked out into the back, and what do I see? Trees, man. Four nice trees.”
“Did you bring any with you?” I asked, only half-joking.
“Aw, damn, I wish I could have.”
“But you must grow some down here, don’t you?” asked Twin Number Two as he shredded his napkin into a thousand pieces.
Twin Number One nodded. “How else are you supposed to make money?”
“Ha. Well, I have never tried it down here, actually. I mean, I would have to stay put for awhile. Also there are a lot of insect pests here that eat the flowers. You should see the way ants dismantle the baoba blossoms.”
“Well, then how do you make money?”
I shrugged. “Job here, job there. I don’t need much.”
“How much is not much?” asked Mr. Clean keenly.
I sighed. “Oh I don’t know. Maybe fifty dollars a month.”
“Is that so…”
By the time I left the next morning, I was the proud owner of a brand new fishing shirt, a variety of midwater lures, another prop bait, a few poppers, some trouble hooks and top-shelf fishing line, and a ragged fifty-dollar bill, curtosy of the Twins, Mr. Clean, and Nick, a fifteen year old kid who was there with his Dad. Cabeça, a friend of mine who works on the wait staff, also slid three cold beers into my hands as I made ready to paddle away the next morning. A stop for chats with tourists — especially Americans — is always worth your time, though a certain amount of subtle hints about your needs should always be inserted tastefully into conversation at the right moments. Such is life on the rivers of the modern Amazon.
The lake was so shallow that even in the very middle, a hundred yards from shore in any direction, the water only came up to my chest. I blasted water out of my snorkel and pushed the mask up onto my forehead, rubbing my eyes and looking around. There was a large, lightly wooded beach to the west, around which I had already confirmed was so shallow that I couldn`t even swim, only wade.
I had reckoned that this lake, which I had discovered after padding in from the main river because I heard bass feeding nearby, should have a high concentration of fish and turtles. After experimenting with the new lures from Mr. Clean and Co., and hauling in a couple of rambunctious traira, I suddenly remembered Dico’s stories about diving for cabeçudo turtles and coming back with ten or twenty in an hour. Here, with the water so shallow and no place for aquatic creatures really to hide, I should be able to haul out a turtle or two for dinner. Figuring that there were a lot worse ways to spend an afternoon, I moored the canoe to some trees, donned my snorkel gear, and hopped in.
The average depth was about four feet, though I wasn’t able to see too much from the surface, and so had to do a lot of diving. The bottom of the lake was principally leaf litter. Away from shore there was very little to be seen; a few acarás and the occasional traira flitted away as I swam closer. Once I saw a stingray, perfectly camouflaged, half-buried amongst the leaves. But no turtles. I decided to try hugging the shore.
Here the water was much shallower, just two feet or less. Tangled tree roots, underwater plants, and a myriad of small fish were everywhere. Schools of hatchling flamengo aracú and acarás flitted in and out of the plants like clownfish in a sea anemone. Groups of two or three needlefish hovered just below the surface, allowing me to get so close that my nose nearly touched them. Pacú, and the occasional solitary piranha, darted here and there and hid behind tree roots until I passed. Masses of strange, orange globular eggs were stuck to submerged logs and stalks of grass in several places.
I kept going, and soon came to a large sunken tree. Sucker fish clung to its algae-covered bark as it slowly decayed. A part of it had already rotted away, leaving a mossy, gaping hole where several cuyú-cuyú catfish had lodged themselves as they waited for night to fall, and their feeding to begin. Then there was a load of razor grass ahead — which may as well have been rolls of barbed wire –so I turned back and swam to another shore.
I was in the process of exploring the underside of another sunken tree when I heard from underwater the low putputput of a rabeta motor on low power approaching from the mouth of the lake. I surfaced, spit out my snorkel and raised the mask. A small red canoe with two caborclos was working its way towards me. I squinted. I knew those guys, from somewhere…
The canoe came closer, and the caborclos soon noticed me. There was a brief pause, and then the rabeta was turned off and the grins turned on.
“Fala, Patrick! Tu tá aquí,rapaz?”
Claudionor, also known as Neguinho, lay in his hammock at the mouth of the lake amongst the mess of hunting hounds surrounding the campsite, lounging in the shade and chewing on their genitals. The Professor snored loudly from his own hammock nearby. A half-empty bottle of cachaça sat indifferently beneath him. Claudionor sat up as I moored my canoe to the stern of his own.
“No turtles?” he said dreamily, rubbing his eyes.
“Not a one. What about you guys?”
Neguinho gestured towards the canoe, which contained half a dozen medium-sized fish of varying species, but no turtles.
“Só peixinho. But we’ll get some later. The Professor set out some more nets over on the other side where he saw some turtle heads popping up. We’ll get some.” He crawled out of his hammock and picked his way over to the Professor, where he spirited away the bottle of booze and then sat heavily back down in his own hanging bed. He took a deep drag on the bottle, the proffered it. “Bebe aí, karíwa.“
I took the bottle and swallowed a single horrible gulp. “Ah, thanks.”
“You know, there aren`t too many cabeçudo turtles in this lake,” started Claudionor.
“I noticed. I didn`t see any turtles at all. Just a lot of little fish.”
“Ah, but there are irapuka. In the right places.” He looked at his watch, which was so cracked and full of moisture that it was barely legible. “Umm…” He shook it a few times. “Ah! Three-thirty. Hey, Professor! Professor!”
The Professor snored on.
Claudionor gave a martyred sigh and got up out of his hammock, stepping over sleeping dogs on his way to his friend’s hammock.
“Zé! Wake up, goddamnit. We’ve got to go check the nets.”
The Professor gave a luxurious stretch, licked his lips a few times, and resumed snoring.
“Damnit, wake up!” He smacked the side of the Professor’s hammock. “The turtles are gonna drown, Zé.”
“Come on! Jesus.”
“All right, lets go. Karíwa’s back, by the way.”
The Professor sat up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, his face a picture of total relaxation. He looked at me, yawning. “Oh, hi karíwa. Back from diving, are you?”
“Yeah,” I said, shifting myself a fraction to the left so that I was all the way in the shade.
The Professor licked his lips again, then gave a long sigh of contentment. “Oh, good. Good…”
Claudionor climbed into the red canoe. “Pass me that cachaça, karíwa.”
“I’ve got it,” said the Professor, plucking the bottle deftly from the ground. He popped it open, took a mighty swig, then tossed the bottle to Claudionor. His face morphed into a mask of contortions as the booze went down.
“Ahhhhhhhhh! Rahhhh! Oh my, that’s the ticket. Yes, that was just what I needed. Hum! Ha!” He shook his head a few times like a dog trying to get rid of a horsefly. “Right! Off we go, Neguinho. Turtles! I say, I saw some heads over there!Dozens of ’em! We’ve got some this time.” He stepped heavily into the canoe, nearly falling into the water. “Untie us, karíwa, if you would be so kind…“
I undid the mooring rope from the tree roots as Neguinho choked the motor and yanked at the flywheel. The rabeta roared to life.
“Ten minutes!” shouted the Professor over his shoulder as they puttered off and he took another dram of cachaça. I was left alone with the dogs and the low buzzing of cicaidas.
Claudionor and the Professor were from Romão, where I had met them briefly on my way upriver more than a month earlier. Though our meeting had been brief, they still remembered me and I remembered them. As chance would have it they were heading upriver to the Rio Curundurí for a hunting trip, along with, presumably, the majority of the population of Romão. The pair had stopped at the lake while waiting for the rest of the group, which left the village later, to catch up.
I lounged in the shade as the sun oozed across the afternoon sky like a blazing ball of melting fat. The dogs kept moving just a little bit to the left, or a tad to the right, as the sud advanced and the shade shifted. The popping sound of jaws preforated the air as the hounds snapped at the flies buzzing around their battle-scarred faces. The ambient was palpable, like an oppressive blanket of atmosphere from which there was no escape. I dozed, and sweated.
The shout snapped me out of my trance of half-sleep. “Eh?”
“Four, karíwa! You see?” The professor held up a barlap sack full of some sort of struggling creatures. Irapuka turtles, presumably.
“Well, there you go.”
“Soup tonight, that’s what I’m thinking,” said Claudionor.
“There’ll be more. And some fish, too. There are a lot of people coming, you know,” added the Professor.
“How many?” I asked, taking the now much-emptier bottle of cachaça from his hands and treating myself to another swig.
“Oh, plenty. Let’s fish, shall we? More nets, here at the mouth! Try some of those lures out, karíwa. Say, those are shiny! They look brand-new.”
“Yeah, actually they are. I got them from those gringos on Marlon’s flutuante.”
The Professor took one of the three new midwater spooks out from my tackle box and examined it. “Hm, very nice. Very nice. Say, could I keep one of these?”
“Uh…” I said, caught off-guard. “Well, yeah, sure I guess. I’ve got quite a few anyways.”
The Professor gave a wide grin and gave me a comraderly slap on the back. “Ah, thanks karíwa! Thanks, really! He’s a good man, our freind from Texas! Here, have another drink. Go on!”
I took the bottle with a half smile. “Thanks, Professor.”
The man clicked his tongue, shaking his head. “No, no. Thank you. Now! Lets see if we can catch some fish!”
From my journal that evening:
Hammocks on a sliver of beachhead and molongós on the edge of the Rio Aracá. The fellows have finished cooking the turtle soup, which they roasted over a fire started with a splash of gasoline. Ten turtles in all, as well as two pots full of many different kinds of fish.
The rest of the party is a long time in coming. The Professor reckons they have already camped somewhere, as it’s past nine and there is not much of a moon tonight. The radio hums steadily to itself, sertaneja music perforated by moments of static. Then the DJ comes on, and we hear the news from Roraima. The hounds are balls of twitching fur scattered here and there, mostly around the dying flames of the fire. The remains of twenty half-cooked fish litter the beach, and the dogs sleep contentedly on full bellies.
Now I am alone. Neguinho noticed a solitary pink dolphin working its way into the lake, where they still have three or four nets out. The pair bickers jovially about who has to drive, disturbing a sleeping dog in the process. The sound of the motor is swallowed up into the darkness in record time.
My hands. They look like they have suffered some sort of chemical accident. No matter how much sunscreen I put on them, they blister, crack, and peel in this relentless tropical sun. There is a new freckle there, every week or two. I wish I was a black man. Or at least brown. Being white isn’t all it’s made out to be. Nosir. But I do enjoy the nickname that the fellows have given me. “Karíwa.” Basically it’s the same thing as gringo. But its Nheengatu, the Indian tongue. Much more of a ring to it. “Karíwa, the white one.” That’s nice. Perhaps I’ll start introducing myself as that. Everybody here has nicknames, anyways. Nobody goes by their real name. Anonymity is king in the land of nobody.
An hour later. Our bellies are full of turtle soup. We lie, bloated, in our respective hammocks, swinging carelessly in the cool Amazon night as the river flows silently by. 2238, according to Radio Roraima. The crescent moon hangs shrouded in grey clouds, like cobwebs draped around a 30 watt light. Radio Roraima slides back into sertaneja as the Friday night progresses, serenading our humble campsite as the hunting hounds moan and bite at their fleas, and the fire smoulders.
And there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
A tiny dot on the downriver horizon appeared, then grew.
The Professor squinted. “Looks like Samuel.”
Claudionor looked up momentarily from fanning the breakfast fire. “Yep.” He went back to feeding the flames.
“They probably were camped at Boa Vista,” went on the Professor.
“On that big beach.”
There was a loud pop as an air sack in one of the molongo branches Claudionor was buning exploded.
“Just that one canoe that you guys were waiting for?” I asked as I washed my shirt with soap in the river for the first time in four weeks.
“No, no,” said the Professor as he sliced open a few pirnahas and tossed salt on them. “It’s several canoes, as a matter of fact. We’ve got most of the village in on this hunt.”
“Oh, we’ll probably stay two weeks. Everyone shares the meat, brings the whole family. It’s good to get out there sometimes.”
The black dot grew and soon took the form of a large, covered canoe, loaded with about fifteen men, women, and children from the village of Romão. The pilot beached her near our campsite and the whole clan came pouring out. Children and dogs flooded the beach with happy squeals, and hungry mouths crowded around our campfire and ladeled fish soup into wooden bowels. A young woman about my age sat comfortably in my beach chair, her young son straddling her knee and sucking on a piranha head.
“Hey, that’s karíwa’s chair!” said the Professor.
“It’s okay, she can sit there,” I said, slightly embarassed.
He chuckled. “Don’t get too comfortable, Clacy! Otherwise kariwa will take you with him, and make you paddle! Hahaha!”
Clacy smiled shyly. “I can paddle.”
“And cook, too! Ha!”
“I can also cook.”
The Professor prodded me knowingly. “Hear that, kariwa? I think she wants to go with you!”
I smiled. “Always room for one more, I suppose.”
“Ah, I knew it would be only a matter of time before you got yourself a nice coborcla! Ah, but it’s the best way, isn’t it?” He gave an obvious wink.
“Ha, yeah, I guess.”
“Ah! I nearly forgot!” said the Professor with a start. “Now that everybody is here, we can make the contract that we discussed last night, about Neguinho’s gun.”
“Oh! That’s right. I had almost forgotten.” I rummaged around in my pack and tore out a sheet of paper from my journal. “Here, we can write it on this.”
The Professor took the paper pen from me. “Right! So, how should we word this?”
“First the date,” said Claudionor.
“Yes, yes, the date. What is the date, Samuel?”
“Uh, I think the twelth.”
“No, no, the thirteenth.”
“Right! Thirteenth of January….2014. Okay! Now what?”
“Well, maybe Claudionor should dictate it,” I suggested. “It’s for his mother to read, anyways.”
Claudionor frowned. “All right. Write…’Dear Mother, please hand over my shotgun, .20 gauge, to Mr. Patrick. Ask Tio JP which one it is. It has already been paid for.'”
The Professor scribbled away. “…que…já…tá.…pago. Excellent! Now, just sign here, Neguinho…there you go…and now you, karíwa….good, good…and now I will sign, as primary witness.” He signed his name with a flourish, then held up the finished contract to the assembled villagers. “And all of you are also witnesses. The gun has been sold to karíwa, for 200 reais and a couple of cases of beer once we get to Barcelos for the festival.” He gave me the paper. Enjoy the gun, karíwa! And try not to lose this one so quickly!” The crowed tittered. Word travels fast, apparently.
I took the contract from the Professor and folded it up. “I’ll do my best.”
“Good! Well, now I’m afraid we must part ways, kariwa. The hunting grounds await!”
“What about the rest of the boats?”
“Oh, they’ll catch up soon enough. They know where we are heading. Load up the canoe, Neguinho, and round up the hounds.” The rest of the caborclos clamoured into their own canoe and were soon on their way upriver, followed shortly afterward by the Professor and Claudionor.
“Boa viagem, karíwa!” bellowed the professor from the prow with a salute. The prop of the rabeta spewed a trail of bubbles into the inky Rio Aracá, and soon the duo was swallowed up into the distance. The happy hunters, the friendly faces of the Amazon wilderness. The last free men on earth.