Wednesday, January 30, 2013

passing the island of Marajó

As our boat passes settled areas people come out in small craft, often very small children by themselves.  I was at first told that this is for the fish we stir up in our wake, but later someone says it is for the litter constantly being thrown overboard, any sort of container or manufactured material being useful in these remote homesteads. I have watched the small boats, sometimes in danger of being swamped by our wake, and cannot tell which is the truth, other than that at a very young age children go out unattended onto the River. 

Sometime in the torpid afternoon of our first full day on the River we come to Breves on the island of Marajó, our first stop.  Here small canoes come out, some of them actual dugouts, rowed by women and children who beg for money.  People at the railing throw ten-Cruzado notes (about 5 cents, US) into the water where they are scooped up by the children. 

By the end of the first day I had fallen in with a bunch of Italian sailors who invite me to share supper with them.  Already it appears that private arrangements are being made for meals and in fact an independent kitchen has been set up by some women on the lower deck to offer faster service and more selection than the ship’s galley (and the ship, having been paid up front in our fare, seems to have no quarrel with the arrangement).  

The second night I moved my hammock a few inches and found it made all the difference, as no one bumped me and I got a passable night’s sleep.  It helped, of course, that the novelty of the boat had worn off on the children and they no longer ran wild around the deck.  
     By the following day I realized I was on the sun’s schedule, rising at the first hint of light in the eastern sky and retiring to my hammock when it got dark, as did almost everyone else, and in the time between I moved with the shade and lounged in my hammock when there seemed nothing else worth doing.  I left my wristwatch in my pack and forgot about it.  Ship life was becoming more regular and familiar, if rather less sanitary.  The odor of urine from the latrines, rank even before we started, now makes its way back to the stern.  This is all, I suppose, what the lady at the boat office meant by “mais tipica”.

My boatmates gradually begin to emerge as recognizable individuals.  There was a pudgy little man with a mustache in a rumpled suit who carried a briefcase that he never allowed out of his grip, even when he was sleeping in his hammock.  He spoke to no one and I imagined him to be a fleeing embezzler escaping upriver to hide out in a Somerset Maugham short story.

In contrast to this furtive little fellow there was The Gaucho.  Proud of bearing and rugged of appearance, a dense mane of black curls and a d’Artagnan beard, his dress and gear cried out “pampas” and even standing still he seemed to be on horseback.  So impressive was he that I didn’t even consider trying to speak to him, lest he turn out to be just a cowboy.

The people on the boat are wonderfully patient.  They stand uncomplainingly in long lines for each meal.  They are packed in, densely overcrowded, and the ship’s crew  --  surly and seldom-seen  --  pay no attention to them. When they are not waiting in line they doze in their hammock or sit quietly or laugh and joke and seem to be enjoying themselves.  There is no fighting or even harsh words or any “misunderstandings” that need to be soothed over, though I suppose to be completely objective I ought to note that this is only the second day of the trip.

Far from my imagined white suits on the promenade deck, I have given up on wearing a shirt unless I am in direct sun and, not being a sun person at home, was white as flesh-colored snow, which may be why the little dark children found me so curious.

My binoculars seemed to have wandered off and I discover that they were last with a young fellow called Heitor, who remembered that he had given them to some cute girls and goes off to recover them.  I am sure that everyone on board had already met Heitor, as he was charming and insubstantial and innocent of any seriousness, the sort of person who even had he lost my binoculars I could not hold it against him as he was plainly a flake and I ought to have recognized that and not let him borrow the glasses in the first place, so I thanked him when he brought back my property that he had given to the cute girls and resolved never to let him borrow anything else, fairly sure that if I refused it wouldn’t bother him all that much.  Later, finding me writing in my hammock, he told me that I really ought to get myself a girl “to pass the time with”.  He seemed to have several at the moment and I am sure would have been happy to share.   Heitor will probably have a nice enough life, if no one shoots him.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

under way

I was comfortable in my perch at the stern rail, only occasionally bothered by trash thrown down from the deck above.  If I can sleep and eat the food and stay out of the rain and not come down with some chiropractic affliction from sleeping six days in a hammock, this could be a pleasant trip.  So I curled up among my fellow bats.

Our hammocks, however widely spaced they might have appeared when they were strung up, once they had a person’s weight in them they hung down and bumped against their neighbor and someone's twitching six spaces away was transmitted from one hammock to another.  But, as there was nothing to be done about it, no one bothered with “desculpa” and everyone seemed to take on faith that we were all doing our best and soon enough we seemed to find some sort of tonic stasis that made it bearable.  The bat to my right was smoking, but there were also some pretty lady bats hanging not far away, and what is adventure but inconvenience rightly understood?

Later, I wandered to the upper deck where I found the bar and bought a bottle of water.  The bartender was short and mustachioed and snarled at his customers and barked out prices as if they were a challenge.  I wondered if he could keep that up for six days.

The nice lady at the boat office had told me that we would depart at seven in the evening; we got underway at 11:30.  It made no difference to me and apparently to no one else.

I slept little that first night, with dreams about awful things happening to little children, though this may simply have been from all the little children running past and bumping against my hammock.  I got up at 5 a.m. when there was just a touch of color in the eastern sky.  I ate a cracker and drank a bit of water and wondered when I should face the ship’s food.  I had seen some of it the evening before and it looked like Dickensian gruel.

Breakfast was interesting.  The four or five hundred people on board reduced down to a single line (actually two lines: there was a separate one for women and children) with some junior crew member in charge, the first person in authority I had seen.  The process took over an hour.
We are ladled an eight-ounce cup of sweet, creamy coffee from an iron pot large enough to cook a missionary in and forked a crushed piece of sweetish bread and then spewed out of the line, with no place to sit.  I wandered back upstairs and sat on the deck with my back against a vibrating bulkhead.  I assumed I would figure this out as the trip progressed.

Though it is said that Belém is at the mouth of the Amazon, this is true only in a general sort of way, as the main channel lies to the north, on the other side of the island of Marajó, a huge riverine island the size of Switzerland which we must pass along narrow channels in order to reach the main course of the River.  These tight, winding passages looks like a place where someone on their own could get lost.  There are few settlements and now and then a flimsy house perched along the bank on stilts, its back to the jungle.

Most of my fellow passengers seemed to be wearing tee-shirts with something written on them.  A sweet old lady was wearing one that said “Oh, Shit”.  I choose to assume she does not understand English.

Monday, January 21, 2013

taking ship

The nice lady at the boat office had said my vessel, the Rondônia, would be “mais tipica”, which I took to mean something like “very traditional”.  I had encountered the word “tipica” several times earlier in the trip, where it had been used on menus to describe dishes that had proven something of a challenge to my taste, but I did want an authentic Amazonian experience and the lady went on to explain that this meant that passengers were to supply their own hammock, which sounded simple enough, so I bought my ticket and asked directions to where I might find the hammock district of Belém and was sent back to Ver o Peso Market where I found a fine selection of inexpensive hammocks.  Since I would need some rope to put up my hammock the fellow cut a length of hemp rope for me with a quick blow of his machete which not only cut the rope cleanly but also took off about an inch of the corner of his counter.  As this did not seem to bother him I assumed he must replace his counter regularly and this was but another small illustration of that great truth that in other countries they do things differently. 
Taking Ship

I arrived at the pier at six p.m., when the nice lady at the boat office had told me boarding would begin.  I passed through a turnstile and saw a handsome vessel with a few passengers lounging at the rail and asked a porter if that fine ship might be the Rondônia.  He shook his head and indicated the next ship down.

I will not trouble Gentle Reader with my romantic expectations regarding the M/V Rondônia, its passengers and appointments, as they were none of them to be.  There would be no white suits on the promenade deck as we watched a glorious tropical sunset.
Oh, there would no doubt be glorious tropical sunsets, but of the Rondônia itself, alas, it resembled nothing so much as a floating Black Hole of Calcutta.  A waterborne sauna crammed to the roof (or bulkhead or whatever they call them on boats) with a steaming mass of humanity packed into open stalls and passageways and hanging bat-like in hammocks.
  I stood there draped in my impedimenta, aghast.  There were jostling people everywhere.  I looked about in vain for a steward or purser or anyone in apparent authority, but there seemed to be no one in charge.
I stumbled into the crowd, making my way down passageways, over bundles of belongings and under hammocks seemingly hung wherever there was an open space.
I had signed on for six days of this.  The twenty-five dollars I had paid for my passage suddenly seemed less a bargain than I had at first thought.

As I stood there, dazed, an old fellow saw my distress and took me in hand and led me to the stern rail and found me a place to hang my hammock and showed me how to put it up and smiled and nodded and disappeared.  My hammock hung on the outside at the exact height to allow me to lie in my hammock and look out onto the river.  It seemed to me the perfect place to be, though I remembered that I should probably withhold judgment until I saw what happened when it rained, as it would once or twice a day.  I bought exorbitantly-priced oranges from a shipboard peddler.  As this would be a water journey, I looked for the nearest flotation device: I did not see any.  I settled back into my hammock out of the way of the roiling crowds and thought about Third World disasters, of ferries sinking within sight of land with extravagant loss of life.

Monday, January 14, 2013

panthers and catfish in Belém do Pará

There is a nice zoo in Belém do Pará and there one afternoon two young girls practiced their English on me and we were later joined by their mother.  They had been to Europe, but though they lived on the banks of the Amazon they had never gone up river.  In my two weeks or so in the South I had watched quite a bit of television in the futile hope that it would help me with the language, but during that time I saw no nature programs and was coming to the suspicion that we foreigners were more impressed with the Amazon than the Brasilians were.  A fellow in the South had told me that three days looking at trees would be more than enough.
I enjoyed the Zoo.  I am usually not an eel person, but electric eels have such sweet faces, little round eyes set wide in a featureless oval face.  A spotted panther with large, light blue eyes looked at me as if I were supposed to say something and large cats greedily watched the large, slow mammals on the other side of the bars, remembering the old ways.

In preparing for the trip I had seen photographs of pirarucú, an Amazonian catfish that once grew to the size of a family sedan, but in recent years has been fished down.  So when I saw it on the menu one evening at the Círculo Militar I of course had to try it.  Which was a mistake.  The flesh was unpleasantly gamey, even with a liberal application of lime juice.  I worried that it was going to make me sick.  

I had already discovered that the only people at work between the hours of noon and two o’clock are those whose job it is to tell you that the office will not be open until two, and so at two o’clock I went to the boat office to arrange my passage up the Amazon to Manaus and determined that I would depart day after the next at eight the evening aboard the M/V Rondônia on a six-day, thousand-mile river journey that would cost approximately $25, all meals included.  My alternative was a vessel of the middling class, which would cost about $10 and take about the same time, so I decided that at those rates I ought treat myself.  The lady at the boat office, smiling and friendly, told me quite a bit about what I should expect, though as she was speaking Portuguese I apparently missed some details, but the phrase “mais tipica” stuck in my mind.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

in Belém

For the first time on this trip I felt no need to be doing something and so I settled down to enjoy being in Brasil, in a town on the banks of the Amazon.  I felt time open out before me.  It was May and I was told that since it was now the dry season that it would rain only once a day.

I write a lot of letters so I picked up some envelopes while I was out and had a bit of trouble finding them with gummed flaps and the stationery lady acted as if this were an unusual request.  I had scarcely gotten a block from the shop when I noticed that in the high Amazonian humidity my envelopes were already sticking together. After that, I bought them ungummed, as God apparently intended, and a small tube of glue to seal them when the time came.  I bought these at a different stationer, lest I receive a knowing look from the sales lady.

The town gets a breeze off the Atlantic and in the shade it can be pleasant enough.  I was sitting on a bench in the park collecting my thoughts on the state of the Church in Latin America when a pretty young woman sat down beside me and, after some non-communication in Portuguese, indicated a desire to go to bed with me.  What in the world is going on down here?  Why was I not warned of this in the tourist literature?  There was no hint of money involved.  Had this been in the Soviet Union I would have assumed she was KGB.

The next morning there was rain.  The pattern seems to be a light rain about four or five in the afternoon, then something heavier in the early morning, gone by the time the day starts.  There was an army barracks across the park from my hotel and military music in the morning.  It made me nostalgic for those jolly little wars, like the Falklands or Grenada.  As it was with the Roman and the Britannic Peace, the tranquility of the center is achieved through constant little wars on the periphery.

The newspapers have been playing up the story of a bicheiro (which I take to be a fellow who runs a gambling operation something like the numbers game in Chicago, but with animals) who claims he has been paying off people in government and, one gathers, not getting value for his money.  He now announces that he will publish his list of “donations”.  The drama of public life, though I doubt that much will come of it.

Should I ever amount to anything, I would like an equestrian statue in Napoleonic uniform on a rearing horse with a cape swirling behind me.  Statues of defunct politicians in business suits and spectacles are ludicrous.  

I walked along the embankment looking for something to take a picture of, but found not much picturesque.  There were little boys playing all over the place.  I apparently did something they thought clever with my Swiss Army knife and they started calling me MacGyver.  Then some black kids showed up and things got rowdy and a concessionaire chased them all away, except for a fair-haired little boy who stayed back, watching me.  I gave him thirty-cents-worth of Cruzados.  He knew I was going to give him something.  Kids and beggars spot me for a soft touch.

As it seemed to rain a lot I asked when the dry season was, but got conflicting opinions, which I took to mean that there might not be all that much difference.  Later, I was told more authoritatively that it runs hereabouts from April to September, though the river remains high for the first two months. 

I had supper that first evening at the nice restaurant in the Círculo Militar.  I had a peppery fish soup, a bit much to my taste, though tamed with a little lime juice.  A fine slab of Brasilian beef, which at the moment for some reason or another could not be imported into the United States.  From my table I watched an Amazonian sunset.  Huge cumulus clouds, golden in the sun, with lightning in the distance. Vast planes of cloud above and broad river below.  I watched small boats heading upriver into the darkness.  In a few days I will be going myself.  For the first time in this trip I am enjoying myself and was in no hurry to move on.

It was a little after eight when I walked back to my hotel.  There were a fair number of people out in the street and some stalls were still open.  There was only one light on in the Archbishop’s Palace and I could look in to see an old-fashioned high-ceilinged room with an iron railing across the open window.  There was a parrot sitting on the railing.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

to Belém do Pará

This had not been a happy trip.  If I were to recite my litany of complaints they might seem trivial, so I will say that I tried to do too much in the South and Brasil is a huge country and a tropical country and a Latin country and manageable as any of these might be alone their combination wore me down and I felt I was in one of those frustration dreams and I wanted to be someplace where, if nothing gets done, it is to be expected.  So I left Belo Horizonte in the evening and my plane stopped in Brasília and Carajás, little islands of light in a sea of dark forest, and arrived the next morning in Belém do Pará, at the mouth of the River Amazon.

My flight arrived at 2:00 a.m. and since I had no arrangements for a place to stay I decided I might as well remain at the airport until things would be open in town.  Temperature was pleasant enough, but even at that hour the humidity was oppressive.  A poster urged us to be nice to tourists.  The only coffee shop was on an open deck with a fine view of the airport, but was unfortunately also open to the noise of jet traffic.  I hadn’t slept that night, but I must have been in a good mood as time was passing quickly.  I listened to flights being announced  --  Cuibá, the Cataracts of Iguaçú, Marabá  --  and I thought how I only needed to buy a ticket and I could go to those wonderful places.
     Due to currency controls, I considered myself limited to such money as I brought with me.  I could use my credit cards, but their transactions must take place at the official exchange rate, which was about a third less that what you got everywhere on the street, so I thought them an extravagance, to be held in reserve for some dire circumstance or burst of self-indulgence.
I was sitting in the open-air coffee shop and at a quarter to six in the morning color began to appear in the eastern sky.  Sunrises are never as impressive as I think they ought to be.  Dawn never cracks, but seems more to creep, oozing snail-like over the horizon.  There was fog in the trees at the end of the runway.  By 6:30 the sun was streaming in, flat over the horizon, driving me out of the coffee shop.  
     At a little after seven I left the modern airport on a bus  into town.  We passed a military base with a cement water tank on stilts leaking a stream of water from a large crack.  We drove down unpaved streets, past ramshackle houses with unglazed windows and people sleeping in doorways and dogs sleeping in the street and naked children peeing in the gutter, lush greenness and cement walls covered with fungus-like growth and men in undershirts and I could feel myself begin to relax.

I found a nice hotel, $13 a night for a small suite of rooms overlooking a park in the oldest part of the city, just a few blocks from Ver o Peso Market, and had breakfast, my first meal since yesterday morning, lushly-ripe tropical fruit and a fly on my table the size of a small car with whom I attempted to make small talk in Portuguese.  It was drizzling rain outside and after breakfast I went back to my room and to sleep.  In the bathroom I noticed that the shower was apparently a later addition, as the light switch was inside the shower stall.  (I have actually run into that before, but then I do not stay in pricey hotels.)  Later, I went out for a walk.

While looking for an hotel I had noticed that there were thirteen stores listed in the Belém phonebook that sold articles relating to Umbanda, a Brasilian mix of Catholic and African religion, and within a block of my hotel I found one, an ordinary-looking storefront with a large painting on the cement block wall of an old black man in a white suit and arrows and cups and other symbols which I suppose spoke to points of their doctrine.  One of my businessman contacts in São Paulo had told me that Brasilians were mainly practical atheist, that they went to church on Sunday and observed the forms, but had no real faith.  He was speaking, I suppose, of the middle and upper classes, as was my surfer seatmate on the flight to Rio who had told me that Brasilians didn’t care about religion.  For those who live closer to the hard edges of life and are not nourished by the thin gruel of the social gospel, there is the more direct contact with the forces of the world provided by Umbanda and Candomblé and the experiential faiths that have arisen among the Brasilian poor and in some of the cities speaking also to the spiritual hunger of other classes.  By a tree in a park I see what appears to be a shrine, with burnt-down candles and offerings of coins and ribbons and small bottles and a dried cup of coffee and no recognizably Christian symbol.

My hotel was near the river.  I was told that it rained every day in Belém, but in the late morning the sidewalk merchants were laying out their goods and I took this to mean that no rain was expected for a while.  I passed through the municipal meat market, a marvelous old iron building with cast iron grills and columns and enough hanging meat to make a vegetarian of you.  I passed on to the stalls set up along the embankment where fruits and vegetables were sold and then to the fish market where I saw some very odd creatures that had only that morning been swimming in the Amazon.  And the lady parts of a dolphin, which appear to have some cultural significance to some of those who dwell along the great river.

There were boats of all sizes on the river.  Ocean-going freighters and river cruise ships and local transports and there were small craft of all sizes, quite a few of them named “Miracle of God”.

I gave a beggar 50,000 Crusieros, which at current rates was about 30 cents, and he declared that God would bless me and bring prosperity to my family for generations to come.  In the United States, a beggar would likely return the money, saying that I plainly must need it more than he did.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

train ride

Walking down a side street I found myself on a dirt road that led out of town along a disused rail line.  After walking for a while I saw a wooden rail coach sitting on a siding.  I had gone far enough from the town that there were no buildings around, or any other sign of human activity.  The car showed no evidence of vandalism.  Its windows, unbroken, were some of them open, as the last passengers might have left them when they got off the train.  The car appeared to be as when its last crew had walked away.  In the jungle it is hard to tell how long something has been left to sit, though the wheels were as rusted as the rails, as if the car had sat there for a long time.  I left the dirt road and walked through the brush and climbed onto the rear platform and tried the door.  It opened. 
     Inside, the car was lit by the afternoon sun pouring through the windows and across the empty seats.  There was litter on the floor and things were beginning to come apart.  There was one sort of mold growing on the wall and another sort growing on some of the seats.  There were not as many spider webs as I might have expected.  I heard something scurry away when I entered.
     I sat on a less-moldy seat and looked out the open window into the jungle, kept at bay for the present by the railroad right-of-way, and imagined myself rattling through the forest in the coach, sometimes with a noisy crowd of passengers and sometimes by myself.

I imagined starting out from a busy station in a crowded train car with noisy children and families and old farmers, a businessman or two and maybe a soldier coming home for a visit and a young couple very much in love, and a conductor in an old-fashioned uniform comes through punching tickets and the train passes through cleared fields of crops and pasture and enters the jungle and people get off at the little towns and I see people leaving the train I never knew were on it and they unload packages and valises and there are people waiting for them on the little station platform and then an Indian in a uniform signals the engineer and we pull away without anyone having gotten on and this repeats at other little stations and the car empties out and the conductor doesn’t bother to come through anymore and eventually I am in the car by myself as it rattles over track that seems to be in worse shape than the ones we were on when we started out and the sound of the engine seems weaker and the right-of-way narrows and the jungle comes closer to the train and begins to brush against the side of the car and sometimes a branch flicks through a window and it seems to be getting dark outside.   Finally, the train stops and I realize this is the end of the line.  I look out the windows on both sides of the car, but there is no sign of a town or any light in the forest and the crew seems to have left the train.

I got up from my seat and left the car and went out into the afternoon sun and walked through the brush to the dirt road that led back to the town.