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.