Tuesday, February 12, 2013

an ordinary day on the boat

In the heat of the tropical afternoon a pretty young mother of two girls stopped by my hammock to chat, her voice in those soft, graceful sibilants by which the Portuguese justify the conceit that their speech is the Language of the Angels.  As usual, I understood about twenty percent of what was being said, but I smiled amicably and agreed with everything and as she left she touched my wrist and said “ciao”.  An interesting word, as it is a short form of schiavo, meaning “I am your slave”, which, while today it has no servile connotation, was in those tropical surroundings, redolent in my mind of plantation and patriarchy, still a bemusing association, one of the little pleasures of my largely useless education.

There are large boats on the river.  Barges loaded with semi-trailers and cattle boats and ocean-going container ships on their way upriver to Manaus.  The river, unimproved, is navigable almost to the Andes.  The huge catchment basin of the forest constantly fed by tropical rain, the flow of the River so strong that it has no delta but sweeps all its sediments out to sea. 

I was told that ocean-going vessels may navigate the River as far as the city of Iquitos, in Peru, and that a 300-mile plume of fresh water extends from its mouth into the Atlantic, and that the River tears loose great mats of floating vegetation that carry off  men and large animals and the unbelievable volumes of fresh water that each day the River washes down to the sea, and on and on . . ..  Or that hidden in its vast, dark waters there are catfish large enough to swallow a human or along its jungle banks fishermen have mated with dolphins who then gave birth to creatures stranger still.  What is interesting to me is not whether these stories are true, but that the presence of the River inspires such awe that these stories seem plausible.

A woman had come on board at Santarém.  She was from Itaituba, a town up the Rio Tapajós.  She said she had to leave because her husband had been killed in retaliation for a killing by his brother and important people were involved and so the police were not interested in the matter.  I have no idea how much of that was so, but it was widely believed that this was how things were done in the Amazon.  As with other stories about the River, the vastness of jungle and the remoteness of settlements and widespread sense of the law’s unreliability makes plausible other stories, as that on remote plantations poor whites are still held as slaves, but there are wonders here enough without trafficking in hearsay.

Past Óbidos the land along the north bank is more and more cleared.  There is almost no forest and some signs of erosion.  It is tame, agricultural land.  The south bank, which I can see only from a distance, seems more forested, though even there I see more small dwellings.  There seems so much empty land in the Amazon.  It is easy to see how it could be thought to be “a Land without Men for Men without Land.”
     At six that evening we came to Juruti, a small, pleasant-looking framing community.  There was a circus in town.  The barkeeper on the upper deck asked my opinion of a hundred-dollar bill. He assumed that an American must know this sort of thing, though I don’t know that I have ever seen a bogus dollar, but I went over it with a hand lens and said it looked fine to me.  Broad patches of vegetation torn loose from the bank and trunks of large trees float past us down stream.  
     There are large, red-hooded carrion birds along the river and white, heron-like birds and black birds that look to have a three-foot wingspan.  I am sure this would all be hugely fascinating if I cared about birds, but I do not.
     An ordinary day on the boat.

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