A large, benign-looking insect insists on sharing my hammock. Considering everything I have read about tropical diseases, it is no small accomplishment for an insect to look benign. I had read about Chagas Disease and Leishmaniasis and sepsis lurking everywhere, of bugs who bury their eggs in human flesh where their loathsome progeny live long and happy lives. Or the little fellow who lives in the river and swims up your urethra or the other one who gets in your body and eats it from the inside. One of the Portuguese sailors tells me he has some creature eating away under the skin of his heel. It burns furiously and he can have nothing done about it until we reach Manaus. I suggest he try sunburn cream as a topical anesthetic.
“Parasite” is from the Greek and means one who dines at another’s table, making one sound almost a poor host if one objects. I had come back from Central America with some fearsome-looking bites, but fortunately they had proven unoccupied. Considering all the horrid, repellent little creatures that crawl and slither, flitter and bite that you may run into in the jungle, I think I would prefer to encounter an honest jaguar.
Our last night on the boat was cold, which I would have thought an odd thing at 3º South Latitude, but our last day promised to be hot, even by local standards. I once more bought my breakfast from the ladies who had set up a kitchen on the second deck, rather than struggle with the crowds to get the breakfast I have already paid for in my ticket. An insect the size of a running shoe crawled out of my bag. One of my fellow passengers, a young girl, having finished her morning duties, sits down with a Bible held together with tape and opens it to the Psalms. After a while she puts the Bible aside and opens a photo magazine. I apparently give the impression of being a veteran traveler as a Danish fellow asked me if I made this trip often. I answered that if I had ever made the trip once I would never have made it again.
In late afternoon of the sixth day, after traveling on the River over a thousand miles, we reached Manaus. I was disappointed that it didn’t look at all as it did in Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcarraldo” where the wild-haired Klaus Kinski, inexplicably assisted by the beautiful Claudia Cardinale, wants to build an opera house in the middle of the jungle and his plan involves moving a huge steamboat over a mountain, which, even though I knew it was a movie fantasy and set a century ago, had nonetheless colored my expectations of the place.
It was early evening when I left the boat at the floating steel pier and caught a cab to a promising-sounding hotel. I must have been a bit disoriented because I remember thinking that the cab driver was trying to defraud me though he was probably only trying to charge the inflation-adjusted fare as they had in Rio. Anyway, there was a bracing fuss and I pretended to speak only German, so the fellow gave up and I now hope he overcharged someone else to make him whole from my unfortunate behavior.
It was a nice hotel and I slept late the next morning and woke up achy and congested and with a headache and remembered that someone had said something about the flu on the boat and realized that I had been on a plague ship. I had a 100º+ fever and after six days on the river looked something like Walter Huston’s Old Prospector character in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”. I realized I was in a haze and that this was probably not a good condition to go roaming around a strange city. When I found a pharmacist I got no further than saying that I had just gotten off the boat and he clucked knowingly and gave me something that made me feel better, though everything around me beyond about fifteen feet away was vague. It seemed a good day to stay in bed.
I woke at six the next morning and it was raining. As I was still recovering from my authentic plague ship experience, I stayed around my room most of that day and napped and watched television. Later in the afternoon, I wandered out to see a little of the city.
The area of Manaus near my hotel, an older part of town, had the feel of fantasy about it. There were turn-of-the-century tile-fronted buildings holding shops packed with high-tech products, as Manaus is a free port. There were street peddlers and smart shop girls. Omega, Seiko and Tissot watches crammed into three-foot-wide watch shops that I find as reassuring as the fellow who has them pinned to the inside of his raincoat. Beggars with deformed limbs and people buying large-screen TVs and everywhere there are signs for Japanese firms and here, in the heart of the world’s greatest jungle, there is not the least sense of its presence. A city seemingly unconnected to its surroundings.