Saturday, March 30, 2013


The next morning we continued a little way up the river and went ashore where a path came down to the bank and walked some distance back into the jungle to a forlorn, thatched-roof structure with rusted iron machinery that might have been used to grind manioc flour, but now vines were growing around the shafts and gears and when I tried to turn a wheel it was frozen with rust.  Ricardo had no idea whose it was or how long it had lain abandoned, as it is hard to tell that about things in the jungle.  It was just something that was there.  There are abandoned projects all through the Amazon, some of them quite grand.  The jungle is a great eater of dreams.

Afterward, we crossed through another stretch of flooded forest and onto a narrow channel that took us to Hymondo’s home.

A path up from the water’s edge led to a cleared area on higher ground where we found Hymondo and his wife and several young children living on their forest homestead.  Hymondo seemed bemused by our arrival, but welcoming as all the forest people we would meet would prove to be and he was no doubt happy to have news of the outside world, as here in the deep forest there otherwise was none.  I would eventually figure out that Ricardo’s wife was related to Hymondo’s wife, but that seemed not as important as having visitors to break the solitude, and who had brought their own food.  Later that afternoon I asked Hymondo if he saw many tourists out here and he said that I was the first one he had seen.

Their home, sitting on an half-acre of so of cleared land, was a raised plank platform, open-sided and with a palm-thatched roof.  There were two mattresses on the platform and hammocks suspended from crossbeams.  Its sole item of furniture was a metal-framed outdoor chair with a plastic cord seat. There were a few pots and no cupboards or containers and only a few cans and bottles, whose labels I later realized comprised the only paper or printed material that I could see in their home.  Interestingly enough, they did not seem to be in want.

Hymondo was clearing some nearby forest  --  about two or three acres and apparently with nothing more than a machete and an axe  --  and had left the fallen trees and brush to dry, preparatory to burning them off.   
    After showing us around, Hymondo and Ricardo settled down to talk and I found myself entertaining the children.  The boys seemed to find me only moderately interesting, but the oldest girl  --  I would guess her twelve or so  --  seemed not quite to know what to do with me, sometimes approaching and sometimes watching me from a distance, but it was by then the heat of the day so I eventually dozed off.

Later, I mentioned to Hymondo that I had not seen teenage boys with the families we had passed along the River.  He said they had probably left home.  He had left his parents when he was thirteen: that was twenty years ago.  Men usually marry at about fifteen, or begin living with a girl.  Girls become sexually active around twelve. 
    Whom do the girls marry, I asked.  Anyone who will have them, he said.  In my notes there are quotation marks around his answer, so those must have been his words.  Men usually marry younger women, he said, but life is hard and he will likely have several wives over the years.  This was, I knew, how it had been in the old days of the Patriarchy when so many young wives died in childbirth and disease and their husband would then take another, younger wife and start all over again.  Hymondo’s wife had had fifteen children, though there were now only six young ones  --  the oldest the girl of about twelve  --  still living with them, including a baby who was sick with a fever.
    I asked about schooling for the children.  There is very little, he said.  Sometimes there is a teacher and sometimes children go to live at the school, but the teachers often go away and it is not taken seriously. 
            On a more practical matter, I asked him what he taught his children about snakes.  He said he told them that they were dangerous and to avoid them, but whenever he killed one in the forest he brought it home to show them.  He said he had killed a very dangerous one the other day, but that he didn’t see many snakes in the jungle.
Hymondo had come here from the south because someone had told him there was good land here, so he came and took some.  He has no documents on it and if truth were known, there were probably several people who thought they had legal title to it, but they were far away and Hymondo was in possession and considered the land now to be his.

Later, his wife told me the story of Our Lady of Aparecida.  An image was found in pieces in the river by fishermen and when they assembled the statue a saint appeared to them and they caught many fish.  This occurred, I later read, far to the south, in the year 1717.

The baby was a tiny little thing lying quietly in her mother’s lap on the floor of their shelter.  I hadn’t noticed her move since we had been there.  She has a fever, I was told.  She was very warm to the touch.  It didn’t occur to me to ask about what would be done for the child, as I assumed that, living out here, they had some way to deal with things like this, but then, later in the evening, Ricardo told me that they had asked if I had any medicine that might help.  I had no idea what was causing her sickness, but it would have made no difference as the only thing I had that might remotely be of use was aspirin, which I knew was problematic for a small child, but it was all we had and the nearest clinic was a long way off, so I cut a tablet into quarters with my knife and said they should give her one of these with plenty of water and we would have to see what morning brought and I went to sleep very worried, both for the child and for myself, should things go poorly after she had taken my medicine.  But the next morning she was better and the fever seemed to have gone away and all’s well that ends well.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

on the Rio Tefé

The next morning I went with Ricardo down to the river bank where we hired a small boat, then shopped for supplies  --  chunks of beef, oranges, limes and bananas, bread and crackers and water  --  which we loaded onto the boat and by mid-morning Ricardo, the boatman and I were on our way under a beautiful clear blue sky, south, up the Rio Tefé.  

Our little wooden boat was long and narrow, as they use here in the sometimes constricted waterways that branch off into the jungle, powered by a small Japanese outboard motor with a long propeller shaft.  I rode in the front of the boat and the country that we entered reminded me of a large river in the southern United States in spring flood.
    At first there was some other river traffic, but then there was none.  There were a few unprosperous-looking habitations along the shore, little cleared enclaves where the forest had been pushed back a little bit and, one suspected, for only a little while.  I noticed dragonflies and a tree full of vultures and a small, old wooden single-decker with peeling paint pulled into the shallows and used as a home.

After a while we turned away from the channel and into the trees and turned off the motor and drifted soundlessly into a stretch of flooded forest, an igarapé, and entered a dream-like world of greens and blacks, of shadows and splotches of sunlight, and still, mirror-like water and birds and butterflies under the high forest canopy, like floating through a flooded cathedral, and somewhere hidden behind the black columns of trees I heard a loud splash of something large and heavy.  I at first imagined a sloth falling off a limb, but later realized it was more likely a large fish leaping out of the water to snare an unwary insect or a small bird.
    The clarity of the water as we drifted through the flooded forest gave an illusion of floating on air.  The Rio Tefé is a black water river, not muddy as the main channel of the Amazon, but slower and deeper and stained with the tannins of decaying vegetation into a sort of tea color and some of what is called black water can be crystal clear, as we might imagine the waters of Eden, but its clarity bespeaks its sterility and poverty of life it supports, for in the lands drained by black water even insects are fewer. Only the trees, which function as a closed system, consuming what they produce, thrive in black water lands. As a visitor I find the clear water attractive, but then I do not have to make a living here in my imagined Eden.

In mid-afternoon we stopped at a small group of insubstantial thatch and cane and plank structures in a broad cleared area along the bank.  Ricardo said we had gone far enough for the day, though I got the impression he just wanted to stop and visit.  As often happens, I was to be the children’s entertainment.

There were three young boys there, the youngest maybe five or six  --  I have no talent at guessing children’s ages  --  and the next one maybe seven or eight and the oldest perhaps twelve, all of them healthy and brown-skinned, wearing only those dirty short running pants that everyone wears down here in the jungle heat.  At the direction of one of the women, the oldest boy scampered barefoot up a tall, spindly tree that bent under his weight to collect a thick bundle of purple fruit that seemed to be mostly stone and which the woman then made into a thick, pleasant drink, satisfying but not sweet.  I think they were açai berries, which I had never heard of before.

I left my pack sitting open and the children took things out to play with and then put them back when they were done.  The littlest one climbed into my hammock and took off my sunglasses and put them on himself and looked around, then put them back on me.

As I was lying in my hammock, the middle boy  --   the one I would have guessed to be about seven or eight  --  was standing at my shoulder, fascinated by watching me write in my journal, so I handed it to him with a pencil, but he acted like he didn’t know what to do with it, so I drew a couple of large capital letters and asked him to copy them and he made an awkward scrawl as if he had never tried to write before.  So I drew quick pictures of animals and asked him what they were and he told me.

Later, one of the men came over and asked if I wanted to go with them on an alligator hunt.  The process would apparently involve going out in a boat and finding a creature and blasting him with a shotgun and he would eventually be eaten.   While I have no problem with subsistence hunting  --  and alligators and caiman and their crocodilian cousins are among the few species of creature for whom I feel no empathy  --  I suspected that watching an unarmed reptilian being gunned down at close range would probably leave me none the richer for the experience and so I declined, saying that I was happy to remain in camp.  If they later went out I did not notice, and it is possible they may have just made the offer for my benefit.

As it began to get dark they lit small, conical, tin-plate lamps about the size of a coffee cup that had no chimney and burned with a soft, golden glow.  Later, it began to rain and the water dripped off the thatch eaves, sometimes catching a reflection of the light.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

upriver to Tefé

Down river from Manaus people had regularly come out in little canoes to meet our boat, but here they only sit on the bank and watch us pass.  They are family groups: older people  --  parents and perhaps a grandparent  --  and some young children, but nothing in between.  And they just watch our boat pass, emotionless, though perhaps our little wooden two-decker is not that exciting.  I was in no hurry to get to Tefé, or anyplace else.  Along the banks there are a few places where the forest has been cleared and there are small farmsteads, mainly grazing cattle.  I watched diligently for environmental degradation, but saw none.

Now and then Ricardo would wander over to chat.  I was interested in what he had to say about the Indians since he had mentioned that his mother was a Makuxi Indian, but he seemed to prefer to talk about the situation of the Indians in more general terms.  I asked how many there were and he said it was hard to tell.  If you meant how many lived in long houses in the forest, then maybe not that many, but if you meant how many of their race survived, acculturated and living among us, then they were all over the place.  I had been told this before.  In an elegant old restaurant in Copacabana it was pointed out to me that our headwaiter in a dinner jacket had clearly Indian features.  The survival of people is one thing and the survival of a stone age life style and culture is something else and whatever association he may have had with them through his mother, they were not part of his life now and Ricardo wasn’t interested in them.

As we were headed upstream, the boat stayed close to shore where there would be less struggle against the current.  There was a pleasant feeling of invulnerability that came from the ten or twenty yards of brown river that always separated the civilized order of our boat from the carnivorous disorder of the jungle.  The dark forces of the forest slithered and hissed and gnashed their teeth as we passed just out of reach.  But ours was an invulnerability that could vanish with a change in the pitch of a propeller, as it did one afternoon.  One moment we cruised in peaceful security and then, with a slight shudder barely felt underfoot, the sound of the engine changed and  our security seemed to drift away like a wisp of smoke.
     We lost power and the boat, like a crippled airship, began slowly to drift into the bank.  It was not an emergency.   There was no immediate likelihood that we would be eaten by crocodiles.   As we drifted into the bank, limbs and branches of the jungle intruded into the gangways and we had to break them off in order to move along that side of the boat. 
     The plants that we had drifted into are common along the waterways, and I thought I remembered having been told something about them.  A minute or so later, when my hands started burning from the sap, I remembered what it was: they are poisonous.  At the same time I remembered that interesting piece of jungle lore, I noticed something else: the plants were loaded with large black ants that had taken refuge in their branches when the river had risen.  After a month or so hanging onto one plant, the ants were ready to see some more of the world, and poured onto our boat like sailors coming ashore after a long voyage.
     The sap washed off and a few hours of stepping on ants took care of that problem.   There was no danger, only a small reminder of how close we were to a very different world, separated by those few yards of river. Another riverboat came along side and towed us to the next town, where the problem was fixed and our journey continued.

There were, in fact, a number of delays along our route to Tefé, so that we arrived several hours late, well past suppertime.  The captain, whom I had come to recognize as a tight man with a cruzado, seemed to take the view that our passage included only those meals that would have been served had we arrived on time.  The final evening's meal was thus for the crew only, though we passengers were welcome to chat with them while they ate.  No one seemed to think the arrangement odd or unreasonable.  Later, I wandered back to the galley where the cook gave me a small cup of cafezinho, which was too sweet to taste the coffee, but may keep me up anyway.

As we approached I noticed that Tefé, as are many of the Amazon towns, was festooned with vultures.  They perch on the roofs of buildings and the bare limbs of trees and any other outlook that might give them sight of freshly-arrived carrion.  Though they might seem at first ominous, they are really no more fearsome than squirrels and their reliable scavenging provides a wholesome service for the public health.

I do not recall if there was a pier at riverside in Tefé, but if there were we were nowhere near it as high water kept the boat some distance from the dry bank and passengers made their way ashore by scampering across logs and loose narrow planks laid out across water of uncertain depth.  I am not by nature an agile person, but decided that if I moved quickly enough I could reach the river bank before the laws of physics caught up with me, and so made it to land without incident.

Once ashore, Ricardo decided that the town’s leading (and perhaps only) hotel was not up to my standards and that I should stay at his home, where we arrive just as the young lady I had met on the boat was leaving.

We were greeted by Ricardo’s wife whose face was bruised and cut and we were told that the night before she had been beaten up by a drunk; but the fellow who did it was an Indian, she explained, and for that reason nothing could be done about it, as the Indians  --  though they have the vote  --  are exempt from Brasilian law.

As we were standing in the house, loudspeakers in the street, set at the threshold of pain, were announcing the arrival of a shipment of new Mercedes trucks for the Government.  The loudspeakers apparently had their own power, as electricity was otherwise off all over the town and so we had fans neither for cooling nor for blowing away mosquitoes and so I sat in a low chair on the cement walk in front of his house, close against the wall to be out of the rain and watched shadows in the street moving through the evening darkness until about 9:30 when the power came on and we could go inside and to bed.  My bed was too short.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

we depart for Tefé

Ricardo told me to meet him the next afternoon on the boat at Remedios, and that a cab driver would know where that was.  I took this as a sign that Ricardo was not going to be an overly protective guide.  And as he said, the next afternoon my cab driver knew exactly where I wanted to go.

While larger ships docked at the floating steel pier where the ship I had come up on from Belém had docked, local river traffic departed from Escadaria dos Remedios.  I arrived there in the late afternoon to a scene out of a National Geographic special.  A finger of slippery red mud crowded with people and cargo loading and unloading and decks piled with stalks of bananas and a swarm of touts ready to steer the uncertain traveler to the right boat. There were stalls selling miscellaneous small things needful of the traveler and the air laced with cooking smells from food stalls offering up creatures who might just that morning have slithered through the forest or glided through the opaque brown water.  There was a monkey sitting on the counter of a stall and a flock of large, black vultures perched just out of reach, in case their services should be required, and a jumble of one- and two-decked wooden vessels and canoes tethered to the muddy bank and some of which bore somewhere on their side a hand-painted sign advertising their destination and intermediate stops and a probably optimistic time of their departure.

By reading the sign boards I found that the Jean Filho was going to Tefé and went aboard and went up to the passenger deck where I found Ricardo.  He was pleased to see me and I got the impression that I had passed my first test.  I found someone in charge and paid for my passage, which came to about $5 a day, all meals included.

If my trip upriver from Belém aboard the plague ship Rondonia had been sweat and hard biscuits, my trip to Tefé aboard the Jean Filho was utter contentment, the likes of which is seldom given to man.  For two days I lazed in my hammock, watching the jungle glide by.  I read and daydreamed and wrote in my journal.  I ate great helpings of spicy beef and chicken at the communal galley table.  I did not touch money.

There was a curious thing about the boat: I was too big for it.  The space between the deck and the ceiling (or whatever they call them on boats) was too short for me.  The boat was designed for someone about six inches shorter than I am and, at a bare six feet, I am not really tall, at least by gringo standards.  I felt like Alice when she had had a tad too much of growing. It was a strange sensation.  The only place I could stand upright on the boat was at the front end, forward of the superstructure.  The other passengers initially though my constant head-banging was humorous, but eventually they came to sympathize with me and would probably have offered advice on how to be shorter, had they any good ideas.

Our boat was a wooden two-decker, with cargo on the lower deck and passengers above.  Thinking to upgrade our accommodations, I had paid extra for a cabin, though without first looking at one, and found it a dark and stuffy, only about six feet wide with two bunk beds.  I consoled myself that the mosquitoes would eat the people sleeping in hammocks on the open deck first.  The nice lady at the boat office in Belém would probably have said that this boat was even more mais tipica than my last one.   That night I discovered that my bunk bed was also made for someone about six inches shorter than I and my guide in the upper bunk snored, so I took my hammock out on deck and found a much more comfortable place both to sleep and eventually to laze away the trip watching the jungle slide past.  And once away from the shore there were no mosquitoes. 

As our boat left Manaus we passed through waterways that seemed to get narrower and narrower and I was impressed at the ability of our pilot to keep to the channel in the confusion of the high water and then I saw our boat pass over a wire fence line and I realized that we were not on the River at all, but were sailing through someones pasture and Farmer Jones might at any moment appear with a shotgun, but then the boat made a hard left and we found ourselves in a wider channel.

Once established in my hammock, I slept well and was up at six the next morning.  Finding that the boat had no more headroom than it had the evening before, I stretched by leaning out over the railing.
     At breakfast we sat at a long, oilcloth-covered table at the back of the passenger area, next to the tiny ship’s galley.  It was the usual sweet, creamy coffee and dry cracker biscuits, which someone told me were the cheapest in all Brasil.  

The morning was lightly overcast and humid, but with a breeze that made the whole thing pleasant.  I seemed to be the only non-local on board.  Our boat kept close to the north bank to avoid the downstream current, though the water here is full of small back currents and eddies that rocked the boat gently.  In the early morning I saw along a path beside the river a brown boy with a white cloth on his head riding a red bicycle through a green forest and from the front of the boat I could hear someone whistling Bach’s “Sheep may Safely Graze”.  We passed a canoe with a little boy in the back holding a fighting cock, apparently on his way to the next village where there was a party starting and people were shooting firecrackers.  It was Sunday, so I assume it was a saint’s day.  In a jungle clearing, far from any habitation, I saw a volleyball net.
I saw a pair of bright pink dolphins playing in the River.  As the books say, they move differently than the gray ones I had seen earlier: the gray ones rise and dive nose first while the pink ones rise horizontally: I am sure this is vastly important, at least to the dolphins.  I would have thought that sort of thing would be dictated by physics, though perhaps it is how dolphin parents discourage their children from taking up with the wrong sort of marine mammal. 

Later, a pretty lady came over to chat with Ricardo and I and I quickly learn that she has three children by three different men and the priest won’t baptize the children because she wasn’t married to any of the men.  She was also going to Tefé and turned out to know my guide’s wife, which made her practically family, and so by evening she was sharing a bunk with my guide, so it was just as well that I had already set up on the deck.

Our boat puttered along upstream into the night and I joined some passengers standing at the bow to watch the sunset and catch the breeze.  There was a Catholic service playing on the radio and our pilot, his charts apparently of less use in high water, flipped on his searchlight every ten or fifteen seconds to orient himself and watch for floating logs.

The next day was much the same.  We crossed over to the south bank sometime in the night and were running about fifteen yards out.  My guide and the young lady were now cuddled domestically in her hammock out on the deck a few hammocks over from mine while I entertained myself by reading about Indian hunting practices in Alex Shoumatoff’s Rivers Amazon.  Shoumatoff remarks on the tremendous amount of private mental activity that goes on in your head when you travel by yourself to remote parts of the world, which is perhaps my favorite part of travel.  

Saturday, March 16, 2013

I hire a new guide

The Boa Vista excursion, for all its frustration, was a worthwhile trip.  Considering the matter realistically, I was not an anthropologist and any visit to the Yanomami would have told me more about my guides than it would about the Indians, and I was prepared to talk with the priests and religious working with the Indians and got something of value out of that.  And I had not actually thought Boa Vista was going to be that much of a trip.  I had thought I would go up to the town, bribe an official, get in a pickup and drive out into the forest and see some Indians in a long house and maybe eat a monkey and that would be it.  I expected neither an adventure nor quite that much time spent unproductively and I expected no peril worse than being hissed at by a snake.  
In contrast, the next leg of my trip, where I hoped to go farther west up the Amazon and then down some tributary, was into country I had read or heard nothing about.  I would be going to small river towns and settlements in the roadless forest that didn’t appear on my map and I would be a stranger amidst Indians and caboclos and who knew what sort who lived along the water or deeper in the jungle where the law’s writ did not run.  I plainly had no business wandering around in those parts by myself and needed a guide. 

And so I met Ricardo.

I do not now remember how I met him, though I am sure it was on someones recommendation as even I know better that to pick up my guide in a riverfront bar.  Like my last dragoman, Ricardo was of mixed English-Guyanese and Indian descent which despite my last experience I still thought to be a recommendation.  He showed me his government-issued ID card with a picture that looked like several million other Brasilians.  “It fell into the river,” he explained.  People in Latin America never seem to drop anything; the thing always seems to fall of its own misadventure.   But he appeared trustworthy enough and exuded the confidence all guides do when you first meet them and we agreed that we would continue up the River to the town of Tefé, where he happened to live, and from there go up the Rio Tefé until I had seen enough trees.  Since I knew nothing of the area, that seemed specific enough for me. 
     After Ricardo left I started to worry.  No one either in Brasil or in the United States knew where I was and I was planning to go off alone into the jungle with someone I did not know in a part of the world where I constantly heard stories of violence and lawlessness and bodies were easy to dispose of.  Was this really a good idea?

This is not the first time I had felt a cold whiff of paranoia down my neck when I was traveling, as I prefer to travel alone and with a vague itinerary and to places where the Law’s hand does not too heavily rest.  But if I have no actual friends in a place, I may still have an imaginary one. 

When I was six or seven years old I had an imaginary friend, a cowboy named Ringo.  When traveling alone in a Latin country, I also sometimes have an imaginary friend, Col. Vargas of the Policía Nacional.  I might take a real name from the newspapers, but Col. Vargas is my old standby.  You do not have to know Col. Vargas to be able to picture him: his crisp uniform and polished boots and reflecting sunglasses, his evil sneer and hearty, shiver-inducing laugh.  He is a man who you well know would leave no stone unturned, or fingernail unextracted, should any harm come to his good friend.

There are times in casual conversation when I might bring up the Colonel’s name.  
     “As I said to my good friend, Col. Vargas . . .”

Of course, there may turn out to be a real Col. Vargas, in which case there may be complications.
     “Oh, no.  A thousand pardons.  I do not speak your language well.  I did not mean to say ‘amigo’.  I meant to say ‘enemigo’.  I am a very great enemy of the despicable Col. Vargas.  Ptuii . . .!  I spit upon him.”

Not wishing to trust myself entirely to the protection of Col. Vargas, I phoned the U.S. Consul in Manaus to check in and see if there was anything I ought to know and whether I ought to be concerned about going off into the jungle with some stranger.

     “Watch out for Indian attacks,” he said.  Then he paused and laughed.  Consular humor.  Another North American too long in a hot climate.

     “No problem.  It’s beautiful country.  Have fun.”

     Undoubtedly a political appointee.

Since it was obviously just going to be me and Col. Vargas, I put everything of value in the hotel safe (it wasn’t really a safe, it was more of a closet behind the front desk, but what are you going to do?) and resolved to complain frequently about how little money I had with me and how my valuables were back in Manaus and generally make sure that my guide understood that I was worth more alive than dead.

I may not find a place for this detail at the end of the trip, but it is too delicious not to tell:  When I passed through Manaus several weeks later I found an article in the local newspaper involving the large number of tourists who had disappeared or been murdered by jungle guides.  The accompanying photograph showed the U.S. Consul looking very serious as he studied a large pile of file folders concerning tourists who had disappeared into the jungle with local guides and never been seen again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

leaving Boa Vista

Getting out of town was seeming increasingly unlikely.   I had spent some of my time in Boa Vista visiting with Catholic priests and lay workers to talk about Indian issues, so I returned to the church offices and wandered into their library.  I may have been in an odd frame of mind, but their books seemed piled like sandbags against the hostile fire of the world.  Or maybe they were just moving the books around.  I was looking for material they had published on the Indian question, though I also noticed a pamphlet about Evelyn Waugh’s visit to Boa Vista with a drawing on the cover of the writer emerging from the jungle in a skirt.  I had an interesting conversation with a lay brother, an Italian who had lived in the country many years and taken a Brasilian wife.  We talked about cultural survival and assimilation.
          I also talked while I was there about the general state of the Catholic Church and about politically active Liberation Theology, which was claimed to address the social reality of the poor, but for which the poor seemed indifferently enthused and there was under way a constant erosion of church attendance as the poor blacks embraced the African religions and poor whites and mixed races embraced evangelical protestantism.  It seemed that the Church’s adoption of political activism might not be speaking to their social reality and I asked one of the priests if this didn’t concern him.  He replied that for 500 years the Church never did any good in Brasil.  And it was true that the Church was not growing in numbers, but it was growing as a conscience.

At length, I heard from my guide that his vehicle would shortly be fixed and so I checked out of my hotel, not because I believed him but because I had resolved that either we actually went somewhere that day or I would take the evening flight back to Manaus.  It was raining outside and in the lobby of the Hotel Euzibio flies were walking over the TV watchers, who ignored them.  
          But alas, our mission must abort, as the car, now reassembled, cannot be started.  And I, a person of tropical patience, finally gave up and told my guide that it was not meant to be and I was going back to Manaus. I paid him 3,000 Cruzados (US$13) for his services to put a dignified end to the thing, though it turned out there was no flight to Manaus that evening and I must return to the hotel for another night.  The nice lady at the desk was happy to see me again so soon and I could have my old room back.

Freed of my guide, I found that Boa Vista was actually a pleasant enough place, or at least easy to get around in on foot.  The rain had stopped and the sun was out and I walked down to a place where I could sit on a balcony in the breeze and look out across the river at sand bars and beaches and forest and fields beneath huge, towering clouds in the eastern sky.  For all the frustration of the trip, I was glad I had come here and, if there was nothing to be accomplished, then I was content with that, and the next evening I flew back to Manaus.

These events took place twenty-five years ago and to judge by what I find on Google Images, almost every place I went has been changed significantly and, in the case of some undeveloped areas, are now essentially beyond recognition.  Much of the world I saw seems no longer to exist.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

to buy an envelope

Late one morning in Boa Vista I found that I had written one letter more than I had envelopes and so I set out from my hotel to buy another envelope.
 The lady at the post office had none, but she directed me to the Avenida Jaime Brasil, where, at the Livraria Popular, I could purchase an envelope.
     I found the Livraria Popular with no difficulty, but, it now being noon, the establishment was closed for the two-hour Latin midday break.  Returning after 2:00, I found the establishment open and looking to all intents like a perfectly normal stationery store.

Although it is quite permissible in Latin America to purchase a single envelope I have always felt this to be an imposition, and so I shopped about and selected three postcards and five envelopes.   One can always use a few extra envelopes.  Indeed, if I had bought some extra envelopes earlier I would not be needing one then.
     A very modern-looking young saleslady took my purchase and led me across the  store, where she wrote up my purchase in a book, making an original and one (yellow) copy.  She informed me that my purchase came to 105 Cruzados (approximately 52 cents, US) and, handing me the yellow copy, directed me to a cashier's cage.

I stood at the cashier's cage waiting for the cashier to finish a conversation with a friend.  Personal relationships are very important in Latin America.
     While I was waiting I had an opportunity to read the establishment's Business Permit, issued by the municipal authorities and authorizing the sale of paper goods and office supplies.  It further specified, for each day, the hours between which the establishment could be open.  The permit had cost slightly more than $150; quite reasonable, I thought, for all that permission.
     By this time, her conversation finished, the cashier had received the white copy of my invoice from the sales clerk and, taking my yellow copy, she compared the two and told me that the total amount owed came to 105 Cruzados (approximately 52 cents, US).
     I paid her this amount and she stamped both copies.  She then tore a counterpane from the yellow copy and put it in a box, passing the white original to me and handing the yellow copy, minus its counterpane,  to the lady in the adjoining cage.
     The lady in the adjoining cage had somehow received the three postcards and five envelopes I had picked out.  I was actually rather surprised to see them, as by this time I had forgotten what I was doing in the shop, having become mesmerized by this Kafka-esque rigmarole.
     The lady compared the number on my white invoice with the number on the yellow copy in her possession, and the items listed with the items she had in hand and, determining them to be in agreement, she wrapped the three postcards and five envelopes securely and handed them, together with the white original copy of the invoice, to me.  My papers were then in order and I was free to go.

This was the only instance on my trip when I would encounter this sort of commercial pantomime.  It resembles a procedure I have heard described that was required under the Code Napoleon, so it may have been a relic of some older practice.  I suppose I could have asked, but I was too bemused by the experience.