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.

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