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.

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