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.

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