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.  

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