Thursday, February 13, 2014

Letters from the Equator, 2 - Amazonia

               Two: Up the Amazon - Way Up
To see the first post go to:

But I was more interested in the fantastically extravagant river and the backcountry that produced Manaus than I was in a large port, and quickly boarded a boat in the style of the old river steamers, on the Rio Negro, the major tributary of the Amazon, vast and slate-colored, that up close is the color of tea mixed with Red Zinger. This is not pollution but the effects of decomposing vegetation of unimaginable profusion.
As some of it passed our open decks, floating fields once fed to livestock by the cattle barons of the lower Amazon, certain aspects of South America were very much on my mind: the dreaded Chagas' disease, transmitted by the black and red reduvid bug adept at biting the face and then excreting in the wound (one guidebook advised against sleeping on the dirt floors of huts frequented by opossums), rabies, dengue, typhus, hookworm, and more specialized disorders - - Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, carried by black flies, and Leishmaniasis, unhealable sores from the bites of sand fleas.
I wasn't forgetting meningitis, hepatitis, and, of course, malaria, the ubiquitous equatorial complaint, the Bud Lite of microbes, in a distributional sense, brought to Amazonia on slave ships early in the last century. There are the visible creatures as well - poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions; that ingenious, remarkably energetic little parasite, the candiru fish, that supposedly can swim up one's urine stream and otherwise get lodged in the body's unsuspecting apertures. Also piranha, and homo sapiens. 
        We were, in addition to George, a German Swiss seeking his fortune as a guide - one does not dwell on last names in Amazonia - half-a-dozen older Japanese women wearing two pairs of socks each and powerful bonnets and waving paper fans, a family of Sicilians with a minicam, and three Israelis - Hanan, Hanni and Hanna - two of them clinical psychologists and the other an embroidery designer. That we were all headed up the Rio Negro for its confluence with the lesser Ariau River says more about the nature of contemporary tourism than it does about Amazonia, a wilderness with a semblance of its colossally diverse origins remaining and therefore both a spiritual and a material treasure.
        We chugged into the estuary of the Ariau where botos - pink freshwater porpoises - disturbed the slick black surface, and woolly monkeys roiled the dense arboreal currents overhead. Our isolated hotel suggests a cross between a jungle gym and a white collar jail: Wire over the windows keep the monkeys and macaos out , but it was the smells and sounds at dusk that impressed, a fecundity of life lush and self-celebratory, from shrieking frogs to screaming pia birds. 
        In the tree-top cafeteria I ate pirarucu, a fish that can grow to 250 pounds, and later in the moth-swarmed bar ordered a caipirinha, an icy drink made from lime and cachaca, potent booze from sugarcane. "Are you sure you can handle it?" asked one--of the psychologists, cachaca having a reputation for engendering visions. But I was already having them.
         I climbed to my room to write, and discovered that I couldn't operate the computer and the fan at the same time. Sweat ran down my back for an hour while beetles and mosquitoes collided with the luminous screen, with the dangling bulb, and with me; my energy, like that of the generator, ebbed while the jungle's flowed. To finally turn off the light in Amazonia is to punch the cacophony button on one of the last proto-natural boom boxes on earth; to sleep is to dream of blue morph butterflies and anacondas, toucans, tapirs, and lithe, ring-tailed raccoon wannabes running across corrugated iron roofs.
      I awoke to a riverine landscape lit by its own soft, leafy radiance. George had arranged an outing in a motorized canoe that, despite the rain, would take us further up the Ariau. The Japanese had disappeared - did they know something I didn’t?
      The jungle was patrolled by territorial kingfishers and big, orange, fish-eating hawks. We, too, fished, Tom Sawyer-style, for piranhas, what I thought was the equatorial equivalent of a snipe hunt until something bore down on my hook and I levitated a fish that looked deceptively like a bluegill. With the disengaged hook I exposed literally razor-sharp triangular teeth, behind a kind of sheath.
     "Not dangerous today," said our boatman. They are dangerous during periods of low water, trapped, hungry and capable of skeletizing the likes of us. We caught half a dozen and, appropriate for those at the top of the food chain in a thoroughly Darwinian environment, ate them grilled for dinner, with limes and cold Brazilian beer.
       Caboclo is the word for people of mixed Indian and European blood who live in isolated settlements and make their living as they can, raising some papayas and other fruits, fishing and hunting armadillos. Such mestizos are credited with laying waste to much of the rainforest, squatting along the ill-advised trans-Amazon highway and clearing land that hasn't the nutrients to regenerate. Three families lived here on the Ariau, and their lives had more appeal than I had expected.
       They allowed us to look around, instant Levi-Strausses, clueless amidst thatch-roofed houses on stilts, a site for grinding, pressing and drying manioc, a Brazilian staple, chickens patrolling a clean-swept yard, and a pig rooting in the underbrush. All this suggested a level of prosperity and an order of magnitude in amenities when compared with the lives of the poor in Manaus and other urban sumps.
     Out in the river, two children in a homemade canoe fished with a bow and arrow mounted with a trident. Their catch included an  electric eel. The boy and his sister were neither more than twelve years old.
      There are less than two people per square kilometer in Amazonia; it includes more than half the country but contains a tiny fraction of the population. What we were looking at was a relatively benign aspect of humanity, admirable for its independence and knowledge in the unimaginably vast Amazon basin. Magnified by the millions of rural and urban poor pressing  at the seams of Brazilian society, these people represented the means for the certain extinction of many species and could well change the character of Amazonia, as well as the earth.
      For instance, 75 percent of the rain falling in Amazonia - a lot of rain - is returned to the atmosphere by the forest that is being burned at a rate best appreciated while flying over the permanent haze it has created. But I will never forget those beautiful children, their unselfconscious smiles or the boy's pride as he paddled to shore with a mess of fish in the bottom of a boat, on water flat and green as new-blown glass. 

       (Next: Equador)
      You can read more of my travel writing at:                               

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