|LEAD TRAVEL ARTICLE: EDMONTON JOURNAL, FEBRUARY 4TH, 2006
BRAZIL: UP THE RIO NEGRO WITH ANTS AND ALLIGATORS IN AMAZONAS
Our 23ft aluminum boat comes to an abrupt, screeching halt. The 40 horse Yamaha outboard has been knocked out by yet another thick carpet of water hyacinth blocking the channel. Worse, we are entwined in a web of tendrils, each as thick as Tarzan’s wrist, and razor-sharp rattan vines threaten to tear the blue vinyl canopy clean off it’s support. Surely, this time we are truly stuck - Mere fodder for whatever lurks in the half-submerged jungle.
I look back at Sandro. A machete in one hand and saw in the other, his eyes are already glinting with excitement. I have either chosen well or my guide is a madman!
Manaus, in Brazil’s North West corner, is the remote capital of Amazonas Province and a busy hub for river traffic. From Rio, it is a 4500-kilometre journey by road or six days by bus and boat. For expediency, I have chosen to fly. Four hours after take-off we are circling above the confluence of two mighty rivers. Jet-black waters of The Rio Negro merge haphazardly into the milky brown flow of The Rio Salimoes, better known as The Amazon.
In the 1890’s this city experienced such extraordinary wealth from the rubber boom that gentlemen sent their dress-shirts to be laundered in London while their wives ordered from the trendiest couturiers in Paris. An opera house was built by top European artisans to rival La Scala in Milan, and shipped back piecemeal. Alas, the advent of latex stopped the party, but a still splendid “Teatro Amazonas” has attracted the likes of Margot Fontaine and Nureyev. Tickets to a performance are as scarce as hen’s teeth.
The airport is buzzing with mosquitoes The human kind! Trips to Jungle Lodges Hotels Resorts Boats Planes - are offered by pushy, brochure-wielding touts anxious for a percentage of the action.
I shove through, with a few well-chosen expletives, and take the bus to the official Amazonastur office in town. “I have 8 days to spare. I need a guide with a boat. He must speak English. I want to meet indigenous tribes and simple river people.” I explain hopefully.“Not the usual tourist stuff.”
A couple of quick phone calls in which I am doubtless being characterised, in Portugese, as an arrogant twit and then: “Sandro will be at your hotel in 30 minutes. You can’t miss him. He is short with a head so big you’ll think he’s wearing his motorbike helmet. Ha Ha Ha!”
Half an hour later I am sitting face to face with a stocky smiling man. Short maybe but with no formal education he speaks 5 languages and fixes computers when guiding is slow. Yes, he has a boat and for 2500 Reals (US$1000) including gas and food supplies we’ll spend 8 days with people along The Rio Negro. “No no The Amazon is too fertile and rich in fish. Locals there have modern houses, generators and TV Not interesting.”
A few well-aimed swipes with the machete frees the boat roof and a couple of jabs from a freshly sawn branch clear the propeller. He fires up the engine and we fly at full throttle over the weed while cutting a crashing swath through the dense jungle. “Good grief Is this how the Satere-Mawe tribe gets home at night?” I mutter to myself dubiously! “Must be a short cut?”
It is mid-May. Run-off from the Andes has already swelled the height of the river by a huge 14 metres causing people to abandon their homes and plantations for higher ground. It seems surreal to be floating high under the canopy of a flooded jungle.
I have to admit he’s good. We finally emerge into a small clearing. A couple of canoes are lying on the bank.
We hike 100 metres up a pathway. Men are busily erecting a new community building, the old one was flattened by a tree. Logs are termite-proofed with old engine oil then tied into place. Women, dressed in simple jute skirts and beaded bodices made from dried Acai berries, are separating and weaving palm fronds into roof sections.
Nine years ago, 20 members of the Satere-Mawe tribe packed their belongings into hand-hewn canoes. They paddled 1000 kilometres downstream from the head of The Rio Negro on the Venezuelan border to find a better life.
They brought their animist traditions. A particularly gruesome “rite of passage” for boys passing into manhood translates as “Stick the hand into the glove”. The hapless lad must wear straw gloves filled with giant, stinging, Tucandeira fire ants. Tears bring failure, shame and worst of all - a rerun. Side effects can be vomiting, fever, even death. Survivors are “favoured” by the village girls and get to sport “ant” tattoos. Frankly I’d rather pump iron at the gym!
The next Tucandeira “festival” is to be held in the new structure two weeks from now, so the heat is on to finish the job.
The chief’s wife, a busy soul, doubles as tribal witch-doctor, (passed on by her grandfather), and teacher. She leaves her potions, and two sickly patients hanging in hammocks, to usher us proudly into a little thatched hut where half a dozen students sing a rousing song of welcome.
We spend two delightful days swapping stories and food with these simple welcoming people. Fried fish is well fried fish, but grilled alligator, chewed straight off the jawbone with teeth in tact, is rubbery at best! It is time to move on. I shake hands with the nervous Tucandeira novitiates before we speed off into the undergrowth.
“Jungle man,” as Sandro calls him, has moved to a lake. Lago Limao. We pass his old house, flooded by the rising river. A couple of hours of fruitless forays up impenetrable channels would have caused a sane man to give up but not Sandro. Even he looks relieved as we weave through a graveyard of dead trees and spot a lone shack up ahead.
Jungle man is all muscle. He immediately beckons me into the leaking canoe and throws over a 1⁄2 coconut bailer. He paddles ferociously. It’s getting dark. A line of corks marks his net. In less than 5 minutes, 30 fish are flapping around my feet including a few piranhas which appear to be edging toward my naked toes! I bail furiously.
It is now pitch black. He stops paddling and produces a flashlight to scour the horizon. Something the size of a cat’s eye catches his attention. He paddles like a man possessed then grabs his spear ready to lunge. The alligator submerges.
Like all river people, “Jungle Man” feeds his wife and five children from hunting and fishing. He shoots larger fish with a bow and arrow. He grows manioc, a tuber, which when soaked, pressed and then cooked for 4 hours in a huge pan becomes flour, the staple of every meal.
On a rare day he sells surplus fish and buys gas for the outboard - even propane for the stove which otherwise serves as extra counter space beside the open kitchen fire.
It is Friday. I am told The Sabbath starts at 6pm. The family is summoned for prayers and hymn singing. I join in with a rousing English version of “Glory Glory Alleluia” learned from school days. Finally my hammock is slung. The back room of the shack is tight for 8 people and we swing head to toe for maximum capacity!
6am. The rooster announces a new day from a gap between two planks under my hammock. Jungle man’s wife happily scrambles the last of Sandro’s eggs on the newly replenished propane stove. His long-tailed outboard is full of gas for the 10km journey to The Seventh Day Adventist Church.
In the next few days we stay with similar families along the river. I learn about the healing qualities of plants, berries and trees. I marvel at the different features and shades of skin and hair to be found in one family. We have spread a little food and a little cash. We have been repaid tenfold with innocent laughter, kindness and warmth from, to my Western eyes, some of the poorest people on earth.
Finally, we are speeding back to Manaus. “Would you like to live on the river Sandro?” “Yes. Yes. Mr Andrew” he answers sadly. “And your wife?” A moment of silence and then: “I don’t think so.”
IF YOU GO:
Copyright © 2006 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.