Tuesday, February 24, 2009
Thursday, February 12, 2009
We learn the Mercado Marketplace had a fire and most of it is being rebuilt. This explains the clustered huts against the fence. There are hundreds of these selling cheap sunglasses from China, knock off purses, t-shirts, fruits of apparently infinite variety.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
E t h e r e a l. We have eaten and the sun has sunk below the horizon.
Some of our companions will complain that there was no electricity, that the food was prepared over fire – and so is unevenly done.
We’ll skip past these people because I am getting tired of writing about them…and they are not at all travelers. They are tourists. The meal was wonderful. End of story.
As we ride in the canoe, darkness comes so fast, that I have the notion it was there all the time, lying in wait like a silent crocodile. Sheree and I are sitting in a canoe and I can see a struggle on her face. She will begin to lower her hand toward the water and then pull it back. She wants to feel the Amazon. But this is a foreign place. And we know the water is full of life. No one knows what could be in that water. But she wants to touch it.
I understand this, and yet I sit in the canoe and watch her.
Eni is standing at the front of the canoe. He has stripped down to his underwear. Maybe it’s a bathing suit. But I don’t think so. He stands there, legs spread for maximum balance and shines a large handheld searchlight over the water.
He is looking for a ruby glow reflected back in the light. A ruby glow means there is an alligator looking back. I look at Eni and the rapt attention he is paying to the slow playing of the light over the water and find myself thinking, not unkindly, of a terrier, looking for prey.
“It’s warm,” whispers Sheree beside me.
I look and she shows me her hand, dripping with the Amazon waters.
“It’s like a bathtub,” she says. The familiar wonder glints in her eyes. I have seen it so many times in our travels that my heart skips a beat. I was blessed to be here. But more, I was blessed to be here with her.
“Put your hand into the water," she says. "It’s okay.”
She wants me to feel what she has felt. It is a desire that is so completely and uniquely "Sheree." She selected the Amazon, researched it and then drew me into the trip, even as she invites me to dip my hand in the water now. I dip my hand in the water and smile at my mate.
The water is warm. I feel the heat around my skin and find myself thinking of the way coffee is made: hot water runs over crushed beans and becomes something greater than the sum of the individual parts. It isn’t water. It isn’t bean. It is something that is the synthesis of the combination of both. It is a new entity.
Perhaps it is simply my admittedly overactive imagination, but it feels as though my hand is touching a source of life itself. In this water live countless fish and predators and creatures beyond what I can imagine. And it is as warm as a tepid bath.
We cruise along the river and there is that ethereal feeling again. I sit in my place in the canoe thinking “I am on a canoe cruising down the Amazon. We are hunting alligators. And I know, because of personal experience that the Amazon is as warm as bathwater.”
Suddenly we see ruby reflections in the searchlight. Eni jerks his light madly to attract the attention of the driver. The driver obligingly points the boat toward the shallows. There are several “false alarms.” We go rushing into the shallow waters, searching for the ruby eyes. But in the end they always disappear.
Is Eni fabricating these “sitings of alligators?” I wonder absently. I certainly would…the people must feel they are getting their money’s worth. On the heels of that thought: “Does it matter even a little bit? I am on a canoe on the Amazon. The only light is from the searchlight…and that ethereal moon above us. Does it matter at all if we find a single caiman?”
I tell myself the answer is “no” and settle back into my seat, allowing my had to trail in the water, watching our guide standing at the front of the boat, looking for alligators.
I remember that I am flying back to the States and that tomorrow this will all be far away from me. This thought is instantly banished. This is not a time for sad thoughts. It is a time for eternal notions because I am gliding over the place where dreams are born and where life was conceived.
We come alongside another canoe. The guide on this canoe has captured a caiman about two feet long. They agree to share their alligator with us.
I have the vague sense Eni is offended that he was not the one to catch the alligator.
He asks if anyone wants to hold it. I put my hand up. Eni smiles and puts the small animal into my hands. It is passive. I am surprised at how passive it is. There are sharp teeth and a jaw that can exert tremendous pressure…even at two feet.
It is so soft on the underside and so hard on the top. I can feel it’s heart pounding under my fingers. This creature is absolutely still. It is completely aware of it’s surroundings. It’s reptile brain has accepted the fact that it has been captured…and that it’s fate has moved out of it’s own hands and into the hands of strangers. I have the idea that it accepts it’s fate either way.
But holding that small Amazon animal in my hands is mystical in a way I cannot describe.
The animal is passed from hand to hand and examined by wondering eyes and finally returned gently to the water. Eni seemed to understand it perfectly.
I was so blessed to be there.
And tomorrow we fly to Florida for four days on the Keys.
Tomorrow we leave mystical Brazil and the Amazon.
I suppress a sudden wave of absolute black sadness and concentrate instead on the moment. I try as hard as I can to impress on my heart and mind the magic of where I am and where I have been over the past two weeks.
Memories of Devil’s Island and the lovely people of Boca. I think of our tablemates who thought a moose singing “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer” was hilarious. I think about the people I have met and the things we have seen moments they have shared. I think about Eni….and the eyes of the people of the river and a hundred other things.
I have been a part of the magic around me. I have entered into it...and it is so impossibly difficult to consider leaving it behind.
The Amazon will be there as it has been for thousands of years and it feels as though it will be here for a thousand more. In a few weeks the Pacific Princess will be back with someone else in our stateroom. Something about that bugs me.
I am broken and blessed at the same time.
I have been there and back again, like Frodo.
Tomorrow, we have the morning in Manaus. Oh, Brazil. I will miss you. But I'm not gone yet.
Nearly...but not yet.
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
We were loaded onto canoes, feeling large and ungainly. Actually, in comparison to Eni, who traversed the outer rim of the canoe, I felt like a bull elephant trying to place a china cup onto a shelf, graceless and oh-so-foreign to this enchanted place. I felt every inch a son of the concrete city, a stark contrast to the people of this place. They move with grace. They move with confidence through a land I could never have dreamed up in my wildest moments.
The canoe glides down the river.
The only sound is the soft puttering of the engine. We are all silent. No conversation is possible. Our hearts are drinking it all in: the gathering darkness, the sweet scent rising from the water – the dynamic footprints of life swirling around us like delightful spirits.
I read that paragraph – and think that if I were you, I would snarl “who is this guy? Doesn’t he know when to quit?”
But if I am going to do my job – to truly convey to you the atmosphere of this place I need to use words like “life” and “dizzying” and even “enchantment.” There is nothing in your life experience that can possibly prepare you for the Amazon. Nothing. It defies words and every metaphor I create seems pale and thin in the face of that indescribable something that is the Amazon.
As I write this, I am listening to Etta James sing the songs of Billie Holiday. The music is perfect – the harmony is also perfect and resounds with a lazy passion. It is a perfect complement to the things I am attempting to remember and tell you about. Being in the Amazon is like listening to Etta sing. It is like surrendering yourself to good music, laying back in a comfortable place and letting your spirit dance with the music. You either get that or you don’t.
Okay – enough flowery crap.
We travel down the river for too short a time. We see huts with only the roofs above the water.
“When the river recedes,” says Eni, “These will be used again. For now they wait,” he says with a shrug. The shrug is eloquent. It’s an acceptance of the Amazon and what it does to their lives.
Eventually we come to a landing. It is a landing only in the most generous terms. There is a rough outcrop of wood. We beach the canoes on the land. Caramel skinned people stop and smile and wave and then go about their business. We have arrived in a village. This is not a tourist place. It’s an Amazon village.
Most of the people who live here work in the jungle hotel we have just left. Eni tells us that they were approached by the businesspeople who own the land to build the hotel…and then work in it after the building was done.
Eni is trying to herd the tourists into an open walled shed where a woman is using a large wooden spoon to push a light brown crumbly substance around in a four foot wide pan. Her name is Mary and she is the head of the village.
She nods and smiles as we enter. Then she looks away. It’s not deference. It’s not shyness. It is again a flash of that unique something about the people here. It is just their way, I suppose. Eni invites us to reach into the pan and taste some of the crumbly stuff. All eyes turn to Mary. It is us being non-Amazonians. We are looking for permission. She nods. As she smiles, I notice she is missing some teeth. She’s not an old woman.
The flour tastes like it looks: brown and dry and crunchy like peanut shells under my teeth.
I start moving around the area. There’s an orderly disorder here: items tossed to one side in a manner that sort of makes sense: disparate glass items in a box, tools tossed carelessly into one corner.
I notice we are being followed by two little boys who hang shyly on the fringe of the crunchy flour tasting tourists. I smile and they smile back. I raise the camera and my eyebrows. They cover their mouths and giggle.
I ask Mary if it’s okay to take their picture. She smiles. She shrugs and then nods.
After the images are done, I ask her if I can give the boys a dollar. This time she pauses and I have the very strong sense I have said something wrong. Then she nods and I give the boys some money, even as I wonder if I have offended our host. It’s not like I am worried about getting a curare dart in the neck. I’m not. But I am constantly getting the impression that the people here often never give voice to what’s really going on inside them.
I hear laughter, children’s laughter, and I cross the compound. A volleyball net has been tied to two trees and there are eight children playing a spirited game. Others hang on the fringes watching and laughing. This time I don’t have the sense this is being put on for the visitors. This is just people living their lives and we can choose to join in or not.
Sheree has found a place to shop, incredible as this sounds. Mary has laid out some t-shirts (all made in China) and Sheree is looking at them carefully. I know her interest isn’t so much in the shirts as it is in the interaction and besides all that, you have to admit that buying t-shirts in the Amazon jungle is pretty cool. So is supporting the people who have opened their homes to our visit.
She selects three and pays with one of our three Brazillian bills.
We pile our ungainly selves back into the canoe and wave goodbye. The villagers look up from their volleyball game and wave back. Then life continues as it has for hundreds of years. We float away on our path – and they continue on theirs. I am thinking, as we putter back to the Amazon Hotel for a very welcome feast, that it is pretty cool that our lives intersected for this brief moment and then parted again.
Later on that night I will hold an Amazon alligator in my hands. But that’s another story.
Thursday, February 5, 2009
Ahead, the tourists make their way down the narrow walkway between pier and shore. There are no handrails – just a walkway. To your right a mother and her three children sit by the water. They wave in a happily abstracted way and you wonder at how perfectly they are all four, a part of the jungle, an extension of the water.
“We are going to walk up the path ahead,” says your guide. He’s a little man called Eni, but he seems more at home here than anyone. You’ve had a lot of time to talk to him over the lazy two hour boat ride. He speaks seven languages, he lectures in the university of Manaus – and he is currently in his favorite part of the world: the Amazon jungle.
“The hotel we are going to isn’t like your hotels at home,” he says. His eyes twinkle as they speak. Honest. They twinkle. There’s no electricity. No phones. No television. Cooking is done over an open fire and only fire and candles give light at night. We’re coming back here later for supper. But first we go into the jungle.”
He has told you what to expect. Okay: he has given you an idea what to expect. You need to cover yourself with serious insect repellant. You need to put your pant legs inside your socks to prevent soldier ants from getting in, this requirement illustrated vividly by the telling of a story about another tourist who ignored the clearly stated requirement of LONG pants and WALKING shoes and got badly bitten.
All eyes turn to a balding fat man. His legs stick out of the legs of his shorts and they look like sticks to you. The legs seem impossibly thin – too thin to support the massive body above it. He is wearing sandals. He looks back at the group.
“No one told me,” he says, exchanging a worried glance with his son, who is similarly attired.
Poor bastards, you think. They are meat.
Eni offers them the choice of staying at the lodge and waiting for the jungle walk to return. He tells them that, should they choose to take the walk, they will need to stay close to him.
The man looks uncertain for a moment. Then he shakes his head and declares that he and his boy are going on the damn walk. He begs copious insect repellant from the other travelers and coats his skin and his son’s skin before they leave.
The walk through the jungle begins with no ceremony and as you step into the lush greenness, you realize that civilization has vanished. You can’t see even the rudimentary shelter of the huts. A few steps away from the compound – and you are in the jungle.
You can’t help but feel like an interloper. Strange sounds, sounds you cannot identify are all around you. The air is heavy with the scent of life and decay. You look down at the jungle floor and see why: it’s a slippery coating of fallen leaves and vines and rocks that look so very out of place.
Eni stops beneath a massive cone. It’s twice as large as he is. He strips off his shirt and tells you he is about to demonstrate how to call the ants.
Is he nuts? you wonder. He plans to CALL ants?
Rita, a trauma nurse from Melbourne Australia, gets in close with her camera. You’ve noticed that Rita, who laughs frequently and does not appear to have a shy bone in her body, likes to be at the center of all activity. She’s close – and you wonder uneasily if she has heard that Eni is going to call ants.
He stands directly under the large cone, an ant nest, and claps his hands. He spreads his arms wide and instantly, a trail of black flows from the nest, covering him. The guy is covered in ants. Holy crap!
Rita leaps to one side with a squeal. You notice the man and the boy in shorts take several steps backward.
Eni isn’t concerned. He brushes the insects off of himself and holds out his hands.
“This is the best insect repellant in the world. Smell.”
Dutifully the assembled jungle safari types sniff Eni’s hands. It’s a raw organic scent. Bitter – but not unpleasant.
This is seriously cool you think.
You come eventually to a clearing.
Eni and another Amazon guide confer briefly in Portuguese and Eni tells you they are about to demonstrate how to start a fire in the wild. First the guide demonstrates how to create friction with a bow and stake. You’ve seen this before. Lots of times – and you suspect that if it ever comes down to you needing to start a fire this way, you are gonna die a lonely cold death for sure.
Next Eni tells you how to build a fire out of two batteries and steel wool – which is highly flammable. The Amazon guide holds the batteries end to end, just as you would load them into a flashlight. He touches the steel wool to both ends of the batteries and there is a tiny whoosh sound and fire erupts. Damn. That’s cool, you think. If you ever happen to be stranded in the jungle and you happen to have a flashlight and steel wool, you will be able to make fire.
You are about to move off when the Amazon guide says something the Eni (who you have started to think of as “Survivor Man”) – and he stops and turns back to the stump they have just used for the firemaking demonstrations. He lifts a block of wood and underneath is a centipede. It is curled, but it must be at least seven or eight inches long.
You look around and see horrified looks on the faces. You smile. This is probably a joke you decide. No way that thing is alive. No way they would have done all that stuff right on top of a venomous centipede. You take a picture anyway.
The guy in the shorts stands behind his kid.
Eni pokes the insect with a stick – and it moves. It moves fast. It scuttles down the stump and up another tree so quickly that it is almost a blur. You have to marvel, even as you hyperventilate just a little, at how those dozens of tiny legs propel the creature so quickly.
Rita is looking a little faint – but she’s laughing louder than anyone. Nerves you think.
You leave the clearing and go deeper into the jungle. Along the way Eni points out other insects, massive termite nests. He shows you cocoa and impossibly red flowers. Wind rustles through the trees and it’s cool touch is welcome on your face.
You decide you could walk in the jungle forever, as long as Survivor Man is with you.
He shows you how the natives rig traps for meat. He shows you an ordinary looking vine, pressing a thorn into it until a pasty white liquid comes out.
“Curare,” he says. “A few drops paralyze the animal for six hours.”
He lets you try a blowgun – which is a five-foot long tube with a dart in it. It seems a highly impractical weapon, unwieldy because of its length. You try to fire a dart at the target and miss entirely. Eni takes the blowgun and the dart is sticking directly into the mock bird – which serves as the bull’s eye.
You move through the jungle and eventually, too soon, you come out again back at the Amazon Village.
The man and his son are scratching habitually at their legs and arms. But they are smiling.
As you wait for the next phase of the trip – a canoe ride to an Amazon village – you notice two glorious parrots watching you and your wife. Parrots mate for life – and their unblinking twin gaze draws your attention.
Your wife crosses toward them. When she walks to the left, the parrots follow, with a strangely graceful waddle. When she walks to the right, they follow and you find yourself thinking of ducks. She laughs and you smile at her with your heart. This woman finds joy in everything.
She takes their picture. You take a picture of her taking a picture of the parrots.
Life is good. You’ve already taken a river ride, been for a “walkabout” in the Amazon jungle. Now you are bound for a real Amazon village – and then you get to eat a meal prepared by Amazonians over a fire.
Does it get any better than this?
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
I could try something like "There we were, sitting in a mud bog sipping V8 juice with seventeen naked pygmies." But that never happened and I would have to be a much better writer than I am to sell something like that.
But I am trying to convey the feeling that is unique to the Amazon, the sense it engenders in your heart. Simply being there is an experience.
Think of it like a tropical theme "Alice in Wonderland." People do the most remarkable things because this is a wholly remarkable place. It's all a result -- a direct result of the magic in the air, on the water. It reaches out and ignites the magic residing quietly inside your own spirit. It's peaceful and breathlessly exciting at the same time...and it's frustrating because I don't have the words to convey it to you.
Take a look at the opening picture. This guy has put a rock in the back of his canoe so he can sit at the front. I am sure there is a perfectly good reason for this although I have no idea what it might be. I suppose the thing I'm trying to say is that the whole place is different than anywhere else.
There is Amazon magic. I promise you. There’s a certain something that happens in your heart when you are adrift on this river. It fills your mind and spirit with something as unique as the taste of fine dark chocolate. It suffuses your being with a thing both mysterious and mystical.
We got off our Manaus bus, escaping the tour guide who was not even attempting to pretend he wasn't glaring at me, and walked down a short pier to the waiting riverboat.
Our party was herded into the upper deck by a little guy who couldn’t possibly been more than five feet tall. He introduced himself as “Eni” – which he pronounced as “Any.” He crackled with energy and he announced he was going to be our guide for the rest of the day and into the night.
I started up the stairs, wanting to get stake out the best seats for Sheree and me before the greedy people got there.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Up,” I answered, although since I was standing on a narrow staircase, I thought this would be obvious.
“Why?” she asked.
“Well…that’s where we’re going.”
She looked at me with a distantly pitying eye that I always find a little irritating…mostly because it usually means I am acting like a herd animal.
“You’re acting like a herd animal,” she confirmed. “Look around down here. We have the whole floor to ourselves. We can go anywhere. Would you rather be squeezed up there like a sardine?”
I paused uncertainly, wondering if there was any possible way to save face at this point and decided there was not. I stepped off the ladder and sauntered to the wooden bench, like it had been my idea from the beginning.
“We’ll stay down here,” I said with all possible male authority.
Sheree rolled her eyes and for the balance of the trip, we hung out on the lower level.
Just before a second busload of tourists climbed up to the second floor, a man toting an enormous plastic barrel appeared. The barrel was filled with plastic cups and the plastic cups were filled with something that looked like long, tapered potato chips.
"What are those?" I asked, noting the entire riverboat crew had purchased at least one of the containters for an american dollar each.
"Banana chips," he said. "Salted. One dollar."
I bought some. Sheree bought some and they were delicious. So there we were, cruising down the Amazon, noshing on lightly salted banana chips (which tasted like fruity potato chips to me) and in a place of pure bliss. Uncrowded. Downstairs was way "more gooder." Sheree was right. But don't tell her I said so.
Shortly after we left the dock Eni came down and looked at us for a long moment. I had a sense of deja vous. We were being identified as the “problem people” again. I didn’t want that to happen so I looked at Eni and explained that we wanted to be free to take pictures.
He looked at me for a long moment. I could see gears turning in his eyes and then he smiled broadly. “You know something? If I were you, I would stay here too.”
From that second, in that inexplicable way people have, we were friends. It was done. He looked at me and I looked at him and we understood each other perfectly. I smiled a little and so did he. He almost winked. It was a great moment.
And so Sheree and I were left mostly alone on the lower deck of a riverboat cruising the Amazon. It was wonderful. A gentle breeze blew through the lower deck and I had the illusion that we were all alone on the Amazon…exactly where we wanted to be. Occasionally another boat would fly by and we would look at it and maybe take a picture. Then the magic happened.
It was one of those perfect travel moments: one that will live in my mind forever. I have a number of these. In Alaska we rounded a corner and saw bald eagles soaring around the cross on a church, sublime moments in the profound peace of Fern Grotto in Jamaica, midnight in St. Marco Square in Venice – way too many to write here.
But travel magic was happening only a few feet from where we were. Wordlessly, I pointed out behind Sheree. She turned and saw the magic too. Let me explain what is happening in the picture above. I have only adjusted the contrast a little – otherwise it is exactly what we saw: two rivers, two colors travelling side by side in perfectly separate courses. It is called the “Meeting of the Rivers.” Two chemically different bodies of water meet and flow side by side – but never together.
Eni appeared, holding two small bottles of water. One was light brown. The other was blue. He laughed at both of us gaping at the impossible scene unfolding before us.
"Two completely different compositions of water. Different ph balances, acidity. These are two completely different waters one beside the other."
He smiled at us and I started taking pictures.
NOW can you try to tell me we are not talking about a magical place?
I took picture after picture of this impossible thing happening before my eyes. I am a professional magician, and if I could bottle this effect, I would make a Manaus-sized fortune. It’s a complete impossibility, which (in the final analysis) is what magic is all about.
In that instant I felt something strange – something that will offend some of you. But I felt an urge to fall to my knees before the God that had created this impossible thing, a God who built the vibrant life of the Amazon from monkey to “fat little guys” on Devil’s Island. In that instant I felt very small before my Creator and I had an urge to hide my face. Hard to explain – but it’s what was going on inside me. How does a visual of two rivers running side by side invoke that reaction? I don’t know. But it was intense and tender and precious to me.
The boat continued down the Amazon. Sheree claimed the fore deck. I called her “Rambette” because of her sweatband and military look. She didn’t care. Actually I think she kind of liked it.
Eni joined us and for the next hour or so we chatted amiably about his life in Manaus. He speaks seven languages. He loves his area of the world and he loves showing it to tourists. Sheree immediately began talking with him about the option of planning a photographers’ tour of Manaus. He understood right away and started talking about the many options available.
I liked this man more and more. I eased myself off of the bench and settled in beside Eni and Sheree at the very front of the boat. We talked about Manaus. The ship captain produced a package of cookies and we ate and talked and laughed together as though we had known each other for decades. It's just that way in the Amazon. I've noticed time and again the easy way people talk, the way people choose to be together.
We talked about our lives in Edmonton. We talked about the literal beauty as the Amazon showed itself to us. He had grown up on the Amazon, but Eni was still as in awe of what was out there as we were.
I wish you could have been there for only a few moments. You would first notice the scent in the air. It is quite unlike anything else you may have past experience with. It is so very alive. The scent itself is like nothing else: green and pulsing with life. I'll try to give you a better sense of what it was like to be there when I tell you about the walk into the jungle in the next blog.
Along the shorelines are people and animals. The clouds are vibrant and turbulent blues and greys and whites, in constant lazy state of motion as though God was gently blowing on them. And all around you is the sense of life and the loud heartbeat of the Amazon. It resounds in your spirit like a drum. It speaks to your heart and whispers that this is where you came from and that this is the garden of the world.
But intense and precious.
I would not trade my memories of that river ride for anything this world has to offer. Well. Almost anything.
We were headed for the deep Amazon. We were going for a long hike in the literal jungle. Nothing tourist here. We are talking pure Amazon.
The walk into the Amazon jungle was more astounding still. That story is next.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
I hadn’t until shortly before we left and I traced my finger on a map down Brazil’s Amazon River to Manaus with the breathlessly excited thought: “I’m going there.”
Manaus was once the richest city on the planet. Henry Ford wanted to exploit the rubber trade – and business tycoons by the dozen were created here. The expression: "Lighting your cigar with one hundred dollar bills" was birthed here too…because they made a point of doing it.
Not much of that grandeur remains today. There’s the Manaus opera house of course: Italian marble, handcrafted décor. It is said that the small road out front of the opera house was covered in rubber so that the carriages rumbling by with their loads of rich music fans wouldn’t make a sound on the cobblestones and so disturb the patrons within.
Manaus is a place of stark contrasts: there are opulent mansions still – and ramshackle slums of abject poverty. One point eight million people live here in relative peace.
The ship pulls slowly into the port and I stand on the balcony savoring the moment because I know this will be the last time for this trip that I am on a moving ship. We dock here and stay overnight. But tomorrow we leave. Our bags are packed and they sit like 900 pound gorillas in the middle of our stateroom.
I don’t dwell on it too long because it’s not a day for those kinds of thoughts. It’s a FULL day excursion. We’re going to take a tour of the town. We are going to have a look at the opera house. We’re going to take a river ride – and then go on a walk through the jungle to a real Amazon village. We are going to finish the day by going out onto the river in the dark of night hunting caiman – the indigenous alligators.
Who could be sad with all that coming up? (You just shush.)
We file off the ship with bright orange stickers on our shirts. They say “H3” in big letters. They identify us as tour members but they annoy me to no end for reasons I cannot articulate.
The bus is waiting and as we step from ship to bus, I have my first misgiving. We are being handled and I wonder if we will ever be allowed to see the real Brazil. I don’t much want to be insulated.
But I was on my way to a day I will remember for the rest of my life. It was a day when Brazil, in all it’s electric beauty touched me.
Sheree and I pile into a tour bus. It’s an odd bus because it has a locking door between the passengers and the driver. It creeps me out at first – but the guide, a pinch faced little man, explains that the door exists so we can enjoy air conditioning.
…okay, I think…
There are only ten of us on the bus – so I spread out on the back seat. I can shoot out of either window as we travel and I do. Manaus is a riot of color and people and activity. There are signs and cars and bustling commerce. The streets are choked with people and buildings. Music is played loud on every corner and there’s an affable disorder to it all.
It’s raining steadily and I shoot out of the windows and try to make the rain work for me. There are some wonderful bokeh effects that just occur when you focus on the drops and let the background blur.
We arrive at the Manaus opera house and the guide puts on his serious face. He looks at us, every one of us, directly in the eye and raises a finger. I have a flash memory of school field trips.
“We were not allowed to bring tourists into the opera house for a very long time,” he says. My ears have adjusted to his heavy accent and I can actually understand most of what he says now. “The opera house is very par-tic-oo-lar (this is the word, yes?) about people inside. You may take photos,” he pauses to look significantly at Sheree and me – as we have already been identified as ‘potential problem photographers’ – “But no flash photography. They get, how do you say, very irr-ra-tet-ed. The flash destroys paint. If you do not know how to put your flash off, give me your camera and I do it for you.”
We enter the opera house and it is grand, indeed. There are rooms in this place that took fifteen YEARS to complete. Stone, marble, wood – textiles were brought in from all over the world. There is a rumor that Caruso sang here. The real story is that someone said “malaria” to him, and he took off.
We go through the lobby and into the theater. There’s low light here – and I suppress my flash – and crank the ISO. I start shooting.
There are things that happen with technology that seem too precisely timed to be pure happenstance. This has never happened before or since but as I raised the camera to my eye to take the seventh image, the flash goes off.
There is a collective gasp from the assembled group and the guide is glaring at me. I hold up my hand to acknowledge that I am the Flash Criminal and will take sure and certain steps to correct the situation. The gesture asks for mercy from the Opera House Police. The guide nods tightly and continues talking about something. I suppress the flash again and continue shooting.
Have you ever seen what a camera does when it is trying to focus on something in low light? The flash goes off in tight sharp bursts.
For no apparent reason, a circumstance I have not been able to repeat since that day, a bursting flashing “HEY EVERYONE! Look at me for I am the moron with THE OBNOXIOUS FLASH” screamed into the otherwise hushed silence. After what seems like several years, the panicked responses from my brain, reach my finger and I lift it off the shutter button. The flashes stop, although their presence resounds with echos of light in their wake.
I do not often feel a flush burning my cheeks. But I did then.
“See? You really should read your camera manual,” chides Sheree helpfully. She seems to be enjoying this just a little more than she should.
I am about to respond with something both flushed and cutting when there is a whoosh of air and the guide is standing beside us with a horrified skeletal grin frozen on his face.
“Do you want me to rip that camera out of your hands, you bottom-feeding lowlife stupid tourist waste of skin?” his expression says.
“Can I help you turn off your flash?” he asks through clenched teeth just behind the fake smile.
“No,” I say. “I’ll do it.”
He stands there while I suppress the flash…again. To this day, I have no idea why it was flashing. I change the setting to Shutter Mode and turn the flash off.
He luxuriates in one last “I will feed you your own liver if you continue to embarrass me” fake smile and then he turns on his heel and stalks away. His manner makes it obvious there are far more worthy people who deserve his attention.
I sit in my seat. Low. I point the camera down at the floor and half press the shutter button, just to check. Nothing. It focuses. No problem. No flash. I heave a sigh and remind myself that all technology is inherently evil.
I see a wall ornament I like and I turn the camera toward it. Tentatively I press on the shutter button. There’s a crisp click as the flash pops up, ready to do it's job. No. Not ready. EAGER.
Shit shit shit.
I mutter something else unkind and wander out of the theater into where there is more light and less intense scrutiny.
As we leave the opera house, the rain is falling in a steady drizzle, and I go back to the wave thingie courtyard to finish my pictures. The rest of the people follow the guide.
I walk across the courtyard and peer around the corner of the opera house. The guide is standing there in the steady rain in beside our bus.
He has obviously been looking for me because he sees me right away and begins waving his arms wildly to attract my attention. I presume he thinks I am so deep in my idiot stupid tourist fog he must take extreme measures to get my attention.
I wave back in my most carefree manner and saunter toward him.
“We were waiting by the wrong bus,” I say.
His look, of course, says something completely different than what comes out of his mouth. On the off chance children will be reading this, I won't attempt an interpritation. But the visual message was a stark contrast to the words spoken which were: “No problem…sir.”
He decides to have the bus drive around the block to pick up Sheree and we walk together in silence.
I think he probably still hates me.
That’s the morning. We’re on our way to a river ride next. I don’t know it – but we are about to meet one of those Wonderful Life Characters…and lay the groundwork for coming back here one day.
The river ride is spectacular. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.
Monday, February 2, 2009
The locals were pleased to accommodate. This is why they come from seven small villages each day the ship comes in.
“Don’t let it freak you out when the kids come up and hold your hand,” declared Hutch, the destination expert on the Pacific Princess. (He has undoubtedly dealt with plenty of freaked out personal space conscious North Americans before.) “They are wonderful people.”
You’d think that with this sort of background that I would hate this place.
I didn’t. I loved it. Honest.
The people there were wonderful, once I got to know them a little. “Getting to know them” means realizing that they are hospitable, pleasant people who make a living by showing off themselves and their village to the tourists. They come up to you, smile and take your hand. You can expect to be gently mobbed when you arrive…and if you relax and remind yourself you aren’t in Kansas anymore, you are in for a wonderful travel experience.
We were, of course, first off the tender boat. The locals were clustered tight at the makeshift pier, almost like someone was paying them to make EVERY tourist feel welcome.
We’d researched this port from home and learned many tourists bring supplies for the local school with them. This seemed a win/win situation for everyone. The tourists get to feel good and the kids get school supplies.
Since Sheree and I entertain kids for a big portion of our living, we decided to make them balloon animals. Balloons pack flat and I have yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love them.
I’d loaded my pockets with balloons and when we got to the end of the “love gauntlet,” Sheree looked at me and said “No time like the present.”
I pulled the first balloon from my pocket. Have you ever seen fish in an aquarium at feeding time? You need simply stand above the waterline holding the tin can and the fish cluster to wherever their little fish brains tell them you are going to be dropping the food.
It was like that. I was immediately surrounded by little people saying “Me! Me! Me!”
I asked them to move back a little and they did – but hands kept reaching even though they had no idea what they were reaching for. The balloon was taken out of my hand before I blew it up. I found myself looking into the large brown eyes of the culprit: a kid of about seven. I smiled. He looked back seriously. I tried to pry his fingers off the balloon. He regarded me evenly and didn’t loosen his grip. I ruffled his hair and pointed to the balloon and then at him. His eyes narrowed with suspicion. Finally, reluctantly, he let go.
I blew the balloon up and made a dog. The kids pressed forward. I think piranha fish learned their techniques from them. I blew on the tail and immediately a bubble of air appeared there. The kids took a collective step backward. There were collective “ooooo” and “ahhhhh” sounds. Then they all pressed forward with renewed cries of “Me! Me! ME! ME!”
I made balloons for about twenty minutes and noticed they were going down far too quickly. I felt something brush my thigh. (It has been my experience from my admittedly limited Amazon exposure that whenever you feel something touching you, you need to investigate right away.) I found a small brown hand in my pocket. The kid had been swiping balloons the whole time.
I closed my hand around his wrist and shook my head. He didn’t let go. I looked up and saw some of the teenage boys standing nearby, laughing and trying to blow the balloons up. No guilt. No one saying “gee, sorry, Mister. I don’t know how this balloon wound up in my hand…”
I was, of course, in their house. If they wanted to swipe the balloons I’d already planned to give to them for free, that was their choice.
I made balloons until they were gone – and kept my pockets zipped.
Boca is a wonderful place to meet people. Parents dress their kids in traditional costumes and you can take their picture. Usually you pass them a dollar for this – which is fine with me, since I usually do that anyway. Everyone will pose for a dollar: the kid with the tarantula, the little girl with the lizard, the man with a jungle pig. These kids handle wildlife with the same ease you would pick up a Coke.
The strange thing is that, while the wildlife is interesting, the real pictures are of the people who live here. Great faces – great clothes. Such colors! And they are literally lined up, wanting you to take shots of them.
While I agree that you don’t get the candid shots you’d prefer – I must also say that the tight crops of great photos are the real gift. For about twenty dollars, I got enough photos to keep me happily Photoshopping for some time.
It started feeling just a little creepy just once. I saw a young girl, maybe fifteen. Very pretty – wearing very little. I saw a number of the cruise ship guys pay a dollar to pose with her. Nothing off color – but it was creeping me out.
Sheree was approached by a lovely older woman who wanted her to take her for a canoe ride for five bucks. She was gone instants later and I didn’t see her again until the end of the day.
She had a wonderful time. On her ride she was taken upriver and shown a couple of villages, one of which had a modern looking school with old but still usable computers. Sheree says she was taken care of like an honored relative.
I took a walk into what the villagers call “The Nature Trail.” It goes about two miles into the jungle. As I stepped onto the trail a young teenager fell into step beside me.
He jerked a thumb to his chest: “Vincent.”
I pointed to myself “David.”
“You want to see?” He asked gesturing to the trail ahead of us.
I thought about it and realized he was offering to give me a tour.
A man tapped me on the shoulder and with a long sideways look at Vincent he spoke out of the corner of his mouth: “They are just looking for a hand-out. Don’t encourage them.”
Instantly I disliked this guy. People forget that they are guests in another country – and there was no way I wanted Vincent to see us all as tourists and not travelers. I believe there is a basic and profound difference between the two.
I nodded and clapped Vincent on the shoulder: “I see.”
“Keep one hand on your wallet,” warned the guy as we walked away.
I doubt Vincent heard or understood the exchange. If he did, he didn't show it. But the hostile look of the man bristled with suspicion in a language that is universal.
Vincent led me down the trail. I gather it was an old riverbed. He stopped every once in a while to show me the cocoa beans, bright flowers and wildlife. He kept pace tied to mine and I was surprised again at the easy hospitality of these people. They treat their guests with respect but there’s such an easy grace to what they do and the way they do it.
I was blown away again by the life all around me. The sweet scent in the air, the constant motion in the bushes -- the lushness of everything. Vincent, walking through the jungle seemed an extension of all that life, whereas I was patently a visitor here.
He stopped in the middle of the trail and beckoned me over: “Simbolah,” he said, pointing to a tiny brightly colored frog. A macro lens would have been needed to get a shot. But it was a glorious creature. I just enjoyed looking at it for a moment.
Vincent looked at me expectantly: “Simbolah,” he said again. “How you say this?”
“Simbolah,” I repeated.
He laughed out loud and I laughed too. I noticed that many Brazilians cover their mouths when they laugh.
“No, no. How YOU say?”
A light dawned. ‘Oh-ho!’ I thought, which is what I usually say to myself when the clouds clear and I finally understand the actual question. You should try it sometime. Just give yourself a hearty “Oh-HO” to promote cognitive function.
“Frog,” I said, deliberately omitting the “oh ho” stuff, since that would only confuse the issue. “We say ‘frog.’” (I will admit, however, that the notion of a young man in the Amazon jungle saying "oh-ho" to tourists entertained me for an unreasonably long period of time.)
He looked at me thoughtfully.
“Frog,” he said thoughtfully. “Frog.”
Then he nodded and continued down the path. Every once in a while I heard him repeating the word ‘frog.’
We came to the end of the trail and turned back. We passed the time in an easy silence, aside from Vincent occasionally repeating the word ‘frog.’ When we got to the end of the trail, I paid him for his time and we shook hands. I walked away thinking how cool it had been that our lives intersected for that brief time. Here he is: Vincent.
But that’s what travel’s all about.
I started getting just a touch concerned about Sheree by now. It's true that my partner in this life can take care of herself. And if anyone gives her a hard time...well..."I pity the fool."
But her one hour canoe ride had been more than four hours ago – and I still didn’t see her. I cleverly decided to stake out the bar, a raised wooden building where weak but very cold beer was two dollars and whoever approached the bar would be inundated with children asking them to buy pop for them.
I was sitting there, sipping my cold beer, looking out for Sheree when two girls came and sat on the table. They were young – and they inched closer and closer. I smiled and they moved right in. One of them had the most marvelous face: expressive eyes and what I have come to think of as “full on” Brazilian features.
I took their pictures – and showed them the LCD screen. Just as it was with the little girl in Tobago, they got very excited seeing the images. Think about this for a minute: these people have made posing for photos into a cottage industry. Hasn’t anyone ever shown these kids what their pictures look like?
This youngster was off to the races. Cindy Crawford never posed so eloquently. She was serious, she was smiling. She was bold. She was shy. And after each pose she’d come and look at the LCD screen and either smile or frown. The session lasted less than a couple of minutes – but it was another moment of contact between someone from Canada – and someone from the Amazon jungle.
She didn’t speak a word of English.
Vincent barely spoke my language – and I spoke only a few words of Portuguese.
But we communicated perfectly.
I love traveling.
We arrive in Manaus tomorrow. I remember looking at its location on a map. Manaus is deep inside Brazil on the oh-so-exotic Amazon. I am really looking forward to getting there. And I am dreading it too.
It's the last port we're going to...and that means the trip is close to being over. I'd rather not think about it. And when I do think about it, I remind myself that following our time in Brazil, we are going to spend four days on the equally exotic Florida Keys.
It makes me feel better. A little.
Sunday, February 1, 2009
There are no highways to connect the tiny towns of the Amazon. People use boats like we use cars and they use riverboats like we use busses. People here seem to be in a constant state of motion.
You see the boats travelling up and down this ancient river at all hours of the day and the night. In Santarem, we dock in a place that serves as a terminal for riverboats. I have no idea how many of them loaded, left, unloaded and returned while we were there. But it was a lot.
Surrounding the river terminal is no-nonsense fencing. The fence is topped with razor wire and there are armed guards here. You don’t get through the terminal without showing ID to the sweaty soldier with the machine gun. I don’t want to think about what it would be like to be a brown skinned person who forgot their ID. Nope. Won’t go there.
The presence of tourists in Santarem isn’t unwelcome – but it’s not welcome either. People are interested in seeing us, partially because our cruise ship is so much grander than the ancient chugging riverboats, all of which remind me of the African Queen from the classic Bogart film.
They watch us carefully. If we catch them looking at us, they smile and wave – but there is the strong sensation, for me anyway, that we are at best a curiosity. At worst? Intruders, maybe. Some look at us like a wary guard dog might eye an intruder who is not quite a stranger…and just may be bearing gifts.
As we glided into the port today, people lined the shore to watch our progress down the Amazon. Cars pulled over to the side of the road. People stood there. Some waved. Most didn’t. They stood silently and watched. Tourism makes up less than 5% of the local economy – so seeing a boatload of us is unusual enough to be considered an event.
We started our Malarone, the anti-malarial drug, last night. We had significant misgivings about this.
We are booked onto a riverboat for a tour down the river. It will take most of the day. We try to avoid long excursions...but considering the storm clouds forming in my head, being on a cool river instead of tramping through the jungle seems like a good idea.I watch the well cared for tourists shepherded from the cruise ship to the new riverboats. I see Brazilians walk rickety looking planks onto their riverboats. I see people lounging on their balcony furniture as the people of the country we are in contemplate the hundreds of hammocks strung from the roofs of the riverboats. I stand there thinking that the difference between us is that I had the good sense to be born in North America – otherwise I might be one of those dark eyed people watching the comparatively fabulously rich herded from excursion to excursion and buffet to buffet.
I woke up with a headache – one of those “behind the eyes but could turn into shooting pains through your temples” headaches. As the morning passes, the pain behind my eyes gets worse, but I try to ignore it. Since I have not had one of this sort of headaches before – I have to put it down to the Malarone.
The boat chugs down the river and the guide chats on. He’s glad to be in a place where he can use his English – which he speaks very well. We go down the river and, as we do, Sheree whispers to me that it feels a bit like a theme park in Disneyland.
On either side of the boat are Brazilians throwing weighted nets into the water. I have the sneaking suspicion that this is so tourists on both sides can get pictures. A little further on, there is a man spear fishing. He waits until the boat is beside him before casting his spear. Then he turns and waves cheerily at the boatful of tourists pointing cameras at him.
We even go piranha fishing. Each person gets a piece of wood and a line. At the end of the line is a hook and a piece of meat is put on the hook, said hook thrown into the water. Again: I suspect this is so Aunt Mazie can tell the folks back in Iowa that she went fishing for piranha on the Amazon.
A surprised woman does catch one and hauls it it.
“It’s a BLACK piranha,” our guide enthuses. “You see silver. Sometimes red. But hardly ever BLACK.”
The woman swells up with pride and drinks in the attention. Shutters click as she displays the still floppy fish at the end of her line. I don’t like this much, I decide. My impressions might be influenced by the steady tightening of everything inside my head, but it really feels “put on” to me.
So, after fishing, I strap the telephoto onto my camera and look for the real pictures.
Let’s look at them together, okay? We’ll pretend you are standing beside Sheree and me and we’ll look at the faces of the people of the river together. I’ll point them out with my camera and you can just pull up one of those white plastic lawn furniture chairs on the riverboat and settle in for the balance of the tour.
There were dozens of people on the deck looking us over. This man peered at us from behind a window. At first I barely saw him...then I realized he was looking right at me. I'd seen him just a few minutes earlier with some children. Here he was again. What an interesting face you have, I thought.
We return to the cabin and turn out the lights and try to lie perfectly still.
She wants to take a walk – just outside on the pier. I check my watch. The boat leaves in 45 minutes and at first, I decide to let her go without me. Then my desire not to waste this port and the time I can spend with Sheree in it takes over and I get dressed.
The walk is ethereal. The fresh air clears my head a little, but I need to concentrate on the ground in front of me and the world has taken on a certain glow. Fortunately the lights are no longer too bright since dusk is falling over the Amazon.
We walk outside the safety gates, past the guard and past the razor wire. All the tourists are back on-board now and we resolve to stay close to the ship. Again the sensation of being watched is strong. People are clustered near the gates to the terminal. I am not sure what they are waiting for. Most silently look at us as we leave the safety of the terminal. As we walk away, some still watch us. It's not uncomfortable, but the sense of being from 'way out of town' is very strong.
We pause outside, take some pictures. Then the boat blows it’s horn and we make our way back on board, through the throngs of locals, past the razor wire, and onto the ship.
As we pull away, I have a slightly sad feeling. I never really had a chance to know anything about the real Santarem. I was physically here – but I haven’t BEEN here.