Damn it this woman will not shut the fuck up. It has been two days and still it seems like the same argument that started before we even left Santarem. It all happens the same way; I’m in my hammock minding my own business, she’s walking in between the hammocks of the children, and she’s screeching like a falling bomb until the conclusion that she comes up with, and hell if it’s intelligible to me, comes out in an explosion of anger and spittle. The little kids accept her blistering hate for a moment and settle, but then it just begins again.
I had thought before we boarded the riverboat at some obscure floating dock in Santarem that I had already met the most repulsive of the passengers. She was a huge woman with a head like an orange construction cone, and she was sitting in a damn strong hammock strung in a tree beside the warehouse. I’d approached her and her man to ask whether they were waiting for the boat to Manaus, and when I began to speak she broke into a guttural laugh, the food in her mouth forced out and her eyes becoming hidden behind rings of fat that closed when her cheeks rose. I didn’t see what was so funny. My accent? My clothes? It didn’t matter, she was laughing and I had a dumb look on my face because of it. I went far to sit down but she was a loud thing, hawking loogies and screaming at a little boy–her son–in a high-pitched whiny voice, not unlike the sound you might hear if you try to stuff a chicken through a funnel, “Pedro! Vem! PEDRO VEM!” She burped too. Fucking Jabba the Hut.
It was like some damn conspiracy to ruin my good mood in the Amazon. First, I learn that the Cultural Secretary stripped the old man of his position as curator of the museum and handed it to a relative of hers, then I’m disheartened further by Jabba, and then, once aboard the riverboat, I learn that Jabba’s evil twin–albeit thinner–sister is in the hammock next to mine. Thinner isn’t the word actually. It’s mobile.
I had my hammock, which I’d found for 5 dollars, and my bag of rations: cans of processed chicken meat, feijoada (black beans with sausage, skin, fat; basically all the unwanted parts of animals), albondegas (meatballs), and a can of what I’d find to be gluttonous peas. This with a bag of bread and another of lollipops would have to tide me over for the three day journey to the Amazonian capital city, Manaus.
There were a few things I knew to be true just looking at the riverboat: first, the bottom deck would be mostly cargo, which would block breezes. Second, the next deck was already crowded with hammocks, which would result in the same effect as the cargo level, and also the bathrooms were on the second deck, as was the cafeteria. Third, the top level hammocks, which were drawn from their hooks and hung like cocoons or the spindled dead of a spider’s catch, were sparse. The top level was also where a bar was, which, I would learn, would play loud songs (bad songs, if the presence of the word “corazao” is any indication, and it is) without cease until well into each night. But the top level had fewer passengers, and there was no back wall and instead it was open to the wind. For fear of mosquitos and heat, I opted for the bad ballad roof.
For the entirety of the trip, the boat seemed to be leaning to starboard. I suppose it didn’t bother me, and in the hammock I could tell when the vessel would dip to portside as well, so it must have just been the heavy load. The load was mostly large canvas sacks of mantioca, and hundreds of crates of onions.
I spent the first few hours, once we had pushed off from the floating dock in Santarem and were underway, the sky already dark, exploring the far reaches and hidden corners of the riverboat. The roof level was covered where the bar was and where the hammocks were hung, and between the two a small plastic table with accompanying white plastic chairs was available and most often occupied by passengers playing a type of dominoes that probably made the mind more latent than potent. Toward the stern the roof ended and there was a sort of terrace beyond the two smoke stacks. I could hear more intensely the rumbling of the engines there, and in the day time I used the area to blot out the shrieking woman and to douse myself under the terrace showers. Toward the bow the cockpit was off limits but in the evening I went there and watched the old sailor in his sailor’s cap steering through the darkness. There was no light except for a red bow light above me glowing against the bulkhead, and the sailor was outlined against the windshield, so I could see the thick prescription of his glasses. Down a narrow and steep flight of thin metal corrugated steps was the second deck where the majority of the passengers preferred heat and less wind to blasting music. The hammocks seemed gathered together in a thick colorful web, and I mused that they’d all been wrapped up by spiders. Indeed, when night would fall, the Amazon would unleash legions of moths and other flying bugs that would crowd the fluorescents and become entangled in the webs of countless orange legged spiders which the crew had left alone presumably for that very purpose. The bow itself was accessible on this second deck, and during that time of day when the sun would be on its final descent to the horizon, when the wind would suddenly stop and the heat would feel the most intense, people would gather to this one spot where air would be moving. On the stern side of the mess of hammocks were the bathrooms which I would call illegitimate if they weren’t the only option; they were at once the toilets and the showers, so the dust bins of shitty paper would become soaked and disgusting. The only respite during a sojourn in the toilet was a small porthole the size of a newborn’s head. Also at the back of the hammocks was the cafeteria, which I never entered, and not least because I knew that the prices were ridiculous. Down another flight of thin steps and I was among the cargo and a few hammocks of unfortunate souls. The bow on this level was also accessible, but few went. Toward the back, through the narrow corridors that too much cargo had created, I found a cold water dispenser (colder than the water jugs on the second and third decks–an important discovery). This was also where an open floor offered a view over the engine room, whose noise would make it unbearable to linger for long without earplugs. There were a few cabins and it looked as if I was in the crew’s quarters, so I left back to my deck.
The hammocks reminded me of the riverboat I took in Nicaragua; only here there were no French with whom to converse. In fact I seemed to bite my tongue for three days, unmotivated to speak with anyone, to say the least. The only other foreigner as far as I could tell was the Japanese woman, and she seemed tranquil in her own world anyway. But I thought how peculiar, since it’s so rare to see a Japanese backpacker. I usually come upon Japanese tourists beside a bus and snapping away photos as if the subject will disappear, but no, then they disappear themselves aboard their bus to zoom off to the next tourist site where the ritual will repeat. I was glad for this Japanese woman, in any case, because she seemed willing to play, and for me, distract, the lunatic children who ran amok.
But damn it, it didn’t matter if they were running amok or if they were just swinging in their hammocks, the mini Jabba would only address them in high pitched angered notes. I’d be again in my own hammock, trying to read Ann Patchet’s Bel Canto, but unable to with the ferocity of that woman’s reprimands, and instead I’d stare at the worn orange rows of life jackets strapped in between the rafters above, their boat’s name, Nelio Correa stamped messily on their fabric. Sometimes I felt trapped between Jabbas, the big one on the deck below, and the post-Pilates mobile one here. I remember wishing at intervals that we would sink, so that I could grab a life jacket and float to some other part of the bank than the Jabbas. Otherwise I found respite at the bow.
We were in the Amazon, after all, and the first morning I awoke aboard a riverboat on the largest river in the world. The crew had already covertly wrapped up the tarps that they had let down in the night to keep out the moisture. The river’s bronze surface glints and reflects the blue of morning almost to the extent that I could believe the water was blue itself. But at closer examination from the bow, I found the bronze to be a deep, permanent hue, and the bow wave would disturb it enough that I could see clouds of sediment exploding as we tore through the calm.
I also saw dolphins, and it would be a surprise for me to see dolphins in a river if they weren’t already so talked-about, and if I didn’t have a shirt that said “Save Our Dolphins Tapajos 77”. Tourists come to the Amazon and cross their fingers to see them, the pink ones, and if they don’t see them, then maybe the trip wasn’t worth it to them. I thought I saw the pink dolphin, in any case, but I thought perhaps it was a manatee because there was no dorsal fin. It wasn’t until later and after I was off the boat that I learned that pink dolphins don’t have dorsal fins, and I wondered, would it be the same awe that I would feel if I knew for sure it was a pink dolphin in the moment that I saw it? I supposed it didn’t matter, because I didn’t feel awe for the rose-colored bulk that I glimpse only for a moment anyway. Perhaps someone else would simply tell it like this: “I saw a pink dolphin and oh my God they’re so majestic you simply must go!”
The best time was right when night would fall, when clouds of moisture over the water would glow slightly in the moonlight, offering up the forest as a deep ebony shadow in between water and sky. I could smell the forest sometimes, but most of the time if I paid attention to the odor I caught the scent of manure, and knew that if the bank was forested, it was hiding the truth of a ranch further inland. Most of the stretch between Santarem and Manaus seemed to be ranches for that matter, populated by those foreign white cattle that looked like marshmallows fallen into grass instead of staying on the stick for the smore.
I made it my business to finish Ann Patchet’s book, which was a fictionalization of the terrorist takeover of the Japanese embassy in Peru. When I began to read it I was arrogant, finding myself correcting her Spanish and French references (it’s not ‘cabayo’ it’s ‘cuy’ damn it), and deciding that too many metaphors made it damn dizzying. I started to think about the difference between women and men again, because our differences become obvious in art, writing and film. I reminded me of the time when, waiting for a boat captain in Ecuador to take me to the Galapagos, I read a Star Wars book written by a woman, and became frustrated by her detailing of wardrobes and sentiments. Women are far more sentimental than men, which is not something that I need a book to teach me, but only to remind me, and to force the point. At times, I felt like I was reading a risque romance novel. The characters were well-formed but they felt a hell of a lot more than they thought. It was entertainment, this book. Well-written to be sure (albeit too many metaphors), but lacking in something I consider to be important in works of art: insight. I was aching for insights, something that says something about something instead of just a story. Of course the story itself says something about human relationships but I craved more. When finally I found an insight it was like I could put down the cross and drink a cup of water. And the insight was quite good, outlining an important reason why so much violence in Latin America is justifiable in the eyes of the criminals. This is the thought process of a young terrorist after a priest hostage has her confess:
“Maybe that was the answer, a sort of cycle of sinning and sorriness. She could come every Saturday, maybe more often than that, and he would keep having God forgive her, and then she would be free to go to heaven.”
-Ann Patchet, Bel Canto
Meanwhile the Amazon was there before me when I would look up from the book. Our riverboat and indeed most boats that were not enormous tankers would follow routes that hugged very closely to the bank. Most of the time the boat was a stone’s throw away from the mata, the forest. I sat and watched it go by to the tune of someone’s corazao, and when the wooden houses on stilts would appear in my view, I wondered what the occupants thought of our riverboat soundtrack. All in all the hammock was extremely comfortable, and a steady breeze from our movement and sometimes a strong wind that came off the water would keep the bugs away.
An experience, I thought, when shared with too many strangers, doesn’t feel like yours. I also thought what a shame it was that I would think such a thing, assuming that the thinking of it would in some way negatively affect the way I took the experience altogether. I tried all the same to make it mine despite the endless screams from Pilates Jabba and the added tension that a hippy mom brought to the scene with her daughter. I stared hard at the forest, then, and tried to notice everything around it. Men in wooden canoes set nets in the river. Exposed roots of trees dove into the water and were made dark by our wake. The birds were interesting, some playful and fronting our path and others small and yellow darting from banister to branch. Vines crawled up some trees but not all of them. And the trees, by God; each one looked like its own species. Big leafs, small green and bright ones, others red and yellow like autumn, all of them hiding the monkey that would scurry up from now and again. White trunks were made brilliant by the sun, which was a constant thing. Sometimes I would sweat, but in those instances simply grabbing the pole beside me and pulling to swing would create the necessary air to stop the reckless beads.
When I’d grow tired of the hammock, where a person can’t do anything but wait and read and look, I’d walk around. The music was constant and loud, almost at that threshold of pain but not enough to complain. People were always gathered at the dominoes table, but it was a mindless game of matching. I was reminded of my two weeks in Baja California playing dominoes with Rik, Pussy Licker and Slut, when we played dominoes how it ought to be played. I glanced at the bar’s offerings once or twice, but only came up with the conclusion that riverboat owners are undisciplined in their capitalism. Then I’d get reminded of the dominoes again because the players for some reason would slap the piece down on the table as hard as they could–maybe that was what made the game interesting. But it was still mostly mindless.
And then back to the hammock again and the horrible woman screaming at her kids. When she would disappear the kids would grow restless and brave and nuts. Then mom would return with absolute scorn on her face taunting the children with her chin held high, her lip droopy and her teeth exposed, as though trying to pick a fight (and she hit them as well), or like a man will do when another man has stared at him or his woman for too long. Who the hell would have sex with this woman? I might understand one kid, but three is damn difficult to fathom. Bad parenting, I thought. It enraged me also when the children would follow suit and throw their trash overboard. Uneducated, I thought. The children yelled and screamed bloody murder and slapped each other, just as their mother slapped them. They did as their mother did. They were nurtured that way. But then, what is the yelling doing besides creating children who will also be brutes and yellers? It just perpetuates a character that someone like me finds to be annoying, but I doubt we can say it is wrong. Maybe I’m too damn loud for some people in the world. Damn it, what the hell is education anyway?
When my thoughts became dizzying it was the banister once more and staring at the mass of water over which we seemed to glide. The Amazon River is a dangerous thing, and it’s not immediately obvious. Besides its width and maze of tributaries, its surface deceives the untrained eye. In fact there are whirlpools that would suck a body down easily, and where the flow looks flat but somewhat bloated, the water’s movement beneath the surface is actually hectic and unpredictable. As a river kayaker, I could recognize the dangers, which were not the holes in a rapid so much as the eddy lines formed at the tail of an obstacle, and the soup-like texture of the surface that looked like water just before boiling; these are the real dangers.
The forest sometimes became flooded, and the bank was nowhere to be seen. The canopy, the life of the rainforest, was mostly green, but sometimes white, or yellow and red. I asked about the abundant red fruit that looked much like a mango, and the people told me they were poisonous. It’s too bad that poisonous things always are more readily accessible.
Animals seemed few and far between–remember, the banks were mostly fazendas and secondary forest–but sometimes groups of capybara could be seen bathing in mud, interspersed with long-legged white birds. There were the dolphins still, and the playful birds, but I saw no sloths, and caimans were rare as well. Instead I had the maddening calls of the Jabbas, because yes I could also hear the big one bellowing from below. When I went to the bathroom or to take a shower I avoided her gaze at all cost so as not to incite her malicious laugh.
I observed then among the Pilates Jabba a new playmate–the hippy woman from Sao Paulo. This was a different breed altogether, one who would scream over her cellular phone about traveling alone with her daughter, who was adorable but I avoided her for fear of encouraging playfulness and attracting the women. Pilates and Sao Paulo both screamed at their children, sometimes in unison, and sometimes in call-and-response, as though in competition for the most wretched vocals and the most frightened infantile reaction. They became friends. They screamed. They screamed in solidarity; the affirmation of their hardness. Theirs, it seemed to me, is the worst way to spend existence in family; what love might exist between them and their children is hidden away until some tragic event or circumstance calls it out and they feel regret for not having shown their affection before. But maybe after the hurt passes they’d just fall back into the same shrieking routine.
When dusk would set in I was attentive to the sky. Despite the rather ugly, bland texture and coloring of the Amazon River, it was made resplendent when the sky would light up pink and the water’s surface would reflect it like mercury. That was the beauty of the Amazon for me: the sun at or near the horizon, when the air took on an atmospheric quality, and it would feel as though I was encompassed. A person five feet away would become more handsome somehow, or more present, bathed in the light. I’d look at my own arms and think that they could be the arms of some Greek god, and then I’d think the same about the people around me. They became creamy, deliciously present, and I’d breath in the air with a happiness that would endure until the last of the pink was sucked out of the clouds into the horizon like through a straw. What was it about these moments that made them feel like passion incarnate? Perhaps it was the air itself, which dusk made colorful to the point of tangibility, such that everything it touched became a part of the sunset.
Then, after a time of darkness, the moon would rise bright yellow or orange, casting a long moonbeam from the perfect black line of the horizon to the boat’s hull. The Japanese woman and I seemed to be the only ones paying attention to the moon rise. But the most astounding moon rise I saw happened the last night I spent in Santarem, when from the floating pier I watched as the moon began as a sliver of red on the horizon, and slowly appeared as a disk and rose maroon, cherry, tangerine, lemon and finally white. At first it looked like a large doused sun, and when it rose to its zenith and regained its brilliant aura I knew that it was the most gorgeous and perfect moon I’d ever seen.
I’m the perfect kind of person for saving the rainforest, I thought. I was watching men at dominoes. Pilates Jabba’s teenage son was looking dumb and throwing wrappers overboard into our wake, and he was watching the game as well. I had knifed open a can of feijoada, which I ate with a bread roll. Jabba tried to offer me farinha to go with it but I declined, thinking, “I’m not prepared to like you yet.” The music was pounding still. Brazilian popular music seems to depend on rhythm while American popular music depends on melody. I wonder which uses more brain cells. I for one need good lyrics–which neither version of popular music usually afford. I’m the perfect kind of person for saving the rainforest, I thought again. I don’t really want to be here.
An older man was dancing in front of the Japanese girl, and another man beside her with the countenance of a smurf was yelling and laughing over the music. I don’t think she understood. It’s interesting to watch two cultures foreign to me interact–it makes me feel small, and that feeling is agreeable.
“VEM CA!” I heard and didn’t even bother this time to watch Jabba’s circus. Is she ugly because she’s a witch or is she a witch because she’s ugly? Or is it just my aching desire to make the connotation when I know I shouldn’t–the whole book by its cover thing.
I stared into the dense jungle. I craved someone with whom I could talk about it, to try to make some kind of meaningful insight or even just to make a joke. People on the boat seemed indifferent to the nature to the point that they’d throw garbage in its face. What could I do but bite my tongue and lay in my hammock. If I were to say, “don’t do that, that’s the lung, and your plastic makes it ugly,” I would get chuckles and more indifference. So it was back to Bel Canto and metaphors like “sleep was a country for which he could not obtain a visa.”
The last night on the boat was star-filled, and the milky cloud of the galaxy was visible. Shooting stars like scratches healed quickly, and it was easy to sit and contemplate the universe. There was Jupiter, and over there was Mars. We have a new rover on Mars, and I’m quite disposed to say “we”, especially from this vantage point. We, on planet Earth, our little sphere of mass floating in a soup of dark matter and bits and pieces. How weird.
I turned to the man beside me at the bow to ask if he saw the shooting star just in time to see his spit like another shooting star falling into the river. I turned back to the bigness of our roof, and thought that actually those stars are a lot like pin pricks in black roofing paper. It gave the impression that there might be something behind it all; that actually, stars are peep holes and we are the observed.
When we arrived to Manaus, I had just finished reading my book, which ended, unsurprisingly, in marriage. Actually it ended with everyone getting killed, and a man might leave it at that, because we’re melancholic, but the woman wrote the epilogue and the survivors got married. Perhaps I have difficulty enjoying a woman author’s hand, but I’m sure it’s the best way to learn how to treat the sensation of love when finally you encounter it. But I remembered my recent past and chased the thought quickly from my mind. We had arrived to the capital of the Amazon, 2 million-strong Manaus. The Amazon Theatre, old rotting colonial buildings gutted by a vengeful nature, streets lined with vendors and pulsating activity, heat, buses, smoke, air so thick you drink it. It was a veritable city in the middle of nowhere.