How to hitchhike west out of Brasilia
Brasilia is a very centralized city, and hitchhiking out of it is simple. As anywhere, you can walk. But maybe it’s hot, and you have the 4.50 Reais to take a bus to a gas station well out of the city, because, of course, gas stations are the only way you’re going to get good, quick rides on the federal highways of Brazil. There two bus stations in Brasilia, one in the center whose routes remain in the Federal District, and one further out for intercity buses. Head to the former, and to the side closest to the TV tower, and find the bus heading to Santo Antonio do Descuberto. Tell the driver to let you off at the interchange turning off of route 60, where the big Petrobras gas station is. An hour or so later, you’re out of Brasilia.
It was already dark by the time I was putting my feet to the pavement, and after having just posted the last entry in the National Library. The sky was as big as before, and that lingering light pulsating near the horizon was like a damned aggressive muse.
I had my pack over my shoulder, walking toward a green and yellow gas station sign poking out of the night sky like a lighthouse beacon, sitting there floating. When I arrived to the gas station I’d already begun looking for places to camp. I was on the road again, and this time in the direction of Santarem, a lonely city cut-off from the rest of the world if long stretches of dirt road or waterways as the only options of arrival mean a city cut-off.
Santarem was some 2,500 kilometers away, 1,000 kilometers of it purported to be dirt roads. It would be a long, arduous journey, and I’d have to play the gas station hopping game if I wanted to make good time.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a beat-up rig whose cargo was strapped down with ropes and canvas, and my instincts were bickering about it. I approached and saw the license plate, which read “Santarem”. God damn. Out of all the gas stations and all the obscure cities in one of the world’s largest countries, the first plate I have to endure is my destination. But to the hell with it, let him go if go now he does. What a boring thing, really, a ride for such a distance, and a shame too if the conversation is dull or the person is unwilling, that we sit on our asses and take the beating of the road for so many days together and in all that time I learn little to nothing, and only once do I get that feeling that I might otherwise have many times in the journey where I feel excitement at a “yes” or a nod and then also when I find that the person is quite different from the last. It’s a far better thing to have a difficult going than a simple, easy one, and perhaps I was quick to judge the likelihood of a bore without fair evidence, but to hell with it–the road is better when you follow your gut instinct.
So I skipped the Santarem rig, for the better, and decided why not ask the one trucker who seems active this late in the evening. When I approached he had just climbed into the cab, shirtless, and with thick glasses that made his eyes look bigger than they were.
“Hello, I have a question!” I shouted up to him over the sudden din of passing traffic.
“Eh?” he responded, and I saw that his mouth of empty of teeth but for one lonely canine stained bright yellow.
“Are you traveling?” I asked.
He said a ramble of things then that I couldn’t follow, but understood that he was not, that he’d sleep there that night. So I thanked him and went to sit on a curb beside a light and a bush, the highway to my back and the concrete expanse of the station before me. There were other truckers eating at the establishment’s lanchonete, all their trucks parked in rows and quiet for the night. I sat, waiting for the motivation for prepare camp. Then the toothless trucker returned. “Where are you from?” was one thing I picked up from his speak.
“Don’t know it.”
“Ah yeah–” some things unintelligible then, and he had a 5 real bill in his hand (real is Brazilian money, recall). He handed it toward me.
“No that’s quite alright,” I said.
“No take it, for a salgado,” he insisted. And to end the scene of toothless trucker handing apparent vagabond a bill, I took it and pocketed it with a thank you.
“Have you eaten?” he asked.
“Well now I might,” I said.
“Come on, I’m buying.”
Over at the lanchonete, we were at the counter and the trucker told the people behind it to serve me a plate of rice, beans, salad and chicken, and to bring a coca-cola. It was warm outside, but when I snapped open the seal of the coke, its familiar fizz and smell was refreshing before I’d even placed the plastic to my lips.
By the end of the night I had made friends of many truckers in the lanchonete, who were all then fans of my story. I had eyed several of them, noting that were the situation me asking them for rides alone in the parking lot, they would most likely not be my fans, but thanks to the group dynamic, in which one trucker’s approval of the vagabond makes him friend to all truckers present, I had a good night. It ended with my pitching my tent in the empty and open cargo bed of toothless trucker benefactor’s rig–a first, I might add.
I found myself walking then, when morning had come and I had had a quick ride to the last big city before the BR-153 would take me north along what I would come to call the Roadkill Safari. The sun was out, and only now, deep in the Amazon, do I wish that I had thought of how soft its rays were then, walking the circumnavigating road around Anapolis, a sizeable Brazilian city. Some of the time I had my thumb out, but this was an autopista of 4 lanes, and I would be damned lucky if anyone headed further north than the exit and entrance ramps into the city were to pull over.
While I read in the grammar book, I caught a light color on the road. When I went to it, I found that it was a shirt. It was a long-sleeve dress shirt, and by god the kind that I had been thinking about for the past few weeks, since I lack a light-weight long-sleeve shirt, and in the Amazon I was sure to encounter mosquitoes and a furious sun. So it went, that I had my shirt. This is the way of the road, it seems. Sometimes, when you’re patient, your thoughts manifest for you the things that you need.
It was 3 and a half hours and all the while reading in my Portuguese grammar book later that I’d finally passed the last of the northern entrances into the city. I’d walked clear across the beast, passed roadwork digging up the orange earth for more pavement-laying, and even seeing a big rig’s gas tank burst into a streak of flame and then put out by firemen. Now I was north of Anapolis, and for lack of a working gas station for the northern route, I stood on the highway at the only conceivable hitching spot; a radar and camera that registered vehicles’ speed as they passed.
A man who drove a water truck pulled over.
“I’m not going your way, just a bit further down the road,” he said.
“Is it better there for hitching?”
“No. Here, take this.” He pulled out a metal tin marmita, filled with rice, beans, that peculiar bread flour sometimes colored yellow and sometimes beige, and a collection of meats. There was no time to exchange words before he put the truck into gear and pulled off, leaving me in the road with a legitimate meal, the size of which would make good as two.
This, and it was only the beginning of many days of Brazilian truckers. I will say it beforehand; so it goes.
A car to Rhianopolis, then Paulo, who seemed unwilling, and whose cab was decorated with dozens of dangling ruby-red-eyed model skeletons each with a name and years to it accompanying Paulo, brought me on to a large gas station some hours further north in Uruacu. The thin straps of my backpack slipped off my shoulder, ripping the age-old shirt and my arm was too weak to keep the pack in the air, which instead crashed onto the grass I’d found around back. Aaaaaahhhhh, I thought with relief, ahhhhhhh. It was like when Paulo had stopped and bought us some pure cane sugar juice. Ahhhhh. That night, there was a free shower to be had, and it was better than all the showers of all the world.
I’ve said before that you have to want to be on the road you’re traveling in order for rides to come quickly. You should submit, and accept the nature of chance. The peace that you feel in hours and hours of waiting, when you’re not perturbed at the waiting, means that you’ve accepted the possibility of no rides that day, which means you’re probably going to meet that long-haul trucker you’ve been waiting for.
The next day, when a few hours had passed, and when I had finally met Agosto, who would be my long haul trucker, I said to him: “Man, I’ve been waiting for you. Yesterday I walked clear across Anapolis and you weren’t there, and then today I’ve been to and fro and you weren’t here–where the hell have you been?” I said this, and then explained what I meant. Agosto was interested in the explanation, and through tinted eye glasses I caught that twinkle from orbs that you get from those you know are good.
The day began with bread and butter, and coffee from his moka pot–a rarity in South America. Again I watched the group dynamic make me acceptable in other truckers’ eyes where only minutes before I’d asked them as well and they’d given me quick, uninterested replies, almost like passive denunciations. Sometimes hitchhiking–or vagabonding–puts you on the very edge of the socially acceptable, and it is a good thing, because you see all the clearer how human nature functions in certain circumstances, where humans dismiss each other and create scales of worth in their subconscious that commands them to act in a certain way or say a certain word or shrug where with someone acceptable they might not do so.
Down the road we stopped at a “Borracharia”, which in Portuguese is a mechanic’s shop, but which a Spanish speaker would mistake for a place to get peshed (peshed, a word I learned from a drunken Scottish drill sergeant in Edinburgh). The truck was bright red, and the day’s light brought out the colors in a brilliant way.
Back on the road, the colors were also brilliant, albeit the color of rose petals. The paved two-lane highway followed a steady pattern of expansive hills’ crest and trough, and we moved much like a boat on high seas, and from time to time lunatic captains skirted us and barely missed colliding with oncoming rigs.
The talk was short when it did happen, but Agosto was a good person, and sometimes spoke of the life of a traveler.
“I am a traveler, you know,” he would say. “I just travel with pneus, wheels. What is the most difficult thing for you?”
“Being far from home, I think,” I said.
“Of course, and it’s the same for me.” I snuck a glance at him, and thought what a damn dignified man he must be in better company than me.
We traveled on, but stopped for a meal. It was a roadside restaurant and merits words apart. This was a caseira-serving restaurant, which would probably translate most closely into comfort food. The thing it had in common with our comfort food is the incredible variety of offerings. We walked into the restaurant, and as roadside joints go, this was a rustic one, but a true rustic one meaning that it wasn’t trying to be. The wooden rafters were glazy, a large iron central stove big as a champion’s podium and keeping some 30 metal trays of food hot. Enormous clay pots of rice and beans shared the space, and across the way a salad bar stood at the ready beside the churrascera barbeque, where any of a number of different meats sizzled away impaled on poles, and there was a large river fish clamped in a rack, and beside all this were piles of fruit. We drank Coca-Cola. The day I write an entry entitled “Escaping Coca-Cola” is the day I’ve bested space flight–or does the ISS have it too?
We left then, and in the cab Agosto turned on the radio. Damn it, I thought, can I never escape Adele? If it wasn’t her, then it was sad music. But blasted, I have elation for the road once more! It’s a welling. Welling is the word. The truckers come and they come regularly, and the road is damn good to be on, and alone, and feeling it all as an individual, and the experience is no longer shared but yours and yours truly, such that maybe there’s heartache but the distraction is stronger now, and again you remember your dreams of the world and of knowledge and languages new and difficulty ahead, and it feels fresh, renewed. So maybe you had to let love go, and maybe you’ll feel regret later, but you have pinpointed your own nature and know that time will tell, and it will probably tell you that you were right, and that what a sorrowful fool you should be to have let something so beautiful die, but you were right–and you are selfish, too–but alone, now, with the road and desire to create an art, ignoring happiness for knowledge, will in the end bring a greater happiness, perhaps. Or maybe, you’re just a damned fool.
“Now, looking out the tunnel of trees over the ravine at the sky with white clouds moving across in the wind, I loved the country so that I was happy as you are after you have been with a woman that you really love, when, empty, you feel it welling up again and there it is and you can never have it all and yet what there is, now, you can have, and you want more and more, to have, and be, and live in, to possess now again for always, for that long, sudden-ended always; making time stand still, sometimes so very still that afterwards you wait to hear it move, and it is slow in starting. But you are not alone, because if you have ever really loved her happy and untragic, she loves you always; no matter whom she loves nor where she goes she loves you more.”
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
Toucans swooped across our vision and beside and beyond I saw that the land resembled a safari indeed. There were dead things at every kilometer marker; deer, raccoon, opossum, cows, monkeys, ant eaters, coati. A road is a strange thing, cutting the land completely such that for the wanderers, there are now few great distances that you can walk without encountering something that could possibly connect you with cities. So in my case I make the adventure the road itself, and the traveling vehicle drivers that use it.
This adventure offered up a strange road of death and bright toucans to be sure, in a safari-land, and passing through towns like Wanderlandia and President Kennedy, but also there were small things that I’d notice and write down. A common transportation company, for example, is called “Guerra”, which means “war”. Its motto is “E paz na estrada,” which means “it’s peace in the road.” On San Pedro, I think seeing “War: It’s Peace in the Road” would explode my brain.
I also wrote about a new road love: Brazilian gas stations’ tendency to have free chilled water machines, which, now, in the Amazon, are like consumable rainbows; does that sound refreshing? Is that right?
Agosto let me off at a crossroad town called Aguiarnopolis, and handed me a voucher for the gas station worth 9 reals. He also handed me a plastic liquid drop container of natural medicine from Manaus, the Amazonicas’ mega city, which I would find a boat to from Santarem, I hoped. I wished him well, and we parted ways.
It was nighttime and I did business in the bathroom before buying a few salgados, fried things to eat. The bathroom had those ceramic toilets that are flush with the floor. As I squatted I thought that squatting must be healthier than sitting, that chairs are unfortunate inventions that interrupt out nature. And then, as is the case for many men who find themselves with time and a toilet, I thought of things more profoundly. Namely, I thought of the creator of said toilet. I looked down and saw that I was standing on the ridges that had been precisely placed as foot rests in the mold of the toilet. This man, this engineer, must have had to consider where exactly the butthole would be hovering. He had to figure that out. It was his duty to think ‘where must these foot rests be placed so that the feces fall into the hole’. Perhaps he had discussions with neighbors, or with pals at the pub. I wonder if he was made fun of or if his friends had good senses of humor and instead tried to help figure out the logistics of the butthole. The man spent hours. Hours. Thinking about this toilet. So why, when morning had come, did I find in the same squat toilet, a splattering of crap completely overshot and hugging the far back rim of the ceramic? Damn it. A sitting toilet is prepared for such violence.
I packed my tent beside a patch of fallen leafs which jittered with loud ants when disturbed, then shouldered my pack, bought some bread and crackers, and walked out of town. I was leaving the BR-153, the main highway that connected Sao Paulo with Belem and the Amazon. I was on a road to Maraba, and it didn’t take me long to realize that it was a desolate stretch of asphalt (that’s a damn fine German word, asphalt), perhaps a car in 20 minutes. It was hotter here, and the morning sun’s intensity hinted at the afternoon’s.
I made it to the top of a hill, where a roundabout turned the majority of the sparse traffic north, while my road, toward Maraba, was headed north-west. I managed to stop several cars, but most were headed to an intersection just down the road. Then I set up my backpack shade structure, standing the pack up straight, opening the umbrella, and tucking the curved handle in between the strapped-down sleeping bag and tent. This would prove somewhat frustrating when the wind grew as the sun climbed. Eventually I was fed-up, and shouldered my pack again to summit the rest of the hill. On the other side, there was a small patch of shade that was slowly but surely diminishing as the sun reached one o’clock. 7 hours had passed, and I couldn’t say that more than 15 cars had passed; 4 had stopped, and none were headed to a better spot or to Maraba.
The jungle opposite me sounded like a bunch of wind-up toys. A lone craggy-jointed and dead tree towered above the foliage, and a grouping of black vultures like drops of black molasses clung to the branches. Some of their brethren circled above me, and I felt annoyed that they were hoping for my flesh, if vultures can hope.
Then, and with the kind of surprise you get when you see an old friend that you haven’t seen for years, and whom you weren’t expecting to see, I was glad to see a trucker in a big blue rig pull over with a great smile wide across his face.
Hitchhiking in the Amazon on the Transamazon Highway
“What are you doing?” he said cheerfully.
“I’m going to Maraba.”
“Maraba! I’m going there too!” he said even more cheerfully. “Hop in amigo!”
“I’m Silvan,” he said as we were underway, my pack stored on the bed behind the seats.
After the introductions the small talk of trucker-hitchhiker began and continued. It’s an automatic things, to be sure. As I heard myself respond my mind was elsewhere. I had to play the back-and-forth until the basics were covered and the conversation could mold into something different, from which I could learn or engage new thoughts or ideas.
Silvan was a round person, and damn cheery. The talking was loud-talking, despite the absence of intrusive noises. So we shouted at each other and I and stole glances at him. His big pot-belly was tucked under the steering wheel shirtless. It was cool in the cab. A 250 kilometer stretch to Maraba would turn into 5 and a half hours, a result of bright orange dirt roads and bathtub-sized potholes that reminded me of Honduras.
“Conhece Natal? You know Natal?” he asked, smiling.
“Don’t know it–had planned to head that way but I ain’t got the time.”
“Don’t know Natal? Aw. I’m from there.”
“It’s far. How many days?”
“To Maraba. Once I went all the way to Altamira.”
“I’m headed that way,” I said.
He coughed a husky cough and said, “Longe! All dirt roads. They’re building a damn there though so maybe there’s more traffic than when I went.”
He showed me photos of his two women, both in Natal, and I said isn’t that a bit dangerous, what if they find out?
“Ah, yes it is, Chael. K-ow?”
“How’s it spelled?”
“So, how do you do for the ladies?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I can’t go three days without some action,” he said with a few gestures. They weren’t vulgar gestures, but seemingly playful. “That’s why I have two!”
“Oh, you know. Here and there,” I said. I wasn’t going to bring up my story.
“You like Brazilian girls?”
“It’s really hot here you know-and the Amazon is even hotter.”
We spoke more of things that reminded me of the firemen of Pucallpa, and much of the time I just stared out the window at the changing land. The hides of white cattle poked out through their effervescent green and tropical surrounds, and our orange road looked sharply cut through the whole of it. Bats fluttered about when evening fell. Then the dust lingers and hovers like a fog at the bottom and between the hills that we’d slowly ascend, the salt weighing us down heavily enough to cause the engine to roar impatiently, and streaks of black blue and gold in the sky above palms that before glistened but now are hairy silhouettes on the horizon.
When night fell we were at a gas station on the outskirts of Maraba, and Silvan insisted on a meal, a shower, and that I sleep in his bed while he in a hammock hung from sturdy hooks inside the cab. I slept well.
I spent the whole of the next day with Silvan once we’d arrived to where the rig would be unloaded. The 40 ton load managed a small wood bridge spanning a creek, a preview of the sturdiness of the wooden bridges built along the Transamazonica, which they say begins somewhere on Brazil’s Atlantic coast, but whose true character of dirt had begun with our slow ascents on the orange way the day before.
I hopped down from the rig and sat on pieces of cardboard with a number of other workers and truckers, taking refuge from the sun under an old box trailer that had been elevated onto four wood supports. We were beside a small white shed where 3 men were unloading the bags of salt from the rig, whose side panels they had lifted off, and opposite us was a large white complex. Silvan had a USB internet drive, which I had working on my computer before too long–internet at a slaugterhouse was a first. For, as it turned out, the white complex was a slaughterhouse, and the white rubber-clad workers stained in too many shades of red who roamed about, they were the slaughterers.
“Bad people,” said Silvan. I saw that he was eyeing the workers.
“They’re accustomed to killing. They shoot air to break the cows’ skulls, then slice them open. They’re used to that kind of thing.”
“Used to violence.”
“E, and they don’t think twice that a cow is life.” (The “e” was a common Brazilian way of affirming something, and the “ne” was like a “don’t you think?” or “it’s like that, no?”)
“Well, we can’t dismiss ’em like that, but maybe a bad soul is more likely to find rage working in a place like this,” I suggested.
During the day I walked around some, or just sat, perhaps drawing, or perhaps thinking about the country and trying to decide how I’d describe it. It was different, to be sure. Different from a coniferous forest. Or, it was not what a person who comes from lands of coniferous forests is used to, better said. The grass, around us, was cut, but beyond the fences it grew madly, and was punctured here and there and actually quite thickly with palms, whose fronds’ wild symmetry made the whole landscape other-worldly. The smaller, trunk-less palms, whose fronds were long and grouped at their base, looked like dusters. A country of dusters.
Meanwhile, and when we decided to sit in the white-wash open-air waiting room just beside the complex that had fans to blow away the heat, I sat listening to dangling chains and the unsure noises rising from inside the slaughterhouse. I thought of Billy Pilgrim. I thought of sex with super models on other planets. When I walked back toward the raised box trailer, I saw through the opened door of the slaughterhouse a dangling bull, its neck sliced open as well as its belly, which was a fresh wound still gushing blood and guts and excrement. Its legs had been snapped at the joint, and bright red blood gushed over the gleamed white of tendons. I thought how sick, and how wrong we probably are to herd life to death in a disassembly line. But the world, the clean, sanitary world, is only clean and sanitary thanks to walls like those of the slaughterhouse and like those of refineries, and the machines that mean that only a few unlucky humans who find themselves working in such places have to be put at risk of losing their minds. The walls mean a profound disconnect that makes our clean and sanitary lives choke when we see through the open door, but breathe deeply at a roast cut set before us marinated and steaming. So it goes.
Outside and behind the complex was a maze of wood where cows for the slaughter waited, dumb and blind. Above them a vortex and spinning wisp of black stained the sky; vultures looking to pick up the scraps. There were many of them, the bastards.
At well past midday Silvan and I joined the 3 men
ing the salt in the white shed for marmitas, the food-to-go. There was a tall, large white man there–a Brazilian of German desent from Rio Grande do Sul, I’d learn–and of course my mind tried to tell me, “there’s always a fucking white man.” He was the boss, and was very closed to my being there before I started to talk. By conversation’s end he’d given me a second marmita for the road.
The men sat eating and talking about me. They each in turn concluded that it was courage that allowed me to be a vagabond traveling the world.
“He’s courageous,” the older of the lot said.
“Courage,” said another.
“Yes it’s courage.”
“Not courage,” I said. They looked at me. “It’s not, it’s just, different.” I didn’t want their praise. I don’t want anyone’s praise. I just want knowledge, and experience. I want more than the damned status quo. I don’t want to think in years and payments and savings. I don’t want to think that work is the end-all be-all of life. Nor do I feel any great sensation in the throes of others’ priase, when they try to make my life important to them–no, if my ego is raised by admiration, it’s a momentary thing that I will consciously strike down if it lasts any longer. I want these sad bastards to affect me, not the other way around. Perhaps I meet someone truly young and impressionable, and I use the moment to say something constructive for them as thinkers, because the young remember the different vividly, and that puts me in a position to do something positive, which might not happen right away, but maybe they’ll remember and it will be a piece in the build of their character–but it’s not what I’m looking for. I’m just living, and differently, to be sure, but living to observe, learn, talk, be changed, be bettered, have better understanding of something–maybe something new–and to try to write well about it, to remember, to be read, to affect the world, even if it isn’t worth a damn.
“It’s not courage, that’s just tactics,” I said. “I travel far more than I work, so I have to be conspicuous with money and purchases.” What the hell is courage anyway, I thought as I looked at each man in turn. Their brows were wet with sweat, their thick arms toned but used, resting in their laps and sitting on the sacks of salt they’d unloaded. The shed was dark and stingy, and in the rafters dense black webs were guarded by large furry tarantulas who didn’t seem to notice our conversation. Then the men went back to their work dragging off and shouldering heavy bags, which for the two younger men might be temporary, but for the older man, he could have been doing it his entire life. I hope, at least, that he has happiness.
That good things come to those who wait is something a hitchhiker might understand better than many. I spent the whole day with Silvan. When the truck was unloaded, he took me to the entrance to the city, paid a motorbike taxi, and then handed 5 additional reals to me. Of course I bloody declined each offering, but it’s difficult to discourage someone who wants to help–he even seemed on the verge of deciding to tackle the Transamazonica with me. I told him I didn’t know how to thank him–repeat unselfish kindness in Brazil has taught me how to truly thank a person, and it took the whole of several minutes for me to finish. When I had, I was looking back at his truck through the visor of a helmet, and he drove off in memory, like everyone does and will.
Even the motor taxi driver gave me extra money–declined, insisted, accepted–and in the morning, after a horribly sweaty night hidden in my tent beside the road at the exit west of Maraba, a driver with whom I’d never spoke offered me 5 more reals–declined flat-out–but I felt bad for it, go figure, and not for not having more money to myself, but for having denied the man a moment of righteousness.
In a field beyond the gas station where I decided to ask around, the fog was thick as fallen clouds. When an older man colored dark by the sun and time and with square-rim glasses and a loose white shirt open at the collar and a cowboy hat passed, I asked him if he could take me on–and he agreed. His wife smiled from the cab. “But you have to sit up in the bed,” he said. I went off while they filled the tank and returned with a few salgados for the pair. She was darker than he, she an Afro-Brazilian from Sao Luis and with a perpetual smile. (The American in me feels weird with the racial description, but then there are mestizo-Brazilians and white-Brazilians as well; so to hell with the damned awful political correctness–she was a damned fine woman).
I made the small space at the front of the bed of the truck my own, and hung out my tent to dry and be used as a shade structure, attaching it to the fore and to the cargo of equal height behind me; I fit perfectly between them. We were underway.
It was early morning, and the sun was only just peeking through the horizon’s flora. The air was cool and wet, and the fallen clouds scooted slowly. When the rays hit the moist green palm fronds, the scenery looked like a battering of paint strokes; a painter’s paradise, even, and it looked very impressionistic as was.
The paved road from Maraba soon disappeared and the true dirt Transamazon began. There was only one way to go west of Maraba, unlike the maze of roads arriving to it from all other directions, which was the cause of the lack of vehicles that saw me waiting 7 hours two days previous. No, now we were wayward– one-wayward, to be precise.
Eventually they pulled over and invited me into the cab. He was Jamin and she was Neorma, and the both of them were exceptional people. He spoke very little, but in rapid-fire succession when he did. She was always smiling.
“There! There they are!” yelled Jamin, accompanying the outburst with a pointing finger at light-skinned, small-eyed and high-cheek-boned people sitting beside the road. “Those are the Paracana Indians.”
“Ah ha,” I made, very Americanly.
“This whole forest here–see how it’s still standing and here on the other side of the road there are just palms and cattle–this is the Paracana Indian Reserve,” said Neorma.
We passed large obvious signs with painted arrows and warnings “Nao Entre.”
“Can’t go in,” said Jamin. “Need special permission.”
“They’re autonomous?” I asked.
“No one can go in there then huh?”
“Do they vote?”
“Nao.” –Later someone told me they do, or some do. Someone told me that government workers take electronic voting boxes to all the tribes in the Amazon who are aware of modern civilization.
We drove on, and I was happy to be in the cab. It was hot outside, and in the cab there was air conditioning, whose cool air would spoil us for when we’d have to open the door. Dust shot up into the air behind us, and when we came up on cars and trucks in front of us, visibility was perhaps just a few meters. This would be the way of things for the 4 or 5 days it took for me to get to Santarem.
We stopped, and I tried a drink called Cupuacu, made from the Amazonian fruit of the same name. It was colored a yellowish white, had chunks of freeze within it, was refreshing, was sweet and slightly tart at the same time, and seemed to me the kind of taste that needs time to be acquired.
“Where do you sleep?” Neorma asked.
“In my tent,” I replied.
“Oooh weee!” she exclaimed. “You’re going to stay with us, in our house, in Anapu.”
“Really? Thank you, I’d love to.”
Anapu was a 12 hour ride over the dirt road Transamazonica, and most of the time we were quiet together, but just as Brazilians before them, it was just that they were extroverted introverts. I spent my time watching the land. It was a hilly land, and the true beginning of the Amazon. However, it would be lies were I to regale the reader with description of sensations felt for finally arriving to the world’s lung; no, here, there are fazendas. Hacienda is the Spanish term, and in English we call them ranches. Where man builds roads, he will inevitably go. Along this road, the fazendas were carved as long stretches out and away from the road, where at the far reaches of each fazenda you might find primary rainforest, but from the road you can’t spy it. The land bore the signs of long-gone rainforest, perhaps a tree towering above all the palms, the palms having been planted presumably to shade the white and quite foreign-looking cattle. The ground was thick with tall tropical grass, something that I knew to be decidedly non-rainforest, since the rainforest’s true life is in the canopy, a thing so thick that sun cannot reach the ground, which is instead covered in things fallen and returning to the earth from above.
Outside, it was hotter than it would be in the rainforest, whose bulk serves as a filter of the heat, taking in most of the rays for its own well-being. Here, there was no rainforest, just the dirt road and rolling green hills of brush strokes and dusters.
I should explain more clearly this road: the Transamazonica. It is not a new road; or rather, it is a new road, but has existed for many decades as a dirt track. In a few places I would discover this track once more, but today it is not only a wide and well-patted down dirt road, but it is also paved in various places. People, both foreign and domestic, had chided the road as a waste of my time and safety–it’s dangerous. It’s like a Brazilian wild west, where life is cheap, someone had told me. To hell with warnings, I had decided, and knew already that a friend had made the journey; but I didn’t need outside assurances to know how roads work–I’d have to be bloody unlucky to die, or even to be robbed.
The route was simple, because there are not many choices on the Transamazonica. I had begun in Maraba. 500 kilometers west was the city of Altamira–and by city, I mean to say an oasis of civilization that surprises you with its size after you had traveled the near-desolate road and the only road that goes there. 400 kilometers onward would be Ruropolis, where the Transamazonica turns both north, 150 kilometers to Santaram, and south, 2,000 kilometers to Cuiaba. The Transamazonica also continues to near the northern tip border with Bolivia to a large city called Porto Velho, or, it curves around 700 kilometers beyond Ruropolis and climbs the 1,000 kilometers to Manaus. I was headed to Santarem, to where a boat to Manaus would be cheaper than the Para state capital and Amazon River mouth city of Belem. The first day was good; I had arrived to Anapu, 4 hours from Altamira.
“Have you heard of Dorothy the nun?” asked Neorma as we entered the small town of Anapu, a conglomeration of wooden houses spreading off from the concrete ones along the main road. When we entered a side street and road through rows of the wooden structures, I felt like I was back in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua.
“It’s a shame what happened to her,” I said, having remembered Dorothy the nun from my studies.
“Shot her, right here,” said Jamin chiming in.
“I thought in Altamira,” I said.
“No, right here, in the forest a bit, here in Anapu. Sad, sad thing,” said Neorma.
“She was a conservationist, right?” I asked.
“85 years old,” said Jamin.
“Everyone loved her. She made a good impression for us of Americans,” said Neorma.
“Shot in the head. One of the biggest and richest owners of fazendas in Para sent the two men to do it.”
“Are they in jail?”
“Oh, yes,” said Neorma. “All three of them.” Later, someone said they weren’t. I don’t know.
In a house I met Neorma’s sister-in-law, who greeted us at the door with wide arms, but here it seems to be handshakes, not cheek pecks. She was a powerful woman with a powerful laugh, and had us all sit at the dinner table; it was rice, beans, chicken and spaghetti. And Coca-Cola.
I looked at the powerful woman, at her thin maroon lips and large teeth, the wrinkles and her bright eyes. “Let me show you our poverty!” she said, cheerfully. Behind the house was a space fenced-in. A star fruit tree, or, in Portuguese, carambola, was there, and I ate the one she handed me–a delicious hearty fruit meat, and sour.
I took a shower then, after she had exclaimed “look at that, that’s not a towel!” upon seeing my torn, sad chammy, and then we were talking about a shooting in Colorado, but it didn’t surprise me like the news of the Haitian earthquake when I was in Mexico, or of the Japanese tsunami when I was in Colombia. A cold shower is marvelous.
We drove up a long dirt road on the other side of the Transamazonica on motorbikes then, to their communal home shared amongst the family. It was a wood house, and I took it in with a lightweight feeling after the brisk ride on back of the motorbike had cooled me off. Stars were out. There was no electricity in the house, whose outside covered areas included a patio ringing the way and a large sweeping table fit for banquets. Inside, the sparse light came from oil lamps set to burn and sitting on the floors. Outside, pigs oinked, ducks mumbled and a dog yawned. I was quick to sleep, in a bed, and there were no mosquitoes that night. Just lightning in the distance sneaking through the open windows, perhaps to compete with the flicker of candlelight in the rafters.
When morning came, the roosters made it obvious, and irresistible, so I was awake and shuffling about in flips flops Neorma had lent me. She was happy to see me when I wandered outside, the sky still that early-morning light blue, not the deep, intense blue of later-in-the-day.
“Have you ever eaten chocolate?” she asked.
“Chocolate, I love it,” I said.
“Come come,” she said, and I followed her around the yard to a tree.
“This is a cacoa tree–look.” She broke off one of the ribbed, yellow pods big as a fat plantain, and smashed it against the trunk until it cracked open perfectly along its waist. Inside, slippery white pods like membranes, slightly translucent and showing their seeds like through a foggy window were grouped close together. She pulled some out, and their formation reminded me of the poison from The Rock. But this was cacao, and it’s edible raw; a fruit, really, naturally, and tasty. There’s the hint of chocolate like a tickle, and so I ate a few more.
“Here’s a cacao seed dried.” She handed me the seed, which looks exactly like an almond. I broke it open to find the dark chocolate there, and ate some. Dried, the natural cacao’s chocolaty flavor is much more potent.
“Where’s the white slime?” I asked about the membrane.
“That’s it–it dries into the skin, that they peel off when it’s processed,” she said. “This is where most of the world’s chocolate comes from.”
Europe before 1492 must have been fucking hell.
After cutting open a coconut and drinking its milk, eating its meat, and sipping on a coffee, we were on the motorcycles, at a gas station, and fare-welling one another. I thanked Neorma.
“Come back if you can’t leave, it being Saturday and all,” she said. And she was off.
I didn’t stay long at this gas station, and instead hiked down the road, the only road in Anapu’s conceivable “downtown,” which, like most towns along this road, had only restaurants, gas stations, bus stops and mechanic repair kiosks in common.
It was hot again. From around 11 am to 3 or 4, I had to find shade, or risk looking a pansy to other males by using my umbrella. I found one last gas station on the outskirts of town, where there was nothing else, and made it home for a few hours.
When I woman of 40 or so approached me after I’d been denied by a trucker for a ride, I was suspicious of her intentions.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Chicago,” I said.
She eyed me, squinting in the sun. “Don’t you have any money?”
“A little bit with me,” I said. She had braces on her top shelf of teeth.
There was a bit of hesitation. “What are you doing traveling here? It’s dangerous, you know.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know, but a lot of bad things happen here.” She pulled down the skin beneath her eye with her index finger. “You have to be alert around here. Bad people.”
“You, being gringo, maybe you can help me figure something out, about my daughter.”
I hid a sigh. “What’s that?”
“I’m from Recife,” she said.
“Ah yes, I wanted to go there–no time.”
“I’m traveling with my husband, the trucker you just asked.” At that, I felt more relieved–this was no con artist–and we conversed freely.
“Ah yea, too bad you’re not going my way.”
“My daughter,” she said, “is 37 years old, and is chatting online with a gringo from your country. Do you know how Muslims are in your country?”
“I can’t really say, I mean, I don’t know,” I said.
“Because this guy she’s talking with is 27, really young, but he says he’s going to come here and marry her. My daughter is pretty, you see, but she does herself up for photos.”
“I see where this is going.”
“Yes. So I’m afraid the boy will come, see her, and feel deceived; and, there are plenty of young girls in Recife looking for gringos. Lots of robbers too–they take you to a hotel room, and then their men follow and take your things–kill you, too.”
“So he’ll go off with a younger girl,” she said.
“I don’t know how to take a Muslim gringo’s word over the internet,” I said. “Not that it matters.”
“I think it’s a bad idea. She’s a planner, she has it all planned out.”
“Gonna get her heart broken,” I said.
“Not her heart, her pride.”
“It is, and I tell her, but she shuts me up.”
“I hope things work out,” I said.
When her husband was pulling away, she began in on the Jesus-talk.
“Are you Christian?” she asked, up-front.
“I’m nothing, really,” I said. “Here, we look out for our fellow man,” and she handed me 20 reals. I refused it twice, but when she was in the big rig and away, it was I with the bill in my hand. So it goes.
The traffic was thin, and the few truckers who pulled off into the dirt space were either loading locally or headed east. I sat in the shade of a small tree, thumbing at whoever passed. Later, when one of the truckers I’d asked was pulling out back toward town, he called me over.
“Take this, eat here at that restaurant,” he said, handing me 10 reals. No, thank you profusely, no, no thank you. But he drove off and there I was with 10 more reals in my hand. Damn it, I thought. I hadn’t spent 5 dollars since I left Brasilia.
So I sat back in my shade and thumbed at the thin traffic.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, a trucker who I’d asked for a ride, and who was heading in my direction but who had a satellite spying on him, approached. I looked straight ahead.
“Hey,” he said. “Here, take this.” He handed me a bag with a marmita, and a Coca-Cola.
“What’s this? Why?” I asked.
“Just thought you might be hungry. Sorry about the satellite thing, wish I could take you,” he said, the Portuguese now entering my understanding without much conscious effort. “Ta?”
I smiled with the food in my hand, “ta!” I said, and he was off down the road.
I turned around and looked at the small tree giving me shade. “Are you doing this?” I asked it, suspicious. I sat and ate at the meat, spaghetti and rice and feijao, and sipped on the cold soda. 30 reals. 15 dollars. A marmita, good for two meals in my case. So much goodwill was becoming hard to manage.
I dropped a thin slice of dried steak to the ground, and watched a group of ants take up the challenge. They dragged the thing to their home–a crack in the curb, and a vertical one at that. They hauled the meat up and jimmied it into their space.
As I was bent over watching their effort, another woman approached me from behind.
“Excuse me,” she said, distantly. I turned. “Are you hungry?” I showed her my marmita and smiled. “You’re traveling to Altamira?” I shook my head. “I wish we were too, but that’s ok–an angel is going to come and pick you up,” she said. She had blonde hair, and I thought Goldilocks. “May God bless your soul.” Then she was gone.
My angel turned out to be two gruff men–actually decidedly non-angelic, but then I thought of Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob. These two were truckers, and they’d been parked in the lot for as many hours as I’d been there. They were damned dirty, sweaty and their characters were hard. Their cab had a grid of canvas straps drawn across the windows–extra security which usually meant for a hitchhiker not to bother.
“Get in, fast,” one said when I’d asked.
On the road, bouncing on the bed in between the larger, bearded driver, and the dark-eyed coughing companion laying back, I felt somewhat uneasy. The ride would last most of the day, and not because Belo Monte, their destination, was far from Anapu (in fact, it was only 60 kilometers), but because these truckers were carrying oil for the new dam being built that put their tonnage at 40. This was a dirt road, with inclines, and 40 tons is damning.
“This is corruption!” yelled the driver, who spoke, but sometimes didn’t respond when I’d ask sometime, which was a frustrating thing to say the least. The companion was mostly silent, until I started in on certain topics. “This road needs to be paved. This shit is dangerous for us, and I don’t get why you’re here,” he said to me.
“Just traveling,” I said without enthusiasm.
“Traveling! Here? We are a afraid to come here, and we’re from Belem. This road is dangerous. Robbers. Murders. Traffickers.”
“Doesn’t bother me, I travel in the day.”
“You heard of the nun?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She was a conservationist.”
This is when the companion spoke up, his voice dusty-sounding from too many cigarettes, and his eyes bloodshot and glazed over. “In the head. Four shots.” He leaned up and looked at me closely. “That’s what happens when you mess in the business of locals.” He put his hand as a gun to his temple, pulled his finger and cried, “BOOM!”
I felt relish, I felt anger and watched as the companion sank back into his space, coughing heavily and empty. I felt disgust. The nun was just trying to create advocacy for the un-represented, the ones without power or say. Locals, farmers, small guys, slaves to the big man with the horrible resolve of sending other men to do a terrible bidding. What fucking cowardice, and when the companion showed me his eyes, I felt compelled to remember that the world has bad men, that my happy experiences are just happy experiences, but we have to remember the ying-yang. And here, all the more, outsiders should have a say–fuck countries, the Amazon and forests everywhere are patrimony of all humanity, and they need to be preserved and considered. Lung of the world indeed, and it can’t be left to one country to decide the extent of its “usefulness”.
Later we talked about money, and the United States’ relationship with Japan, and I had to make arguments to thwart an ignorant attempt to explain that relationship outside the context of history. Damn it to hell if I try to put it all down here… it’s a side note, a tangent, and despite the length of these entries, I leave a hell of a lot out. Rant over.
4 times it happened. The 40 tons couldn’t make the hill, and the driver would back the trailer up, messily, and block all the rest of the vehicles, until finally, and luckily, a heavy machine would show up and pull us the rest of the way. First they tried a canvas strap–those sturdy-as-hell things used to tie down cargo, but it snapped like tissue paper. So they used metal, and pulled us over the crest. This happened 4 times. Luckily for us the heavy machines were everywhere, as they were paving the road between Altamira and Belo Monte because of a new (world’s 4th biggest) dam project. Does anyone have any dam questions? Good? Moving on…
The trucker’s name was Silveu Leite, of Belem, and his companion was new to him. Eventually I found reasons to appreciate both men, and I didn’t mind our exaggerated hours together.
But the road was blocked up ahead, this time thanks to a delivery truck whose front tire looked completely submerged, having strayed off the already submerged bridge that he’d been traversing. Cars and trucks were backed up 30 long, and everyone was out and standing around the scene looking at the mess.
Here was the scene: the sun was at its highest, and there was little shade to speak of. It was the site of a bridge under construction, whose progress was only at the earth build-up stage. A lagoon sat to the right of where the bridge would be, and the water was rushing between the two ramps of earth that would eventually connect, creating a great pool once passed the ramps and flooding the temporary bridge, hidden under that falling truck hidden under the water. The water was rushing against the partially-submerged cab. I ran up on one of the ramps to watch the bickering. But a man in a large-brimmed hat was apparently in control, and commanded an excavator to topple part of the ramp to block the lagoon’s flow. It took 10 minutes, but when the dam had been set, the great pool began to drain, and the truck’s wreckage was revealed. Then, the excavator moved down toward the truck, and, after attaching metal to the hitch, they used the hydraulic power of the excavator’s neck to pull the truck over, and back onto the bridge. It took about an hour all of this.
Traffic began to move, and when it was our turn, the truck in front of us needed a tractor’s help to make the ascent. So did we, as part of the 4 times. But when we were up, we were underway once more.
By 5pm we had stopped at a churrascaria called “Christ Lives”, an interesting name for an establishment, especially for the lost foreigner who needs directions and is given “Christ Lives” as a reference point. At Christ Lives, I put curded flour into the purple mush freeze soup of acai, and made it my meal. Acai comes from tall trees that are skinny, and whose fronds trick you to believe that they’re palms, when actually at a closer examination you find the small pods grouped together, from which you’ll have to extract the thick juice within.
By nightfall I had found a new ride from Christ Lives to Belo Monte.
Here there was a long line of vehicles waiting for ferries that would bring them across the river to continue onward to Altamira 60 kilometers away on the other side. I left my bag in the truck and wandered down the line.
I passed a truck loaded high with bricks, which were falling to one side, and there was a bulldozer that was pushing them back, crushing them in the process. A man stood atop the bulldozer righting a tire to buffer the machine’s impact against the bricks. It was the kind of thing they call a disaster waiting to happen. I couldn’t decide if it was more interesting to watch that, or to watch the steep road lined with wood houses and leading down to a V-shaped river valley, and under a starry night.
I followed the cars to the bottom. The road was deeply rutted, and vehicles awaited the next ferry not on the slope but above the crest. There were bars, drinking and loudness, which are to be expected in the small town set nearest to one of the largest construction projects in the country.
At the bottom of the slope I found the river, one of so many in the Amazon, but my first big river–all the dozens and dozens previous I had crossed absent-mindedly and only now did I think back to the feeble-looking wooden bridges that spanned them. Here there was no bridge, at least not yet. “They’re building one further down river,” they’d said. I thought how unfortunate, but then thought how fortunate, that the locals can have a quick way to and from. But an outsider visiting the Amazon finds the majesty in the things that the working trucker, hauling a load of cement or power lines or what-have-you to the dam, does not. Typical tourist. But I saw it; the majesty. It began when I’d reached the river below where men were yelling over the blasting tunes out of a terraced bar, precariously set on old wooden beams over the rocks. A ferry had arrived with a load of trucks and cars. It was essentially simple; a floating platform jimmied about by a small river tug boat attached only at the bow to a metal joint. Workers set cut logs below the ramp. It seemed to me that besides the apparent lack of the wild-west feeling I had expected, it is true that men here are hard-looking. Beside the ferry was a bulldozer ready to drag heavily-laden trucks up the slope. There were too many men on and around the machine, and fuelling themselves with Skol beer and looking hard.
Back on the crest, I watched young people playing soccer at the one place you can expect to have flood lights in a small Latin American town: the field, this one a fenced-in concrete court. I sat and wrote in my notebook. I insist to write these stories because otherwise they won’t be told. Oral tradition is all but gone, and if I find the correct words to say it all someday, to someone perhaps important, but maybe only that once, will I still find the words to make it true? I looked at the sky and could see the dark side of the moon clearly, its matte gray obvious against the deep black around it. Would I be happy to have kept it all to me, and to have only told it once, to that one person, and only from memory? Later, after the tug broke down just as we had boarded, and after they’d repaired it, and after we’d driven another 2 hours in the night passed the sprawling white lights and huge machines of the dam project to Altamira, where the trucker had let me off at a field just out of the city, I revisited my notes. No–I’m glad to write it all. I won’t tell it anyway.
In the morning, Altamira was a quick lesson in the heat of the Amazon. I was well outside the city, which I discovered as I had discovered Maraba; surprised at its size, having arrived on the one near-desolate road and discovering an oasis of human movement.
Rivers of sweat formed like a flash-flooding of my body, and soon my shirt was soaked in it. I stopped for bananas, a smaller kind of banana that is sweeter than the generic one you find in US groceries, but whose name I couldn’t remember–there are many varieties of banana in the Amazon.
I found Altamira’s riverfront, a promenade elevated above sandy banks, and sat to my meal of banana and water. It was Saturday, and I knew the traffic would be slim. Walking, as it turns out, was the one way I felt like I was doing something. I felt useless under a tree’s shade with my bananas, and uselessness is one of the worst feelings, which, if left unchecked, can change your ideas, and your plans, completely and definitively. But really, uselessness has no meaning to me beyond being a feeling of pressure that is annoying. What is it that makes a person “useless”, anyway? If I have a steady job, and I’m making money doing that job, then I am considered useful, and it doesn’t matter if that job is sitting as a ticket-taker at a ball game or working at a corporate marketing agency. The latter gives you more prestige, but only because it puts you in a more sanitary and moneyed position–but the marketer is no better than the ticket-taker, and the ticket-taker is no better than the vagabond. If sometimes I feel like I’m doing nothing, I remind myself that neither is the marketer, and neither is the ticket-taker. They’re filling gaps in a world created and managed by a population that busies itself with nothing. The only true and noble something, as far as work and doing something is concerned, and here “noble” because it’s a modern automated age, is the cultivating of your own nourishment. Otherwise I think art is worthwhile, and I do not think that making money from it is a good measure of its usefulness. So maybe I have gaps in my days, when the uncomfortable feeling of uselessness seems automatic and part of a grand scheme to get me busy, but when I find the time to sit and draw, or to sit to write these words, I remind myself that despite my poverty, if you can call it that, I am using my time well, and justly. (If you take issue with these words, remember to judge me for what is written, not for what isn’t).
Gallons more of sweat had slid through the sticky, synthetic fabric of my travel shirt by the time I’d climbed the western hill out of the city in the direction of Santarem. The power was out at a gas station, so my intentions of cold refreshment were thwarted. Instead, I hit the road walking.
The “Amazon” refers to the entire basin, but you’re thinking of the “Amazon Rainforest,” no doubt. The road is cut, and the fazendas hide the rainforest far in the distance. But I am very much so in the basin, and damn it it’s hot. I was happy, then, when a ride came quickly.
It was a man with arms like Beowulf and his attractive daughter, fish farmers, who would bring me unexpectedly far–to Uruara. We stopped several times to sell the remainder of his fish–big round river fish, and some piranha (a Portuguese word–notice the NH, pronounced with the face of the tongue close to your palette, making the N y-like) as well, which are round as basketballs.
The road was only being paved in the opposite direction from Altamira, while toward the east it seemed to become narrower, dirtier, steeper and rougher. My eyes scanned the passing patches of jungle which had been spared their keepers’ axes, the green playing my vision into a dizzying daze and meshing with rushes of hot wind to put me into a conscious sleep. I think I began to dream.
I woke when we suddenly stopped. I saw through the windshield a man and woman on a bicycle throwing up their hands to stop us. A few other vehicles were stopped as well, just below the crest of a hill.
“What’s the matter,” Beowulf hollered out the window.
“Asalto,” said the motorcyclist emphatically.
“What’s going on?” I inquired.
“They’re robbing cars down at the bridge, so they’re held up here.”
Finally, I thought, I can see at least something that hints at the danger of the road. But then, I thought about my backpack. It was filled with drawings, dirty clothes, gear and other crap that over time and too much time has become somewhat sentimental in my mind, and I thought then that I really didn’t want to lose it.
Beowulf put his wallet behind the seat. “We’re just going to go, hopefully they won’t rob a big group of vehicles like this,” he said. Then a truck came over the hill toward us. It was a big rig, and the men were exclaiming they’d been held up at gun-point. “They have AKs!” they cried.
Beowulf didn’t seem fazed, and put the car into gear. We rumbled over the crest slowly, and I pulled my hat’s brim down low over my eyes, hunkering down and trying to make my backpack invisible with my arms–a damn stupid strategy, I should’ve just gotten out of the damn car if I really wanted to keep my gear.
We hesitated once we could see the bridge and make out several vehicles stopped down below. There were people walking in the road. We drove on anyway, a group of 10 vehicles and motorcycles. When we approached a few of the cars looked out of commission, and the people outside looked distraught. But there were no machine guns, and no mask bandits.
“Enjoy it,” said Beowulf as I got out of the car 15 minutes later, “Uruara is the most beautiful city in the Amazon.” He and his fine daughter drove off, leaving me squinting through a cloud of dust at the main throughway, lined with the restaurant, the church, the strip joint and the conspicuous motel. I didn’t see what set this town apart from others along the powdery route except for grass trimmed neat.
I inquired at a churasscaria for 3 real rice and beans, and instead the young cashier said to just go ahead at the buffet on him. No. YES. While I ate, I watched a moth the size of my head fly into a ceiling fan and get slapped hard against the wall–ahhhh, I thought, sounds of the Amazon.
Outside it was young people on motorbikes. All of them. Sometimes I’d see someone over 30 years old pass, and they would seem out of place. Apparently, Sunday is a time for the young and courting to don their best and cruise.
In my tent near a water tower, it was sweaty. I had come up with a system to keep from sweating too profusely, which was sure to happen night after night were I to close the flaps completely. Instead, I would keep one flap wide open, and I’d roll up two of the pole corner straps, to have a breezeway across my face. The long-sleeve shirt, which I had planned on using to keep my forearms from burning–too damn hot to do–or to keep them from mosquitoes–really not so many mosquitoes–I used as a sheet between the skin on my back and my dirty, synthetic sleeping bag fabric.
Problems only arose with the rains, which started slowly but existed on an exponential curve that would shoot up after a minute or so of drizzle. In the day you could see the rain clearly, falling from thick towering clouds like those of El Pantanal, but in the nighttime they snuck up on you without a sound. But you could smell them. It seems that a humid rain is easy to predict, and I was generally able to program my senses to wake we up when I detected the humidity of a downpour. I would wake, replace the pole straps and the zip the flap, and the refreshing sounds of falling water would make up for the otherwise suffocating air that inside the tent would become.
Monday morning brought a rush of activity through the town that was difficult not to feel impressed by. This tiny enclave of humanity exploded into movement and work during the days, with men–mostly toned men regardless of size–zoomed out to their workplaces on their bikes.
Standing beside a pole, using its thin strip of shade to hide from that blasted sun, I felt like a real foreigner. I was the only white person around, it seemed, and indeed the further I get into the Amazon, the more I notice that the black and white Brazilian is not as prevalent here as the mestizo. Most people here are descended from the indigenous tribes that have always inhabited the Amazon. They’re dark bronzed-skinned, shorter and stout.
Where all these men and women were rushing off too seemed like some kind of secret until I met Thiago of Novo Progresso.
“I saw you standing there last night,” he said. “Thought you’d be gone by now.”
“Too much traffic not going anywhere,” I said.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I think Ruropolis,” I said. “Santarem, I’m headed to Santarem. I thought there was a closer road, but everyone is telling me Ruropolis.”
“That’s the road to Santarem,” he said, pointing at a horrible dirt avenue that cut off from the main road. “But no one goes that way. They go to Ruropolis.”
“That’s my destination then.”
“Mine too. I have some deliveries to make still, if you want to come along.”
I looked at the sky, at my thin shadow, and then felt the cool air from the cab of his delivery truck.
“Sure,” I said, and hopped in.
Now, Thiago looked like he was in his thirties, but it turns out that I was a year older than him. Blasted age and body types screwing with our perceptions, that screw with our assumptions and make us act differently. I felt like an idiot suddenly when, after learning his age some hours later, I felt myself start to speak differently. Is that respect for my elders? Or is that disrespect for younger people? Or maybe it just doesn’t really matter.
We drove around making deliveries, and thanks to the day and riding with Thiago, I got to see where all these people on motorbikes had been disappearing off too; Sawmills.
“Dry season is starting,” he said. “They can’t work with the rains because the tracks are impassable then.”
“Lots of activity,” I said.
We pulled into a fifth sawmill, where again I got out of the truck and watched the men–and women–guide whole trunks of tropical trees on a hydraulic lift through the saw again and again along a track until they had been reduced to boards. A sawmill typically had large covered areas for the cutting, a heavy machine that carried trunks around in a metal claw, called a loader, and piles of processed wood ready for shipping. I saw at one mill a child driving a loader, and thought to myself, children here don’t play with models of bulldozers and excavators, they drive them. But the child looked bored. Perhaps if he had a model of that very machine to play with, he would be happier.
At another mill, the noise was further away, and I sat in the cool air-conditioned cab as Thiago ran into the office. I watched men working like watching a silent film. There the tree trunk on the track sliding into the oversized band saw, and there the tube guiding dust from the cutting to an already significant pile outside, and there a machine to sharpen blades, and there, a man with bandaged hand. I watched the men through the haze of sawdust which would stick to their skin, and thought of them, perhaps happy in their moment in work that pays well. The laborer follows work like a hunter follows the herds, because he has to eat. When the work is no more, he is either poor, or he starts to follow different work, and only stops when circumstances call for it; maybe age, or family, or something different. He doesn’t need art, only entertainment to distract from the roughness of the work, and he doesn’t consider his role outside his frame of reference: work, family, religion. He won’t gripe about deforestation because deforestation is much bigger than his world.
From behind the men, the scraps–that is, industrial scraps, which are large pieces of wood and whatnot, were set alight. From this sawmill, I could see the fires from several others, great columns of smoke drifting off to join the clouds. I watched the office where Thiago was. Rain had entered the sideboards’ nails, which scared the wood as rusty tears that dripped in a seemingly painstaking slowness, as if time was of the essence.
“There’s a lot of forest,” said Thiago when he had returned and I had mentioned something about deforestation. But there had been a lot of forest in Europe. And there was a lot in the United States, too–no more. The worst is Haiti. “Those places are the ones that cause the deforestation in the first place with their demand,” he said. Well, both sides have to react, not just one. Are these sawmills legal? “Not really,” he said.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the burning piles of scrap, which to the little guy might prove to be something of value but to big, industrial interests is just scrap. When I saw the sleek SUV show up with the large white guy, I thought to myself that there’s always one of those behind the scenes. The man’s SUV was parked beside a shed sheltering a dozen or so of the workers’ motorcycles, the shed and SUV about the same size. We need more little guys. Large industrial competitors means one fat cat and a bunch of poorly-paid workers who might be better paid if their work environment was one of closer fraternal ties to their boss, he, who wouldn’t have to try to remember the names of hundreds of workers, and who would have many more bossmen with which to do business. Redistribution of wealth? Damn that all to hell, it’s called understanding equality. The irony, of course, is that I can argue for the little guy all I want, but he and I are very different people. The big guy too. So it goes.
We spent the entire day driving to and from sawmills.
“Why do we keep crossing the city? Why not unload all the gear for the mills on that side, and then we come to this side?” I asked.
“Because the equipment is stacked in order, I have to follow the order,” he said. “You bored?”
“Actually not, I’m enjoying the opportunity to see these mills and get to thinking about them. I’m quiet I know. Actually you are too.”
“I know,” he said.
“But yes, I am active, silent but active,” I said.
Another sawmill had a machine operator who tore across the space in a claw machine with such precision and accuracy when he’d grab a trunk that it reminded me of Alien. Or Raptor (one of the best shit films on the planet). That I have begun to notice butt cracks of men does not mean that I am turning, it just means that there are more butt cracks here. Beowulf had one, and the big men of sawmills have them, too.
As I thought of butt cracks, I also started to daydream about the scenes that would develop if I were to set up a stall in Uruara selling Portuguese copies of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. I wondered if, despite the main industry of the town, the book would be well-received by families. Perhaps its message would be shaped to show that, yes, children, daddy at the sawmill is helping, see? Damn it all that I’m full of these contradictions that have me attacking deforestation and protecting the pawns of elite at once. I suppose, though, that it’s a truer retelling when I include such apparent contradictions than if I were to try to set my thoughts on one, unwavering path.
Finally underway and out of Uruara, what I found to be true about the Transamazon Highway, or Transamazonica, to the east of Altamira became even truer further on from Uruara, passed Pracas and onward; the dirt road became narrower, almost like the track that it once was, and the fazendas became more populated with large bizarre trees, casting the sky among a jungle of unfamiliar silhouettes. We listened to Jorge Matheus, stopped at a few more sawmills, one of which was set deep in the forest off of the main road, and marveled at the remains of a bright yellow and black snake which had been gutted, probably by the vultures that look so very much like Mr. Burnes from The Simpsons, bent over at the back.
Back to the road along the thin red soft wet dirt track hugged by dense emerald leafy wet green, and an hour more brought us to Ruropolis.
“Where do you sleep?” asked Thiago.
“I camp,” I said.
He chuckled. “You can crash in the hotel with me.”
“That’s alright, you’ve done enough by bringing me here; I think you’re the only driver that made the trip–that road was bad.”
“No it’s alright, you can come–company’s tab,” he countered.
So I had a soft cot for the night, which, before it ended, we sat up in the air conditioned room in Ruropolis, fresh after our showers, and watched Brazilian soap operas. Brazilian telenovelas have good actors, I soon found out, and Brazil has a reputation for soap operas akin to America’s reputation for movies.
In the morning it was difficult to resist a complementary fridge filled with guarana and Coca-Cola cans. Downstairs we had a complimentary breakfast, surrounded by painted scenes of the nearby Tapajos River.
A strong handshake and contact information trading later, and Thiago was off south on the Santarem-Cuiaba road toward his Novo Progresso, and I began wandering around Ruropolis. It was an unremarkable town, with a main road, dirt, motorbikes, a few gas stations, etc, but there’s nothing negative to say about these places. Where you are doesn’t matter, because you’re living there, and you make it yours insofar as your capacity for adaptation permits. But then again, maybe a place is uninteresting for that very reason. What’s there but people living?
Sitting on the outskirts of town beside the ever-long dirt road was relaxing. And it wasn’t because I had had another shower, but it was because the sun had yet to reach an angle of intensity from where it would beat down in unscrupulous lasting and would damage anything pasty and white. I rigged my umbrella to a sign post, weighted down by my water bottle hung from its curved wooden handle. Then I took to reading some more in Green Hills of Africa.
“They had that attitude that makes brothers, that unexpressed but instant and complete acceptance that you must be Masai wherever it is you come from. That attitude you only get from the best of the English, the best of the Hungarians and the very best Spaniardsl the thing that used to be the most clear distinction of nobility when there was nobility. It is an ignorant attitude and the people who have it do not survive, but very few pleasanter things ever happen to you than the encountering of it.”
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
Few cars passed, but for only the second time in years of hitchhiking, a car that had passed me turned around, and returned to engage me.
“I’m going to Santarem,” he said. The man had light skin and dark eyes. His glasses were clean, and he gripped the steering wheel with two black gloved hands, a strange contrast against creamy forearms.
“I’m going there too,” I said. He motioned for me to get into the car and I did, and we started driving.
“I wouldn’t have picked you up if you hadn’t been reading. Now, I should say it right away, that I’m politically on the right, and I’m careful,” he said.
“I’m Chael,” I replied.
“Carlos. So, that’s what I wanted to tell you. But since you had the book, I thought you must be a logical and educated person.”
“I suppose,” I said. “The book’s a good one. Hemingway.”
At that he laughed and would have fallen backward if not for the seat. “Hemingway, oh! I love The Old Man and The Sea`. It’s one of my favorite books. It really goes deep into the idea of perseverance. If you want something, you keep at it.”
“I haven’t read it, but I’d like to,” I said. “This is Green Hills of Africa, and I would’ve been done with it months ago except that I like to draw out a good read, since traveling, books are so hard to come by.”
“Well you really must read that book when you find it, it’s marvelous.”
“I don’t doubt it. I like his simplicity.”
“It’s perfect, especially since his themes are so profound. It seems almost counterintuitive.”
“A little bit.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Colombia. Live in Pelotas with the wife.” It was only then that I realized that we had been speaking in Spanish the whole time.
“Go figure, no wonder we’re speaking Spanish,” I said.
“I’m from Medellin,” said Carlos.
“I spent time there. Good city.”
“Yes, well, I’ve been living elsewhere for 30 years.”
“What do you do?” I asked.
“Well, now I’m a doctor, but before I was a photographer for a right-wing magazine,” he said. “It’s a long story, and involves love.”
“It’s a long ride isn’t it?”
“Oh, you’re interested? Well I’ll make it a short version in any case.”
“I was in Bolivia, and fell in love with a Brazilian girl.”
“The wife in Pelotas?”
He scratched his elbow and said, “ah, no, different Brazilian girl. I fell in love and decided to stay in Bolivia. This was after having been a photographer based in Buenos Aires. I stayed in the house of the girl and her four girlfriends to study medicine.”
“Ah, not bad,” I said.
“You don’t get it. Her girlfriends.” I gave a puzzled look. “She was gay. They were all gay, together. And guess what? She had the roll of the man, you know, how gays do that.”
“Uh huh. So what did you do?”
“Well I stayed there for a while. Then the girl’s cousin came to stay. It got more complicated, then, when he fell in love with me.”
I laughed on cue, and he smiled and said, “what a mess! But anyway, we became friends, and eventually I moved to Brazil to finish my studies.”
I glanced at the fazenda to our right, and the thick, jungled Tapajos National Forest to our left. High, undisturbed jungle on the left, developed ranch on the right–perhaps an allegory of human politic.
“So, now you’re a doctor,” I said.
“Ah, and… you’re doing that, here?” I asked hesitantly, expecting that actually, he was visiting friends or something along those lines.
“No, well, I’m specialized in that, but I can practice anything out here, because if you’re an MD here you’re everything.” He pulled out his phone and slid a finger across the screen a few times. “This is what I was doing in Uruara,” he said, handing me the phone. It was a picture of body lying across an operating table. I was tempted to inquire “doing dead guys?”, but I held my tongue unsure of his humor.
“He’s dead?” I asked instead.
“A robber, shot dead by the police. See the bullet hole in his side?”
“Oh yeah,” I turned the phone around to get a horizontal view.
“Actually I was surprised to see you there, you know it’s dangerous here?”
“Lots of death?”
“Tons. Here, wait, look at this,” taking the phone and changing the photo. Now, it was a close-up of a man’s head, scalped and bloody to the skull.
“Ay, huevon,” I let out. “What the hell happened to him?”
“A farmer. He had a little piglet who was getting chased by a jaguar, so he went after the jaguar, and slashed it with his machete, but not before the jaguar reached up and clawed to the man’s skull.”
“I see. Brutal.”
“Nature. I’ve been to a lot of places, I like practicing medicine, but in the city hospitals there are specialists for everything. Out here, I can practice whatever. Mostly births. But go ahead through those photos there’s some interesting ones.” He said this as though the previous ones were not.
“What is this?” I showed him the photo.
“A skinned monkey.”
“That’s right, they raise them in some Amazonian villages, to eat. Turtle eggs too, with sugar; tastes like condensed milk.”
“You, being a doctor, could you tell me what this is?” I showed him a bug bite I’d had for several days on my forearm. It had a deep red circle at its center, and it was swollen.
“Mosquito,” he said.
“Really? I mean, I get mosquito bites all the time.”
“It’s a mosquito bite, or one of those little annoying flies.”
“Well, good,” I said. “I thought it was one of those jiggers.”
“Ah, yes. Want to hear a story?”
“From a doctor? Yes, of course.”
“Once I was in a village somewhere in Amazonas state, and there was this women with a tumor on her vagina. She was very worried, because it had grown quite large,” he spoke naturally, with words that even now I can’t say with a straight face. “So I had her show me her vagina, and the tumor looked to be on outer part in between the canal and the beginning of the thigh.”
“Well, it was a dark black color, and I wasn’t aware of all the tropical infections back then, so I conducted a biopsy.”
“When I cut open the ‘tumor’, you know what I saw? ”
“Thousands of tiny flies fluttering about and falling to the floor.”
I moved in my seat. “Ugly business. Was she awake? I hope not.”
“No no, sedated of course. That was my introduction to jiggers.”
“Good thing this is a mosquito bite. By the way, do you see a lot of sawmill injuries in Uruara?”
“Every day I’m there, which is a week out of the month. Hands, arms, legs, splinters in heads, everything you can imagine big machinery can do to a human body.”
“Damn it,” I said. “And you never have nightmares?”
Of course he didn’t. When we stopped for lunch, he decided to invite me a plate of typical food despite my insistence, again, and especially this time that the inviter was a very devout right-wing man who made me know it and had his prejudices about my vagabond ranks, that no. But the road doesn’t give a crap about your morals. The road brings you all kinds of people, but most feel like helping someone who they just picked up off the street.
So it was a meal, a waitress rubbing my arm and giggling at everything I said, even “chicken please,” and then the rest of the way into Santarem.
“Hey take this,” said Carlos when we had arrived, handing me a hat. “You need to throw that one out.”
“Heh, well, thanks Carlos, but I’m determined to use this hat to its end.”
“Well take it anyway. Use it next.”
I took the hat. “Thanks for the ride, the interesting conversation.”
“Take care,” he said.
And like that, I walked off toward the center of the city, Santarem, finally in my destination for the time being, after many days on the Transamazon’s dirt, but damn glad it wasn’t rainy season. From here it would be a boat down the river 3 days to Manaus, and then that long road back into Spanish-speaking Latin America, and then, well, I wasn’t sure. I would have 2 months to get home. But for now, it was a welcome back to the not knowing.
“If you serve time for society, democracy, and the other things quite young, and declining any futher enlistment make yourself responsible only to yourself, you exchange the pleasant, comforting stench of comrades for something you can never feel in any other way than by yourself. That something I cannot yet defined completely but the feeling comes when you write well and truly of something and know impersonally you have written it that way and those who are paid to read it and report on it do not like the subject so they say it is all a fake, yet you know its value absolutely; or when you do something which people do not consider a serious occupation and yet you know, truly, that it is as important and has always been as important as all the things that are in fashion.”
-Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa