He was a crooner and a painter in his younger years, but now at 73 years old he spent his days sitting on a bench in the wind that came off the river through the courtyard entrance of his museum. He wore sleeveless collared shirts that followed the slope of his torso from the thin neck to the wide pot-bellied waist. The bench was not entirely comfortable and he would shift often, sometimes resting his hands on his carved wooden cane, and sometimes gripping the backrest, but always with legs crossed. His hair was silvery white and thick, and his eyes, one hidden behind the blue haze of a cataract, were half-shut most of the time. I was there because I had met Fabricio who worked at the library, and who had told me, when the Cultural Secretary had kicked me out of that establishment’s prime camping grass, that I could work and store my things at the Santarem Museum.
“You will like Laurimar. He’s old, blind, and speaks 5 languages,” Fabricio had said.
The old man spoke with a pink, wet and lazy tongue that would rest against his bottom teeth during respites. There was a hint of a lisp, an after-effect of the glaucoma.
“Do you know You are My Sunshine?” the old man asked when I was sitting on the bench next to him.
“I have heard it–”
And he began to sing, in near-perfect pitch as far as my ears could tell, that old song.
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey! You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.” He licked his lips. When he would speak he leaned in close to where he thought you were, and when he was leaning in too far to the right, or to the left, I moved so that his eyes were looking at me.
“And Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a beautiful song,” he said, and exploded into it again: “Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I heard of, once in a lullaby.”
“You sing quite well,” I said.
“I was a crooner! I sang in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, in Europe.”
He sang some more, and his voice rang throughout the entire place. The museum was housed in an old 19th century building that had been many things before a museum: government house, court, private home, cultural ministry, police station, post office, etc. From the front, its yellow columns were bright under the sun, whose light was unobstructed coming in off the river, over the boardwalk and up the steps of the building. Inside was a grand hall with high ceilings, which were the solution to the heat in the old days before fans and air conditioning. All the rooms had high ceilings. Through the second central doorway after the main entrance, the old man would be sitting on the white bench with his cane, behind him the trees and plants of the courtyard tall enough to shade the walkway that encircled it. In the rooms there were exhibits of artifacts like pottery and knives from indigenous tribes, the skeletons of a manatee and a whale, a strange room depicting black mannequins in chains and other slave-age positions, and the grand forum with high chairs, murals that the old man had painted when he still had his sight, and red felt tabletops. In the back of the museum was an air conditioned room where I went often to freeze the sweat, and beside it a room exhibiting 30 of the old man’s paintings of Santarem deputies.
“It’s a museum now, but basically it’s his house,” Fabricio said.
“It is… my house,” said the old man.
“Laurimar,” said Fabricio.
“Chael’s from Chicago.”
“Chicago,” said the old man, reaching to pat me on the back but I was standing now, so I quickly sat do to receive the pat. “I speak English, you know,” he said.
“I heard you spoke many languages.”
“Yes–French. Parlez-vous le francais?”
“Oui je le parle, mais ca fait longtemps que je ne l’utilise pas. I do, haven’t spoken it in a long while,” I said.
“C’est bon,” he said, “c’est tres bon. Now you are speaking Portguese. You understand me when I speak to you?”
“That’s good, and sometimes– Luiz!” he shouted.
“Luiz come here and meet our friend from Chicago.”
Luiz came in and we shook hands. He had gelled-back hair and one side of his brow hovered slightly lower over the eye than the other, making it seem as if he was in perpetual consternation. Otherwise he looked somewhat mouse-like.
“Prazer,” he said.
“Um prazer,” I replied.
“Luiz bring us bread and coffee.” And Luiz went off. The old man leaned in close and said, “Luiz is a strange person, he eats all of my bread in the morning. It’s falta do ecucacao.”
He came back with bread and coffee, “here you are Laurimar, Chael.” He gave me the thumbs up, a common gesture in Brazil.
I drank coffee with the old man, who spoke about a great many things. I watched him, observing him closely, like a bastard who knows someone is blind will. The wrinkles on his face were shallow and light; highlights, as it were, to mark a man of age. The skin under his chin and around the back of his neck was rolled and grouped together in clumps, and his cheeks hung low. His ears were large but not yet oversized like the ears of so many elder men.
I met other assistants during my time in Santarem who would sit with him and whisper who had just walked in. He spoke at length with all the foreign guests, not paying much attention to the Brazilians unless they’d show interest in his situation as curator. The old man, being blind and old, would have had a difficult time as curator had he not beforehand created a sense of authority that would be impossible to convey for an even older man who has already reached that point when in the eyes of the younger he is ridiculous and they start to treat him like a child.
My conversations with the old man began on a Thursday morning, after Fabricio had let me take a shower backstage the cultural center’s theater. I’d taken a coffee with the librarians and theater staff in their kitchen, but mentioned that I was camped on the grounds behind the building, which was a mistake. They said it was alright, but I’d need permission from the Cultural Secretary, who when they called said no. If she said yes to me she’d “have to say yes to everyone.” So I was no longer allowed to camp there; Fabricio called the old man, who said yes, bring the gringo here.
“You shouldn’t of said anything to the others,” Fabricio had told to me. “I was the only one who knew you were camped here.”
“I thought everyone knew–you’re all treating me so well anyway, with the shower, the coffee with tapioca pellets–interesting, by the way–so I just figured it was alright to reply when they asked where I was sleeping.”
“Well, that’s alright. You’ll like Laurimar. He’s old, blind, and speaks 5 languages.”
In retrospect, the Cultural Secretary’s response that, were she to say yes to me camping on the cultural center’s grounds, she’d have to say yes to everyone, years ago might have been a response I would understand. I still feel the tickling of understanding; that she’s a public officer, that fairness means a yes to all or a no to all, etc., but after living in the world now, I see that it’s absolute bull. That response represents everything bureaucratic and dull about the world of law, which has the effect to make humans much less human. The definition of human, here, being one who does not follow a rigid outline, perhaps written on paper, in order to know how to deal with other humans, but instead takes each encounter and situation with a fellow human as something unique and different from the rest. In this case, it’s a foreign traveler looking to sleep for a limited number of days on the ground in the shadows out of sight, covered by some fabric, and in the early morning be gone again. The Cultural Secretary, instead of using her mind to see the innocence and correctness in saying yes, instead saw an unlikely future where vagabonds and homeless alike are all camped out behind the library because they can, since they’d heard the Cultural Secretary let someone else do it, and she sees outrage in the community and cries to sack her or lynch her–it’s her own damn pride and a life stuck in emotionless print telling what is right and wrong thought up by people unenthusiastic for living that makes her say, “if I say yes to you, I have to say yes to everyone.” No, damn it, you do not. Break the rules? You’re god damn right, break the rule, this rule, this situation, which is unique, and maybe one day someone else asks to camp and for a month which maybe is stretching it so you can feel fine saying no, and–no! damn it, breaking this rule doesn’t mean that you’re breaking them all, stop thinking that everything is connected, that if you let someone sleep behind the library you’ll be pissing on your office floor. But no, you’re a hard person trapped in the boring books of law, which represent the unrealistic effort of a naturally chaotic species to seek to control itself. We are allowing ourselves to drown in piles of paper as we try to plug the holes of our system, but I say leave the holes; humans are not perfect, and we should embrace the idea of exception. But then, maybe there are too many of us and the system now is too big, which makes the Cultural Secretary’s response unsurprising to say the least.
The old man let me stash a few of my things in a closet in the back of the museum. Every morning I would return to the museum. I brushed my teeth, filled my water bottles, splashed water over my face, and then took a coffee and buttered bread with the old man on his white bench. When he seemed to grow tired of conversing, I would retire into the grand forum, where I would plug in my computer and write.
“Are you sure, the forum? It seems somewhat intrusive if I stay there.”
“Fica a bontaje, feel at home, work where you want,” he said. “It’s ok.”
Despite my reservations, I sat at the judge’s table in the forum, placing the computer on the red felt and picking up internet from the surrounding Praca Sao Sebatien. I spent days doing this, writing and reading and working. Sometimes Fabricio would show up and would say, “Hey, are you hungry? Good, come.” And we’d visit a restaurant and I’d eat a bowl of acai with small soft tapioca pellets mixed in, or maybe instead he would bring a plate of fish and the women of the museum’s kitchen would throw some rice on a plate. Eventually, the routine changed and I learned about the Restaurante Popular (restauran-te, a T before a vowel always pronounced as ‘ch’), which was the government-subsidized restaurant located on the opposite end of the riverfront walk. It reminded me of the 3 sol government restaurant in the neighborhood of The House of No Ends in Lima, where we, being cheap bastards or intellectual minimalists (however you wish to describe it), would eat often. At Santarem’s Restaurante Popular, the meal was even cheaper at 2 reals. Rice, beans, unfortunately-obvious leftover meats, tang, an otherwise discardable (my word) orange, and that Brazilian thing: farinha, curded cooked flour. Long tables and trays, and a line with bored people and long serving spoons. Bright lights. Fans. People hunched over and I as well. The only difficulty was the 40 minute walk from the museum under the brutal Amazonian sun.
Most nights were calm. Sometimes it drizzled but the rainy season had ended, thankfully and especially since too much water on the Transamazonica might have turned those roads to impassable putty. One night a thunderstorm did roll in, and roll they do; an action that is observable and which reminded me of the arrival of the alien ships through fiery clouds in Independence Day. The lightning and thunder was tremendous, like the sounds of a bowling alley in the sky, and not even hands over the eyes could keep out the whiteness accompanied by the blasts.
With clear skies I would wander around the Santarem riverfront, which was built up as a riverfront walk and would become crowded with people at dusk. There was a floating pier where I sat to draw and look at the people. There were many beautiful people in Santarem, but on the floating dock everyone was either a fisherman or a teenage girl, so on most nights I would find a bench elsewhere to people-watch.
Sunday taught me what dressed in Sunday’s best really means, which has little to do with quality of clothes and more to do with young teenage girls wearing skin-tight dresses and fooling the older men who holler until the girls came closer and their 13 years would be more obvious, so the men stop hollering–but some continue to move their lips at the young people–I don’t know.
But there were plenty of things to look at besides. In the sky, bats swooped across my vision, streaks of reflected light under the street lamps as they swiped up insects. In fact the sky was filled with bats, and from the floating pier I watched individual insects disappear one after the other. Bats also flew about a foot over the surface of the water, and would make sharp turns and dives; they’re the most agile fliers.
I slept in the street. At first I would wait until an hour or so after dark before setting up the tent, but after soaking myself and my sleeping bag several times with sweat, I realized that the only way to fall asleep in such conditions was to be truly tired. So I wandered the streets for hours.
Finding dinner became part of my routine, after having spent a few nights hungry or eating stale trigolino crackers. I found regular nighttime meals on the other side of town, where the walk was lined with fretes delivery ships and passenger vessels, strips of canvas thrown over the banisters to announce their destinations. In the evening it was a busy scene with people rushing around. Food carts drew in crowds and sweaty bodies shimmered in the night glow. Steam rose from meat roasted over coals. The vendors skewered several pieces and sold them for 1.50 reals. It was the cheapest thing I was going to find. To fill their stomachs, men took small scoops of farinha, which they munch with the meat. I followed suit, but I dislike the dry, sometimes hard texture of the flour, which distracts from the juicy meat.
When it came time to camp I was all over the place. After being evicted from the library grounds, hidden spots were hard to find. One night I camped beside a church, which proved obnoxious because, it being the one dark place in the park, couples came to salivate over each other in the shadows. They commented on my tent, the flaps of which were shut to hide me, and me inside sweating like dying. One night it was two young girls giggling and making out a few feet away.
“Is anyone there?” Giggle.
“You want to join us?” Giggle.
Eventually I found a secluded place, away from all that. It was near the museum in an industrial area to the east. A few abandoned buildings where street people smoked different things were demolished in the days I was there. The ground was usually wet, and the water seeped through the floor of my tent. But it was a grassy, open area just beside the river, and the breeze came through the flaps and it felt heavenly.
After another day of the old man and stories of Morocco, there was another night of the floating pier. The fishermen fished with poles or with line wrapped around bottles, and cast far into the black river. The teenage girls were on their cell phones, and I thought how unfortunate it was. Facebook, you fucker. I’m tagged therefore I am. And that defines our empty generation–but I was wrong to say it was my generation that is empty, because I see more that the generation below me is worse-off. The generation of my sister, if five years can separate generations, and I think it can in the technological age. For hers, it’s not funny to chat with someone over the internet in the same room, but normal.
As the sun fell and the sky appeared, the night would become pierced by the bright lights of electronic screens, and girls giggled and say hold on or ‘uh huh I hear you’, but they’re always going to be checking that damn screen and piercing the night.
A man beside me began to sing, and I watched the sun sink behind the last of the clouds’ pink sunbursts. A tanker ship became a black outline on the watery horizon, and nearer to the pier a small fishing boat motored off toward that lingering star, slowing to let pass a double-decker river boat. Those are the common scenes of dusk in Santarem.
I met Breno in the museum, who was one of the old man’s assistants. He was quiet and connected, so I placed him among my sister’s generation, but he was fun enough to be around, despite the cell phone. We watched videos and listened to music, or he showed me funny pictures he’d downloaded off the internet, the kind of photos people post on their Facebook wall and everyone likes it and makes comments and oh-boy it feels good people are commenting and liking my post. Or, it feels bad, no one is commenting, and now my day is ruined.
Breno had all sorts of videos, from his year as a soldier to the incredible collection of pornography. As we watched full penetration over a stovetop somewhere in the good ole US of A, I averted my eyes to look up at all the portraits of deputies looking down at us. And then it was a gang rape in a river.
Really, despite the bad porn, Breno was alright, and friendly, and Catholic, I think, but at 21 and with two girlfriends hidden from each other, he couldn’t have been as Catholic as Luiz, who, when we’d eat bread and take coffee in the kitchen and the old man would be humoring someone else in the courtyard, would use every moment to ramble on about Jesus. “I don’t actually believe in the Bible,” I said when he asked. “Ah, neither did I!” he would condescend, but that’s the way of it, and maybe he knows something I don’t.
With Breno we’d planned on going to a place called Alter do Chao, but when the day came and Fabricio was in the Forum with me but talking on the phone with Breno, and when he said Breno actually couldn’t go, I decided it didn’t matter, I’d go anyway. So I hopped on a bus and made the 40 minute trip to Alter do Chao.
In Portuguese, the final -ao is interesting. This is where you pronounce something akin to an English ‘uh’, but the air split between the vocal and nasal cavities. Final -em‘s do this sometimes as well. And here in Para, the -oes takes on a nasally attribute, whereas elsewhere it doesn’t (also in Para, final ‘s’ is ‘sh’ where elsewhere it’s not–damned confusing learning Portuguese all over the country).
So, Alter do Chao it was. What was it? The bus pulled up to a stop and everyone got off. A short walk brought us to the riverfront and a small plaza. There, men in bright yellow vests and full-brimmed hats floated in canoes on the Tapajos river, awaiting passengers seeking rides to the peninsula of white sand that jutted out perpendicularly from the opposite bank, smack dab in the middle of the river. This, as it turns out, and which I had not known before, was purported to be one of Brazil’s best beaches. So, if I had said that the beach culture seems to follow Brazilians even if they lack a coast in the Brasilia travel story, then I mean to say the same here, in the Amazon entry. Brazilians live for the beach. I came on a Saturday.
1 real brought me and two others across the water, through a few submerged trees and to the bright white sands of the peninsula. And there: beach, and beach people. There were submerged palapas and dry ones that lined the sand selling meals and beverages. It was crowded on this first part of the peninsula, so I prepared my gear and walked across the knee-deep flooded middle to the second part. The clear waters of the Tapajos River flanked both sides, and where it was flooded, small waves moving in opposing directions smashed against each other.
The second part was also small, with a half-submerged forest, so I walked to the third and final part, across another flooded stretch, past wave runners parked and bronzed people chugging beers beside them. I walked with white, bare feet over the scolding hot sand and realized how weak my skin was. I was eventually on the opposite shore from the small town of Alter do Chao, looking back at the peninsula. The beach, however, continued, and I found a secluded spot far from the scenes, where I washed some clothes, myself, and then floated in the warm water, staring at blue above. This wasn’t quite my idea of the Amazon, I thought to myself. I’m in the damn Caribbean again. But alas, the Amazon is a big, diverse place, and the thick jungles, mosquito-infested air, bizarre plants and animals, and people, were deeper into the beast than here.
I spent one night and all the next day on that beach. The first night I’d met a few Austrians and Fulbright Scholar Americans who had called me over to them when they saw my pack. Later, after setting up my tent, I walked back to where they were. I drank some of their beer and told them stories, and they were surprised and confused that, wait, is that possible? I shut up my ego and drank more, but eventually the group left and I returned to my tent. At least it was refreshing to speak in English. Someone had said that I was brave to camp on the beach, and two girls among them had said they’d considered it, but was it safe? Of course it is. Everything in our conventional lives tells us that it is not safe. But my automatic response comes from years of camping in ‘dangerous’ places–like anything, eventually your knowledge comes to you like second-nature.
The beach where I set up the tent was nearly secluded. The next day I burnt myself building an involved castle in the sand. It was a damn fine castle, if I do say so myself, and I do. I began with a large log that I’d placed into the lightly lapping water connected to a thick jumble of skinny stalks growing at the waterline. The log blocked the waves. Then I began breaking off sticks and jamming them deep into the sand behind the log, creating a seawall. I filled the space behind it with sand, and then, to fill the gaps, I packed in twigs, leaves and more sand.
There was a donjon, archer holes, a gate and even a meta-moat. Images of Lego castles filled my head and my hands worked in measure of those memories. I especially recalled when I was 16, and I’d spent an entire weekend re-building my Lego castles instead of going to the school dance.
By the time the sun was hinting at evening, my hands were wrinkled and white and warped. The cuticles were inflated and curled back, revealing the rest of my nail and introducing the fear that they would fall off. My hands were cut up and bleeding in several places, but my enthusiasm for the project had made me ignorant of the pain. My back was red, and my neck and face were boiling.
I swam to wash away the sweat and blood, not thinking about an open wound in the Amazon, despite the films and stories. I placed my hands on my hips and gleamed at my fortress. There was the main keep just below the bush stalks. Out from this on reclaimed land was a second donjon, and home to the princess and her collection of iPhones. Each was surrounded by interconnected ring walls with towers. From the main donjon, the castle complex continued into the confusion of the bush stalks, with towers and terraced wall structures interlacing throughout. The princess’s tower had a separate gate that led to a bridge, which was a stick topped with squared-off sand. This led over the water to a thick tower constructed atop a wide log I’d wedged vertically into the sand. From that tower, a second, longer and wider bridge led back to the shore for two meters. The bush castle complex had entrances in three places, and on the side nearest the bridges, there were even more bridges, some leading to the shore, some to other entrances, and all interconnected in mid-air. Basically, it was an aquatic vacation home for the Jetsons.
The most beautiful thing about the castle is that I will be the only one to see it. Its existence is lost to obscurity, and its magnificence only remains in my memory and your imagination.
I spent the rest of the day watching ants, birds and these little frogs no bigger than the point of a pen. I did a horrible thing and hurt one of them. But maybe it wasn’t horrible. You can’t avoid stepping on them–impossible. When you’re not ignorant of that fact that you’ve just killed or maimed something, is it alright? Could you kill the cow you’re going to eat, or do you prefer the slaughterhouse door shut?
I placed the broken frog beside a corridor of ants. One of the ants stopped, sensed the frog, then clamped his jaws around a leg to carry it off. The experiment has taught us that an ant will carry a small, living, broken frog off to share with the colony. Just to be fair, I grabbed an ant and dropped him in a spider’s web strung in high grass over the water. The ant was 3 times larger than the spider, but I learned that, however unlikely the catch, the spider will be proactive about it.
If words could paint, these might be painting a piece that would be called “Living on the Street”, and the colors would be bright. Santarem is a mid-sized city, and it’s tranquil compared to other, larger cities. But living on the street is not the horror that the words seem to spell; no, living on the street but not in desperation seems to me a fine way to live, if you’re not smoking crack and if you’re not a slave.
Sometimes, though, you find people who talk about living on the street, and they sound as though it’s the hardest, roughest thing imaginable. I feel that these people, if they’re not smoking crack, are just trying to play up their situation to juxtapose with your sanitary one in order to press their argument that you know nothing; you don’t get it, you couldn’t handle it. “Living on the street,” for these people, is the colloquial call of their street community. Perhaps among that community, the situation is closer to what they’re saying it is–it’s dangerous, it’s dirty, it’s difficult and fucking scary. But the truth is that if ever you are forced to live on the street, you can make it safe, because you have the choice to join these communities or not. And you’re damn right there are exceptions. Some cities have so many people living on the street that encountering danger is unavoidable, like in Sao Paulo or Bogota maybe. There are other exceptions as well, but mostly, and if you’re not smoking crack, you can live on the street in relative peace.
I met the hippy several times during the early days in Santarem. I’d be walking along the riverfront walk, or down a side street, and we’d spot each other. He had an old, tearing military backpack stuffed full of an artisan’s supplies, and atop his head there were gathered enormous dreads, held there by an army beige cloth. His toes pointed out when he walked, and his flip-flops went floppingly. His arms were caked in tattooed religious symbols. A long scraggly beard hung below his chin, and above a set of thin, dried lips was something like a mustache. Of clothing there was only ragged knickers and a loose tank top, the straps worn thin. He walked somewhat like a penguin, and from far away it made him look even smaller than he already was.
Whether I have my backpack or not, it is obvious that I’m a vagabond, maybe because of my dirty, torn shirt, or my bright enthusiastic childish face. When we reach each other, he always starts talking first, never really leaving room for a response. It’s usually alright because I can’t understand him anyway since he speaks in such rapid-fire succession. The first few times we met I liked to imagine what he was saying.
“Hey brother how are you man where are you headed I’m on my way brother, that-a-way and circling around selling my art cause you know I have my art and I saw you there a few times and you dont got an art but that’s alright brother because you know the street and the street is where it’s at and it’s solidarity you know and hey man love the world man look at this here that’s Hebrew Star of David tat right there right shoulder means peace yea that’s right I gotta cruise man but we see each other around brother love ciao lata!”
And he’d bob off down the street, showing his bracelets to everyone he passed. He never tried to sell me anything, which in street means solidarity and understanding. I liked the hippy because he was a lunatic. He spoke loudly and quickly, with flailing arms and a wide-open mouth, as if trying to get you to read his lips also, which was impossible if he didn’t slow down but it was fine by me in any case.
“Here take this,” said Fabricio, without much expression on his face–his face rarely told me anything. He handed me a blue shirt.
“You need a new one,” he said. I thought about the other shirts I’d been given. I didn’t have any of them. “Thanks Fabricio.” I tore off my travel shirt and donned the blue one, which advertised something about saving a pair of pink dolphins at Alter do Chao.
“Chael looks clean finally,” said Breno to the old man when we were all four sitting on the bench.
“Chael is dirty?” asked the old man.
“No I’m not dirty,” I said.
“That shirt is horrible.”
“It’s my travel shirt, it’s synthetic, it’s refreshing–can’t feel the sweat.”
“It’s falling apart.”
I thought of her and how she’d told me to ditch my shirt and I said no. Damn it, I’d said, I like this shirt for one thing, and for another I choose this image because I want people who end up liking me to realize that they couldn’t judge by the shirt.
“I know it is, but I’m going to wear it until it’s truly had it. You should try to get the most use out of everything.”
“Ah,” said the old man in a drawn-out way. Sometimes I thought that every time I said something to him it was like I was waking him up.
Just then, a group of tourist police came into the museum. I knew they were tourist police because of the bright green badges on their arms .
“Who is it?” asked the old man.
“Estamos pra um cafezinho. Stopped in for a coffee,” said one of them, and as they approached they were looking at me. “Who’s your friend?” one policeman asked the old man.
“This is our in-house gringo Chael,” said the old man. “Who is writing and trying to go to Manaus.”
“Hello,” said the policeman in English. “I try speakeh English. We are learning.” He pointed at the green badge. “Tourist police,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” I said in English, shaking his hand.
“Where are you from?”
“Texas?” he asked.
“No, Chicago, north of Texas.”
“Ah, I thought you said Texas,” he said, looking at his mates. “We have a friend from Texas, you know. He hitchhiked all the way from there to here.”
I became more engaged when I heard them mention the other traveler. “Ah you must mean Patrick,” I said. “I know him, sort of. I hitchhiked here from Oregon.”
The policemen exchanged glances and smiles. “You know Patrick? That’s wonderful! He’s really, really a great, great person.”
“Well actually we don’t know each other,” I said. “Internet. He writes, I write, We both read what we write, and I knew he was here–actually I was here also to meet him.”
“He stayed in my house for two weeks, you know. Really really, great person. In the house he was always reading in magazines to learn more Portuguese, and in the evenings he went to play his harmonica for money. You know he traveled from Itaituba on a raft?”
“I knew something about that,” I said.
“Really a great guy. Extremely friendly. He has now a sail to go down the river toward Manaus, but he said he’d come to my wedding at the end of next year, so I think maybe he has to go quickly,” said the policeman.
“Ironic if it were like that, I’m going home right now for a wedding.”
“A plane from Manaus?”
“A plane from Colombia, probably,” I said.
“You should go with Patrick in the boat,” he said.
I chuckled and tapped my wrist where a watch should be. “Time.”
“Too bad, the boat is really nice. He had a raft, you know, that he built of balsa trees.”
“Yeah I saw the video of that, pretty cool.”
“But now it’s a canoe. He sold his computer in Aveiro and bought a canoe for 100 reals.”
“100 reals? That’s impressive,” I said. “I was down at the mercadao and saw canoes for 700 reals.”
“It’s so cheap,” said the policeman.
“Doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “If you read the guy’s stuff you can fill in the enormous blank he’s left in his writing over the past many months.”
“He’s coming back you said?”
“I’ll probably leave before he gets back, unfortunately.” I tapped my wrist again.
Over the next few days I met the policeman a number of times, especially around the floating pier. He spoke often of Patrick, the now-elusive Modern Nomad whose site, hitchtheworld.com has been dark for many months. I had been looking forward to finally meeting him, since we’d been on a similar path and in contact for years, and since we link, read and, above all, since there seems to be so few other American vagabonds narrating their stories online. “Vagabond” here being used in the grittiest sense of the word–hitchhiker, camper, no-where man, everywhere man. As per the lack of recent posts on his website, perhaps the man was preparing to write a more cohesive book of his most recent exploits in the Amazon, and if that was the case I wasn’t going to hassle him about returning to writing, but if it wasn’t the case, and if really the writing had stopped by decision, I was going to say to him what a pleasure it is to meet a true vagabond, because, as far as I’m concerned, as long as I make it a priority to share my life publicly on this website, I am not.
The old man jostled Luiz all the time back in the museum, which I learned was called the Centro Cultural Joao Fona.
“This guy,” he would say, pointing at where he thought Luiz was standing, “is crazy.” He would speak in English so that Luiz couldn’t understand.
“He’s a gay boy, I think. But he’s crazy because he’s incredibly ignorant. Listen to how he talks.”
Luiz would just say in Portuguese, “I don’t know what you are saying but that’s ok- thank God, and God willing maybe one day I’ll learn English. God willing.”
“Brussels, do you know Brussels?” the old man asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“I had the pleasure of being in that city for a week. It’s a lovely city. I have canvases there. I have canvases in many countries.”
“Diverse architecture, Brussels,” I said.
“Rome, Paris, Prague, Granada, oh-so many cities, my paintings are there. I lived in France, you know.”
“Something we have in common.”
“I don’t like French, it’s too nitpicky,” he said, flopping his hands around on limp wrists to show what nitpicky looks like for him. “I like German. German is a language.”
“I don’t know any German.”
“Interesting language, but not quite like Spanish-Portuguese.”
“English and Frisian are like Spanish and Portuguese,” I said.
We spoke on, and some of the things the old man said came from the gut, which came from his life and the experiences that he kept, in his gut, were dramatic, and the things came out with that passion for the saying of them that is hard to find in younger people. That passion makes the truth of the utterance unimportant, because an old man passionately describing something that perhaps you know to not be true, that perhaps he says something about language which you’re sure is untrue because he speaks 5 but you speak 4 and the 3 that aren’t Portuguese you know better than he now (and to be sure he once spoke them all better, but with age the linguistic capacity will quiver and shrink), but the passion of the description makes also the hearing of it an experience to cherish and remember. Otherwise, I remember Voltaire’s quote: “What is often taken to be virtue, after the age of 40, is simply a lack of energy”.
Again the old man took to singing, and when someone came in to greet him, the story of the girl from Ipanema was cut short, and the walls fell silent again.
“This is my girlfriend,” said Breno, introducing me to a girl with glasses and a figure clung to by curvy clothing.
“Nice to meet you,” I said–at the eyes!
We were sitting indoors at the floating pier, eating Caipirinha sorvete, an ice cream made of cachaca (the Brazilian sugarcane alcohol), lime and sugar.
“I got you something,” said Breno. “Here,” he said, handing me a wristwatch.
“You’re kidding me,” I exclaimed. “I’ve been needing one of these for a while. Thanks man!”
“We’re gonna be friends now right?” he said jokingly.
“In your estimation I would think you’d need to be my Facebook friend in order to seal the deal,” I retorted–but in broken Portuguese that I had to rephrase several times, killing the humor of it.
Then they left. I headed down the riverfront walk to find my meat on a stick dinner.
“Hey brother!” I heard, and turned to see the hippy there sitting among 3 or 4 people. The hippy contrasted sharply against his more preppy companions. “You hungry man?”
“Hungry? Yes, heading to–”
“Eat! Sit! Eat! Come, sit with us, eat this. Look, marmita, eat, I won’t eat anymore it’s for you eat, eat eat, energy life sustenance, eat up brother.”
“Oh, sure, alright, thanks,” I said, taking after his halting way of speaking as I sat down.
I met the companions, mechanics from Fortaleza and Macapa. They were all wobbling slightly, smiling at their bottle of cachaca. But they still held a conversation well. There was another man there who the hippy called Professor. He was an older man, skinny, with glasses, rancid breath and a speech defect that made it infinitely harder for me to understand when he started in on the Ayahuasca religion of Brazil. You can forget transcription.
They asked me where I was from, and I couldn’t understand the conversation then, except that they were talking about me. At least I was able to reflect on the true difficulty alcohol and lunacy brings to the linguistic table of comprehension. I tried to make out the hippy’s rapid-fire idiolect, but resolved myself to watching facial expressions on the reacting Professor and mechanics.
“He’s gringo man a gringo, but that’s alright man he’s in the street, you know? The street, a brother just wandering around he’s got the courage and the instinct and he’s going man, and here he is in our country and he has nowhere to sleep he’s got little money, and hell it doesn’t matter if he’s a white guy he’s a human, a human and a human does that you know here I have food here that you all gave me and I want to pass on the good right so here’s a chance and race doesn’t exist it’s all in your mind which puts colors and shadows and highlights on a face you know?”
I spoke at length with one of the mechanics about UFC, and he said he was a champion in one of the Brazilian lightweight classes. His eyes were drunk. I thought better not to ask. He made promises to bring us marmitas every day, but they were drunk promises.
“Hey hippy!” the mechanics would yell at the hippy. They were discussing what to smoke. The mechanics didn’t bother with the hippy’s name, and to the hippy it didn’t seem to matter–in fact, he himself was proud of his nickname.
“What’s your name?” I asked the hippy.
He was busy weaving threads. “Names names don’t matter so much but I’ll tell you my name is Filho, Son, part of the whole connection here, the heart–” pounding on his chest, “–this is what matters, the heart.”
It seemed fitting that I immediately forgot his name . Only later did I catch it again after a similar explanation.
“Where are you camped you’re in the street aren’t you right?” he asked.
“Yeah. Praza Sao Sebastien,” I said.
“Oh that’s dangerous what are you doing over there man it’s safer to camp in pairs it’s better you won’t lose your gear so better we camp together yes? Brother you down?”
“Sure,” I said.
I was already tired. I was on the receiving end of intense one-way conversations with the wild-eyed mad professor. I started to think that it took more energy to show that I was listening than it would to say something. The Professor explained the same thing 5 times, each time louder than the last, each time his arms shooting out and hitting the air harder. Finally the mechanics would yell, “hey old timer cool it the gringo doesn’t understand you!” The professor would scowl at them and shiver with fury, but it all surpassed when he’d sit down quietly, but only for the cycle to begin anew.
Meanwhile, the drugs took forever to arrive. The dealer was like a giant nervous motorbike-riding teddy bear, who dealt quickly and was gone again.
“Paper who’s got a paper we need a paper hey man you got a paper?”
“No paper,” I said.
“Here,” said the UFC man with a piece from the ground–and I thought to myself you hypocrite, always talking about the sanitary life and you let yourself feel uneasy at paper from off the ground licked and rolled into a joint–you also have your limits, it seems.
They rolled the paper around the chopped cocaine and cigarette tobacco. They smoked the thing and then we waited for the next dealer to show up. He arrived, they made the deal, a spliff was devised and they smoked. We were on the riverfront walk and there were plenty of people passing, but no one paid any attention to us. The taller, long-faced mechanic with thin Asiatic eyes kept saying, “It’s alright it’s alright we’re home, feel at home, smoke, smoke.”
“Man! Brother ah man this stuff no,” Hippy shook his finger. His face was interesting to look at. It was dark, especially around the eyes, and almost skeletal. He was a hippy minimalist and passionate, full-heartedly and with a propensity for theatrical outbursts, only “theatrical” isn’t the word, because they are authentically him. “This stuff, it’s, no, no good I don’t like it–it’s just a thing you know, that I take because, but it’s not the greatest thing, just like alcohol, it’s just you know? I have to take a shit.”
I blinked at the sudden tangent.
Here, Hippy stood and walked to the guardrail lining the walk above the river. As he passed a group of young girls he said, “good evening,” and the girl nearest to him jumped and gathered herself closer to her companions. That brief moment upset me. I knew the hippy was dirtier than most, but in the eyes of the girl he was more than that; he was squalid, and people who are so dirty, who use clothes that look dirty–but which are in fact simply well-used–are to be feared, because they’re street people, and the street, if we listen to the egomaniacs, is the most horrible place to be, and if you give the street people your attention, you are lost to their lunacy. I thought, too, after the hippy had returned from shitting off into the water, that this was someone who knew better than the cleanest around.
“Philosophy I studied man and, hey professor you know my university one of the best in the state of Amazonas, because I’m from Manaus see and there, over there, that university where I went for three years that’s the place man where I started in on philosophy but fuck me it was the exact thing I needed to learn to decide no, no no no that is not for me, school. Three years though so you can’t deny the knowledge that’s true.”
People will disregard you if your clothes are used, because for them used clothes are dirty. For them, the fabric needs to be perfectly sewn, and a small rip means donation or garbage. So a hole means dirt, and it means poverty, and a person will connect the two regardless of logic and regardless of someone like me, who says I use the damn shirt because it’s functional. Hippy was educated, and he was a lunatic, but people would disregard him because he looks too street. And maybe you need a little lunacy in order to break out of the cupcake world and into the street, but not much; anyone can do it, really. It takes recognizing that the status quo is unreal, and it is changeable.
“Let’s go brother man I know a spot it’s bacan really cool with a breeze yes don’t worry about that.”
“Where’s it at? Cause my tent is ridiculously hot without a breeze.”
“The lookout man.” He looked at me, which was rare–most of the time his eyes were dancing about the scene. “Man you trust me right? Come on brother.”
So we farewelled the mechanics and walked through the streets and up a long staircase to where there was a view over the river. It was 2 in the morning and I was tired. We greeted a toothless man and his wife in one of the covered areas. They had their hammocks hung, and their artisan work tucked under benches. They were kind souls, smiling whole broken smiles. The man spoke French, and I wondered how many overly sanitary people had disregarded him.
We climbed a wooden tower’s spiraling metal staircase, and the view was more expansive, and the breeze strong but not abrasive. It was a great spot. I set up my tent without the rainfly. Hippy stretched out his tarp, a mat and a few blankets, and laid flat on his naked back without a word. I had to close the mosquito net to keep those biters from finding me, but was jealous of Hippy’s indifference.
Then came the security guard, a man with a tired face who moved around like a sheet in the wind. He told us that we couldn’t sleep there, but he never looked in our eyes.
Again we were walking through Santarem’s dead streets.
“Don’t worry ’bout dat man damn! Damn! security those guys damn security I say.”
“Yea, well, it’s his job I guess.”
“What man come on you’re just saying that he can let us stay there you know, you know,” said Hippy. Of course he was right, and I was just saying that. “I got another place that’s really bacan, you’re going to love I say now love this place man.”
“A church a small little church, a guard who’s bacan, really good gente” (‘g’ like in ‘rouge‘).
We found the church 20 minutes later, and now closer to the Restaurante Popular than the museum. We set up again in a sort of kiosk-gazebo, surrounded by the street and pad-locked stalls. But I didn’t sleep that night. This was much more street than the other spots, and Hippy made it so: he and the guard spent most of the night making deals. Every half hour Hippy jumped to his feet, met the guard and someone on a motorcycle. They’d smoke and then quiet down again. I drenched my clothes and bag in the windless luckless night.
I must have found a moment to drift off, because in the morning I awoke. I said goodbye to Hippy, that I’d catch him later. The hippy mumbled.
I found the riverfront walk again, and strolled past the long line of boats tied to the slanting concrete. As I walked I sensed the salty taste of the dockside on my lips, and gazed over the river. The Tapajos, a clear-water river that looked blue in daylight, came from the south to smash into the brass-colored body of the Amazon River. There it is, on the far bank: the Amazon River. How many documentaries, how many movies, and how many times have I heard about it. I’d been to tributaries, but there it was–the Amazon River itself. Already I’d spent many nights watching the sun sink beneath the horizon, wondering if I’d ever before seen a sun set on a river, and dreaming of timelessness. Part of me was glad that I was feeling the pressure to leave. I missed the cooler mountain climates I knew were awaiting me in Venezuela.
I had a cheap meal at the Restaurante Popular and then emerged on the market scene. It was crammed with a wooden maze of hanging bananas and green plantains. In the human clutter of buyers and sellers I spotted a pair of blond girls wandering around gathering discarded produce. I approached them. Maybe they were volunteers, working on a farm. Maybe they were just trying to eat. They were nervous and shy, and told me that they were “just recycling”. Maybe it wasn’t nervousness. It was hesitancy. They eyed me through guarded gazes. They were suspicious of me. When two more of their friends appeared, I engaged them more easily. I spoke with a dredded man from Ecuador, and he told me the two girls were sisters from Israel. I wanted to ask what their deal was, but I knew all too well the danger of affronting an amistad between this kind of hippy. Rainbow hippies. I had met a few whose company I enjoyed, but mostly being with rainbow children is like being with a devout Evangelist Christian–always obliging you to engage in conversations concerning their faith and belief, using jargon that limits your ability to respond, telling you that you are lost. How fitting that the news of Gore Vidal’s death has brought a quote of his to my attention: “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.” Damn right. And the best conversations are with people who are damn hard to offend. Rainbow children, devout people… often, but not always, you’ve offended the moment you question. When I ran into Hippy later, and asked him, he knew nothing about Rainbow Gatherings.
I visited a few riverboat offices near the market. As anywhere else, I was looking for a way to get to Manaus by work-trade, like the time I drew the boat for passage in Nicaragua. At the first place, an spacey woman told me the boss was traveling. At the second office I caught the woman in the doorway, and it took three identical explanations of what I was trying to do to get a response. She only heard what she wanted, and tried writing down my information to sell me the ticket–100 reals, or 50 dollars. She laughed when I said I could make a professional drawing of the boat instead. She said they already had a website, too.
Another day, I found an office closer to the museum. I spoke with a friendly man who was sure that I could not convince the man, Mauricio, to allow me to work. When Mauricio showed up and blasted out the door, I followed. Someone must have told him about me, because he walked faster. I stopped, and watched the clean white shirt and lint-less black pants ride their shiny shoes into an equally shiny SUV that drove off. Not a chance. Nor was there a chance at the port, which was closed to anyone without a ticket, destroying a chance to haggle with a captain. It had to be offices.
The second plan was to work. Unfortunately, the English lady who I’d worked for online from Arica to make the Bolivia visa money so many months ago had fallen ill, and there was no work. Hostelbookers had also told its SEO department to stop writing. My other employers were not responding to messages, and Freelancer was not working on the slow internet connection.
The last option would be to make money in the street, perhaps selling drawings, or working somewhere in the city. I had already been in Santarem for a week, and I already knew that Patrick would be a long time coming. I was anxious, and growing tired of the heat. I felt like moving quickly through the Amazon.
“I lived in Rio and Sao Paulo,” said the old man. There was a person with a flat-brimmed hat beside him on the white bench who was listening intently, leaning in close, perhaps to follow the blindness. The old man’s stature and movements, like an ephemeral bridge where something was missing, seemed to give countenance to his words. “The people in the street there are there because of corruption, simply put.”
“That’s right, I agree,” said the other man.
“And the corruption creates the circumstances to put those people there, who are attacked and who need to sleep in groups and have angry dogs with them for protection. Then there’s the crack…”
I was standing watching the conversation when the old man sensed that I was there.
“Hey Laurimar,” I said.
“Ah Chael my friend how did it go then?”
The other man said, “where are you from?”
“He’s from Chicago, and he’s trying to work on a boat to get to Manaus,” said the old man.
“Trying,” I said.
“What, you don’t have the money to pay a ticket?” asked the other.
“I could,” I said. “But I usually try to justify the money on the spot. I prefer it like that.”
“But you want to work? Doing what?” he asked. I told him. “Difficult I think,” he said.
“I’ll pay for your ticket,” he said, looking directly at me.
“Ah look at that, a good Brazilian to save the day,” said the old man.
“You’ll pay for my ticket?” I asked. “Just like that? Why?”
“I’m from Maranhao. Maybe one day you’ll remember me.”
“Well, actually I have trouble accepting money,” I said.
“Will you be here tomorrow morning?” he asked.
“Yeah, but,” I looked at the old man who couldn’t help but stare off into space. How tragic, I thought, that he, a painter, should lose his eyesight. How unjust. A painter should lose his legs, or the feeling in his body or even his hearing, but to lose his sight is the greatest mal that can befall him. I thought that he must be a good judge of character, though. He can’t see gestures or movements. All the things communicated in the expression of the face and hands and body are lost, or blotted out. Instead, the way you speak, the tone of your voice and the words you choose are given even more weight in his understanding of your intentions.
I thought, then, that I didn’t want this new man to do me any favors. Despite the vagabond hitchhiker within me screaming to accept, like I had for previous bus fare, I felt suddenly inclined to pay my own ticket.
It felt bizarre. Now, all of a sudden, the streets of Santarem would feel tiring when I walk them. The next day, when the man had said he would return and leave 100 reals, he didn’t show up, and I felt relief to be able to follow my instinct and purchase my own ticket so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the guilt of ignoring such a thought, because when it came time to decide whether or not to accept, I would probably accept, like the damn traveler that I am. So it goes.
Santarem is filled with open store fronts that have colorful tarps tied up as sun shades. There are no wide avenues, and in the small streets pigeons and vultures co-exist.
I traced the riverfront walk countless times, from the Cargill loading ramp where they fill tankers to the museum and floating pier. I liked walking past the long line of riverboats as the sun disappeared, its last rays interrupted intermittently by dangling hammocks. I liked that I understood Portuguese adverts blasting from loudspeakers mounted on bicycles or pick-ups, and the Portuguese malaria education commercials on omnipresent TVs in kiosks of grilling fish.
The buildings are short, and the stores they house are announced on big billboards stretched across their fronts. Everyone wears flip-flops, and the older men, in the evenings and where there are benches, play cards on large cable reels. Santarem had all the characteristics of Pucallpa, Peru, replacing a bit of the latter’s grittiness with shrugging development.
I sit now in the library once more. The old man seemed distraught as he told me I had to gather my things, that the Cultural Secretary was on her way and that she was coming to give orders. So I left, and tomorrow I will leave Santarem.
So goodbye, Santarem, it has been pleasant staying here, but now it’s time to chase new horizons. I’ll think of you on the slow boat to Manaus. I’ll think about your happy people, like Fabricio expressionless but friendly, and Breno drinking cachaca by himself and watching porn, and maybe telling someone about me. I’ll think about the hippy rattling off some philosophical wisdom in the street, and also the old man who smiles like a child when a foreign guest allows him to practice his languages. I’ll think of these people and remember that thanks to them I like you more, so take care of them, and maybe I’ll see you again someday.