“But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”
-James Joyce, The Dubliners
The woman took my hand and examined it closely, turning it into the light and then away. She adjusted the lenses that sat precariously on the bridge of her nose as she held my hand, one of her pinkies upright and pointed outward as though she was dealing with something especially delicate.
“That’s Leishmaniasis,” she said, still looking at it.
“Leish, they call it here for short. It’s Leishmaniasis.” She fingered the corners of the boxes that she had retrieved for me; one the antibiotic amoxicillin and the other Ibuprofen. “These don’t treat Leish,” she said, the last in a tone almost colloquial. “You have to go to the Tropical hospital, our pharmacy doesn’t have what you need.”
I had been in the city for five days when the pharmacist warned me of Leishmaniasis; Manaus, a sweltering city in or out of the sunlight, and a city poorly lacking a consistent breeze despite its location at the confluence of the expansive Rio Negro and Rio Amazonas. The Santarem-Manaus riverboat had brought me here, to the Amazon’s capital city. 2 million people live in Manaus, and as I toyed with the idea of living there myself, which I seem to do in every city I visit, I came up only with the conclusion that the populace is mad to inhabit such a place.
“It really doesn’t make any sense to be honest with you.” Gabriel turned to me as he said this and handed me a glass of cold water. “This isn’t the kind of place for humans.”
“I wouldn’t think so. Disease, constant rain or sun. You know, it’s always wet here with this damn humidity. It’s hard to picture myself living here,” I said.
“Well, yes,” he said in English. “It’s difficult.”
He glided between the refrigerator and the stove in the small space of the apartment. I watched him as he prepared a tapioca pancake, and thought of our recent meeting in the city center, after I had debarked from the riverboat and made a 2 dollar, 3 minute phone call to him. I remember that when he ran he looked like he was floating, making long, even strides. He wore a sleeveless shirt, and his long brown hair he had tied back and doubled over in a knot. I caught sight of him from afar because of his white skin, and because of his gaunt muscular physique that seems extraterrestrial if the other passersby are to be considered earthly. He was a Wallon, a Frenchman from Belgium, and I had contacted him through CS three days previous. I had been glad when I’d entered the internet cafe to find that many hosts had replied to my requests, but ever since my Wallon friends carted me around in merriment in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula for a week, I won’t pass up a chance to spend time with another Wallon.
Three days passed in the house of Gabriel and his pregnant girlfriend Aline. I cooked pasta several times, sure to cook too much in order to satisfy my voracious appetite, which hadn’t been satisfied for many days, the riverboat having once more forced me into an involuntary fast.
By the time the riverboat entered the port over the lustrous boiling of the Amazon River, the water had changed to a deep radiant blue-black and its name was now Rio Negro. From the port one could see the Ponte Rio Negro, a suspension bridge over that river to connect the fazendas of the west with the city. The port was unspectacular except for the boat named “God Helps V”, which irked a chuckle before I hastened out into the city. A last glance back and at the Iberostar Grand Amazon luxury liner made a thought come to my mind that speaks to the inescapable psychology of age: “when I’m 50 I’m going to want on that thing.”
The first thing that struck me in the city was the naked woman. Maybe with this heat she was thinking that we were the strange ones. Behind her, where I conveniently averted my gaze, was a trio of buildings abandoned and reclaimed by nature, which had apparently smashed through the floors themselves and the arms of which were wailing through the old window frames like a pirates’ flag might do from a commandeered vessel.
“If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” I asked in French.
“That’s easy. To levitate,” Gabriel replied. “But not to fly. Just to levitate.”
“Would you wear a crown of thorns?”
“What would your power be?”
I smacked a mosquito on my arm, smearing a brush stroke of blood across the skin. “I’d want the ability to grow out all of the hair on my body. To keep the mosquitoes away.”
We spoke then of rice and beans, and of the playfulness of Brazilians.
“Brazilians are more playful than occidentals, in general,” he said. “I’m a reserved person, this I know. Sometimes Brazilians think I’m cold or mad, but I’m just observing is all.”
“It’s true, and I am too, reserved. It’s difficult to be two things. It seems being playful is more important here.”
“It is, and actually it’s frustrating sometimes.”
“I don’t dance,” I said.
“That’s one of the things.”
“I wonder if, since Brazilian culture is mostly an expressive, extroverted, playful one, if the global economic forces, which prize countries with the most thinkers–and here, the extroversion takes away from the introversion for sure–are to blame for damaging culture.”
“It’s interesting to think about it.”
I woke the second morning on the couch and began the routine of scratching the night’s mosquito bite wounds. There was one bizarre bite that was just a skin-colored bump with a small black dot in the center. I scratched it once but it didn’t bother me.
“Morning Chael,” said Aline, strolling out of the bedroom with one arm wrapped under her protruding abdomen.
“How much longer anyway?” I asked.
“4 weeks,” she said. She already had one child, and despite the obvious gladness I saw in Gabriel’s eyes, I couldn’t help but put myself in the position of knocking up a girlfriend and feel angst and lamentation. For me, I felt, a pregnancy at this point in life would be the killer of serenity, and the destructor of good philosophy.
“Sometimes I get the feeling that I’m not doing anything,” I said to Gabriel when he came out to join us for coffee.
“I know what you mean.”
“Well, I’m sure you do. I think having a child is a sure way to feel like you’re progressing. It’s our nature, anyway, to reproduce.”
He gave me a sideways glance and I saw him chuckling. Gabriel was the kind of person who was calm and collected (but not to the point of being taciturn) and whose happy reactions were contagious.
“Did you see all the piranhas in the Cathedral square?” Aline asked me in Portuguese.
“That’s where we met up,” Gabriel interjected in French.
“Piranhas? I was hoping to see some in the market.” I spoke English. We understood each other.
“You can find them in the square,” said Aline. “It’s their mating ground.”
I looked at Gabriel, who was laughing.
“Hookers, the prostitutes,” he said. “The women in the square, you know, you mentioned them to me.”
“Oh yes. Pay to make love,” I said.
“Make love? It’s not love that you make,” said Aline.
“I’d pay to make love maybe,” I said. The both of them laughed.
“There’s a new marketing strategy,” said Gabriel, “pay to make love.”
“They’re also called primas, cousins,” said Aline.
“Who the prostitutes?”
“Ok. But I’m not interested in why.”
We went to the market as well, a sprawling complex of metal stalls and men either carting produce or yelling at the Russia-Brazil volleyball match on television. Their cheers floated up through the rafters when their team had won, and echoed back and forth with such acoustic efficiency that if the sound was any indication, we might as well have been in a packed stadium.
We walked through rows of fish, which look nothing like the kind of fish that are trawled out of the oceans. These are generally darker, many of them have teeth, and some are streamlined without anterior fins. We bought a string of ten smaller fish for 10 reals and were off through the Brazil nut vendors and crackers and into the street. Most of the exotic Amazonian fruit seemed to exist only at juice vendor kiosks, and there were enough tongue-twisters to keep a body busy for hours.
In the street we kept up our conversations through the lively foot traffic and endless lanes of miscellaneous kiosks. Some people sold things that had some theme in common; kitchenware, outdoor tools, electrical adaptors or something of that ilk, and other vendors simply offered an eclectic melange of anything they deemed useful. There were too many vendors, but we did stop among the chaos for salgados and suco (juice) for 1 real.
“I suppose you oughta be glad you’re not in Syria now,” I said.
“I was there in 2009. I spent a year and a half there. Mostly studying, living with my parents.”
“They work for the EU, and they were in Syria so I took advantage of the opportunity. I had diplomatic status,” he said with wile in his smile.
“Lucky,” I said. “I studied Arabic in university, but I’ve forgotten everything.”
“It’s not really a language that I care to learn anymore.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“I learned literary Arabic, traditional Arabic. But it’s almost useless in the street. The Arabic changes in every country, so actually someone from Syria will prefer to speak English or French with someone from Morocco than try their variations of Arabic.”
“I knew something about that.”
“It’s not like Spanish and Portuguese even, it’s even more differentiated.”
Gabriel spoke with patience and a tone of voice that reflected his conversational acumen, and my mind seemed to couple the observation with the knowledge of his diplomatic parents.
Meanwhile Manaus smoldered and I tip-toed from time to time here and there, careful not to upset the dry nature of my only pair of socks. Mostly, though, I spent time with Gabriel. I enjoyed his company. I did not enjoy the city. It was too hot, and all the time. Walking means a shower, and too many showers means time wasted.
“That’s from poto,” said Aline, who was looking at the bump on my arm, whose red dots that had formed the previous day had not coalesced into one large, risen red area. Now the black dot was thick and white, like a pimple.
“A little bug who bites, or pees, I’m not sure. It’s common here,” she said.
I stared down at the bizarre coloring on my arm, angry with the Amazon. Damn it, I thought, people shouldn’t live here.
A few days later the bad coloring on my arm had morphed into a sickly lesion of white bulbous texture. It was the size of a quarter, and was surrounded by a pulsating pink suggesting infection. It was sensitive to the touch, and along the periphery new beads of white were birthing. At midday a bulb of liquid had grown in the center of the lesion, its thin skin a dull amber color that begged to be split open. I obliged and with a needle I’d disinfected in alcohol I poked the bulb and caught its contents in a fold of toilet paper. When I saw that there was yet another white and pink spot forming on my other arm, it won more of my attention.
“It’s in your blood now,” said Gabriel as we examined the lesion under the white lights of the Alliance Francaise, where he teaches French. “It’s a bacteria, that’s why it has popped up on the other arm.”
“I think so, because I was touching it and other parts of my arm but that doesn’t seem to do anything. In the blood!” I cried with a mock menacing display of fear.
Later we walked to the one square in the city that makes you forget about the convulsions of the urban scape elsewhere: Praca do Teatro. The square is neatly ordered with flat stones that are mostly unchipped and whose concrete curbs are well-kempt as well. Surrounding the square on three sides are pugdy-looking English colonial houses whose window and doorframes are overly large for their pastel facades. There are short, full trees that line the square, and the corner buildings house bars with outdoor seating that remains despite the spontaneous downpours. On the last side of the square sits the city’s most notable architectural feat and its symbol, the theater. Its columns are a light rose color and the whole building is trimmed white. It is an attractive structure but I wouldn’t have thought more of it if, while Gabriel and I waited to meet a group of people, it hadn’t started to rain.
At first we sheltered under the dense mass of a tree’s foliage. When the rains came in sideways and with greater force, so we fled across the square to the theater to join a large group of soaked people under the open-air arcade. The people there were smiling; they were happy in their wetness. Everyone was cowering and recoiling then regaining themselves almost in unison at each crashing chorus of thunder.
The director of the theater came to the grand entryway and began announcing something to the crowd.
“They’re inviting us in,” Gabriel told me.
I thought he meant just the lobby, but actually he meant the auditorium itself. I had already learned that, like Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, to see the inside of this theatre would cost a tour or a show. I glanced at the marquee which announced a dance festival for the evening. We were led to the second floor, where to our genuine surprise we were ushered into a box overlooking the stage. Unfortunately the rustling of new patrons into the theatre did not stop, as the performance at hand was contemporary dance, something that you either must enjoy or reconcile a great feeling of respect in order to remain quiet. So, with lit cellular phones dancing in the darkness, the performances’ music was uglified by the giggling and gossiping of a suddenly indifferent crowd.
To blot out the disregard that sputtered into the air, I had to ignore my Libran disgust at the lack of courtesy, and thereby ignore the performance altogether. Instead I squinted through the dark to make out the shades of the auditorium. It was relatively small, but duly elegant as a 19th century bourgeois theatre is likely to be. It is a sign of the fortunes made during the rubber boom, and its construction materials represent a conglomeration of all the best options out of Europe. The auditorium’s horse-shoe shape allowed my eyes to caress over the entire room, picking out the subtle details that make a person feel special; the gold leaf, the ceiling murals, the chandelier, the overall symmetry.
Eventually the whispering and laughing, which thrived presumably because people couldn’t control themselves to not shoot silly glances at their friends at happening upon such a strange performance out of the rain, I told Gabriel that I had to leave. We left then, and back outside where the storm had passed, we found Cris in the square.
She had dreads pulled up into a red bun, a few of the strands sticking out like needles from a ball of yarn. She had a great big smile that stretched from one side to the other, and her eyes lit up when she spoke. She was one of the hosts that had responded to my request, and she had responded so authentically that we decided to meet up. It was a good thing, too, because I had to leave Gabriel’s, but also because my throat was beginning to tickle with that premonition of sickness, and I was also spending too much time staring at the now hideous lesion on my arm. During this first night she offered to host me as well.
Cris was from Rio Grande do Sul, as were her compatriots with whom she lived and studied biology at the INPA, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Amazonicas.
“How the hell can you stand living here?” I joked, even though the truth in my voice was hard to ensconce.
“I love the Amazon,” she said. “It’s so diverse.”
Our small talk remained small talk for a day or two, and eventually I started to converse more fluidly. The problem was the 6 females in the house plus me, strung up in a hammock above Cris’ bed. During our first night an Italian hippy had requested to sit with us and we obliged. When I had left with Gabriel early, the party was just getting started, and the next day, after wishing Gabriel well and traveling to Cris’ house, the Italian was the first I saw. I recognized him, and then recalled that I’d seen him and a girl playing accordion and trumpet for restaurant-goers back in Santarem. Even here, where the world feels big, it’s actually quite small.
“I-gar-a-pe,” Gaby, a flat mate of Cris’ said to me, enunciating each syllable in turn.
“Igarape,” I repeated. “Ok. What’s that?”
“It’s the river, part of the river, at least.”
An igarape, as it turns out, has no English translation. It’s the offshoot of a swollen river, a creek or stream that juts out from the main flow in a snaking pattern, whose water sneaks into the lowest gulley and valley to form a body of water that looks like the root of a tree from above.
“Last time I was there the water had already gone down. So we have to go!” Cris exclaimed.
There were the two Italians, both street musicians, a guy they were staying with who happened to know my hosts, and Cris, Gaby and two shy flat mates also from Rio Grande do Sul. Gaby made a point that she was not, that she was from Rio de Janeiro. On another night, when everyone had had too much to drink, she showed off her Brazilian funk dance, typical of her city’s favelas, which looks like an African war dance if nothing else.
Two buses and a hitched ride in the bed of a car (with 8 people, I should add) brought us to the Igarape. We descended a flight of earthen stairs through the jungled surrounds and found the calm waters which met the land in a silted shore. It was an obscure area and we were alone. I looked up and saw the majesty of a flooded igarape. This one, an offshoot from the Rio Negro, boasted submerged forests here on the banks, the branches of trees breaking through the surface of the water and making them look like bathers themselves.
“Jacarei!” cried Cris. “Jacarei where are you?”
“Crocodiles?” I asked.
“My friend saw one here at night, but don’t worry they usually don’t attack. The only attack I heard of was because a girl on a dock was scaling a fish into the water and the croc tore off her leg.”
“Well,” I said. “I have vienna sausages.”
“Nothing will happen,” said the Italian to me. His name was Valero. He also had dreads, wore glasses in front of a pair of bulging eyes, had a thin mouth and an inclination to share his ideas in such a way that seemed open but stunk of condescension.
“I don’t use any chemicals on my skin,” he had said at the bus stop as I put a bit of sun block on my nose.
“Why?” I’d asked aimlessly.
“Because I’m an animal.” He was climbing the bus stop like a monkey.
“An animal? Humans might be animals, but we have minds and we can come up with things. That’s fine if you don’t use chemicals because you’re concerned for the natural health of your skin, but you can’t say that being an animal is good reason in this case.”
We all jumped into the water. It was warm on the surface and cooler at greater depths. The turbid water like a lense made my white skin glow golden beneath the surface, but I couldn’t see beyond my waist. It was ominous the way the water hid the rest of my body, and I felt calmer when I wasn’t looking. I wasn’t worried about jacareis. My mind was thinking about sharks. It was shark week back home.
“What’s this place called?” I asked Gaby, who was lounging with her two roommates on a half-submerged tree branch well out into the water.
“Igarape do Turamazinho,” she said. She lifted her head to look at me. “Where were you?”
“Over there,” pointing to the forest, “wading through some trees. You know all those vines look like snakes.”
“Gotta be careful which ones you grab,” she said.
Cris was off with the Italians and their friend on the other side of the river. I backstroked across to join them in the shade. The forest there was even more impressive, with long stalks and trunks of trees perfectly sliced in half by the surface of the water, which lapped gently against the wood. I climbed a few trees and jumped back into the river, luckily not landing on any branches, which is a sure way many people have broken bones in the past. Back out in the open with the others, there was a dolphin observing us not far away. I was holding onto a branch, and looking at the lesion on my arm. It had been split open, and a bit of blood was oozing out.
“What do you guys make of this,” I said. The Italian girl looked at it. Then her friend came over and gave it a look over. “Piranhas only eat dead things right?”
“Injured,” said the friend. “They’re attracted to blood. I wouldn’t worry about that though there’s not much blood.”
“Are there a lot of Piranhas here?” I asked, and the friend just laughed and said:
“You should get that looked at, it’s already infected.”
We stayed all day at the igarape, which despite being so close to Manaus feels decidedly far away. Valero had gone off to make friends with a group he’d spotted, and he returned on a row boat. Cris and the other Italian went off in the boat and we gathered around the new people to make conversation. Eventually the three invited us all back to their home.
It was evening by the time we loaded the boat with our things and paddled down the river a ways to where the three men (one man and two adolescents really) said they lived. All 11 of us showed up at a small wooden house supported by stilts and sided by an outdoor cooking area. The house was basic and only a few mosquito nets kept the jungle out. A woman emerged and introduced herself as the man’s girlfriend, and the two younger boys were her children. She was exceptionally friendly, and the night went on in conversation between the more or less atheist visitors and the catholic hosts. They gave us coffee, bread, cheese and beer.
Little by little the jungle came to life. We were sitting and speaking to one another intermittently, as strangers will do, when the first humming resounded from the bushes and trees around us. It was a remarkable thing, and people exchanged glances. Then the cicadas began their conspicuous chorus of constant reverberating buzzing, a veritable accent against the bass hum of their neighbors. Birds were chirping somewhere above, and making calls to one another in pleasant search of home. When night fell truly and definitely, the one fluorescent light above us became crowded with insects big and small. Large beetles kamikazed against shirts and pant legs, and oversized moths came swooping dancing in a chaotic but controlled flight. And the sounds grew to a volume that made whispering useless were we to begin to share our secrets. All together the forest now took on a symphonic quality. Years of traveling has made me dull to certain things, but when I find later, written in detail, something in my notebook, I know it is different and novel, and I know to write it here. Oh, though, I do wish everything would surprise me like it once did. Maybe that’s also why I’m heading home–maybe it will serve, in a way, as a reset button, to erase my traveler prejudices and norms.
I was not happy to see my arm the next day. The red aura of infection had increased its area, and the bubbly white risen area, which already looked like boiling lard, was now once more with the dull amber capsules of liquid. I quickly took to popping these, and the skin that fell again to the surface stung the bareness below it. There were now two more showings of infection, one on each hand, and another on my side just above my waist. Cris had said that she had some aches in her back, so together we planned to head to the posto de saude, a public medical clinic.
Each neighborhood is supposed to have a clinic, but Cris warned me that they usually prescribe the same thing to everyone–antibiotics. We came to the clinic after a 30 minute walk from the house, and despite my experience in health institutions in other Latin American countries, the gringo in me who grew up with unknowingly ridiculously expensive health centers noticed the dirtiness and the crumbling aspects of the building’s interior. To the newly-arrived gringo, a place like this would frighten them back home. Of course I put aside my prejudice that expects impeccable infrastructure from health institutions to remember that this is free healthcare, and free comes at the impossibility of perfection in third world countries.
A nurse in a stuffy room took our blood temperatures, then we returned to the main waiting area to sit on plastic chairs among many sullen faces. When our names were called, we went together into a back room, where behind a metal table sat a man, supposedly the doctor, in a t-shirt that showed his creatine arms. There was no stethoscope, no tools and strange-looking instruments, no boxes of medicine and no rubber gloves. There was only three long rows of multi-colored stamps and his flirtatious small talk with Cris. I couldn’t help but wonder if he really was a doctor. When he asked I showed him my arm. He wrote three prescriptions and said good day.
At the pharmacy the woman’s glasses were on the verge of plummeting off the bridge of her nose when she replaced them with a finger.
“It’s quite ugly,” she said. “Your lesion. I haven’t seen it before.” She looked at the prescriptions I’d handed her, and tapped a long nail against one of the boxes. “These antibiotics won’t treat this.” She sighed, regained her posture and looked at Cris. “He needs to go to the Leishmaniasis laboratory at the Tropical.”
“What’s the Tropical,” I asked. The hospital? Damn it, I really, really don’t like the Amazon.
In a bus on our way to the public hospital we spoke about the situation.
“Well,” said Cris, “at least you didn’t have to spend the 72 reals for the prescriptions.”
“Not yet,” I recalled.
“It’s too bad there’s not a Popular Pharmacy here. I asked the doctor at the clinic.”
The bus rumbled down a side street, and turned sharply, throwing us against the glass. I said:
“I don’t know if I trust that doctor. Why did he give me the most expensive prescriptions?”
“You’re a gringo,” said Cris with her wide smile. “You got the dough!”
“Bah,” I replied. “Well, it’s nice that clinics are free here. That visit would cost 100 dollars where I’m from, creatine arms or not.”
“See? We are progressive here in Brazil!”
We found the tropical hospital. The woman at reception was apparently angry with us before we even began to speak. We seemed to be interrupting her day. She sent us upstairs where I had to fill out a few forms, show my passport, borrow Cris’ address, and then I had a Brazilian health ID card.
“I wonder if I can try to cross borders with this,” I mused to Cris.
We found the Leishmaniasis laboratory, which was clearly marked as such. I stared at the word in Portuguese, leishmaniose, and began wondering what the hell is it that it gets a dedicated laboratory in a free, public hospital. As it turns out, the disease is the second biggest parasitic killer after malaria. I learned that it exists mostly in India and Southeast Asia, but that it has morphed and is becoming more common here in the Amazon. It’s caused by an infected mosquito, just as malaria is. Only malaria does not pop up on your skin like Leishmaniasis does, permanently scaring you for life.
A few hours later, when the Leish team had returned from a symposium that they’d all decided to attend despite the promise of attendance written in bold black letter on the door, it took just a moment for the white-robed woman to look at my arm.
“That’s not leishmaniasis,” she said.
“We had to wait two hours for that?” said Cris.
“You can tell it’s not Leishmaniasis. First, because effects show up weeks after being bit, and second because the lesions of leish are like craters, not bulging like your arm there,” retorted the woman.
“You work with leish, so you can’t expect visitors to just know. What is this lesion, then?”
“I don’t know,” said the woman. “You need antibiotics.
“Damn it,” I said, “I don’t want to spend 72 reals, that’s almost all I have now.”
“Well, usually this hospital gives drugs out with a prescription,” said Cris.
We inquired about the prescriptions I already had. No. They don’t have the best, most expensive brands. Damn creatine. Well, what do we do? Get a new prescription. That easy? Just meet a doctor. Oh, simple. We went back to the main room of the hospital, which also had sullen faces and plastic chairs. I took a number from the receptionist, the frown scrunched up on her face still, and sat with Cris to wait. It wasn’t long before I was called into another room to have my pressure checked. As the lady strapped the band around my arm I said:
“Actually I just wanted a prescription for some drugs from here, because I can’t afford the drugs some other doc prescribed me. How do I go about that?”
“Oh,” she said, removing the band without pumping it up full of air. “You can’t. You need to consult a doctor, and there aren’t any openings until September.”
“September??” I asked, trying to sound stunned, but really it didn’t surprise me much.
We were walking under the sun again, Cris and I, and I was examining my arm. The sweat glistened around it like impatient fuel. It looked alive, the lesion, and its offspring, an apt name for the other lesions springing up across my body, looked famished.
“So the lady said there’s another clinic around here, and she said something about a Popular Pharmacy,” I said. “Should I just bite the bullet and buy the creatine’s drugs, or is it worth it to find the pharmacy?”
“Well, I paid 3 reals at the popular for something that normally costs 15,” said Cris.
“I’d say that’s worth it.”
We rounded a few corners, by which time the hair of my scalp was plastered to my temples. There was the public health clinic, another one. We mistakenly waited five minutes in a psychiatric ward–where the patients seemed more contented. When we found the clinic, we sat, once more, with the sullen among plastic. We had two hours to spend here, and there was nothing close that could possibly amuse us as long as the heat of the day reigned over the streets with hot and kingly oppression.
I took plenty of time, then, to scrutinize my lesions, which were soft to the touch, but sensitive so that I’d jolt each time my fingertip skimmed the now dead skin. It was a morbid sight from close, as the bulbous white, scarred in corn yellow from where liquid had seeped and hair follicles had grasped and dried, created a landscape ghastly organic and alien to an eye used to the graces of earth from the French Pyrenees to the Argentinian pampa. Here the land was smooth and fleshy and only interrupted where the hairs were pinned down and growing into the lesion itself just as an insect is caught in sap.
Oh insects! If there’s a God he prefers insects, or he’s just the cleverest comedian making something so tiny such a potent danger to beings of thought. This path of thought is of course damaging by itself, wrecking and raking through possibilities when we think “damn it, I don’t want to be in a place where such insects are.” Maybe the thinking of it will make it more likely to occur. Maybe you create a problem of course when you start to belie the natural world and in your mind turn it into something to be cushioned, which makes the urban world the only safe world. But there are always ways to die.
I looked up from my lesion at the people around the room. The sullen plastic people. They were all as bored as I was to be there. I witnessed then that it was an unfortunate paradigm of the modern human, who cares so much for his well-being that all else seems dimmed. It was an anxious room filled with victims or patients in one way or another, and I among them. I wanted then to be done with this quickly. Everything like a hospital is a blatant and maddening reminder of our fatality. The hospital says that I am a slave to time, and that time is not good to human beings, who in it are dying. Time, quite literally, is the master wielding the whip counting the lashes like counting the years and days and hours. Slap! Slap! Slap here a new wrinkle, and here another! Here a roll of skin and here a cancer! Here the stones of kidneys and here the fat of hearts! Slap! Slap!
“Cha-el!” someone cried.
I stood to answer and walked with Cris into a back room. There was an old man in t-shirt and jeans behind a table. There was nothing doctor about him or the room. He seemed frustrated, tired, and his curtness deceived all pretenses of hospitality.
“What’s the problem?”
I showed my arm. “I want Popular Pharmacy drugs.”
“Right.” He wrote two prescriptions. “Next! Come on.”
I stood and left the clinic with Cris.
“One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age.”
-James Joyce, The Dubliners – The Dead
We found the popular pharmacy in a bus terminal on the way back to the house. I picked up amoxicillin and ibuprofen completely free of charge. I would in later hours mull over the fact that creatine wanted me to spend 72 reals when surely he knew there was another option. We arrived back to the house and I popped some pills into my mouth, set in the hammock and fell quickly to sleep.
In five days there was plenty left to be desired by a city so empty of inspiration and full of edible air particles. I would call them miscellaneous days. Some days I cooked. Some days I slept too much or too little. I could count those days on my arms and by the slowly receding flesh, some of which first dried, then shriveled, and finally fell. And my arm looked to be in the throes of that so natural of processes, when the present becomes the past as a scar on the superficial.
I know samba now. This is a good thing, because I am leaving Brazil, if the map has given any hint to the route. It was a Sunday.
It was a corner watering hole for more elder folk. Women were made-up and some of those lashes of time were hidden with shading correctly implemented. Men had faces like clocks, and only the singer would smile. The dancers would also smile, and my companions, Cris, Gaby and Camila, were eccentric smilers. The world was made small again in the space, a white space whose owners didn’t bother with extravagant decor besides the cheap posters and crackling wall paint. But that was fine by me, and the neglected walls gave more ambiance to the scene. The attraction was the floor, and the sounds that bounced and coiled and swooped at happy numbers, or that swooned and craned the neck lamenting at sadder numbers.
There were many singers. Some sang because they loved it. Some sang because they enjoyed the lucent limelight in front of friends and people off the street. Some sang passion and others sang for times gone by. The song and dance was like a time capsule for many of the older participants, who all seemed to know each other anyway and embraced and hugged.
My companions, who were Brazilian girls, let the tunes penetrate their skin, which would pester each molecule into movement until they were quite sweaty on the floor. I sat back and drew the woman singer, and watched the dancers. One petite woman with glasses and slicked back hair moved and balanced a cup of beer on her head to the music, giving high fives to everyone she crossed. A man in a loose chemise and cowboy hat seemed to dance with all the pretty girls, and would yank them close to him in the quickness of Samba.
We were drinking. The beer came in square Styrofoam insulators to keep out the tyrannical heat of the Amazon. It went down frigid and rasping against the throat in a gratifying voyage to the gut. And the gut, empty as it was, absorbed rapidly the new substance to quench its thirst. My eyes felt the drunk, and after having tried to refuse dancing with Camila, I finally gave in. An introvert will always loose the battle to remain objective and non participatory when the scenario is unfolding in such close proximity and when alcohol is doing its work.
Later the cowboy was buying the drinks. He was quite older than the girls, but a good dancer, and despite his intentions, here in Brazil a girl who wants to dance will dance with anyone.
“USA beat Brazil in volleyball!” The cowboy was yelling into my ear as the girls took a break.
“Go USA!” I said. He was taken aback, and gave me the finger. So I gave him the finger. Later, when he was offering me beer, he looked hurt. I filled our cups and leaned in to say:
He could not refuse the toast and we drank. I slammed down the glass and glanced at my tropical lesion, finding myself hoping for a scar. Then the night melted away like the songs, whose notes and chords rest on airwaves traveling around the planet but presently are long gone from our ears. The great black-murk sky spread its arms to envelop the city, and a few drops of moisture broke free like tears. We were walking. The girls sang samba for an hour more on the bus, and a half more on the walk back to the house, and then in the hallway they sang and danced Rio funk and time was forgotten. Ultimately, though, sleep was tugging at my eyes, and eventually it drew closed the curtains on this most entertaining of Brazilian scenes, and to the rapturous applause of dreams.